At a press event today, Amazon finally unveiled its answer to Apple TV and Roku: the Amazon Fire TV, a tiny, set-top media player that will sell for $99. But if you were looking for a radical departure from what's already out there, you're going to be a bit disappointed by the features and the price.
That said, there are some unique attributes that we'll soon be checking out in our labs. Amazon says it believes that current media players have three key drawbacks: hard-to-use text-based search, poor, laggy performance due to video buffering, and closed ecosystems—the latter apparently a direct dig at Apple TV, which doesn't currently offer Amazon Instant Video.
Amazon Fire TV tackles the search issue by allowing voice searches, which are spoken into a microphone built into the small remote control. Amazon claims its voice search is better, allowing you to search not just by keywords, movie titles, and actors, but by categories.
Because Amazon sells a lot of streaming media players, it says, it gets a lot of feedback about common complaints, such as laggy performance. To speed up operations, the Fire TV player has a quad-core processor and a dedicated graphics processor like those used in more expensive smart phones. It also has 2GB of RAM, which it claims is double that in competitive players. Another feature, called ASAP, anticipates shows and movies you might be interested in and buffers them for faster access. During a demo at the event, content did start playing almost immediately after the play button was pushed, without the latency you often get with many players.
Other features include built-in dual-band Wi-Fi, plus a small Bluetooth remote control that has seven buttons, along with a click wheel navigator.
Amazon Fire TV comes with a decent amount of content, though less than offered by Roku. Besides supporting Amazon's services, it hits most of the major bases with Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and Vimeo, as well as Showtime Antime, but it looks like right now there's no HBO Go.
When watching shows and movies, you can pull up an overlay of related background data such as info about cast and crew (powered by IMDb), either on the TV or as a second-screen application on a Kindle Fire tablet. You can also wirelessly mirror your tablet display to your Fire TV with Kindle Fire, and other Miracast-enabled phones or tablets starting later this year. Amazon says it will have 10 new original series, including the second season of "Alpha House," and it just announced that it has locked up the exclusive rights to offer the popular TV show "24" as part of the Amazon Prime service.
For those looking to display personal conent, there's a photo app that lets you show images stored on Amazon's Cloud Drive on your TV, either individually or as a slideshow.
Find the right model for you with our streaming media player buying guide and Ratings.
Kids and gamers feature prominently in Amazon's view of the streaming-media world. The Amazon Fire TV has a dedicated feature area called Free Time, for kids ages 3 to 8, which is basically a customized environment for children. An all-you-can-eat subscription service for kids, Free Time Unlimited, is available to Prime members for $2.99 per month, with content from Sesame Street, PBS, and Nickelodeon. In the Free Time area, parents can choose what their kids can see, and set time limits for viewing for weekdays and weekends. To exit the Free Time area, kids need a password.
While some other media players, such as Roku, have dabbled in games, Amazon appears to be taking gaming seriously, though it's targeting casual gamers who don't already own a dedicated game console. Developers including Electronic Arts, Disney, and Sega are making games for the system, and the company has created its own game development arm to create original titles. Amazon says most of the games will cost just $1.85 each, and there will be a good number of free titles.
Although you can play games using the included Fire remote, many gamers will opt for the $40 Fire Game controller, which looks a bit like an Xbox game controller. It comes with 1,000 Amazon coins, virtual currency that can be used to buy games.
While the Amazon Fire seems to be a credible contender in the streaming player market, it isn't quite the departure we had imagined. For one thing, it costs considerably more than the new Roku Streaming Stick ($50) and Chromecast ($35). For another, we assumed there would be tighter integration of the Amazon Prime video service to the device, with a push to make Amazon Instant Video a more dominant element of the menu. Also, given the recent $20 price jump—from $79 to $99—in the yearly cost of Amazon Prime, we thought Amazon might offer a discount on the player to those joining or renewing the two-day shipping service.
As for the touted better performance of the player, we'll be checking that out over the next few weeks as we put the player through its paces. So keep checking back with our blog for a First Look at the Amazon Fire streaming media player and how it compares to other models on the market.
—James K. Willcox