Amazon started to ship its Fire TV Recast digital video recorder (DVR) Wednesday, which is courting cord cutters with its ability to record over-the-air broadcast programming from networks like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox without any monthly fee. A test over roughly a week revealed that the device works well as is, but that content discovery and some other features could be improved.
The Fire TV Recast is available on Amazon.com as well as at Best Buy in two options: A 2-tuner model capable of recording up to 2 shows at the same time on a 500 GB internal hard drive retails for $229.99, whereas a 4-tuner model with a 1 TB drive costs $279.99.
Both device options look otherwise identical, and there’s no way around saying this: The Fire TV Recast is not a pretty device. It’s a black bulky box that you probably don’t want anywhere near your TV. Luckily, you won’t have to put it on display in your living room at all. The Recast is a networked DVR, which means that it streams live and recorded programming to any TV equipped with a Fire TV streaming stick of box, a Fire TV Edition TV smart TV, or a mobile device.
In fact, Amazon recommends that you place the device, and the antenna that you need to receive any broadcast TV, where ever the reception for over-the-air TV is best. To help with the placement, the company has added a guided setup to its Fire TV mobile app. The app not only gives some general guidance (avoid brick walls, prefer rooms on upper floors over basements), but also estimates the best direction to point your antenna based on your house’s location, the location of the nearest broadcast tower and the range of your antenna.
Amazon uses its Fire TV mobile app to help with the setup of the Fire TV Recast.
In practice, this type of hand-holding worked out okay, albeit with one caveat: Much of the Bay Area gets serviced not by one but two TV towers, with most programming coming from a tower located in San Francisco, but a few select channels broadcasting from a tower located in a different direction.
Amazon’s antenna placement recommendation worked out great for the majority of programming, but led to the Recast not being able to receive NBC without some manual adjustments. It would be great if the app could offer more granular suggestions for such edge cases.
Once connected, the Recast was automatically discovered by a Fire TV Cube, which added a DVR menu to its home screen. That menu offers access to live TV as well as recordings, both through Fire TV-typical content rows, as well as a traditional, cable box-like channel guide.
The latter is a good starting point to just browse what’s on live TV, but you have to get used to Amazon treating channels a little differently than your cable provider. At first launch, all of the channels in the guide are ordered alphabetically, which can force you to scroll quite a bit until you find PBS. Luckily, the Recast also allows users to mark channels as their favorites, which are then listed first.
You can use the program guide to watch any live programming broadcasting right now, or schedule recordings for upcoming shows. Amazon’s recording options are pretty much en par with what other DVRs offer, and include the ability to choose the recording quality, and how many episodes the device should keep before deleting them. Scheduling recordings worked well in our test, with the occasional fluke of the recast saying that it couldn’t record something for an unknown reason, but then ended up recording it anyway.
Recast also integrates well with Alexa, which is especially helpful for live TV tuning. Commands like “Alexa, turn on ABC” are being carried out quickly, and basic transport controls like pause, play, rewind and skip forward also work well, and you can ask Alexa to record shows if you mention them by their title. However, “Alexa to record this” while watching programming that’s currently airing results in a “I can’t do that on Fire TV” response.
Amazon also does a good job integrating live TV into the Fire TV interface, something the company undoubtedly learned from optimizing Fire OS for running on smart TVs. Scroll through an “on now” row on the Fire TV’s home screen, and the device automatically plays current broadcast programming in the upper right corner, picture-in-picture style. And searching for content now gets you results from Amazon’s own video service and other streaming apps as well as live TV, when available.
The biggest flaw of the Recast at launch is a lack of discovery features for over-the-air content. For instance, there’s currently no option to browse all of the movies, sports games or documentaries that are going to air on broadcast channels in the next two weeks. Instead, users either have to search for a specific title, or work their ways through the channel guide — both not exactly effective approaches.
The lack of discovery features is especially notable because it’s in such a stark contrast to much of the rest of Fire TV. Amazon’s streaming devices have replaced an app-centric approach to streaming with a focus on individual movies and TV shows, and frequently recommend new things to watch based on a user’s viewing history.
Not having the same features available for over-the-air content to record makes the DVR feel a bit like a second-class citizen. The good news that this is easily fixable, and Fire TV Recast senior product manager Lorraine Ho already told Variety during a recent interview that better discovery options are on the roadmap.
Amazon’s Fire TV Recast directly competes with a number of other DVR solutions for cord cutters, ranging from TiVo’s devices to DIY solutions like the ones powered by Plex. The closest competitor at this point is Tablo, which has been offering networked DVR devices similar to the Recast for some time.
Tablo’s devices are sleeker, a bit cheaper and also offer more in terms of discovery. What’s more, the Canada-based startup has built apps for almost every streaming device, whereas Recast only works with Amazon’s Fire TVs. Plex’s solution also is quite a bit cheaper, but less polished; TiVo on the other hand offers a lot more fine-grained features around recording content, including conflict management.
What unites all those competitors is that they require some kind of monthly, annual or lifetime service fee. Amazon on the other hand decided to skip such fees altogether. Anyone who buys the device can record broadcast TV, and access a 2-week program guide, without ever paying anything again. That’s a powerful proposition for cord cutters looking to get rid of their monthly cable bill.
And while Fire TV Recast may not have the most elegant hardware and the best content discovery features, it proved to be really solid. Recordings didn’t fail once, channel changes were surprisingly snappy, and mobile streaming also worked without fail. So while the Recast may not be the best DVR for everyone, it’s definitely a solid choice for Fire TV owners looking to augment streaming media with free over-the-air TV recordings.
Update: 9:50am: This post was updated with additional details on using Alexa to record programs.