The area where Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV play just got a little more crowded. Amazon has announced its new Fire TV streaming set top box. The Fire TV looks to have a very similar feature set to the Apple TV and Roku, but adds new features like voice search and gaming to the mix. Let’s take a look.
The Fire TV
The form factor for the Fire TV is about what you’d expect. It’s a plain, small, black 4.5″ square that’s 0.7″ high. Considering it’s based on what’s effectively cellular phone hardware, that’s not surprising. On the back, you get power, an HDMI port, TOSlink optical audio, ethernet, and a USB 2.0 port. You have to wonder if that’s for some kind of future expansion. Audio support is up to 7.1. The remote is also pretty similar for these types of devices. It’s got the navigation/select ring, menu/home/back buttons below that, and RWD/Pause/FWD buttons for media on the bottom. Basic, but functional. The button up top is what has me interested: voice search. People have talked about Apple TV getting this since Siri launched. Amazon beat them to it. Hopefully this works and is not just a gimmick.
When it comes to power, the Fire TV has it. The Roku 3 and Apple TV are based on cellphone-type hardware that is about two years out of date. With Apple TV, it’s a single core version of the A5 from the iPhone 4S, with the Roku 3, it’s dual core. Both have 512MB of RAM. The Fire TV is much more modern and powerful. Powering this rig is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8064, a member of the Snapdragon 600 series. The Krait 300 CPU is quad-core 1.7GHz and there is an Ardeno 320 GPU. It’s not top of the line, but it’s similar to what you’d see in the Nexus 7 tablet or a GS4. The RAM is quadrupled compared to other boxes to 2GB and you have 8GB of internal storage. That’s probably just for streaming though. The good news is all your Amazon stuff gets free cloud storage. For getting to your networks there is 802.11N support with dual antenna MIMO. Sadly, no AC. Rounding out the specs is Bluetooth 4.0.
Features & Content
For those of you scared that this would be restricted to Amazon’s Prime, your fears are unfounded. It’ll bring you your Amazon content, but Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, YouTube, Showtime Anywhere, Plex, Flixter, WatchESPN, and pretty much everything else you can think of. Amazon has made this competitive from a content standpoint. So far there are 69 entries in the Fire TV app store. The app store gives away one of the Fire TV’s secrets – it’s also built on an Android fork, just like the Fire tablet line.
The interface looks to be very similar to other set top boxes, if you use the controller to scroll through to find things. However, you don’t have to do that. Just press the voice search button on the remote and tell the Fire TV what you want, and it’ll launch it for you. If this works, voice could be a game changer. For your videos, the Fire TV features ASAP support. It guesses what you’d like and prepares those videos to be watched. In English, that means they’ll play almost instantly. The Fire TV has access to streaming audio services as well and can access your photos through the cloud. There is an AirPlay-like streaming mode, but for now that’s limited to the Kindle Fire line. It’s expanded with a 2nd screen mode called X-Ray TV. Once again, it’s Kindle Fire only.
FreeTime for Kids
For Parents, there is FreeTime. This mode transforms the Fire TV into a kid friendly platform that can be easily controlled by your youngins. There are games, movies, TV shows, and they can search based on their characters. FreeTime can be programed with profiles for up to 4 children. Don’t worry about them getting out and into the full-featured interface. It’s password protected. And if you think you’re using it too much, you as their guardian can set time limits. If you want more FreeTime content, Amazon is adding a $2.99/mo subscription called FreeTime Unlimited.
Did I say it’s going after the Apple TV and Roku? Add the Ouya and other Android micro-consoles to the mix. There is an optional Fire Game Controller. Yes, it’s the only component that leaked on the internet. You’ll feel right at home with it if you’re used to the Xbox 360 controller. They are very similar in configuration with the addition of a couple Fire TV extras. The Fire TV games, which are almost certainly Android ports, can use up to 4 of the controllers. Most of the major mobile titles are there, like Minecraft, Asphalt 8, and NBA 2K14. Many are free, many $0.99, and Amazon gives you the equivalent to $10.00 in Amazon Coins with purchase of the controller.
What they’re also giving you is Sev Zero, the first title from Amazon Studios, Amazon’s first party game division. Sev Zero is a Halo-esque first person shooter with tower defense elements. It’ll be interesting to see if this and later games show up on Android and iOS as well. Amazon is also bringing its own gaming service called GameCircle.
Pricing and Availability
The Fire TV is $99 and available right now. The game controllers are $39 a piece.
When the Kindle Fire launched, it was a low priced tablet designed to lock users into Amazon services. That isn’t what Fire TV is. Sure, it has Amazon’s DNA built into every aspect of the device, but it genuinely seems to be a better device than what the competition offers while being competitively priced. We’ll have one later this week, and we’ll let you know what we think about it. If you’re looking at a Chromecast or Roku right now, this looks compelling enough that you should wait. Based on specs, The Fire TV blows those out of the water.