April 02, 2014, 6:04 PM —
As expected, Amazon has launched its set-top box, dubbed the Amazon Fire TV. It sells for $100 and is available now. This device has been rumored for a long time now and those rumors were for the most part spot on. One exception: some reports suggested this device would be an HDMI dongle but instead it is a small box, 4.5" on each side and less than an inch tall.
What does it do? It streams video and yup, plays games. I went on record as doubting Amazon would push games in a big way but I was wrong. They're selling a $40 game controller (which comes with $10 worth of Amazon Coins to let you buy games, plus a free copy of the $7 Sev Zero title) to help you get the most out of your games.
So what makes the Fire TV stand out from the Apple TV or Roku? Not a lot, honestly. The Fire is more powerful, with a quad-core Snapdragon processor and 2 GB of memory. This is important for gaming but only 'nice to have' for streaming. I can't say I've ever thought "this needs more power!" when using an Apple TV or Roku.
One potentially interesting feature is ASAP, which stands for Advanced Streaming and Prediction. The Fire TV will predict what you might be interested in watching next and pre-cache the first few minutes of the show, so when you start watching you don't have to spend a precious 10 seconds or so waiting for the stream to begin. (Talk about #firstworldproblems!) Of course this predictive ability will probably suffer in the same way Amazon recommendations do; if you share your Amazon account with other members of the family with different interests, the predictions will be all over the place.
The Fire also has voice search via a microphone in the controller. Amazon says it is voice search that actually works, but hey, they would say that. I'll believe it when I hear a lot of end-users telling me how well it works.
Last is that the Fire has a good set of parental controls; you can lock it down so the kids don't find their way to objectionable material. For parents this might be the killer feature.
Beyond that, it's another streamer. You can of course watch Amazon content on it, as well as Netflix, Hulu and the rest of the usual suspects. HBO Go is coming but not available yet. With the debut of this season of Game of Thrones this Sunday, it's unfortunate that HBO Go isn't ready yet.
If you already own a streamer like the Roku or the Apple TV, I see no reason to switch to Fire TV unless for some reason you want to play Android games on your TV. If you've yet to purchase a streaming solution though, the Fire TV might be a good choice. Of course you can't access iTunes content on it; if you already have a collection of iTunes music and video you might want to stick to Apple TV. And though Fire TV has a microphone in the remote, Roku has a headphone jack in its remote, which is great for late-night movie watching when you don't want to disturb the family or neighbors.
What I really wanted to see is some kind of content perk to entice me to switch. A free movie rental every month, or something along those lines. Something to help me get extra value out of my Prime membership. But so far at least, Amazon hasn't announced anything like this.
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