Apple's hockey-puck-like video-streaming box remains extremely popular, but the experience of using the device has grown increasingly cumbersome. In comparison, Amazon's new Fire TV makes Apple TV and all their mutual competitors feel wildly dated.
Fire TV is slim and sleek, packing enough speed and processing power to shame the competition. It is nearly effortless to navigate menus, select items, and browse content — it just feels faster and more intuitive than other devices, and that's not even getting into the technical details.
Amazon has made most video services available, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Watch ESPN, as well as games, apps, and voice search. It's fantastic.
What it doesn't do, however, is bring anything new to the television experience. There's no attempt to disrupt how the television industry works, and all of its features, nice as they are, have been road-tested other places.
Amazon appears to be pretty serious about developing games, boasting an in-house games studio. But bypassing dedicated game consoles isn't new. Roku has long been tinkering in the casual gaming space, especially with its launch of the motion controller for Angry Birds back in 2011.
For most of its existence, Roku has also been friendly to third-party developers for apps and channels. Meanwhile, Apple popularized the addictive functionality of wireless displaying content minus complex setups with AirPlay.
Voice search isn't new, either. Samsung, for one, implemented the feature into its smart TVs a few years ago. Plus, Amazon's voice search isn't capable of searching across apps like Crackle, Hulu Plus, and Netflix, though this will be addressed with future updates.
So even if the Fire TV is the best in class, it still doesn't feel like the future of television. Rather than take bold innovative steps with this new device and push the category forward, Amazon just made the best version of what's currently available.
Clearly the future of video-streaming boxes — and television in general — is to ditch the costs of traditionally bundled cable, in which you receive a menu of channels that you don't necessarily want. Instead, people should be allowed to subscribe to individual shows or channels, making a direct link between creators and consumers. With Amazon executing all of Fire TV's functions so well, it's all the more noticeable that it hasn't taken any steps in this direction.
Meanwhile, rumors of a new Apple TV continue to heat up, especially after Apple's last earnings call, which underscored the large number of Apple TVs that are still being sold — pretty impressive for a fairly old product. Most of the speculation has centered on whether Apple can reinvent TV in the same way it revolutionized the phone market. For example, it could make deals directly with content creators to cut out the middle man. If such an option were in play, it would explain why the Apple TV has taken so long to refresh its design.
At the moment, the Fire TV is a great streaming-content box. In fact, it's the best. It's just hard not to feel that this category has already stalled, and that it will begin to change dramatically in the very near future.