Reinventing the DVR is hard, but Amazon thinks it can succeed where others have failed. Last week, the company announced the Fire TV Recast, a networked DVR for cord cutters and others looking to augment their TV viewing with recorded over-the-air broadcast programming.
Amazon’s Fire TV Recast won’t ship until mid-November, but this week, the company invited Variety to its offices in Sunnyvale, Calif., for a closer look at the device.
In a nutshell, the Fire TV Recast is a DVR capable of recording free over-the-air programming from networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and PBS. Come November, Amazon is going to sell two versions of the device. The base model, priced $229.99, comes with two built-in tuners, which means that consumers will be able to record up to two programs at a time.
It also packs a 500 GB hard drive, which Amazon says is enough storage for roughly 75 hours of recordings, depending on quality. Amazon will also sell a $279.99 model with four tuners for up to four simultaneous recordings, and 1 TB of storage for up to 150 hours of video.
These types of specs will all sound familiar to anyone who has ever owned a Tivo or a cable DVR — but that’s also where the similarities end. Amazon decided to build a networked DVR, which means that the device doesn’t have a HDMI port or any other way to directly hook it up to a TV. Instead, it can be placed anywhere in your home, and then stream live TV and recorded programming to TVs equipped with Fire TV streaming sticks or boxes, smart TVs with integrated Fire TV software, or mobile devices.
This idea of a networked DVR isn’t entirely new. Startups like Tablo have been selling devices like this for some time, and others have tried and failed with similar boxes. Amazon is the first big consumer electronics company to embrace this idea, and Amazon Fire TV vice president of product development Sandeep Gupta said the company looked at all possible configurations before deciding to go down this route.
One reason for this decision was that Amazon wants consumers to place the box wherever their TV signal is the best. “When you are connecting it to the TV, you are limiting reception,” Gupta explained. That was very much the case in his own household, where he ended up putting the Recast into the master bedroom. “My living room is on the wrong side of the house,” Gupta said.
Amazon’s Fire TV Recast doesn’t connect directly to a TV, but can instead be placed anywhere in a consumer’s home.
Amazon wants to help consumers find that ideal spot to place the device by aiding them through the setup process with the Amazon Fire TV mobile app. The app asks them about the strength of their antenna and combines that information with location data to tell them which direction the antenna should face for the best reception from nearby TV towers. “A big part of what we did with the Recast is the setup process,” said Gupta.
The company also spent a lot of time optimizing the Wifi performance of the Fire TV Recast to make sure that it can stream to any device in your home. “We have a lot of experience with Wifi technology,” Gupta said.
Once a Fire TV Recast is set up, it gets automatically recognized by Fire TV streaming devices on the same home network, which then add a row of “on now” programming with links to live airings on available broadcast networks to the Fire TV’s home screen menu. Consumers who subscribe to Sony’s Playstation Vue live TV streaming service will find both TV networks streamed by the service as well as live broadcast TV programming coming from their Recast mixed in this row, and Amazon is working on adding other live TV services to this as well.
Fire TVs will also add a dedicated DVR menu to their existing menu items that will give consumers access to live programming as well as their recordings. In addition to browsing available channels by feature art, there is also a traditional programming guide that looks just like a cable box EPG.
That EPG is notable for one reason: Amazon is buying the data for this from a metadata provider, and making it available at no cost to consumers. That’s decidedly different from other devices on the market. Tivo, for instance, is charging consumers a monthly service fee of $6.99 for its latest DVR geared toward cord cutters, and even up to $14.99 per month for some of its other devices.
The Fire TV Recast’s programming guide.
Tablo, which is the most direct competitor to the Fire TV Recast, charges consumers $4.99 per month for access to its EPG. Gupta said that Amazon decided against a monthly fee to make the product less complicated. “The value proposition should be simple for our customers,” he argued.
That’s also one of the reasons why Amazon decided against a cloud DVR solution, which would have involved charging consumers for online storage. “It starts to cloud the message,” Gupta punned.
Save for this key difference, the Fire TV Recast does offer a lot of the features one would expect from a DVR. The device starts deleting individual recordings by default once its internal storage is almost all filled up. Consumers can mark certain recordings as protected to prevent deletion, and they can also set limits on how many episodes they want to keep of a certain show, or of all shows they record.
Fire TV Recast also integrates with Alexa for voice control, which can be used for playback as well as to search for recordings. The device supports adaptive streaming for mobile playback, meaning that it will automatically choose the right bit rate on the fly to make sure your phone doesn’t stutter when your mobile connection slows down. However, users aren’t able to download any recordings to their mobile device, and it doesn’t seem like Amazon has plans to add this feature.
Over-the-air recordings, as presented on Fire TV devices.
Amazon is looking to add some other features to the device with future software updates. The company already announced last week that it would soon let consumers connect their own hard drives for additional storage.
Fire TV Recast senior product manager Lorraine Ho also said that Amazon wants to simplify discovery of over-the-air content with future software updates. For instance, there is currently no way to just browse upcoming movies or sports programming, but it’s on the list to be added, she said.
Finally, Amazon is considering to add advanced ad skipping to the device. Pressing the fast forward button on your Fire TV remote currently skips ahead 30 seconds, which is roughly the length of a single primetime TV commercial. The company could conceivably automate this process — something that competitors like Tivo and Plex are already offering.
The Fire TV Recast may not be the prettiest piece of hardware out there. Then again, the same could be said for the first-generation Echo. However, Gupta stressed that company had been working on the product for a few years to make sure that it would live up to consumer expectations. “We’ve kind of taken our time with this,” he said. “We have done a lot of user testing,” added Ho.
The difficult part could now be for Amazon to actually explain to consumers why a DVR that doesn’t sit next to your TV can be better than one that does. Amazon will do so both online as well as in Best Buy stores, where the device will be available for sale come November — but Gupta readily admitted that the company was still fine-tuning its messaging around the value proposition of the Recast. “We always are learning as we go,” he said.