Yesterday, Amazon unveiled the Fire TV — a small, unassuming rectangular set-top box that streams movies, TV shows, and music to your television. It also doubles as a video-game console and touts a voice search feature that "actually works," according to the company's press release. In short: This thing is a multitasking home-entertainment monster.
At yesterday's announcement event — awash with the overpowering aroma of buttered popcorn and set on a stage resembling a home theatre — Amazon VP Peter Larson made the case for the Fire TV's existence as it enters an already crowded set-top market filled with similarly-priced Apple TVs, Roku 3s, and Chromecasts. His sales pitch was simple: "This thing is tiny, it's incredibly powerful, it's unbelievably simple."
Currently available for $99, the price is certainly right (though the absence of HBO GO means you arguably couldn't call it the "Everything Box"). Still, Amazon has packed a few tricks into their slimmer-than-a-dime product. Here are five things that set the Fire TV apart from its competitors — and warrant your attention.
True Instant Watching
One of the big benefits of streaming video is that it only takes seconds to start watching a vast array of viewing choices; if you hate something, you can click out of it and boom, you're seconds away from browsing and switching to something else. But, depending on your internet connection, it's not always instant: A dodgy WiFi signal may mean anywhere from dozens of seconds to several minutes you have to wait in order to load the next episode of Mad Men. There goes your binge-watching momentum!
Amazon wants to eliminate this with a new feature called ASAP. How it works is simple: The Fire TV looks at what you've watched, creates a list of recommended titles, and pre-buffers them whenever the device is on. The ideal end-result is that everything you want to watch instantly starts up the second you hit play.
Much like the improved browsing experience, ASAP won't turn many heads. Still, it's a huge improvement that Amazon can hold over their competition. Granted, the function is only as good as its recommendation engine — but given the skill at which Amazon already uses customer data to recommend things for you to buy, it's a safe bet that the Fire TV's recommendations won't be far off the mark. Consumers should remember to tread with caution, however: spend a weekend hate-watching Storage Wars, and you should expect to get some garbage suggestions for a few days.
No One Box Should Have All That Power — But This One Does
Besides the fact that it can stream video over the Internet and onto your TV, Amazon wants people to understand one thing: The Fire TV is powerful. How powerful? Well, it has things like a quad-core processor, a dedicated graphics processing unit, and 2 gigabytes of RAM. According to Amazon, the inclusion of these things makes the Fire TV three times as powerful as an Apple TV.
Why all that power? The use of a set-top box consists of two states: browsing and watching. With a better processor, browsing becomes quick and nimble; compared to the Roku 3 and Apple TV, flipping through stuff to watch on a Fire TV is so fast and smooth, it's almost enjoyable.
Admittedly, it's a minor thing to champion. But in practice, scanning the impossibly large, undeniably intimidating libraries of things to watch on the various treaming sources the product offers — Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, WatchESPN, and Amazon Prime Instant Video, to name a few — is now just a little less frustrating. It's a small thing that makes a huge difference.
A First-Rate Second-Screen Experience
Media experts love to toss around the term "second-screen experience." What they're really referring to is the act of looking up stuff on a phone or tablet that's quasi-related to what's on the TV.
Fire TV's X-Ray feature will automate that process: If you own a Kindle Fire HDX (or, once the sync-up function is available later this year, an iPhone or iPad), X-Ray will pull relevant info from IMDb — such as cast and crew lists, soundtrack info, trivia, and so on — and display it on your tablet. Voilà! Thanks to leveraging the massive IMDb data trove, you've just shaved a few minutes off of finding out who "That one guy who was in that thing involving explosions and a talking dog" is.
Voice Commands You Actually Want to Use
Most streaming set-top boxes offering hundreds of thousands of things to watch, which makes search very important. If you want to search for something on the Roku 3 or Apple TV, you have to painstakingly use the directional pad to type out — on alphabetically organized virtual keyboard, no less! — whatever it is you want to watch.
So, Amazon went ahead and skipped the inclusion of a QWERTY keyboard in lieu of a voice-command search option. That's right: You'll now be able to browse with the butt-end of a million bad Siri jokes. But because the commands are only there to look up things and not, say, dictating texts to your parents, they actually work. Speak "John Malkovich" into the built-in microphone of the Fire TV remote, and enter his entire body of work (if not his his actual head; we assume that option will be available in the 2.0 model down the line).
It Also Plays Video Games
It says a lot about the current state of consumer electronics when an online retail company (mind you, the largest, most successful online retail company around) creates a fully competent, competitive set-top box — and then, as almost a footnote, include the ability to play video games as well.
So fear not, console jockeys and Call of Duty junkies: The Fire TV can indeed play video games. Granted, we're not talking about Xbox One or PlayStation 4 horsepower or infinite marquee-name game choices just yet. The product is powered by a smartphone processor and runs on a modified version of Android, so barring a few exceptions — such as the wildly popular Minecraft and Amazon's first venture into video games, Sev Zero — it can play around 100 different mobile phone games (soon to be "thousands" next month, per Amazon). You can play them with the included remote, with the Fire TV app, or you can pay $40 and play them with Amazon's Fire game controller.
Sure, dedicated gamers in their living room undoubtledy already have one — or more likley, several — game console hooked up to their TV, and anybody who want to play mobile games probably already owns a phone. But they now have the capability to switch from Breaking Bad episodes to Candy Crush marathons with the touch of a few buttons. Consumers can surf from one wormhole to the next. What dedicated media addict wouldn't want that option?