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Amazon's Fire TV could be the holy grail of set-top boxes

April 4, 2014: 5:22 PM ET

The tech giant's $99 device, released this week, is an impressive living room contender.

The Fire TV packs a quad-core 1.7 GHz processor and 2 gigabytes of RAM making performance downright zippy.

The Fire TV packs a quad-core 1.7 GHz processor and 2 gigabytes of RAM making performance downright zippy.

FORTUNE – Anything you can do, Amazon (AMZN) can do better -- and at cost.

That's clearly the mission behind the company's latest device, the long-rumored Fire TV: a $99 tile-shaped, coaster-sized set-top box that streams media à la Roku and Apple TV (AAPL). But the company trumps the competition, at least on the hardware side, by packing a quad-core 1.7 GHz processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and 8 gigabytes of built-in storage. All that makes navigating the company's simple two-column home screen zippy, and loading movies and TV shows takes three seconds or less.

Resembling a beefier version of Apple TV's sliver of a remote, the Fire TV's wand includes buttons for media playback (play/pause, rewind/fast-forward), a shortcut back to the homescreen, options, and voice commands. Amazon also offers an optional $39 game controller for the Fire TV that's far less impressive, looking and feeling like a boxy third-party controller for the Xbox 360 console. It's not much to look at and just adequate for playing games (the four-way direction pad feels cheap and shallow when pushed, as do the four round buttons to the right).

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With 175-plus apps and games, Fire TV offers a larger media catalog than Apple TV, but falls far short of Roku's 1,000-plus games. Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu are on offer, as are Pandora (P) and iHeartRadio. Missing are HBO GO, Major League Baseball, ABC, and the Disney Channel, which Amazon says are coming soon. Apple's iTunes is nowhere to be found, but the same can be said of Amazon Instant Video on Apple TV -- that's no surprise, given that these two companies are now set-top box competitors.

Pictured from top to bottom: Roku 3, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV. Photo: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

Pictured from top to bottom: Roku 3, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV. Photo: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

Like Amazon's tablet readers, Fire TV owners will get the most out of their devices if they're also members of the company's $99 annual loyalty program, Amazon Prime. Prime's Instant Video catalog has grown into a sizable archive of 40,000-plus movie and TV titles, which is good because, like it or not, Amazon has woven the service directly into the home screen with menus such as "Featured Movies & TV" and "Recently Added to Prime."

To get around, Amazon has introduced a voice recognition feature: simply press and hold the microphone button on the remote and speak the name of a movie, a TV show, or an actor, and Fire TV will conduct a quick search across all available media. So, if I'm interested in browsing the movie catalog of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I just speak his name into the remote, and Fire TV will present watchable movies that include the actor pulled from various sources. It works just as advertised, and I found the voice recognition to be more accurate than Siri, the virtual assistant on Apple's mobile devices.

Fire TV isn't just a streaming device, it's a casual gaming console, too -- a point Amazon made when it unveiled the device this Wednesday. Around 100 games are available, a mix of free-to-play games and paid games costing $1.85 on average. The best launch games cost a bit more, such as Minecraft: Pocket Edition ($6.99), a mobile version of the wildly successful building simulator. There's also Sev Zero ($6.99), an over-the-shoulder shooter where players defend their home base from waves of vaguely gelatinous-looking aliens. If Sev Zero is any indication of Fire TV's graphic capabilities, users can expect eye candy roughly on par with some of the best tablet games out there, such as Infinity Blade, for example. Fire TV seems capable of producing solid, even pretty, 3-D visuals, but nowhere near PlayStation 4 or Xbox One quality, which should suit the target casual audience just fine.

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Indeed, of all the general streaming devices on the market, Fire TV probably has the best chance of also becoming a successful game console. According to Amazon, by the end of next month Fire TV will feature "thousands" of games from big-name developers such as Disney (DIS), Electronic Arts (EA), Sega, and Ubisoft. And the fact that Amazon has its own in-house studio (one that acquired Double Helix Games earlier this year) shows the company is committed to making Fire TV a solid casual gaming platform, more so than the comparably priced Kickstarter-backed indie console OUYA, which lacks the software refinement of Fire TV and Amazon's vast resources.

I saw a few minor glitches when using Fire TV, such as the infrequent flashing white screen before a movie loads, or the very rare button press that goes unrecognized -- glitches that a software update ought to fix. Fire TV's biggest flaws are the fact that it doesn't include apps such as HBO Go -- a temporary problem -- and that lackluster, optional game controller.

Otherwise, Fire TV has a lot to offer, provided you're an Amazon Prime member. Just as with its latest tablets, Amazon has designed an excellent piece of hardware that extends the company's reach into the consumer's life. It doesn't have the huge selection Roku does (yet), and it doesn't offer the iTunes media access the way Apple TV does, but that last part probably won't matter to most Fire TV owners. What they're getting is a device that's polished from the get-go and has the real potential to become even better.

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