Which streaming media box should you buy? We're here to help by taking a look at the three most popular price-comparable set-top boxes on the market today.
Let's start with a quick-reference comparison chart, then we'll go point-by-point through the most obvious (and some not-so-obvious) features below.
Only for caching
Dolby Digital Plus
iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch
All three boxes are the same price -- unless you're a gamer.
A hundred bucks covers the basics across all three boxes, including remote and power supply (none include an HDMI cable, however, so remember to factor that in if you don't have a spare). Amazon Fire TV costs another $40 if you're eyeing the optional game controller, a necessary purchase if you want access to Fire TV's library of first- and third-party games. Roku sells less powerful boxes for $80 and $50, too.
Fire TV is primarily for Amazon Prime users.
Unlike Roku or Apple TV, Amazon's interface has Amazon Prime DNA pretty much embedded throughout, and that's an annual service that costs another $99 (bringing your total all the way up to $240, plus the recurring subscription fee, if you opt for the Fire TV gamepad).
You can buy a Fire TV and use it for Netflix or Hulu, of course, but everything else about the Fire TV, from voice search to interface layout, is organized to push Amazon's services. If you're not planning to subscribe to Prime, the reasons to invest in Fire TV (and not a much more broad-minded Roku 3, app-wise) shrink dramatically.
On the other hand, if Prime gets the job done for you, $99 a year for free two-day shipping, Kindle library lending and unlimited streaming of a sizable selection of video content may be a better deal than paying $96 a year ($8 a month) for either Netflix or Hulu Plus.
Fire TV is a lot faster than its rivals...for now.
The Apple TV tends to be an interface dog, lagging behind your commands and sometimes pausing for several seconds in processing limbo-land. The Roku 3 is significantly zippier, but still occasionally has to play catch up when you're trying to move quickly between apps or a crowded menu. Not so Amazon's Fire TV, which responds effortlessly and immediately to virtually any command, letting you speed through menus and dialogue boxes as fast as you're able to input commands.
Here's a five-minute walkthrough of the Fire TV interface and a few of its features:
I'm sure Apple and Roku have faster boxes in the oven, but for the moment, Fire TV is the king of set-top interface responsiveness and speed.
No one has Roku's channel library.
Apple TV has a little over 30 channels (not counting Apple's own), and Fire TV has fewer still at this point. Roku, by comparison, has a smorgasbord, making it the obvious pick if channel versatility is paramount. And since Roku doesn't have a particular service dog in the hunt, you can probably expect it to remain the most channel-agnostic (and well-rounded, support-wise) of the bunch going forward.
Roku's version of Amazon Instant Video is Prime-friendlier than Fire TV's.
Amazon's interface to its content is slicker, especially with voice search, granted, but where Roku's version of Amazon Instant Video includes a discrete Prime-only content view, Amazon folds its Prime content into the interface in a way that makes browsing only Prime videos much less straightforward (and makes it much easier to stumble into for-pay content, which is clearly what Amazon wants to happen).
My favorite remote is still the Apple TV's...
Apple's aluminum remote sports the best in Jobs-ian minimalism: unbelievably slender (almost too slender, in fact, if you have large hands), with all the navigational functionality smartly encapsulated by its wheel and center button and self-explanatory "Menu" and "Play/Pause" ones.
Roku's remote, by comparison, feels chunky and confusing (What does an "asterisk" button do again? What's the difference between a backwards arrow and a backwards circle arrow?), and it's easily the heaviest, though it has a few nice extras, notably the headphone jack for private wireless listening and the option to tilt it sideways like a Wii Remote with d-pad and A/B face buttons.
The Fire TV's relatively slim, matte-black remote makes its own design case fairly well, though it also employs less common button symbols (like its three-dash options one). It feels the best in my somewhat larger hands, and sports a microphone button at top, just below the microphone hole.
...but Fire TV's voice search option (in its remote) feels terrific.
I've thrown everything I could at the Fire TV's remote in hopes of stumping it, from movies to TV shows and actors to directors to genres. Exceptions made for instances I clearly mispronounced something, the closest I got was "Peg-plus-cat," which returned "Peg plus cat," as desired, but also nonsense entries for "Pague Pluskat" and "Pigplus Kat." Just to be a wise guy, I tried the one word almost no one can spell (but almost anyone can sing) from Disney's Mary Poppins: Fire TV not only knew what I meant, but spelled it correctly.
Voice search seems to rank results identical to manual searches on Amazon's website (in the Instant Video category), which sometimes make sense and sometimes don't. When you search "Ricardo Montalban," for instance, Amazon brings up the somewhat obscure film The Desperate Mission first, followed by the second season of Bonanza (Montalban starred in just one episode). You have to cycle over several entries to get to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which, Fantasy Island aside (it's not on Amazon Instant Video), I suspect many would argue is his best-known role.
The one hard-to-miss downside, also noticed by my colleague Harry McCracken, is that Fire TV's voice search works best and most often to summon Amazon content, failing to bring up the same content in a rival service's channel, even if the rival service offers it free.
Instant video playback works eerily well.
How does Amazon know what I want to watch? How much stuff could it possible be presciently caching? So far, pretty much everything. Amazon calls this ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction, obviously a play on "as soon as possible") video buffering, and its job is to eliminate the wait you're accustomed to experiencing when a streaming video buffers, as it will if you play anything on an Apple TV or Roku (or your computer or game console).
Amazon claims the more you use the Fire TV, the better ASAP gets. I can't confirm that because it has yet not to work. In fact, so far, it seems to be cataloging things that relate to nothing I've searched previously. I don't know what sort of voodoo's involved behind the scenes here, but it definitely seems to be working.
Fire TV lets you play games the way they're meant to be played...
Which would you rather play a first-person shooter with:
- A Wii remote-like wand with absent buttons?
- Pretending your arms, hands and fingers are weapons, but ones that only work properly some of the time?
- The tried-and-true method: a straightforward gamepad, honed and respected in gaming-dom for decades?
Fire TV is the only set-top that offers the latter.
...but the gamepad's a little chunky.
Not original-Xbox monstrous, but Amazon's definitely erred on the side of large, clapping a sizable flat-lying faceplate on top of a battery-thickened body with enormous handlebars that'll make you extra-grateful for the smarter design advances both Sony and Microsoft employed in their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One's controllers, respectively.
I'll have a more detailed review of the Fire TV-as-games-microconsole soon, after I've spent more time with the games (especially Amazon Game Studios' Sev Zero), but at this point, I'd say the gamepad reminds me most of the Xbox One's controller, only bulkier.
Amazon has the most games, including the only first-party titles.
Not by much at this point -- Roku has a decent number, too. But Amazon is the first of these three to offer first-party games, developed by its own Amazon Game Studios, which probably signifies the company committing to this space long-term. Amazon's also promising "thousands more [games] coming soon," meaning, I assume, that it intends to eventually crack open the entire Android games library.
Fire TV syncs with your Amazon account before hitting your doorstep.
When I plugged my Fire TV in, it automatically figured out who I was and signed me in -- no fuss, no muss. That's a little creepy, but also kind of cool. I have long, random, easily forgettable passwords unique to each of my accounts, which means I'm often summoning a password management app on my computer or smartphone to sign into things. With Fire TV, Amazon removes that step by taking care of business beforehand.
There's just one potential problem: This past year, Amazon mis-delivered several items I'd ordered, presumably sending them to someone else or simply losing them. If someone intercepts your Fire TV, unlikely as that sounds, then opts to misbehave, they'd have temporary access to your account simply by plugging the device in. That's probably a security risk Amazon's going to have to address at some point.
Fire TV can partner with Amazon's Kindle Fire Tablets.
Remote control apps aside, Roku only works with "select" Android devices (see here). Apple TV, as you may know, can partner with iOS products, allowing you to AirPlay-stream videos, pictures and even select games through your television set.
Fire TV includes an AirPlay-like feature that lets you mirror movies, TV shows, music and photos from your Kindle Fire tablet to your TV as well as control the display remotely, but it also lets you turn your TV into a "second screen" by clicking what Amazon calls a "fling" icon to fire audio or video running on the tablet at your TV (and freeing up the tablet for other tasks). There's also a Wii U-like contextual view feature, content-depending, that lets you view additional info, pulled from IMDb, about whatever TV show or movie you're watching.
Who cares what these boxes look like? They're basically invisible.
All three boxes are roughly the size of hockey pucks, and when you're the size of a hockey puck that can fit pretty much anywhere, aesthetics cease to matter. I couldn't care less whether one has beveled edges or another's the height of a dime (faced up). Here's what all three have in common in my household: they go on my entertainment center's top shelf and I never look at them again.
Fire TV has slightly higher-end audio, but only audiophiles are going to notice.
Amazon does its best to play down its competitors' sonic capabilities on its comparison site, but while Fire TV supports Dolby Digital Plus surround (and includes an optical audio out option), both Apple TV and Roku 3 support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (that is, 5-channels plus a subwoofer).
The difference? Dolby Digital Plus supports higher bit rates for improved audio quality and has better techniques for reducing compression artifacts, though it still involves compression. (No one's doing lossless streaming at this point, or what's called Dolby TrueHD, for which you'll have to turn to high-end Blu-ray playback hardware like the PlayStation 4.)
In practice, we're talking subtle differences most won't notice (and certainly not in scenarios where you're playing sound through your TV's speakers, as I do). And if you're an audiophile with a stacked, component-filled living room, chances are you're going to be more interested in a much higher-end streaming video-capable box like Sony's PlayStation 4 anyway.
Fire TV is missing Amazon Music for now.
Amazon says Fire TV is "made for music," but apparently not Amazon-bought music out of the gate, which is strange indeed. If you're an Amazon Cloud Player user, or you've simply purchased music through Amazon, you can't access it directly through Fire TV right now (there's not even a music option in the menu -- the only music features are third-party ones like Pandora, TuneIn and iHeart Radio). The company says integration with Amazon Cloud Player will be here in May, however.
For Roku owners, there's a dedicated Roku app -- dubbed "Amazon Cloud Player" and made by Amazon -- precisely for that.
If you already own a Roku 3 or Apple TV and don't play games and don't care about Amazon Prime, there's not much that argues for the purchase of Amazon's Fire TV at this point (if you already own the vastly content-superior Roku 3, in particular, which includes Amazon services Fire TV doesn't, I'd steer clear of Fire TV for now).
If you own none of the three boxes above, this gets trickier, because it depends to an extent on what sort of ancillary devices and services you own or use. If you're an iOS user and/or invested in iTunes, there's a strong argument for the Apple TV because nothing else supports iTunes or AirPlay. Likewise, if you're a Kindle Fire user and find the second-screen angle appealing, there's a very strong argument for Fire TV. And if you don't really care about device-partnering and you prefer to hop around services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) in more of an egalitarian environment, interface-wise, the Roku 3 should be at the top of your buy list.
But if you do use Amazon Prime, you've already invested in a Kindle Fire, you want to dabble in Android gaming on your TV screen with a proper gamepad, and you care about interface responsiveness and voice accessibility, Fire TV becomes easy to recommend. It has no obvious bugs or performance issues or gotchas (beyond the ones mentioned above) at this point. Short of missing services like Amazon Music -- albeit temporarily -- it already feels like a second- or third-gen product, reasonably priced, content-rich and refined.