Five things still missing from Amazon’s Fire TV

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

I’ve been toying with Amazon’s Fire TV ever since the company released the set-top box last week, and I’ve been impressed by the speed and snappiness of the device, and drawn in by games that I didn’t think would matter much for me. But there are still a few things that are missing to make this a great device. Amazon is working on addressing some of these issues, but it chose not to pursue others – which I think is a mistake.

Here’s five things that could be improved about the Fire TV:

A new Netflix app

Netflix launched a whole new user interface last November, featuring bigger preview pictures, new cues to help you decide what to watch next, a better search experience and more.

Netflix launched a new user interface almost half a year ago - but on the new Fire TV, users still get the old UI.

Netflix launched this new user interface almost half a year ago – but on the new Fire TV, users still get the old UI.

The company actually spent a long time refining this experience with eye-tracking, A/B-tests and more. The new user interface is now available on newer Roku devices, the Xbox 360, the PS3 and PS4  as well as various smart TVs — but not on the Fire TV, which is a shame. I’ve asked Amazon when they intend to switch over to the new UI, but have yet to hear back.

Local file playback

Online video services are great — but every now and then, you end up with a video on your hard drive that you just want to quickly play in your TV, without jumping through tons of hoops. One of the easiest ways to do this on many devices is to simply copy the file to a Flash thumb drive, plug it in and watch away. Not so on the Fire TV. The device does have a USB port, but local file playback currently isn’t supported, and I’ve been told by Amazon folks that it’s instead being used for accessories as well as developer support.

The Fire TV has a USB port - but you will not be able to use it for local file playback.

The Fire TV has a USB port – but you will not be able to use it for local file playback. (Image: Amazon)

Customers are instead advised to upload local media to the Amazon Cloud Drive. Of course, there is also Plex, which is great if you have a lot of media to share over your home network. But still, a simple file player app with access to the USB port, or possibly even networked hard drives, would definitely improve the experience, especially for less technical users.

Third-party app installs

Amazon made a big deal out of calling Fire TV open when it launched the device earlier this month in New York. That may be true for developers, but for consumers? Not so much. That’s because Amazon decided to get rid of a key feature when it forked Google’s Android operating system to tweak it for the big screen: Android allows users by default to install third-party apps while the Fire TV does not.

Got an Android app that’s not from Google Play? Just change a security setting and you’re free to do whatever you wish with it. The same is possible on the Kindle Fire, but not on the Fire TV. “We want to make sure that any games or services on Fire TV offer a great customer experience for a TV,” an Amazon spokesperson told me via email, which is why the company doesn’t enable third-party app installs.

Fire TV ADB options

Developers have a way to install their own apps on the Fire TV — but there is no similar option for end users.

It’s true that apps that are optimized for mobile devices often don’t look great on the TV screen, but taking away the ability to install any third-party apps also cuts down on lots of potential. No adult entertainment apps, no apps that your buddy just built for a few of his friends and no way to easily preview an app that hasn’t officially been released yet.

Granted, developers to have ways to bypass this restriction, and it’s probably only a matter of time until someone finds an easier way to install apps on a Fire TV — but it would be great if Amazon backed all of this talk about openness up with actions.

Additional Amazon services

One of the most puzzling details of the Fire TV launch was that the device went on sale without key Amazon services. The company previewed an impressive integration of its FreeTime kids entertainment subscription offering — only to announce that it wouldn’t be available until May. Also delayed by a month is the ability to access Amazon’s cloud music locker from the device.

Fire TV will offer the Amazon FreeTime kids offering with parental controls -- when it launches next month.

Fire TV will offer the Amazon FreeTime kids offering with parental controls — when it launches next month. (Image: Amazon)

Granted, a few weeks of waiting isn’t all that much. But the delay makes you wonder whether Amazon couldn’t get all of its ducks in a row for the Fire TV launch, or whether it is preparing to launch a bigger content offering in May — perhaps a Spotify-like music subscription service?

Better second-screen support

Fire TV launched with some second-screen features for Kindle Fire owners, who are able to send Amazon Video content from their tablet to the big screen, read IMDB trivia while they watch movies and even mirror the entire screen of an Amazon tablet.

It would be great if this kind of functionality was also available for other mobile devices, but Amazon is still playing catch-up with Chromecast and even Roku in this respect. Fire TV does support DIAL, the multi-screen protocol used by apps such as Netflix and YouTube, but the Fire TV YouTube app is the only one that currently makes use of it, and even that doesn’t always reliably work.

Fire TV has some second-screen integration with the Kindle Fire -- but it would be great if it also offered iPhone and Android phone users more features.

Fire TV has some second-screen integration with the Kindle Fire — but it would be great if it also offered iPhone and Android phone users more features. (Image: Amazon)

Here’s the good news: I’ve been told that more DIAL apps for Fire TV are on the way, and screen mirroring could soon work with other Android devices as well. “We are working on adding Miracast support,” an Amazon spokesperson told me. Once that’s done, you should be able to mirror the screen of your Nexus 7 tablet, or newer Android phone, on the Fire TV as well.

Also check our first look at the Fire TV below:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAZhDGaEqVI]

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