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NOTE: The information below relates to the Fire TV models available in the U.S. Models available in other locations may differ in version, price, features, and supported content providers.
What is the Amazon Fire TV?
The Amazon Fire TV is a streaming media player, which means it takes content from the Internet (videos, music, games, etc.) and displays it on your TV. The Fire TV comes in two models: the Amazon Fire TV, which is a small box and the Fire TV Stick. The two models work very similarly but obviously there are some differences; otherwise the stick wouldn’t be $50 cheaper now, would it?! 🙂
NOTE: You can now also buy a TV that has Amazon Fire TV’s capabilities built into it.
Here are the main differences between the two models.
- Both models support 1080p HD resolution. The box also supports 4K Ultra HD.
- The Fire TV box connects to your TV with an HDMI cable and plugs into the wall with a standard A/C adapter. The Fire TV Stick plugs directly into an HDMI port on your TV, which makes it great for wall-mounted TVs. The power comes from a USB cable that you can plug into a USB port on your TV or into the wall with the included adapter.
- The box is faster and has more memory. It also has a port for connecting it to your router with an Ethernet cable and a USB port and microSD slot to provide additional storage, none of which the stick has.
- The box has some extra apps that aren’t supported by the stick (~5200 vs 4800). I think these are mostly games that have higher performance requirements.
What can you do with a Fire TV?
Watch Streaming Videos
Not surprisingly, the Fire TV is very tightly integrated with the Amazon Instant Video service. But there are tons of other content providers that work with it including Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO and HBO NOW, Sling TV, ESPN, Disney, PBS, History, YouTube, NBA, and many more.
Note: Buying an Amazon Fire TV does not give you access to the content you can watch on it, just like buying a TV does not give you access to cable TV shows. You need to have accounts with each service that provides the content (some free, some paid) and/or subscribe to a cable/satellite package that gives you permission to access shows from specific networks through the Fire TV. When you see an app listed as “free” on the Fire TV interface or the Amazon website, it just means there’s no cost to install the app itself on your player. It has nothing to do with whether the content accessed by the app costs money.
Listen to Streaming Audio
The Fire TV supports lots of music services as well, including their own Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, and iHeart Radio.
There are free and paid games available for both devices, including highly popular ones like Crossy Road, Candy Crush Saga, and Minecraft.
NOTE: There is a product named Additionally, there’s a Fire TV Gaming Edition, which has a full-on controller to play more complex games, but it has been listed as unavailable for a while so I’m not sure if this is being discontinued permanently. You can, however, still purchase the controller separately, which will work with both the box and stick models.
Mirror a Mobile Device’s Screen
If you have a compatible Kindle Fire tablet or Android device, you can duplicate your screen on your TV. This has a couple of benefits:
- Any streaming media you can access via your compatible device you can now watch on your TV—for example, you can watch shows from broadcast and cable networks this way if the network streams them on their websites or through mobile apps that don’t have built-in Fire TV support.
- You can also see any non-streaming content from your tablet or phone on your TV. Maybe you want to scroll through your Twitter feed on a large screen or access your email or browse match.com profiles—anything you’re doing on the device will display on your TV.
All models of the Fire TV come with Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated, artificial intelligence software. In addition to letting you search for content to play on your Fire TV, Alexa can also give you news headlines, weather reports, stock prices, sports scores, business phone numbers, etc. (Some of these functions may not be available on the Fire TV right away, but the company says they’re planning to continue adding capabilities over time.) In early 2016, Amazon rolled out Alexa functionality to first-generation Fire TV boxes and sticks as well. To use it on the stick, you need a voice remote, which you can buy separately.
So is there anything NOT to love about the Fire TV?
Well, since nobody’s perfect, there are a few things:
- The original version of the Fire TV box had an Optical Out port to connect the audio to a home theater system. For some reason, that was removed from the current model.
- Because Amazon has a strong vested interest in getting you to purchase Amazon content, the on-screen interface is very Amazon-centric. For one thing, unlike some of the other devices out there, the apps for major content providers like Netflix and Hulu aren’t pre-installed on the player. It’s not a huge deal to install them, but it’s an extra step that I don’t think should be necessary. UPDATE: A software update will be coming out by the end of 2016 with an entirely new interface that is more user-friendly and customizable.
- There’s currently no podcast app for the Fire TV. (Whaaa…? How are people supposed to listen to The Luddite Lounge?! Well, I do it my mirroring the podcast app from my Android phone.)
My two cents
I have the first- and second-generation Fire TV box and stick and I find them all very reliable and easy to use. I tend to use the stick more often than the box mainly because I have a few other devices on the small table that my main TV is on.
I think if you’ve never used a streaming media player before or you don’t care about all the bells and whistles, the Fire TV Stick is a great one to start with. You get A LOT OF value for your money. The box is better for those people who always want the best performance available and, of course, if you’ve already made the move to a 4K TV and have access to 4K content.
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The process for setting up the Fire TV is basically the same as it is for any streaming media player:
- Connect the Fire TV to your TV and plug it in. Switch your TV’s input to the one you’re using with your Fire TV.
- Connect the Fire TV to the Internet. The Fire TV has an on-screen wizard to walk you through the steps to get connected.
- Connect to the content providers you want to watch/use.
In addition to reading the detailed steps below, you can follow along with this setup video. It uses the Fire TV Stick, but the basic steps will apply to the box model as well.
Connect the Fire TV to your television and plug it in
To connect the box to the TV, you’ll need an HDMI cable with full-sized plugs on each end. This doesn’t come with the Fire TV; you’ll need to get your own. Plug one end of the cable into the box and the other end into one of the HDMI ports on your TV. The stick just plugs directly into the port; no cable needed.
Note the number of the port (e.g. HDMI 1, HDMI 2…) and use your television remote (NOT your Amazon Fire TV remote) to switch to that input. You’ll know you’re on the right channel when you see the Fire TV logo on the screen.
Note: If you don’t have your television’s remote, your cable/satellite/universal remote probably has an Input button but if it doesn’t your TV should have a button on it to switch inputs. When you want to go back to watching regular TV, use the Input button to switch back to the port where your TV signal goes into the TV.
Next, connect the power cord to the box/stick and plug it in. Note that there is no on or off switch for the Amazon Fire TV; it’s always on (but uses very little energy when it’s not actually in use).
Connect your Fire TV to the Internet
With the box, you can connect to your Internet router using an Ethernet cable (also not included) or wirelessly. If you use a cable, it will automatically detect the Internet signal. If you connect wirelessly, the messages on the TV screen will walk you through the steps to connect.
NOTE: At this point, you’ll need to use the remote to go through the on-screen wizard. For some reason, Amazon has made it RIDICULOUSLY DIFFICULT to remove the back of the remote to insert the batteries. I made this short video to demonstrate how to do it.
The stick is Wi-Fi only.
To enter your router password, use the Amazon Fire TV remote to move through the characters on the screen to select them one at a time.
Once the Internet connection is made, a little animated tutorial comes up showing you how to use some of the features. I couldn’t see any way to skip it, but it was only a couple of minutes long.
There’s also a screen that comes up allowing you to set parental controls, which I think is a smart move to put it right up front so you don’t have to go looking for it, and a screen explaining how to use the Alexa voice capabilities.
Then you get taken to the home screen.
Now you can…
Connect to the content providers you want to watch/use
The Amazon Video and Music services come pre-installed on your system including any watchlists and playlists you’ve set up. So you can just use your remote to navigate through the interface.
For third-party apps, you’ll first need to install them on the player and then sign in to any accounts associated with them. The screenshots below show the steps for installing and signing into A&E.
There are two different ways to install apps on your Fire TV: through the TV interface and from the Amazon website.
Installing an App Through the Fire TV interface
The home screen will have a number of popular apps listed as well as ones recommended for you. If the app you want to install isn’t already showing up, you can search for it using the text-search function (top of the left-hand menu) or the voice search feature from the remote. The latter will bring up various options for what it heard you say.
When you select the right option, it will then show you a screen with various results, broken down by category.
When you click on the chosen app name, it will take you to a screen with more information about that app.
You then click on the button that says Free to begin downloading and installing the app. Once it’s finished, the button will change to say Open.
When you return to the Fire TV’s home screen and scroll down to Apps, you’ll now see the app added to your App Library. When you scroll over to it, a number of options will appear.
Installing an App Through the Amazon Website
Go to the Fire TV Apps list on amazon.com.
Search for the app you want to install.
Select your Fire TV from the Deliver To dropdown box.
The next time you start up your Fire TV, the app will be added to your Library.
The video below demonstrates the two different methods for installing apps onto your Fire TV.
Using the voice remote
The original Amazon Fire TV box came with a remote control that let you use your voice to search through the Amazon catalog of movies, TV shows, music, games and so on. With version 2 of the player, they’ve expanded the voice capabilities to let you not only search through a few additional content providers (Hulu, HBO GO, etc.) but to also use Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, with your Fire TV.
For lack of a better definition, you can think of Alexa as Amazon’s Siri, the voice assistant used with iPhones and iPads. Amazon introduced Alexa in 2014 as a feature that worked with their then-newly released Echo music player/home automation controller. Alexa does a number of things including answering questions, providing weather forecasts, setting alarms, building shopping lists, and controlling lights if you have the related products.
Alexa doesn’t have all those features with the Fire TV. For example, alarm-setting isn’t supported at the moment. However, because the features are made possible by the device’s software, Amazon will be adding more functionality with future upgrades.
The video below demonstrates the new Fire TV’s remote capabilities, including voice functions.
Even though how to use the voice feature was explained during the animated tutorial, I still didn’t get it right away. You have to hold the button on the remote until it makes a noise and then KEEP HOLDING IT while you say what you’re looking for or when asking a question.
Mirroring Your Kindle Fire, Fire Phone, or Android Tablet screen to your TV
Setting up the mirroring is easy. With the Fire TV remote, hold the Home button for a few seconds until the Quick Menu comes up. Select Mirroring.
On your mobile device, go into Settings and find the option for Display Mirroring or a similar name. (On a Kindle Fire HDX, go to Settings > Display & Sounds > Display Mirroring). Select your Fire TV from the list of devices showing. It takes about a minute for your Fire TV to start the mirroring but once it’s going, it stays on your TV screen until you turn it off.
Note: Once you’re mirroring your device, anything you do on it will be done on your TV. So if you switch apps on your phone or tablet, they’ll switch on your TV as well.
Congratulations. You’re now ready to enjoy your Fire TV!
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Frequently Asked Questions about Streaming Media
The links below will take you to the Streaming Media FAQ page that has answers to questions relevant to streaming players and content in general.