The Amazon Fire TV is a competent set-top box with plenty of content—but is it a competent gaming console too?
Gaming-first platforms like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have embraced services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video. This is the year that television streaming boxes have gotten in on gaming, with App Store-like offerings from the Amazon Fire TV, as well as the new Apple TV.
The intention is clear and smart. With a device like this, everyone gets what they want. Families can watch TV together and switch over to gaming without disrupting the setup. It functions essentially the same as a console, but with a TV-first mindset.
Oh, and at a way lower price point. The Amazon Fire TV is only $99. That makes it one of the cheapest set-top boxes you can find, and it offers more functionality than the cheaper Roku models, or the Chromecast, which Amazon pulled from its website in October.
With the Amazon Fire TV Gaming Edition, you get the newest model of the Fire TV, plus the Amazon Fire Game Controller, bundled together for $139.99. The Fire TV has great intentions, and for Amazon Prime subscribers it’s a great buy. But gaming on the Fire TV hasn’t quite come into its own.
The Fire TV: Specs and Slots
The Amazon Fire TV is small and subtle. It’s a sharp-edged black square that stands less than an inch tall, and 4.53 inches wide. There are no buttons on the box itself; everything is handled through the remote.
On the back of the Fire TV you’ll find a port for the power cord, as well as ports for an HDMI cable, ethernet, USB, and a microSD slot. If you had the first model of the Fire TV, these ports are the only difference you’ll notice in the physical makeup of the TV. The previous version didn’t have the microSD slot.
This slot can be used to expand the storage of the Fire TV up to 128GB. Without extra storage, the Fire TV has 8GB to start with, and that’s fine for a streaming household. Things could get a little tight if you’re playing lots of games. Minecraft: Pocket Edition is only 17MB, but the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is just over 1GB. The Gaming Edition of the Fire TV comes with a 32GB SD card for just that reason.
The Fire TV has a 64-bit quad-core processor, which basically makes it the most powerful set-top box on the market right now. It navigates quickly through its many sub-menus, and is responsive to voice searches. Videos and games load fast, but I did notice some latency between my input and the response in games like Crossy Road.
Video will output at 1080p reliably, unless you have a 4K TV. Yep, we’ve got 4K video, baby. Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video both offer 4K viewing, so the device is well-suited to play them.
Alexa, Your TV and Gaming Assistant
The gaming edition of the Fire TV doesn’t come with a remote—instead, you’ll get the Fire TV Game Controller, which has all the same functionality as the remote when it comes to viewing videos.
That means Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, is built into the controller as well as the remote. She can answer questions like “What’s the weather?” and the old standby, “How are the Seahawks [or insert team here] doing?”
Alexa will help you figure out what she can do; just ask her about it. Alexa told me she could answer questions about history and geography, so I asked her who was President in 1951, and when World War II started. She also knew the square footage of France. Nice.
She’ll also find shows for you. To speak to Alexa, you hold down the microphone button and ask her whatever you want. Here’s where Alexa is unfortunately limited. She can search for TV and movies that are available through Amazon’s video services (either rental or Prime Video), but she can’t search within apps like Netflix or Hulu Plus. This creates dissonant situations, such as when I searched for “Jessica Jones” and found only listings for a lot of B-movies.
Then I asked Alexa, “Who plays Jessica Jones?” and got a picture of Krysten Ritter, star of Netflix’s Jessica Jones TV series, which was prominently advertised in the “Spotlight” section of the Apps menu.
Those limitations are unfortunate, but Alexa is good at what she does. The service is cloud-based so Alexa’s knowledge is continually updated.
If you say “Alexa, tell me the news,” she’ll open TuneIn Radio, and it will begin playing. Oddly enough, though I had just been listening to nationwide NPR through TuneIn, when I told Alexa “Play NPR,” she opened my local NPR station through TuneIn instead. It was unclear how to access the other streams, such as the one I had just been listening to. It’s going to take some practice to figure out how to speak to Alexa; sometimes she’s incredibly intuitive, and sometimes she’s completely inscrutable.
A Tricky Interface
The Fire TV’s interface is a forest of menus designed to put content first. On the left side of the screen you have a vertical ribbon detailing your different options. Things like Prime Video, TV, and Movies almost feel redundant. Of course, TV and Movies allow you to find content that you can rent digitally, as well as those available to stream through Amazon Prime. Prime Video just simplifies the process of finding streamable videos.
Then you have other menu items like Apps and Games. In Apps, you’ll find even more viewing options. This is where you can access your subscription services like Netflix, HBO Go, CBS News, and more. It also shows your apps library, which mixes up video apps and game apps, sorting them by whatever you accessed most recently.
When you highlight one of these left ribbon menu items, the right portion of the screen will display different categories. Under “Movies,” for example Amazon offers me “Recommended Movies,” as well as “Popular Movies,” and throws in “Recommended Prime Movies” and “Best of Prime Movies” as well. These are displayed as thumbnails in a series of horizontal ribbons. If it sounds unwieldy, it is. There’s redundancy across categories, especially when it comes to Prime content, which Amazon emphasizes throughout the interface. No matter where you are, you’ll find categories recommending Prime TV and movies.
It’s an absolutely awe-inspiring display of things to watch. The selection is incredible. In a single screen, I can pick out six movies that I wanted to see and forgot about. Like Amazon Prime apps on consoles, The Fire TV will let you add those to a Watchlist so that you can easily find them later.
If somehow the Amazon Prime Video and rental options disappoint, there’s also Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Crackle, Showtime Anywhere, Bloomberg TV, Vimeo, HBO Go, and HBO Now. Downsides: there’s no Crunchyroll or Funimation apps. This makes the anime offerings on Amazon Fire TV pretty slim in comparison to Apple TV or the PlayStation 4.
For the gaming family, there is a dedicated Twitch.tv app, as well as IGN’s news app.
Like I said, the selection is massive, and this isn’t even touching on the Music apps and sports streaming apps. The Amazon Fire TV facilitates cord-cutting in every way. I think it would be almost impossible to feel like there was a channel or service left out from what it offers.
It almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: if you don’t have Amazon Prime membership, this isn’t the set-top box for you. But spending time with the Fire TV has definitely opened my eyes to the sheer number of TV and movies offered through Prime Video. If you’re getting a set-top box as part of cutting ties with your cable company, an Amazon Prime subscription is a no-brainer. Depending on what you pay for Internet, the $99/year Prime subscription might end up costing less than your monthly cable bill.
The Gaming Options
The Fire TV is a competent video streaming device, but is it just as good for gamers? Amazon is intent on emphasizing the Fire TV’s gaming abilities alongside all its other features. Hardware-wise, the Fire TV is totally functional in this capacity. The newest model, which came out in October, has a 64-bit quadcore processor and an upgraded GPU. Amazon says it has 75% more processing power than the previous model.
Reviewer Lon Seidman ran some benchmark tests on the Amazon Fire TV, and found that it performed considerably below the NVIDIA Shield TV and the Moto X phone in terms of frames-per-second. I didn’t notice any performance problems when I was playing with the Fire TV’s games, but if this is something you care about your experience could be different from mine.
The Gaming Edition ships with a 32GB microSD card to expand your storage, always a tricky business with games. Gaming on the Fire TV is optimized; you won’t find any ridiculous 50GB downloads like you will on the PlayStation 4. You can expand storage up to 128GB if you need to.
When it comes to the game library though, the Fire TV feels like it’s just getting started. Fire OS is Android-based, and it does run a lot of Android apps and games—but not all of them.
Hidden in its depths are some awesome gems, like the Android version of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. There are the necessities, games that we expect on every device. Crossy Road is one of them, as well as Candy Crush from King. Here’s an odd thing: Candy Crush was only playable with the Fire TV Gaming Controller.
That alone should tell you that the Gaming Edition is pretty much a necessity if you want to do any meaningful playing on the Fire TV. Games like Minecraft: Story Mode and Star Wars: KotOR require it, and even the simple games that don’t need it will make you wish you had it. While the Fire TV remote is fine for browsing video and chatting with Alexa, it just feels too awkward to truly enjoy gaming with it.
A firm select button at the top of the remote makes picking videos a nice tactile experience, but forget any game where you need to press that button repeatedly. And games that involved flying vehicles, like LEGO’s The New Yoda Chronicles, were misery when I was using the navigational buttons on the remote. If the remote had a gyroscope that would alleviate some of the pain, but it’s simply not designed with gaming in mind.
But that’s why the Gaming Edition bundle exists. It gives you the Fire TV Game Controller, which is usually $49.99, and has all the functionality that you would expect from a serious gaming device, including an audio jack so that you can plug in headphones and play privately. This audio jack isn’t present on the remote.
The Gaming Edition also bundles in two games: Shovel Knight and Disney’s Duck Tales Remastered. It should be noted that the negative reviews on the controller’s Amazon page are largely from people who mistakenly bought the device for older editions of the Fire TV, or for the Fire TV Stick. Neither device is currently supported, which Amazon now makes clear on the product page. An upcoming software update will change that.
My main complaint about games on the Fire TV is that it’s hard to find them. If I’m browsing TV shows I can find shows that I’ve heard of and want to watch at-a-glance. The same can’t be said for games, because there are just so many obscure and frankly not-that-great offerings out there. The Fire TV appears to try to highlight games like Minecraft: Story Mode and Fibbage, both of which come from developers I know and trust.
It’s weird to see them side by side with odd generic mobile titles (Horse Racing 3D 2015 Free?) and Crossy Road clones (The Crossing Dead…very clever, guys).
There’s a lot of junk in Amazon’s Appstore, and if you want the good stuff, you’re really going to have to dig for it.
A Kid-Friendly Option
For families who need parental controls, the Amazon Fire TV has great options.
In the Settings, you can switch on Parental Controls and restrict purchases and video streaming with a PIN number. You can also block any type of content, be it music, games, or video.
Without setting up parental controls, you can still use Amazon FreeTime. This lets you set up a separate profile for your kid, complete with a cute cartoon profile picture. FreeTime means you can collect an assortment of pre-approved apps and games, including video apps like PBS Kids, Nickolodeon, and Sesame Street. When your kid is logged into their FreeTime profile, they can freely navigate these pre-approved apps while restricting purchasing and downloading privileges. It gives them freedom to choose what they want to watch, without the danger that they’ll run into something inappropriate.
FreeTime also has a cool Time Limit feature, which you can set individually for apps and videos, or in as a blanket time limit on Fire TV usage. Time Limits can take bedtime into account, and can be programmed to differ depending on the day (if your kids stay up later on weekends, for example).
There’s a difference between FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited. The latter is a subscription service that costs $2.99 a month per child if you have Amazon Prime. With that, you get access to a lot of kid-friendly programming that you would otherwise have to subscribe to individually. The way the Fire TV is set up, it almost makes it seem like you have to subscribe to FreeTime Unlimited to use FreeTime functions like Time Limit.
This isn’t the case. Through the Settings you can manage your child’s Free Time profile, adding apps that you choose and adjusting Time Limits and access.
Is It Worth It?
The Amazon Fire TV is functionally one of the best set-top boxes on the market right now, especially at this price. If you have an Amazon Prime subscription, it’s the box that you want. And if you’re interested in doing any gaming on the Fire TV at all, the clumsiness of playing with the remote makes the Fire TV Gaming Edition a necessity.
The controller by itself costs $49.99, and I guarantee that if you try to play with the remote, you’ll be hunting down a controller immediately. Just get the Gaming Edition and take advantage of the extra storage.
Would I recommend the Fire TV as a gaming device though? It has a decent selection of good, interesting games—including Android ports of classic games, as well as popular mobile games. These are bundled in with a ton of junk games that clutter up the interface. The Fire TV isn’t meant to compete with dedicated gaming consoles, and it doesn’t. It’s solidly a video-first device. But I think it’s indicative of an interesting future for gaming, where maybe we’re less reliant on big, expensive consoles than we are now.
It has a good selection of games for kids, it has popular apps, it has games that you can play with your family, using your phones as controllers. You can also pair up to four Amazon Fire TV Gaming Controllers with it, and play multiplayer games that way. When considering whether a device is good for families, that’s the first thing I think about.
The interface is designed to put Amazon Prime content first and foremost, and offers more films and TV shows than you can shake a stick at. When it comes to video content, Amazon is king.
At $139.99 for the Gaming Edition, and $99.99 for just the box, the second-generation Amazon Fire TV doesn’t break much new ground, but it also doesn’t break the bank. It delivers a solid experience for less money than the competition.