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Amazon’s $99 Fire TV puts Apple, Roku on notice with voice search, open ecosystem

image courtesy of Amazon image courtesy of Amazon

By Caleb Denison
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Amazon today unveiled the FireTV, a $99 set-top box in the tradition of Roku and Apple TV that aims to tackle three main problems Amazon sees in competitors: performance, search and closed ecosystems. The box itself looks a lot like an Apple TV, as does the simple, seven-button remote with five-point control pad. It will support 1080p and Dolby Digital Plus surround via HDMI or Optical output. The box is smaller, though, standing just shorter than the height of a dime, and the remote features a microphone to support a voice search feature. But while the box and remote might look familiar, the experience it offers appears considerably different than what is available from Apple TV or Roku at the moment. Here’s a breakdown of the FireTV’s most interesting features.

Lightspeed, voice search, and plenty of apps

To address performance, Amazon designed the FireTV with a quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and a dedicated graphics processor. For network connectivity, the FireTV uses a dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi adapter with MIMO support for faster downloads. In demonstrations, navigating the FireTV’s interface was reported to be extremely quick, with instant response to commands. The FireTV also attempts to eliminate buffering by caching content it thinks you will want to watch before you ask to watch it, a feature Amazon is calling ASAP. This result is a nearly instantaneous viewing experience that feels more like switching the channel on a television than it does a conventional streaming experience.

In an effort to fix what Amazon sees as a content search problem, the company has outfitted the FireTV with a voice search feature that, in demonstrations, seemed to perform very well. Using the microphone built into the remote control, users can say nearly anything and the FireTV will almost instantly show results. During the demonstration, Amazon’s Peter Larsen spoke “Umizoomi” into the microphone, a relatively odd-sounding word, to be fair, yet the FireTV came back with results for the popular TV show “Team Umizoomi” in a flash. Search results will be sourced from all available content, with IMDB information underscoring content options. A particularly appealing feature, called “Best Buy Box” promises to show the least expensive option for any given content. The only hitch? Only Amazon Prime Instant Hulu results will be considered for this feature.  Amazon promised not to cage FireTV owners in a closed ecosystem, and it appears it is delivering on that promise, though some of the system’s more interesting features will be reserved for those who own Kindle Fire tablets. The FireTV launches with a suite of apps already on board, with more promised in the near future. Some of those apps include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vimeo, Disney XD,,  NBA, ESPN and, much to our delight, Plex, which works with the popular and free Plex Media Server program. 

Think of the kids!

Amazon has also built a kid-friendly interface into the FireTV which it calls “Free Time.” The intention is to give kids an interface containing content that they’ll like. The background is colored blue so parents will know at a glance whether their kids are accessing kid-safe content. Part of Free Time is Free Time Unlimited, which serves up unlimited free content from sources such as PBS Kids, Nickelodeon and Sesame Street. 

Kindle goodies

Kindle-specific features are largely tied to second-screen applications, where information about a TV show or movie is available via a service Amazon calls X-Ray, which can be passed to a Kindle via syncing feature while watching a program. The system will also recognize where users may have left off on a program they were watching on a Kindle, and will automatically resume from that same spot when the program is queued up on the FireTV. 

Music and games

Of course, the FireTV aims to offer more than just movies and TV shows. The set-top box can display photos taken with smartphones instantly, so long as the smartphone is uploading those images through Amazon’s Cloud Drive app. Music is also a focus for Amazon; the FireTV will be getting apps for Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and, of course, music you’ve bought from Notably absent – for now, anyway – is Spotify. X-Ray also works for music, in that it can display lyrics for a song as it is being listened to, either on the main screen, or on a Kindle Fire tablet.

Last, but certainly not least (especially if you ask Amazon,) is the FireTV’s ability to play games. Previously leaked images of a console-style remote proved to be real, as Amazon showed off the same remote during its press conference today. Amazon says that over 1,000 game titles will be available – Minecraft among them – and getting access will cost $40 to start for the controller, which will also get users 1,000 Amazon “coins” to buy games with. The games can be played with the included remote, a Kindle Fire tablet, or the aforementioned dedicated gaming remote. During the demonstrations, gameplay appeared snappy and lag-free. 

Do you care?

At $99, Amazon’s FireTV doesn’t break any huge price barriers, which could present a problem. As we see it, Amazon will have to rely on its ultra-fast experience, intuitive voice search, and user-friendly interface to sell the system, because outside of those factors, what we see here is just another version of the same set-top boxes we’ve been using for the past couple years. Sure, there’s games, but we don’t see that as being a huge selling point, but more of an add-on feature.

What do you think? Is Amazon’s promise of a faster, more user-centric experience enough to sway you to pick up a FireTV over a Roku or Apple TV box? 

This article was originally posted on Digital Trends

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