Hands on with the Amazon Fire TV

Amazon Fire TV Unboxing

My Fire TV arrived yesterday afternoon by Amazon Fresh delivery truck – a first for me. Usually things I order from Amazon arrive via OnTrac, UPS or USPS. It was a nice surprise. Amazon charged me $7.99 for “same day shipping,” but that was credited because of my Prime Fresh membership. I ordered the device minutes after it went on sale Wednesday morning but it didn’t actually “ship” until Thursday morning, so technically it was “same day.”

That aside, I had just a little bit of time last night to set up the device that might displace my Apple TV.

The device is slick, thin and simple. The remote feels great in your hand, and it comes with (Amazon basics) AA batteries – a nice touch.

Setup was pretty painless – the device comes pre-registered to your Amazon account and all you have to do is enter your WiFi password. Mine is super long, and I didn’t see an option to use push button WPS, which would have made the pairing process a bit easier. Speaking of pairing, you also have to pair the remote since it works off Bluetooth, but that was a cinch.

Next, the Fire TV informed me that it had to download and install a software update. There was no choice not to do it or exit the update in progress. Additionally, it informed me that my internet connection was “slower than usual” which I feel had to be an Amazon issue since my internet connection is just fine. More on that in a minute.

Once I made it to the start screen it became clear how snappy this thing is. It’s quad-core processor and 2 GB of memory really shows. Everything is fluid and fast – there’s nearly no waiting for anything to happen. I LOVE this, especially since I was just realizing a few days ago how painfully slow my Apple TV has become.

The first thing I tried out was voice search on the remote. I held down the mic button and said “Chips,” searching for the old TV show. Amazon correctly identified the CHiPs TV show and it was ready to watch for just $1.99. Next I tried Scarlett Johansen and again, it worked perfectly. I couldn’t decide between Match Point and Don Jon, so I just continued checking out more features.

Netflix. I was surprised this app doesn’t use the typical device activation screen, where it displays a code on your Fire TV and then you go to the website on your computer to plug in that code and link the device to your account. Instead, I had to painfully type in my entire email address and password using the directional pad on the remote. Bummer, but it linked up and worked great. Soon I could see my Instant Queue.

Amazon Prime Instant Video. I can’t say the selection is very good here, but it’s free (with Prime membership) and there are several good things to watch. I tried streaming a few movies with mixed results.

This brings me to the biggest difference between Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.

With Apple TV, you know Steve Jobs insisted on a beautiful HD experience, even if it means sitting through some buffering. If you’ve ever used an Apple TV, you’ve seen it happen. Movies don’t start until a certain portion of them are downloaded – the same goes for trailers and YouTube. It could be downright annoying at times to have your video stop while it buffers, but the quality and experience is always beautiful.

With Amazon Fire TV, it seems there is an impetus for speed over quality. Movies start instantly but at a lower bit-rate and resolution than HD. In fact, it took several tries for me before I could get a movie to “kick into” HD. Several trailers never even made the jump.

Does this dissuade me from Fire TV? Not yet. I have a feeling this might be first week jitters or something that’s easily fixed with a software tweak. Amazon is going to collect a ton of usage data in the next few weeks to learn more about how people use this box (by default, you’re sending this data back to Amazon – check your settings). They’ll use this information to hone their algorithms and make the playback even better.

One thing I didn’t find? YouTube. It wasn’t in the list of apps and I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. Maybe it was hidden deep in some menu or download screen, but in the half hour or so I had to spend with the device last night I couldn’t find it. I’m guessing it will come soon in a software update.

Overall, I love the instantaneous experience and the richness of IMDB built right into the bones of the system. Amazon is big on the “instant” video moniker and it delivers on this. It sort of reminds me of what VUDU was doing back in the day with their set top box. It would pre-cache content and deliver instantaneous movie streams.

Compared to Apple TV, Fire TV does not have the flexibility of AirPlay, your purchased iTunes movie collection, or HBO (yet), so that will detract Apple lovers for sure. Still, I have no doubt Fire TV will continue to evolve to become a solid set top box providing a top notch home entertainment experience.

See my entire Amazon Fire TV unboxing photoset here.

Thoughts on Apple CarPlay

Screenshot 2014-03-04 10.03.06

Engadget posted a nice little hands on video with Apple’s CarPlay dashboard interface as seen in a Ferrari.

Here’s the video, and below, my thoughts.

The interface is excellent. No idea why car makers weren’t able to do something like this before. All it requires are simple on-screen menus and large buttons. Apple nails it. There’s nothing unnecessary here.

The screen is responsive. Automaker nav systems are slow to respond and always seem sluggish. There is no evidence of this here.

The familiar home button is always available on screen. Again, super simple, and instantly recognizable. We all know what that does.

Siri runs the show here. You can still control many operations with buttons, but it looks like Siri has learned a lot from her time on the iPhone. This is where she finally get to shine in an all voice-command environment. If you’ve ever used voice command in a car – it’s painful. Siri might not be perfect but she gets it right more often than not. Also, I notice the Apple rep calls the big buttons on screen “accelerator buttons” basically you can press these to finish the command if you don’t feel like waiting or responding to Siri.

Example of why Siri isn’t perfect. The rep has trouble calling up an ESPN podcast because she doesn’t get the syntax just right. In a perfect world you’d jump into your car and say “play my ESPN podcast” but she must say “Play Podcast ESPN” to get the right response from Siri. But what’s great about Siri is that she learns fast and can be taught on the backend by Apple devs.

I love the irony of showing off an app like iHeartRadio. All this work to come up with a new in-dash system from Apple, connect your iPhone, make it integrate nicely with a high-tech system only to call up a radio station you can easily grab over the air with an FM radio perfected decades ago.

At the end, the Apple rep says you can “always go back to their system” and when you see it, you realize why we need Apple’s polish. It just looks gross.

Top: Theirs. Bottom: Apple. Which would you rather have?

Top: Theirs. Bottom: Apple. Which would you rather have? (credit: Engadget)

Additionally, it looks like a majority (if not all) of the processing is being run off of the iPhone. That’s why you need the lightening connector and why Bluetooth won’t cut it when it comes to CarPlay. It’s a tiny step back for a big step forward when it comes to a much better in-dash experience.

iPhone Storage Full? Here’s How To Free Up Some Space

I was recently at a family event and it happened right at a very important photo opp: that dreaded “iPhone storage is full” pop-up.

My family member couldn’t even take another photo because her phone was so full. Turns out, she had a lot of re-claimable storage. A bunch of game apps her nephews and nieces downloaded were taking up many gigs of unnecessary space.

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, so I created a little graphic.

Here’s how to free up space on your iPhone.

how to free up storage on iphone

Tech Guy