If I were to assemble a list of cool technologies that are more annoying than useful, speech recognition would rank pretty high. In my experience, it's mostly been a gimmick: Using the dictation feature on my smartphone to compose text messages or emails while walking makes me feel like I should seek professional help. I have never actually found Siri useful. And talking to a robotic customer service rep on the phone usually drives me to repeat "operator" over and over.
Then I tried the voice search function on Amazon's Fire TV, the $99 media streaming box Amazon announced on Wednesday. It's no gimmick.
Amazon's Fire TV, like Apple TV and Roku, are streaming boxes that connect to your TV and allow you to watch Web programming like Netflix and Hulu Plus on the biggest screen in your home.
But streaming boxes have long drawn the ire of consumers because using remotes to search for what you want to watch can be a long and painful process. Finding a TV show or movie can require moving a cursor along a grid of letters, sometimes arranged A-Z rather than like a typical keyboard.
But with Amazon's Fire TV, all it takes to find what you want to watch is the touch of a button and your voice. I've been playing with this feature since I set up a review version of the Fire TV on Wednesday afternoon. I'm impressed.
Here's how it works: Hold down the microphone button on the remote, and speak your query into the top of the remote, like it's a microphone. When you're done speaking, lift the button, and the text of your search appears on the screen. When you click it, you're quickly taken to whatever you asked for. Since the remote uses Bluetooth to communicate with the Fire TV, you don't need to point it at the device. (Looking at you, Apple TV.)
Unlike speech recognition on other devices, Fire TV doesn't need to get to know you and learn your voice, so anyone at your home watching TV can use the search function. And you can search for pretty much anything -- the name of a TV show, a movie, an actor, or a genre of movies. You can also search for apps and games. I made dozens of queries, including "comedies," "Kevin Spacey," "American Hustle," "Netflix," "action films," "Tunein," "mysteries," and, for good measure, "Gary Busey."
I did manage to stump Fire TV's voice search a couple of times. It never returned accurate results when I searched for Lupita Nyong'o, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year for her performance in "12 Years a Slave." (I even played a YouTube video of the actress herself pronouncing her own name, and it still didn't work.) Nor did it work the first time I searched for "kids movies." It thought I said "it's movies." Despite these hiccups, voice search works incredibly well.
So, as one of my colleagues asked me Wednesday afternoon: Is it time to throw the Roku out the window? To her, and everyone else who may have that question, the answer is not yet.
Although the voice control feature is great, I'm hard-pressed to say that alone makes Fire TV worth $99. After all, as they say, content is king, and as Dan Rayburn, the executive vice president of StreamingMedia.com pointed out, Amazon still lags behind longtime streaming player maker Roku, and even Apple TV, when it comes to important content. Missing from its lineup of apps is HBO Go, one of the most popular apps on Roku. Amazon says it's working with HBO to get the app, but it doesn't have a timeline for when that will be.
(When I did voice searches for "True Detective," the hugely popular HBO show that crashed HBO Go a few weeks ago, Fire TV returned what it thought are similar titles -- movies about serial killers and titles starring Matthew McConaughey, one of True Detective's leads. A search for "Veep," another HBO show, returned the option to buy the first season for $22.99)
Also missing, as Rayburn pointed out, are sports apps from the NHL, MLB and NBA that are available on Apple TV and Roku.
Amazon may counter by saying -- "Wait! This is also a great game console." Sure, it has games, and for an additional $39, you can buy a gaming controller. But let's face it. You're probably not going to buy Fire TV just to play games -- you're going to buy it to watch Netflix, Hulu and other services on your TV.
Amazon would also point to the speed of the device. It has 2 gigabytes of memory, compared with 512 megabytes for Apple TV and Roku 3. And yes, it's fast. But I've used both an Apple TV and Roku 3 regularly, and I've never found myself frustrated that they weren't faster.
Fire TV also lacks one of the best features of Roku 2 and Roku 3: A headphone jack on the remote that allows for private viewing, without disturbing others in your home.
So if you're in the market for a streaming player, ask yourself what's important. If you just want to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go on your TV, consider a less expensive option, like a Roku Streaming Stick or Chromecast. If voice search and games are important, and you can, at least for now, live without HBO Go and everything else that's not available on Fire TV, then you'll be happy with Amazon's latest gadget.
That is, until Apple releases its next generation Apple TV ...
The original version of this article has been edited to change the term "voice recognition" to "speech recognition."