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Technology in the Classroom: Amazon Fire TV

TeachHUB.com

It looks like everyone’s throwing their hats into the ring these days when it comes to technology in the classroom, and it always seems to come from the company you’d least expect. Amazon, the online-shopping behemoth, is no stranger to this, considering their surprise introduction of the Kindle eBook reader in November 2007. Who’d have thought they’d be tossing a TV streaming box into the mix?

They’ve gone ahead and released what’s called the Fire TV, which is equally priced with the AppleTV and the high-end Roku 3 at $99. Why they decided to call it a “Fire TV” is beyond me, and in my opinion, beyond that of logic. Instinctively, I’m inclined to axe the “TV” portion in regular speech, instead calling it a Fire. It’s not difficult to see why this can be confusing, considering Amazon’s Kindle Fire line of tablets share the same surname. I will forever be getting the two mixed up.

The Fire TV offers what one would traditionally expect from a streaming device nowadays: Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, all the major players. They’ve also teamed up with Showtime and HBO to stream their content (provided you have a paid subscription). It also includes Amazon Prime’s entire Instant Video library, which offers up a vast collection of titles teachers might find useful when trying to build upon technology in the classroom material.

Unless you’re showing a historical film or forcing your students to sit through a Ken Burns documentary, the Fire TV also has YouTube and Vimeo apps that could really come in handy. I personally know a lot of teachers that play YouTube clips to help complement their lectures, and these apps will surely go a long way in streamlining the whole process.

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One of the most useful features, especially in the classroom, is Second Screen, where you can wirelessly mirror Amazon content from a Kindle Fire to the Fire TV.

What’s also unavailable? The ability to stream content from your computer, which I feel is a gigantic, tragic oversight. See, most teachers aren’t really using their tablets while lecturing. If they’re using anything at all to supplement a lecture, it’s a computer, so this is a really important feature that desperately needs to be addressed in future software updates.

Sharing more than a few similarities with both the AppleTV and Roku, it’s familiarly styled as a small, non-descript black box with nothing but a single LED on the front. Along the back is an ample array of connectivity options: Power jack, HDMI port, TOSLINK Optical, Ethernet, and one USB 2.0 port. It’s also got built in Wi-Fi, which is great if your classroom lacks an Ethernet connection.

Officially, the USB port is for nothing as far as Amazon’s concerned, listing no functionality or explanation as to why a USB port is even present in the first place. Reports have trickled in from various users claiming that it is indeed capable of playing certain types of video files straight from a thumb drive, however I was unable to recreate this functionality using my review unit. I would advise against banking on this feature being available in the future, simply because Amazon hasn’t commented on the matter—though, it also leaves open welcome room for storage expandability.

Parallels aside, it’s actually a sharper design than the AppleTV and Roku, and I mean that both figuratively and literally—the edges of the device are sharp and come to a point, when they’re instead rounded on the competition’s offerings. To me, this evokes a “classier” feel, almost monolithic—it’s simplicity to the extreme, and it looks quite sleek.

Setting up the device is obscenely easy. It all takes place in a few minutes, with everything largely happening behind-the-scenes so there isn’t really much left for one to tweak. It also comes pre-registered to your Amazon account, so you don’t have to waste time entering in your username and password.

The interface leaves a little to be desired. It’s functional, and not that difficult to navigate, but it seems to achieve this impossible mix of basic, bland, and busy. For instance, if I want to watch a movie, I’d rather have the “Movie” tab open to a submenu where I can then choose what I’d like to watch, instead of plastering as many suggestions as possible on the home screen. The interface certainly isn’t a deal-breaker in any way, shape, or form, as it all comes down to user preference—but it’s something that can easily be improved upon.

I found the remote’s design to be an area of mixed criticism. It’s very small and lightweight, and pretty simple to use once you get the hang of it. In some ways, using it can convey an almost sublime level of ease, but I don’t think there will ever be a remote that beats the simplistic ease-of-use that is the Apple remote. There’s just too many buttons here.

On a positive note, voice search is where the remote really shines. Looking things up using any remote is almost certainly a universal pain—but Amazon has brilliantly incorporated a microphone and activation button into the top of their remote, which is an awesome feature that no other streaming solution possesses. It works pretty well, and makes searching for things a breeze. The functionality is a bit limited right now in that it only returns Amazon-provided content, but other services are rapidly adding voice search capability within the next few months.  

The area in which Fire TV is definitively ahead of the competition resides in the device’s technical specifications, which are unusually beastly for a streaming device. Quad-core processing, eight gigabytes of internal storage and two gigabytes of memory are specs are unparalleled in streaming boxes. That’s because Amazon has also essentially created a gaming device in the Fire TV, which offers downloadable games featuring popular titles like Minecraft and The Game of Life. This isn’t something that’s available with any of the competition. They’ve even created a separate gaming controller, which helps make this a more fully realized gaming system, though it is sold separately for $39.99 a piece.

With specs like these, you won’t find yourself waiting for much when using the Fire TV, which managed to soundly obliterate my Blu-ray player’s application load times, not to mention practically every Roku I’ve ever tried to use Netflix on. But for the specs, it didn’t feel much faster than an AppleTV, if at all.   

The gaming capabilities open up a world of possibilities for learning institutions, making it a potential force to be reckoned with when trying to engage students. While educational games and apps seem to be light on the store right now, it’s only just launched, so we’ll likely see more education apps become available in the future.

If all your classroom needs is a simple streaming solution, then there are cheaper options available. But considering the sheer capability of the Fire TV, coupled with it’s incredible voice search, ease-of-use, and potential for educational gaming, you’re getting quite a lot of value for the money.

This article originally appeared in TeachHUB magazine, always available for free.