How does Amazon’s media/gaming box perform?
Amazon’s Fire TV is a small, sleek, unobtrusive black slab that comes with a minimalist remote and has an optional $40 game controller. Once you get past the short, friendly and only slightly irritating opening tutorial, waiting for things becomes rare. Since Amazon pre-links your accounts with the hardware, all of your Amazon content appears instantly. Paging through big, colourful icons on horizontal rotators – familiarly grouped by categories and genres – feels silky, speedy and intuitive. The box is a very light sleeper, leaping wide awake as soon as you turn on your TV, which seals the overall impression that your content is waiting for you under the thinnest barrier, not buried in load screens. And Fire TV’s voice search function, one of its key selling points, is just as alacritous – up to a point.
The most prominent button on the Bluetooth remote is alone at the top. Hold it down and a dialogue box springs open, saying that the device is “Listening…” Say anything, your mouth no more than eight inches away from the internal microphone, and then release the button. After thinking for just a moment, the device delivers accurate lists of relevantly tagged content, searchable by medium – so long as you’re solely searching for Amazon products or Android apps, which are the only results voice search delivers. Flipping between the home and a running app feels friction-free, and some apps can run in the background of others. The unity of the system breaks down when you use apps such as Hulu and Netflix, where you have to sign in and search the old-fashioned way, with lots of typing and waiting.
At least the slender and softly curved remote makes that fairly easy, once you get over trying to point it like a Wii Remote. Below the microphone button is a large, shallowly springy action button surrounded by a four-direction click ring that you use to navigate through content grids or guide a tight, brisk cursor. Below that are two rows of small buttons: Back, Home and Menu, and then Rewind, Play/Pause and Fast-forward. Key commands such as Action and Back serve consistent, sensible functions across apps, with the exception of the Menu button, which seldom seems to do anything.
The optional controller is a boxy and inelegantly tank-like, but perfectly serviceable, 360 knockoff, adding a row of media-control buttons to a familiar layout. The controls have a high resistance that feels good in the analogue stick, OK in the buttons, and poor in the woefully stiff D-pad. The controller comes with Sev Zero, an Amazon exclusive that doesn’t work with the remote, as many of the less casual games don’t.
Though Amazon has downplayed the significance of Fire TV’s gaming aspect, calling it a bonus, its capabilities far outstrip its immediate competitors’, with 2GB of internal RAM and a 1.7GHz quad-core CPU. Sev Zero itself is a mildly inventive thirdperson shooter mixed with a tower defence game. You quickly beam back and forth between the ground battle and the wireframe maps where you built your traps. After you select a tower to teleport to, you have a short time to move your spawn point away from it, damaging enemies you land on. In a neat touch, you can throw your game from a Kindle Fire or Android phone to your Fire TV with the flick of a finger. These twists make for a frenetic action-strategy game, if not one likely to become anyone’s favourite, and it gets old after a few levels. But the production values are surprisingly high for what’s essentially a service for playing Android games on your TV, and it works as a proof of concept.
Canabalt, Sonic ports, Minecraft, Badland, Asphalt 8 and other Android favourites are all available. 8GB of internal storage sounds like a lot until you start installing some larger games, such as
The controller is a boxy and inelegantly tanklike, but perfectly serviceable, 360 knockoff
Deus Ex: The Fall or The Bard’s Tale. But uninstalling a game leaves its icon in your list unless you also choose to remove it from the cloud, which makes it more convenient to manoeuvre around the storage limit. Heavy on ports and casual fare, the current selection includes highlights such as The Walking Dead, The Cave and Prince Of Persia: The Shadow And The Flame, but there’s nothing to recommend playing them here over elsewhere. Dredging the bottom turns up some minor surprises, such as Dark Incursion (a Rolling Thunder- alike hampered by stiff controls), a Double Dragon remake trio, generic but fun action-RPG Soulcraft, and several Gojii hidden-object games. What’s missing is much console-challenging entertainment – though the recent addition of three Grand Theft Auto titles ( III, Vice City and San Andreas) is a hopeful sign – or the sense that Amazon has successfully courted the more ambitious indie developers. There are currently only a dozen titles listed in Fire TV’s indie category, including the quirky Quiet, Please, action-puzzler CLARC and user-generated melee battler Bit Brawlers.
While Fire TV has multiplayer capability, only one player can use the remote or controller to play on the screen, so others have to join in via smartphone or tablet (Android or Kindle Fire, of course). This narrowness sums up Fire TV’s limitations as a gaming console, although it still surpasses its closest Android-backed forerunner, Ouya, with more powerful hardware and a better controller. Still, it may also run aground unless future games can compete for screen time with console offerings. While it has decent media-streaming functionality, as a pure gaming machine it doesn’t make a convincing argument for people to essentially play mobile games that are available elsewhere while stuck at home. The usual issues of transporting touchscreen mechanics to a TV persist, so more ambitious titles that use the gamepad exclusively are the best way forward. Otherwise, Fire TV will remain a microconsole for casual gamers and curious Netflix hoarders who don’t mind rehashes and shovelware, with little to boost it over its similarly priced competitors.
Fire TV’s store is full of older games, such as Canabalt and DeusEx: The Fall. But Amazon’s secretive development slate will have to impress as much as its voice search does to drown out its livingroom competition