I got to spend a bit of time with the new Fire TV Edition televisions from Westinghouse and Element last night at CES. These are the TVs that run Fire OS and give you the full Fire TV experience out of the box without needing an external Fire TV box or Fire TV Stick. While they didn’t let me take control and have free reign of the TVs, I did get a good feel for the products so here is an overview of their features and my first impressions.
The three brands that will initially release Fire TV Edition televisions are Westinghouse, Seiki, and Element. These three brands are actually manufactured by the same company, Tongfang Global. The Westinghouse and Element TVs I saw were completely identical, apart from the brand badge. They were pre-production models, so by the time they hit store shelves they may differ more, but for now, you can consider there to really be one launch partner for the first set of Fire TV Editions televisions, which will come in 43″, 50″, 55″, and 65″ sizes. Amazon hopes to get other manufacturers to make Fire TV Edition televisions in the future.
Many people consider these TV brands to be “third tier” and low-end, but I was impressed by the overall hardware. The TVs are not going to wow anyone by how slim and sexy they are, but they have a very nice minimalistic silver design that I would be fine displaying in my living room. The bezels around the screen are nice and thin, which is what matters the most to me. The display panel itself looked crisp and vivid.
A common concern with smart TVs is underpowered hardware that results in a sluggish user experience. I’m happy to say that that is not the case here. During the limited time I had with the TVs, the interface felt snappy and on par with the Fire TV 2. I was worried the new live TV elements added to Fire OS, which I’ll discuss in more detail shortly, would bog down the interface, but I didn’t see any stuttering or long load pauses. I couldn’t get exact clock speeds, but there is a quad-core CPU, dedicated GPU, and 3GB of memory inside, which I was told will be able to run all the apps and games that the Fire TV 2 can run.
The new elements added to Fire OS to make it work as a complete TV interface are baked into the core of the OS and not just slapped on top as an afterthought. This makes it a very nice cohesive experience across the entire interface. You can easily jump between streaming Amazon content, apps like Netflix, over-the-air channels, and even external inputs like a Blu-ray player, all seamlessly from the home screen.
To access live OTA channels coming from the built-in tuner, there is a new “ON NOW” row just past the “RECENT” and “YOUR APPS & GAMES” rows on the home screen. This new row displays an icon for each channel that shows what is currently airing on the channel. There is a slim red bar at the bottom of each icon that is a live indicator of how far along that particular show or movie is in its broadcast, so with a glance, you can easily tell if something just started or is about to end.
While scrolling through the channel icons on the home screen, if you pause on a channel for a second, a live preview of the channel appears in the upper right corner of the Fire TV interface where you normally have static images. This was a very nice touch that shows how well the tuner capabilities are integrated into Fire OS. I was expecting these live channel previews to bog down the interface, but they didn’t seem to affect things and you could flip through without any stutter.
At any point you can press the menu button to see a list of options, among which is the channel guide. The channel guide is what you’d expect and simply lists the antenna channels you have access to and what is on each channel. You’ll get 2 weeks worth of programming info available, along with images and descriptions of the various shows. A nice touch is a shrunken live display, in the lower right corner of the channel guide, that shows a live view of the last channel you were watching.
While viewing a live OTA channel, you can press the pause button to pause what you’re watching if you need to step away for a bit. I couldn’t find out how long you could leave something paused, but was told it’s probably dependent on how much free internal storage you have available. While you can pause live TV, there is no DVR option to record and save programming. Pressing the down button while watching a channel will bring up a mini channel guide to see what is on next or what is playing on other channels.
The first item in the settings area is a new option to access the TV’s inputs. You’ll be able to ask Alexa to change inputs for you, based on the input label. I couldn’t get clarification on wether or not you could customize the labels, or if they were auto-detected from the connected device. When you change inputs, an icon for that input is added to the “RECENT” section of the home screen, making it very easy to hop between Fire OS and your other devices.
Overall I was very impressed with the integration of traditional TV features, like tuner channels, inputs, and settings, with the Fire TV interface. Amazon could have easily just created a standalone “Channels” app, like what Google did with Android TV, and called it a day. Instead, they really thought about the best ways to blend streaming content, apps, antenna channels, and even external input devices together into a single coherent interface. Fire TV Edition televisions are the most complete and frictionless way to bring together all the different methods of consuming content that I’ve seen to date.