• Fire TV is not quite hot enough
     | April 18,2014

    Iíve fallen behind on my TV viewing, and Amazon.com is making matters worse. Its Amazon Prime service got me hooked on the stunning FX series ďThe Americans,Ē and the company is rolling out Internet-only shows, including one from that guy who produced ďThe X Files.Ē

    And now, like Apple Inc. and Google Inc. and seemingly everyone else, Amazon has developed its own little box that plugs into your TV and pumps out Internet entertainment.

    The $99 Fire TV box includes an impressive voice-activated search feature and the ability to run some decent-looking video games with an optional Xbox-like game controller priced at $39.99.

    Whatís missing is a good-enough reason to buy one. Competing products offer better value for the money, and the market for external Internet boxes is bound to fade out in a few years, as nearly all TVs become Internet-ready.

    Iím guessing that Amazon is trying to duplicate the strategy that drives its Kindle Fire tablet computers. The millions who have bought these excellent tablets are now plugged directly ¬into the Amazon Prime buyersí club. Their tablets are mobile storefronts with millions of items on display. And for $99 a year, Kindle Fire owners get free shipping and a host of other blandishments that will keep them buying.

    You canít access the full Amazon warehouse on Fire TV, for now. But I suspect Fire TV users will soon be kicking back in their living rooms, trolling through high-definition photos of clothing, shoes, jewelry, and furniture, with voice-activated search to guide them. Point, click, and purchase. Home Shopping Network, beware. But for now, Fire TV purchasers will get a nice enough product with plenty of room to improve.

    I canít criticize the hardware. The Fire TV is a sleek little box packed with a four-core processor thatís more advanced than the dual- or single-core chips used in other streaming devices. It also has a separate graphics processing chip for running downloaded video games and 2 gigabytes of memory for storing them.

    I had fun with a shooter game called ďSev ZeroĒ; nothing fancy, but it held my interest. There are dozens more games available, mostly low-end stuff designed for casual play. Amazon operates its own game development studio and will surely offer more titles soon. But gamers have snubbed similar low-cost machines such as last yearís Ouya; I doubt Amazon will do much better.

    For video viewing, there are dozens of apps, each of them representing an entertainment channel. Fire TV carries nearly all the top-tier channels -- ¬Hulu Plus, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon of course. Punch in a selection, and the video starts to play with very little lag and excellent picture quality.

    But finding something to watch isnít as easy as it should be. Iím not knocking the vaunted speech search feature; itís superb. Push and hold a button on the remote and say ďKiefer Sutherland,Ē and up pops his movies and TV shows, from ďYoung GunsĒ to ď24.Ē

    But they are only the movies and shows carried by Amazon. You donít get results from Net-flix, for example, or from Hulu. And you have to click on each result to see if itís available free of charge or whether you can rent the video or purchase it outright.

    Selecting Internet video from multiple sources is a constant nuisance, and Fire TV does little to improve matters.

    Indeed, Roku does it better. Punch in a similar search, and Roku will check multiple video services -- Netflix, Vudu, Blockbuster On Demand, Redbox Instant. Which reminds me -- Fire TV doesnít offer Vudu, Blockbuster, or Redbox. In fact, it offers far fewer channels of all kinds. Roku lists 57 news and weather channels, 52 channels of family entertainment, 36 devoted to foreign countries such as China, India, and Russia, and 369 religion channels, with at least one for atheists. Hardly any of this stuff is on Fire TV. And Roku has just announced an iPhone app that will add voice search to its box, so Fire TVís biggest advantage is already fading away.

    Of course, Amazonís bound to add more channels in coming months, and they will surely make the search feature more comprehensive. Just as Apple Inc.ís $99 Apple TV has gotten better over time, a Fire TV purchased today will likely be a lot more capable by Christmas.

    So why not wait till Christmas? By then, nearly every new TV will have Internet streaming built right in. Two Chinese companies, Hisense and TCL, will start selling TVs with Roku technology this fall, and Roku is working on similar deals with bigger brands. How long before Amazon cuts a similar deal with, say, Samsung or Panasonic?

    Thatís the real challenge for the Fire TV, Chromecast, Apple TV, and other Internet streaming boxes. No matter their quality, theyíre all living on borrowed time.

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