The history of media streamers has always trended towards the cheap and powerful. The first streamers, essentially massive Windows PCs with some media tricks built-in, were toys for enthusiasts. Then the Apple TV, Boxee, and Roku started making media streaming boxes into commodities thanks to smaller electronics and a race to the bottom. Now, with the $99 Fire TV we have reached the epitome of the streamer: a tiny box that runs most major video apps, outputs 4K video, and can tell you what the weather is going to be like in Scranton tomorrow.
To install the device you simply plug it in and connect to your TV via HDMI. A quick pairing gets the RF-based eight button remote working and then you connect it to your Amazon account (or you can download a free app to control the TV after you inevitably lose the Snickers bar-sized remote.) Then you simply select what you want to watch or download any of the myriad streaming options including Netflix, HBO Now, and ESPN. Fans of Plex and VLC can stream video to their devices although larger, higher-res files may bog down during transmission. However, these apps do allow you to play back MKVs and other high-resolution movie formats, a boon for those of us who are into those things.
The new Fire TV includes Alexa, Amazon’s powerful voice search system. Whereas the previous version of the Fire TV let you ask very basic things – usually little more than the title of a movie or TV show – Alexa can handle complex requests like “Show me all the movies with Ed Norton in them” or “What’s the weather in Paris?” While asking your TV streamer for mundane things like multiplying 5 by 256 might make little sense right now it’s a fun trick and gives you a sense of how powerful a tool like Amazon’s Echo might be in the future.
Finally, the box streams at 4K resolution. This means you can view 4K content from Netflix and other sources although the quality depends on your network speed. Not many of us will be able to enjoy sweet, sweet 4K right now anyway but it’s definitely a nice to have and, given falling TV prices over the next few months before CES, it may be an excellent excuse to get a nice package deal.
The Fire TV can also play games and, with the optional controller package, becomes a sort of Android set-top box complete with Minecraft, Goat Simulator, and Angry Birds. This is the aspect of the home set top box no one has been able to crack and I doubt you and your family will want to crowd around the TV playing mobile games all night. The gaming is, at best, an afterthought and you’re much better off getting a console if you want to play some serious games.
In the end, the Fire TV does it all. It is the best streaming device I’ve used. The price, the technology, and the available apps make it well worth the minimal investment and it could be – with a little work – the ultimate cord-cutting tool.