The Amazon Fire TV launched in the US earlier this year, before becoming available in Europe more recently. While the set top box is not officially sold in India, some online sites such as Shop your world and eBay are selling it now between Rs. 9,500 and Rs. 12,000.
The question is whether an Indian should put down that much money, or whether you'd be better off buying something like Amkette's Evo TV which costs half as much, or even the Apple TV that costs lesser and is officially available and supported in India?
In the US, the Fire TV is priced at $99; or a little over Rs. 6,000. At that price, the Fire TV would be almost impossible to resist, if it offered all the media functions that it does in the US. At over Rs. 9,000, with no official access to content from Amazon Prime Video, HBO video, Netflix and so on; the Fire TV is horribly hamstrung. Of course, readers who are technically proficient enough to side-load apps like XBMC, or are using a US VPN to connect to the Internet don't need to worry about this - in which case, the Fire TV can be a pretty good pick.
What am I getting?
Amazon is known as an e-commerce company, but the company has also made some interesting devices like the Kindle range of ebook readers, as well as the value for money Kindle Fire Android tablets. With the Fire, Amazon has launched a set top box as well, and in many ways, it's very similar to the Kindle Fire tablets.
(Also see: Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 review)
The interface is extensively customised and the result is something that doesn't look even remotely like Android, though Google's operating system lies at the heart of Fire devices. The Fire TV's UI is organised around your video content, making it easy to switch between apps like Netflix, HBO and your Amazon video library. The buttons will instantly make you think of the Apple TV remote, but there's a microphone button near the top that's the key to actually using the Fire TV - voice recognition works beautifully, and lets you jump to content.
The Fire TV box is very simple looking - it's just a flat, sharp edged black box that's actually pretty close to the BlackBerry Passport in size (the phone's a little thinner). The box is extremely plain and on the back, you just have five ports - power, HDMI, optical audio, LAN and USB. Wi-Fi is built in, and when you turn on the Fire TV for the first time, you use the remote to enter the wireless credentials. Once you're online, you just need to sign in to your Amazon account, and you're good to go.
What all can I use it for?
On its website, Amazon highlights the power difference between the Fire TV and competitors like the Apple TV and Chromecast. It highlights the quad core CPU and 2GB of RAM, but these aren't actually things that matter in a media player.
That's because the moment you turn this thing on, and see how the UI is organised, you can see that Amazon understands the set top box to be all about watching video. That's exactly how it should be, but that's also where the problems come in, because just about all the content we wanted to watch, was behind a region lock.
That meant that the Amazon Fire TV was restricted to two main uses - YouTube and playing games. On the gaming front, you need to buy the gamepad for the Fire TV separately. That's because only some games (including Flappy Birds Family) are really playable with the free remote. We had a Phonejoy controller handy which paired with the Fire TV, and we were able to try out different games, and this is where the beefed up specs come in handy.
The power of the TV meant that games like Asphalt 8 (free) played beautifully with zero slowdown. The unit we were using was a loaner, and had Minecraft and Flappy Birds Family installed already. We played both those games as well - Minecraft also played smoothly, and we played Flappy Bird with the TV remote, and that worked very well too.
We also used the YouPlayer app - which lets you watch videos from YouTube. This worked pretty well, though the voice recognition couldn't understand us when trying to pick out any Indian songs. Typing with the remote is a cumbersome experience though.
What doesn't work
The Fire TV is great for games and surfing YouTube, but that's about it from an Indian perspective. Unfortunately, Indian services like Box TV, Hungama or BIGFlix are not a part of Amazon's ecosystem - this means that you're limited to services like Hulu, Netflix, HBO and Amazon Instant Video. And unfortunately, that means that all the videos you'd like to watch are locked behind regional restrictions.
There's not a lot you can actually use the Fire TV for, without side-loading apps or using workarounds like Uno DNS to make various services think you are in the US. If you do that, then you get thirty days of free Amazon Instant Video, so you can test out the service. It's priced at $99 per year, which is actually pretty reasonable but you can also sign up for services like Netflix instead.
You also can't use the Fire TV to surf the Web - there's no browser installed (though that might change over time). You can't copy your own movies onto the Fire TV and use it as a media centre either. Like the Apple TV, This is a streaming device that officially, does not allow you to side-load applications either.
It is possible to install Firefox and XBMC on a Fire TV, but even this isn't as simple as simply ticking one option in your settings and copying some files, the way it is on the Kindle Fire tablet. For these reasons, unless you are technically proficient, the Amazon TV is still very limited in India.
You can use it to mirror your screen to the television, which is a simple way to work around all these problems. Unfortunately as per Amazon's website, this will only work if you have the Kindle Fire HDX tablet, so it's not really useful for the most part. This means that unless you're comfortable with setting up workarounds, and even paying to escape geo-restrictions, then the Fire TV is something that is best avoided in India.
Getting past the limitations
The experience of using the Amazon Fire TV when you are in the the US - or when it thinks you are in the US - is dramatically different from the India-locked usage. Setting it up was really simple too - we used Uno DNS and followed the steps given by the company here to connect the Fire TV. This didn't work but then we were advised to try and change the DNS settings on our router as well, and this step was enough to resolve the issue.
After this, we were able to use apps like Netflix, Twitch, Vevo, and of course Amazon's Instant Video, as if we were in the US. There are many more video services that already support the Amazon Fire TV, and you can use HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Crackle as well as sporting channels like MLB.TV and WatchESPN. The breadth of content available on each service is well known, and we'll refrain from covering that in this review. In case you want to read more about any of these services, try looking up the respective websites or dedicated reviews for each service. However, if you plan to stream video using any of these services, we advise you have at least a 2Mbps broadband connection at home - 8Mbps recommended - to enjoy a buffering-free experience.
With the video services operating as intended, the Amazon Fire TV becomes a much more compelling proposition. Amazon Prime costs only $99 for one year which is a reasonable price for access to a large store of legal video content, though without the next-day delivery benefits from Amazon that Prime comes with, you are probably better off with a Netflix subscription. Amazon has been adding a lot of content to the service, including some of HBO's big hits so if you're looking for a legal way to access great shows then this is it.
The Amazon Fire TV still doesn't really have the same value proposition as other devices in the Indian market, but the ease of use, and the stylish design of both the user interface and the device itself make it extremely appealing, if you're looking for a device of this type.
What other devices can I get instead?
There are different devices you can buy right now, which can be used in a similar manner. Something like the Esycast lets you mirror your smartphone or computer screen. If streaming is your top priority, then TeeWe is a great value for money option.
If you are looking for a full-fledged media center, then you could look at the Amkette Evo TV MC instead. Available at Rs. 5,500, the Evo TV MC lets you run Android apps, surf the Web, play games and more. You can also store your local media on the set top box, or connect your external HDD to it.
The one thing that the Amkette Evo TV MC falls far behind on is the user interface. We've used the Apple TV in the past, and that's the only set top box that even comes close to the UI of the Fire TV. If Indian brands can start imitating software design instead of just the hardware, then they will be much more successful, because even with its limited functionality, the elegant design of the interface made us want to use the Fire TV.
Game consoles like the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One can all double up as media centres in one way or another. With its excellent DLNA support along with compatibility with various file formats over USB, the PS3 has long been a favourite of ours in this role.
You can also connect your PC or laptop directly to your TV using the HDMI cable, and if you have an old netbook lying around that isn't used much, consider installing XBMC on it and turning it into your HTPC.