Amazon Fire TV Hands On

I’ve had my Fire TV (FTV) for about a week and it sits right next to a Roku 2 XS as I compare and contrast. We cut our ties with Comcast five years ago and are OTA first cable cutters — which is to say we have an antenna and most of our programming comes in via that antenna. We have had a lot of streamers and currently use six Rokus plus this Fire TV. None of these are Roku 3s because using WiFi for streaming audio+video+remote is a really bad idea — especially if you have a half dozen streamers.

The Fire TV streamer is the best streamer available at this time. It combines the most popular features of Apple TV, Roku, and Ouya in a sleek package which is much faster at the same price point. I think it is worth noting that Amazon warrants its streamer for a full year while the others only stand behind theirs for 90 days.

At launch, FTV had nearly 200 apps available including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Plex, and YouTube — the most streamed services. Within a few days, people were running XBMC on the Fire TV hardware.

The Fire TV is better hardware than Apple, Roku, or Ouya devices. A faster processor, more memory, usb, wired and wireless ethernet, and optical out all perched on a substantial heat sink ensures cool, smooth operation. During my week of comparison, the Fire TV has not yet hung or rebooted. During this same period, the Roku 2 XS sitting beside it has rebooted three times.

The USB port is a bit of a mystery. I am using it for a wired Xbox controller. Amazon claims it has no current use.

The more time I spend with this streamer, the more I appreciate the user interface. It’s elegant and well thought out. The left margin is a series of topics. As you scroll down the topics, the right side of the screen is filled with subtopics and items. These topics are ordered naturally and default to the logical destination. Press the Home button on your remote and you are taken to the main menu with the Home topic selected revealing your most recent apps and a lot of recommendations. Right click once to return to the last app used, twice to the one before that. Once you settle in with Fire TV what you do will be just a couple clicks away from your favorite apps.

There are a lot of apps for the Fire TV. Many are always free and quite a few were reduced for the launch. Apps purchased for my Kindle Fires are in my Fire TV library even if a different app is required for the FTV.

Fire TV has apps for the most popular services. The Netflix app supports profiles. The Plex app is being revised. It looks great but lacks some recent features like Play All. The YouTube app can be linked to a PC or tablet so that items selected on that device are played on the TV if the app is running. I like this a lot. There are not a lot of news apps, but I like Now This News. NTN plays news clips. On my Roku, there is a black loading screen between clips. On FTV, clips one after another. I guess this is the first application of Amazon’s smart buffering.

Conspicuously absent at launch: a web browser, an email client, social media apps, PlayOn.tv (which works in a browser on my Kindle Fires), Simple.TV DVR app, Tablo DVR app, and the top news and sports apps. I expect these to make their way to FTV as most are already on the Kindle Fire.

The Fire TV is a really decent casual game console. Fire TV launched with 136 games. Thirty of these are free. If you have already purchased an app for your android device, you get the Fire TV version for free.

There are familiar titles (Crazy Taxi, Deus Ex, Minecraft, Prince of Persia, Sonic, Rayman, and Tetris), original titles (Sev Zero), and 47 games that can be played with the included remote control.

I did not purchase a controller for Fire TV. I had hoped PS3 or Xbox controllers would work as I have these in my home. While I was unable to pair a PS3 remote with my Fire TV, I was able to plug in an Xbox USB controller. It was immediately recognized and it is a fine controller for the Fire TV. I will probably get at least one Amazon controller. At $40, it is not overprices and it includes media controls. The $40 price includes Sev Zero and $10 in coins. If you want Sev Zero and/or have your eye on some other paid apps, this will reduce your cost to $23 which is a very good price for a full fledged game controller. The controller takes AA batteries. So, $39.99 for a controller, Sev Zero, Crazy Taxi, and Air Fighters Pro seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Fire TV supports Parental Controls and Amazon’s Freetime will be on Fire TV next month. For $2.99/month, Freetime includes content from Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, PBS Kids, and more. Parents can create custom profiles for up to four kids, choosing the movies, TV shows, apps, and games they can access and limit/restrict certain types of content.

Another feature I haven’t really played with, but may be compelling for some, is a feature called Second Screen. This allows you to mirror a Fire HDX tablet to the TV. Second Screen allows a Fire HD or HDX to display additional information about media playing on the TV. Just pointing this out.

I give this streamer a big thumbs up. Fire TV is a terrific Netflix player that supports profiles. It supports other popular services and is totally integrated with Amazon Prime. FTV plays games with real controllers and plays your media using third party apps like Plex. It’s fun and safe for kids with integrated parental controls. Good job Amazon!

This review on Amazon

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Mailbag: 11/16/2013

The email address for this blog is thebeersoncomcast@gmail.com.  If you found the blog, but no answer, feel free to drop me a line.  Here are some responses to visitors’ questions…

Q: Can I attach an antenna to a Roku?

A: No.  Not yet at least.  Audiovox is supposed to release an antenna with a Roku Stick this quarter, but there has been no buzz about this since January.  I like the Simple.TV whole house DVR for this.  It has a single tuner that can be used by the DVR or up to five televisions tuned to watch a single channel of programming.  You can add as many DVRs as you like.  The new v2 DVRs are made by SiliconDust and include two tuners in the box.

Q: Can I get continuous programming on my Roku?

A: Yes.  Sort of.  The B/W channel is true Linear Programming.  Linear Programming means that someone plans 24 hours worth of programming and you watch whatever is on when you tune  in the channel.  If you just want to have something play continuously, there are a lot of channels that let you ‘Play all’ clips.

Q: Can I get Live TV without cable/satellite?

A: Sure.  Visit TVFool.com to see what channels you can expect to receive with an antenna and visit TitanTV.com to see what is on those channels.  No reception in your location?  Check out Aereo and Skitter.

Q: Is it illegal to ‘format shift’ DVDs I have purchased and stream them from a media server in my home.

A: Maybe.  I am not a lawyer.  You can read about Fair Use here.  The Copyright Office of the US concedes that, “The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years,” and that, “[the] distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined.”  Even as I key this, courts are conflicted as to what Fair Use is.  If you are making your digital copies available to others, then you are probably going to have a problem.  If you download digital copies made available by others, you are probably going to have a problem.  If you are making copies of copyrighted materials you legally purchased and are taking reasonable measures to prevent others from using the copies illegally, you are probably not on anyone’s radar, because you are not “[diminishing] the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.”  That said, you are on your own if the courts disagree.

Q: Is PlayOn/PlayLater legal?

A: No one is suing MediaMall.  Just the same, whether you are using a Roku, Plex, or PlayOn, beware of third party scripts.  It’s almost never OK to download copyrighted materials without compensating the copyright holder.

Q: Is there a YouTube channel for Roku?

A: Yes.  Quite a few.  What’s On (enter asecret as your zip code and restart to reveal YT content); VideoBuzz (must be side-loaded); Plex and PlayOn both have Roku channels that include YouTube scripts.

Q: What’s the best DVR for cable cutters?

A: Tivo — if money is no object.  Simple.TV is a whole house DVR that is smart like Tivo but less capable and less expensive.  SiliconDust and Simple are collaborating on a two tuner Simple.TV DVR.  If you just want to record shows off the air and pause/rewind/fast forward televisions, it’s tough to beat EchoStar’s DTVPal.  The DTVPal is out of production, but EchoStar and ChannelMaster are working on a new DVR that combines OTA recording with OTT features.  If you want to record web videos and Netflix streamed programming, check out PlayOn/PlayLater by MediaMall.

What I Watch: Plex

In our home, we rely primarily on broadcast television for news and entertainment.  We use streaming boxes and servers as well.  Some content is available via multiple venues.  I want to love Plex, but I can’t.  It does a nice job presenting my media, but often applies the wrong meta data to my files.  There are a LOT of plugins, but the ones I want to work most work worst.  Hulu and Netflix are problematic.  Mostly I use Plex to stream files to TVs that have Rokus but not SMPs.  These are the channels I watch via my Plex server and why I watch them via PlexContinue reading

Solved: Youtube on Roku (Updated 8/8/2013)

VideoBuzz is now opensource and can be installed using a script.  More here.

YouTube is a popular channel on OTT streamers.  Roku has never officially supported a YouTube channel, but there are a number of private channels that support it.  One of these has been removed.  The VideoBuzz channel has been ‘voluntarily’ removed from the list of Roku channels.  VideoBuzz was unique among Roku YouTube channels in that it was simple to install, easy to use, and worked.

Why did Roku VideoBuzz Roku pull the channel?  No one knows.  Roku won’t say, but the mods and VCMs on http://forums.roku.com claim that there was an IP issue…

There’s been a fair bit of speculation about VideoBuzz and the reason it is being deactivated. I want to take a moment to elaborate:

Every developer agrees to abide by the terms of the Roku developer agreement when creating a developer account. Among the requirements in the agreement, we require that every channel publisher must have the appropriate rights or permission to distribute the content within their channel through Roku. Other requirements include written authorization is required for channels with international or foreign language content. Channels that violate the developer agreement are subject to deactivation, though typically we do give them a chance to come back into compliance (or prove they are not violating it) before acting on it — we do realize that it can be a complicated world when it comes to rights for content. Sometimes we’re made aware of channels through formal notices (e.g. DMCA takedown notices or cease and desist notices) and other times we are notified more informally. Since we respect all content owners’ rights, we have to take each notification seriously and explore it for violation. Regarding VideoBuzz specifically, we don’t believe that today a Roku channel can stream from YouTube without violating YouTube’s terms of service (at least specifically section II paragraph 14 of the YouTube Developer TOS).

That’s not really true.  It can’t be.  The mods and VCMs have been promoting the use of Plex as an alternative…

Plex on Roku, out of the box, won’t receive YouTube. If the user modifies the setup to enable it, neither Plex nor Roku is at fault. They took deliberate steps to prevent YouTube on Roku through Plex, and the user subsequently took deliberate steps to enable it.

Playon also streams YouTube to a Roku (right out of the box without the user deliberately doing anything except installing server and channel) — despite the fact that mention of the channel can get you banned from the forums.

There is the issue, here is the solution…

Continue reading

What I Watch: Summary

Here’s a chart that shows what kind of programming is available via the various solutions.  It should help in choosing the solution that most completely satisfies one’s programming needs.  That’s what you really wanted to know, right?  Keep in mind that Playon and Plex are servers that require a set top component and that neither of these can be used with the Sony Media Player (SMP).  Think of Playon and Plex as supplements to Roku that provide more programming but require a computer be running whenever programming is being served…

Continue reading