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).
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.
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.
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.
"Each month that passes," writes Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster, "reduces our confidence."
FORTUNE -- Pity Gene Munster.
It's been five years since Piper Jaffray's chief Apple (AAPL) watcher first alerted investors that Steve Jobs' "hobby" -- the Apple TV set-top box that launched in 2007 -- was merely a precursor to a more ambitious project: a full-blown Apple television set.
"While Apple downplays the possibility," he wrote in a February 2008 note to clients, "we expect the MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Apr 2, 2014 10:55 PM ET
FORTUNE -- The battle to control your living room is heating up, and today Amazon (AMZN) stepped up its efforts with Amazon Fire TV, a box for streaming video through a television set.
The battle over software performance and specs is a race to the bottom in terms of price. The ultimate winner will be the one offering the best -- and most -- content. In that respect, Amazon is off to MOREErin Griffith - Apr 2, 2014 4:39 PM ET
Internet-connected televisions can be clunky, expensive, and redundant with what's already in your living room. But that isn't stopping Roku from betting its future on them.
FORTUNE -- In the battle for the living room, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Roku rise above all other contenders. These technology companies all have one thing in common: They manufacture external devices that connect to conventional televisions to allow people to view streaming music, TV MOREChanelle Bessette - Jan 8, 2014 5:01 AM ET
More people stream video over the Internet via Apple TV than with any other device.
FORTUNE -- I took a crack at a pie chart like this a couple months ago with limited success, so I was pleased to see how the professional market researchers at Frost & Sullivan do it.
Like me, they left off Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox, which has some of the same media functions but is primarily a game machine. MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Jul 17, 2013 1:45 PM ET
Tim Cook said at D:11 that Apple has sold more 13 million units. That was news.
FORTUNE -- For a number of reasons -- including all those questions about future products not even Steve Jobs would have touched -- Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook didn't break much news Tuesday night at AllThingsD.
But he did provide a new data point about Apple TV: He said the company has sold more than 13 MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - May 29, 2013 10:54 AM ET
Old-school DVRs are fighting to stay relevant in an era of add-on devices from the likes of Apple, Roku, and others.
By Peter Suciu
FORTUNE -- It used to be that families would gather around the living room TV during prime time to watch their favorite shows together. Even as the living room set has gotten bigger, the audience in front of it continues to shrink. Moreover families aren't watching together MOREMay 8, 2013 1:47 PM ET
Households with broadband Internet access are increasingly piping Internet video to their TV sets, through a variety of devices.
FORTUNE -- We can examine the strategies of Netflix (NFLX) and Comcast (CMCSA) all we like, but the speed at which television moves off of cable and onto the Internet will be determined largely by what people decide to do in their living rooms. Now that they have the hardware and software MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - May 3, 2013 6:36 AM ET
Reed Hastings' disruption tour continues as Netflix weighs ploughing its profits into an original series. "It's not TV, it's HBO" may soon be "It's not HBO, it's Netflix."
Update: 24 hours later, it's official. "Netflix has committed to a minimum of 26 episodes," the press release reads, of "House of Cards." That sounds like 2 seasons worth, and it should begin, um, "airing" in late 2012. Kevin Spacey and David Fincher MOREMichael V. Copeland, Senior Writer - Mar 17, 2011 10:29 AM ET
Cupertino scores a clean sweep in tablets, laptops, desktops and portable music players
It looks like another Apple (AAPL) Christmas on Amazon.com.
As of Dec. 25, its products topped the most-gifted items in all the categories in which it competed except television and video products (where Roku reigned supreme).
There were some discrepancies, however, between what people wished for and what was purchased for them.
Apple TV, for example, was the No. 1 "Most MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Dec 25, 2010 7:13 AM ET
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