Last week, the mighty Amazon sauntered to the set-top plate, and with a mighty swing its Fire TV hit a long, long drive that… bounced off the wall at Awesome Possibility Park and fell to the ground.
Amazon, one of merchandising’s most awesome power hitters, hit a harmless little single.
Disappointing. A couple months ago, I wrote about an old editor pal of mine who, using the movie star ratings system, observed that most things and events, from movies to restaurants to American beers, are just worth two stars: Good but not great.
That is the nearly unanimous opinion of many early reviews of Amazon’s new $99 Fire TV, too. Though it is apparently selling briskly at this point, early testers of the device released last Wednesday didn’t say it was bad, but neither were most of them very impressed.
I’m interested in the weight of opinion because it seems to me that consumers are waiting for a clear cut, no-ifs, ands or buts, kind of OTT device, and it seems to be that before that happens a lot of digital growth is going to be slower. The reviews for Fire TV were unequivocally equivocal.
The less than effusive praise might be part of the speculation today on The Verge.com that Google is about to release Android TV which will be Google’s second attempt to get into this space. That’s not counting Chromecast.com, which at $35 a pop has satisfied millions of users, and puts Google in the odd spot of competing with itself, as MediaPost’s Steve Smith points out.
With Android TV, apparently, Google is encouraging app developers to create interfaces specifically for the Android TV set-top. It will present games, but it seems less involved with trying to remake the world.
Despite the partisans who believe consumers have absolute loyalty to brands, somebody is going to have to prove itself to win in this set-top tussle pitting Apple against Amazon against Google against Roku against TiVo. Until that happens, those set-tops will remain unfamiliar items in most American homes.
The big selling gimmick for Fire TV is its voice-activated search, which, Amazon made a point of noting when it introduced its set-top, really works. Critics tend to agree. But they have problems.
Fire TV hears everything, but, like many of us, mostly gives answers that are the ones it wants to give.
“Voice search is impressive; it worked near-flawlessly every time I used it,” says Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn.
But Horn notes, “All search—voice or otherwise—only brings back Amazon results. A search for ‘Scandal’ for instance, will show you how to buy episodes on Amazon, but not that you can stream them as part of your Netflix subscription. It's an unfortunate restriction, especially in light of Roku's excellent universal search, which will show you everybody's.”
Dave Smith, who scathed Fire TV for Read/Write.com asked, “What year is this, Amazon? If I'm searching for a title, why are my options to subscribe to Amazon Prime, or spend $20 on a movie? That's still more than the cost of a movie ticket... as if the Fire TV's $99 price tag wasn't enough.”
The New York Times’ Molly Wood sniffed, “In reality, the Fire TV is a small, flat, matte black Trojan horse intended to sell you even more Amazon goods than you already buy. I prefer streaming that is content-neutral, or that at least allows me to find the best deal. This is not that box.”
TheRead/Write piece, “The Amazon Fire TV Is Kind Of A Mess” is probably the most altogether downer review, and if you’re looking for a sweet-sour experience to rate Fire TV, it can be read in tandem with CNET’s far-kinder appraisal by Matthew Moskovich, titled “Impressive Debut, But Room to Grow.” The most positive comments came from PCMag.com, which gave Fire TV four and a half stars out of five, but a lot of its positives seem awfully qualified.
Its assortment of games is good but not great, says AppleInsider.com. “Gaming is labeled as a ‘bonus’ feature, but Amazon is clearly making a push to bring mobile-style games into the living room,” Mikey Campbell writes. “Pickings were slim at launch. . .”
But several other reviews wondered why Fire TV bothered, and others grumbled, likewise, about features that allow a user to display their personal photos and videos on screen through the set-top. The complaint, more or less, was that Fire TV does a lot of things all right, but some things that it didn’t have to do at all.
Among the things Fire TV does do well is present video quickly. Its processor zooms video to the user rapidly, many of the reviewers said. But that content doesn’t include such crowd-pleasers as HBO Go or PBS or Spotify. That’s a big miss.
Several reviewers said they were surprised that Amazon didn’t give a better bargain or price than the
same $99 a consumer could spend on an Apple TV set-top. Time.com did a side-by-side comparison of Fire TV vs. Apple TV vs. Roku 3
which broke down the pluses and minuses pretty well. On the huge plus side is that Roku delivers about 1,200 channels --- far more than either Fire TV or AppleTV. But on the other hand, your
cable service may give you 500 channels, and, um, how many have you ever seen?
But offering more--more content offerings, more games, more bells and whistles--often seems to work with consumers.
The bottom line, it seems, is that Amazon’s new device is mostly smoke, and not as much fire as critics were anticipating. If consumers ultimately agree, it seems, those big players are going to need a few more at bats to finally score.