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Surprise! Your Amazon Fire TV could be gobbling gigabytes like an Internet gremlin

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When I first saw the Amazon Fire TV, I couldn’t get over how cute it was. Just look at its short stature, tiny footprint, and tidy little remote – how darling! In fact, the Fire TV is so unobtrusive, you could easily lose it in the mess of black boxes that live under your TV and forget it was even there.

That would be a huge mistake.

Sure, the little black box and its lone LED look innocent enough, but in reality, the Fire TV is like a stealthy, bloodthirsty vampire quietly gorging itself on gigabytes of your precious Internet data while supposedly doing nothing at all. Beware: If you own a Fire TV box, there’s a possibility it’s gunning for your data cap, if not blowing it away entirely – and your ISP isn’t going to like that.

Fingering the Fire TV

Tyler Hayes was the first to discover the Fire TV’s secret little problem when he got a not-so-friendly letter from his ISP that he had blown through a lot of data in not much time. For now, Comcast doesn’t enforce its 250 GB data cap in my area, so it was Hayes’ alert that prompted me to look into my own house’s data consumption over the past three months. What I found was shocking.

My household consumption soared to 632GB in May and 526GB in June.

The last time I checked my monthly home Internet data usage (in February) it was well below the 250 GB mark, according to Comcast’s online meter tool. Since then, my family’s video streaming habits haven’t changed much – though, admittedly, we stream nearly all of our TV content, having ceased cable service late last year. According to the same meter, my household consumption soared in April to 413 GB (I installed the Fire TV mid-month), 632 GB in May and 526GB in June.

I immediately began checking my meter every hour or so and was dismayed to see it tick up 1GB to 2GB per hour with periodic use of the Fire TV box. (I should note here that I did confirm my Wi-Fi network hadn’t been hijacked by any freeloaders). By the next day, I had run through about 17GB of data. That was enough for me to pull the set-top box into Digital Trends’ offices for a more comprehensive – and accurate – series of tests.

The big test

In response to Hayes’ blog post, Amazon said that the culprit of this data use was likely due to the device’s screensaver – specifically the “Mosaic” setting. According to Amazon, the device suffers from a bug wherein instead of displaying a series of cached images (very high-quality, large file-size images, mind you) it was actually streaming those images over the Internet, hence the big data draw.

To Amazon’s credit, its recognition of the problem and stated intent to fix it is encouraging. But I set out to find out how much bandwidth was getting used up when the Fire TV was leeching data, as well as how much data was being consumed over a given period of time, both down and upstream.

Amazon fireTV kit

To set up the test, I plugged the Fire TV into an Ethernet port that would be closely monitored by Digital Trends’ network service provider. I then set the Fire TV’s screensaver to activate after five minutes of inactivity. We monitored the Fire TV’s data consumption over the course of two 30 minute segments, once with the Fire TV set to Mosaic mode, and again set to Pan and Zoom mode, which, according to Amazon, is meant to alleviate the problem. The screensaver only runs for about 20 minutes before the screen simply goes dark. That being the case, we expected to see a sudden ramp up about five minutes in, and then a sudden ramp down 5-10 minutes before the end of the test. Here’s what we saw.

The bigger results

According to Digital Trends’ network service provider, the Fire TV ran at an average of 6.26 Mbps, eating up 1.408 gigabytes (download) and spitting out 43 megabytes (upload) while in Mosaic mode. After switching to Pan and Zoom, those numbers went down significantly to 68 megabytes and .8 megabytes, respectively.

What this means to Fire TV owners

First, the good news: Not only is Amazon aware of the problem, they are actively working hard to fix it – and they should, this is a potential PR nightmare for the company. In fact, Amazon worked with me directly to gather some more data about the problem to assist them with developing a fix.

Unfortunately, until Amazon develops the fix and deploys it, this bug poses a bunch of potential problems for Fire TV users.

In many areas, data caps are tightly enforced, which means Fire TV owners not aware of the “Mosaic Bug” could quickly exceed their data cap if they choose the setting, landing them in a pickle with their ISP. ISPs could either throttle speeds or impose an overage fee on Fire TV customers. And even if these victims are made aware of the bug, given ISP’s typically unsympathetic attitudes, it’s entirely possible the customer will be slap out of luck anyway.

Until Amazon develops the fix and deploys it, this bug poses a bunch of potential problems for Fire TV users.

But even if ISPs turn a blind eye to the issue, the bug still poses a problem to consumers on a practical, day-to-day level by clogging up a user’s Internet pipes. According to a networks engineering professional at Digital Trends’ service provider, the average Comcast customer has a 15 mbps (megabits per second) connection. Over the 30 minute test period, the Fire TV’s average gobbled up 6.26 mbps on the downstream and sent 1.99 mbps upstream. This would hog 41 percent of a standard residential Comcast Internet connection. That’s just under half of your bandwidth all gunked up with Fire TV pictures any time the screen saver happens to run.

Without any proactive action by the user, that screen saver could end up running often. The Fire TV has no power button, so you can’t turn the box off unless you unplug it entirely. That means any time you hit pause on a movie, TV show or game without resuming less than five minutes later, or wake the box up by accidentally clicking a button on the remote, that screen saver is going to run, and you can kiss about 1.5 GB of your data allowance goodbye.

What Fire TV owners should do

According to Amazon, turning off the Mosaic function (which is not on by default) “avoids the issue.” However we’re not thrilled with the idea of giving up some 68 megabytes any time our screensaver kicks in. Amazon claims it may be related to a third-party and is investigating our box – we’ll keep this space updated if we find the culprit. Until Amazon is able to exterminate the bug, I’m going to recommend folks disable their screensaver entirely by going to Settings->Display and Sounds->Screensaver->Never. This way, nothing but streaming videos should ping data allowances.

Don’t be too hard on Amazon

New products are prone to bugs. Even Apple, the king of products that “just work,” has spent a good deal of its existence patching holes and fixing bugs. Also, Apple Maps. So before jumping down Amazon’s throat for what was clearly an oversight (there’s no way this would have gone unnoticed) let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that the company has been responsive and intends to right the wrong, though how fast it will act remains to be seen.

For now, share this news with any of your Fire TV-owning friends and relatives, and let us know if you’ve got a Fire TV that’s been hogging up your data.

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