Is Amazon Fire TV Worth It?

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Amazon Enters Streaming Product Fray with Fire TV

Amazon Enters Streaming Product Fray with Fire TV

And then there were four.

Apple, Roku and Google are already competing for your streaming business. And now Amazon enters the fray with its $99 Fire TV. But is it worth it? It’s a “Version 1” product, with scant few apps (or channels) out of the gate. How does it compare with The Big Three, namely Apple TV, Chromecast and Roku?

Is Amazon Fire TV better than Apple TV?
The Quad-core Qualcomm processor in the Fire TV gives it pure speed — fast menus, fast downloads and fast playback. Meanwhile, the Apple TV is getting long in the tooth with it’s mono-core A5 chip. The Amazon Prime and Cloud Drive services are well-integrated, as you would rightly expect, while the Apple TV works well with your iTunes, Macs, iPads and iPhones. Licensing and/or business strategy probably explains why HBOGo, Disney, MLB and PBS are missing on the Fire TV, and why Amazon Instant Video, Flixster and Pandora are missing on the Apple TV — and why Vudu and MGo are missing from both. With both of these units costing the same $99, the Fire TV is better in a context-free competition, but if you like your Apple environment, hold your cash for the 2014 version of Apple TV.

Is Amazon Fire TV better than Google Chromecast?
Google Chromecast still feels like an experiment in its early stages. The dongle idea has merit but Chromecast has four drawbacks: it’s a dongle that needs an external power source, it doesn’t come with a dedicated remote, its single-core processor is sluggish and it is missing some decent second-tier apps (Crackle, WatchESPN, NBA, Qello and Vimeo). Worse still, as with the Apple TV, Chromecast doesn’t support Amazon Instant Video. By contrast, Amazon’s Fire TV is a thin box, it comes with its own remote, it’s blazing fast and supports more channels. Chromecast does have HBOGo and integrated Google Play support, which are both unavailable on Fire TV, so it’s a viable option for HBO fanatics and Android phone / tablet users, but otherwise, Amazon’s Fire TV is the better choice, despite its size and price tag.

Is Amazon Fire TV better than Roku?
Roku 3 is the comparable box to the Fire TV at the same $99 price point. Both have a very good user interface, are responsive, support Ethernet as well as WiFi MIMO, and come with a remote control. Amazon is touting their voice search as a primary differentiator, so much so that their Gary Busey ad focuses entirely on that feature. But voice search only gives you results within the Amazon ecosystem, ignoring Netflix and HuluPlus entirely, even if you have paid subscriptions to those services. On the channel front, Roku blows all the other competitors out of the water with its 1000+ channels — more than any of us can watch, but enough that all our itches for weird niches get scratched (50-year-old westerns anyone?).  Roku puts up the best fight for the subscription-averse TV viewer by providing so many free entertainment options.

Summary
The Amazon Fire TV is fast and works great within the Amazon eco-system. It supports a reasonably decent experience for the casual couch gamer and has excellent voice recognition. If these are important to you, and you don’t intend to stray outside the Amazon Instant, Netflix and Hulu worlds, you’ll be happy with this unit. It’s selling like mad right now, so go load up. If, however, you want access to your iTunes content or want hundreds of channels, wait and give Apple, Roku or Google, whose units are more than a year old, a chance to play leap frog on the Fire TV this summer. The competition benefits all us consumers and Amazon just fired their first salvo — I’m quite glad to have four companies in the mix.

Do you own a box already? Will you get an Amazon Fire TV?

Copyright 2014 Lance Olive, All Rights Reserved.

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Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

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Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

Have you been feeling like everyone else around you has figured out this “streaming movies and TV shows” thing, and you are standing on the fringes thinking you’ll eventually figure it out? But so far you haven’t really done anything about it.  So let’s get into some of the products that can help you.  Let’s figure out how to get you a media streaming device.

On February 17, I started a series for “cord cutters”, with a Blog entitled 6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable.  In that, I presented a summary of what would need to be done in order to dump cable or satellite TV in favor of using a combination of Over The Air (OTA) for local stations and Streaming content from the Internet.  In yesterday’s blog, I elaborated on Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder.

In today’s blog, I elaborate on Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device.

You can get streaming services built into the TV, BluRay player or game system.  You can also buy a separate box such as a Roku or AppleTV, or a dongle in ChromeCast.

a) Built into the TV – additional $100
If you read Step 1 of this series, you considered a new TV.  Some are marketed as “Network Ready”.  This generally means you have a set of built-in applications that can get you Netflix, YouTube, hulu+, and perhaps a few other oddball services.  This is great if you only plan to use one or two of these and don’t want to stream through a home theater system.  Otherwise, you’ll want a separate device, and all of the following fit that category.

b) Built into a BluRay player or Game System – $100 to $400
Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Sony and other BluRay players have a Network feature that, when connected to an ethernet or WiFi local area network (LAN) in your home, will access the internet to using many of the apps listed above.  Game systems, such as Xbox and PlayStation 3 (and the new 4) have the same type of functionality.  The benefit of this method is that you will probably be using your BluRay/DVD player or game system anyway, and it’s one less connection to your home theater.  The down side of this is that a component failure kills off two of your functions at the same time.  It may also make upgrades harder to afford.

c) Roku 3 (CNet Review) – $50 to $100
This small black box provides access to the most streaming services of any device known.  The interface has also gotten very good reviews from new users, meaning it should not be too difficult to learn.  With up to 1080p, HDMI, WiFi, 100Mbps Ethernet and a simple remote, this unit will let you watch shows on demand.  The “3” model has the faster processor and will help alleviate frustration when loading apps and shows since many of the previous models were underpowered and most of us have a low tolerance for sluggish technology.

d) Apple TV (CNet Review) – $100
Mac users have known about Apple TV for years, and have continuously thought that the next generation will fix their issues.  But each time the next generation comes out, the product has only been improved marginally and Roku has moved ahead yet again.  It’s like the guy who coughs around the office for weeks but won’t take a couple of days off to actually get well.  Apple has never committed itself to a “get well” program that would make this product completely outstanding, which is really disappointing to people like myself who see the potential, already enjoying the iTunes, video and audio support that is there.  The silver bullet would be a source-neutral interface that lets you find, let’s call them, “viewables” that are in any of the services to which you have access through login credentials.  For example, imagine that you could search for “CSI: Miami” and you don’t have to know which service it came from.  That would be completely amazing, considering how many stream options there are out there.  Lastly, the included AirPlay functionality helps with integration to other devices that support it.

e) Google ChromeCast (CNet Review) – $35
The ChromeCast is a “dongle”, a small device with no cable that plugs into your HDMI slot.  Well, that’s not entirely true since it requires power, so you’ve got to connect a wire to the nearest USB slot, or to a AC converter.  ChromeCast is very good with Google products, such as Play music and video.  Android smart phone users will find this an attractive option for them.  iPhone users will likely gravitate to AppleTV (Mac users) or Roku (PC users).  The next generation ChromeCast will likely be a leap above this one and you would be forgiven if you decided to wait until then to buy one.  One thing is undeniable… they are small and discreet, able to be hidden in the plan of a 6-yr-old child.

I am getting Roku if I buy soon.  If Apple finally releases an update to the AppleTV that is worthy of considering, I’ll probably get that too.  I’m likely to pass on the ChromeCast, unless the next generation is amazing.

Which one is right for you?  It may depend upon your intended use (home theater or simple TV) and what you are currently doing with your smart phone (iPhone vs Android) and home computer (Mac vs PC).  Is it obvious to you by now?

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

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Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Did you feel like the master of time and space when you first recorded a show to watch it later? Or did you get a thrill the first time you set up your DVR to record some favorite series of re-runs, and then you turned on your DVR to find that the station had a marathon on your show and you wound up with 12 episodes waiting for you?

On February 17, I started a series for “cord cutters”, with a Blog entitled 6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable.  In that, I presented a summary of what would need to be done in order to dump cable or satellite TV in favor of using a combination of Over The Air (OTA) for local stations and Streaming content from the Internet.  In yesterday’s blog, I elaborated on Step 2: Get an Antenna for Over The Air TV.

In today’s blog, I elaborate on Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder.

Backtrack: We used to pop in a VHS tape and record shows on a VCR.  This practice was so prevalent that we began using the phrase “…can’t program the VCR…” to imply someone was technologically challenged.  Then came TiVo and it used a hard drive, rather than removable media.  It was such a rush to realize that you could “tivo” 100 shows onto the disk and recall any one you wanted.  It felt like a video jukebox!

The generic term for this device is a Digital Video Recorder (DVR).  A competing brand at the time was ReplayTV.  Meanwhile, the more geeky folks were putting tuner cards or USB tuners on their computer and using software to record shows.  Even as I type this, I have the Elgato EyeTV on my Mac here.  It works well for Standard Definition and it used to work well for High Definition until the cable company began encrypting them (I shake my digital fist at them).

So here we are today… the cable companies and the satellite companies all have an integrated tuner and DVR that they will gladly put in your house for a monthly fee so you can record more shows than you can ever watch.  We’ve got it made.

But, we’re here to cut the cord, so surely there are DVRs for over the air tuning, right?  Surprisingly, the market is somewhat limited.  So, I’ll touch on a few.  Those of you who are complete nerds on this topic will undoubtedly tell me that I didn’t include your favorite model or some home-brew set up.  My answer is that I’m looking at commodity products for general consumers, so let’s run down my list, in order of my personal preference.

° TabloTV (CNet Review)
Comes in 2-tuner and 4-tuner varieties.  Uses your iPad or Android tablet as the remote control.  Plays shows to your TV using a streaming media device (see Step 4 tomorrow).  It will also play to your handheld mobile device, even if you are away from home.  Yes, you can watch your DVR while you’re hanging out at the coffee shop.  Due to this design, you only really need one of these for your whole house, not one for each TV.  The electronic program guide (EPG) that tells you what shows come on when, is a nominal fee (not yet published).  The dual tuner model is $220 before you add your own hard drive.

° Channel Master DVR+ (CNet Review)
16 GB of flash memory to record a couple of shows, and a USB port to add your own external hard drive.  Shaped like a thin crust 11″ square pizza.  The DVR+ has an HDMI jack so you can connect directly to your TV and you don’t need a streaming content box.  To get the program guide, you’ll need to hook it up to ethernet or buy a WiFi dongle.  The free program guide is appealing to those who want to avoid recurring costs of any kind.  The device is $250 without the external hard drive.

° TiVo Roamio (CNet Review)
500 GB built-in memory will record 75 HD shows.  Hooks directly to your TV.  Absolutely the best remote control I’ve ever used in my life.  The box is not much bigger than a BluRay player and the user interface is very good, including streaming services.  It requires a pricey subscription for the guide content and has built-in WiFi so you can download the guide and stream shows. The base box is $200 and the lifetime subscription for the guide is $500.

The DVR is an optional part of being a cord cutter.  But if you’ve ever gotten used to a DVR with cable or satellite, I’m betting you’ll have withdrawals if you try to go without a DVR.  Live TV is maddening for me these days.

You can go without, but honestly, don’t.  Part of cutting the cord is to experience the elation of freedom.  Don’t be a slave to live TV.  Get a DVR and pay for the electronic program guide.