Does Amazon Fire TV torch the competition?
Not quite. With two breakthrough features, the e-retailer's new streaming media box is a smart buy for Prime members. But others may find it's not worth the investment.
By Jason Cipriani, Fortune
Last month, Amazon (AMZN) released the Fire TV, a $99 set-top box built to stream content to your television. Similar to that of the Apple (AAPL) TV or Roku, Amazon's little black box streams TV shows, movies and music from various providers.
The move makes sense for Amazon, considering that its Prime Instant Video service has long been available through apps on third-party platforms and on Amazon's website. By releasing a streaming box of its own, Amazon is able to exert more control over the experience and can help push customers toward buying content from its own library.
In order for the Fire TV to be a success, Amazon had to do more than merely release another box capable of streaming staple media services such as Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu Plus. The company incorporated hardware normally found in a smartphone, added voice search from the remote, near-instant streaming, and support for video games. (To prove that gaming wasn't just thrown in to round out the features list, Amazon also released a dedicated gaming controller for $39.)
Similar to ordering a Kindle product, Amazon's Fire TV arrives with your account information already stored on the device, provided you ordered the device using your Amazon account, allowing you to connect the Fire TV to your TV and start streaming Amazon content within a matter of minutes. Prime subscribers are granted access to the Instant Video catalog, which Amazon claims has more than 40,000 titles to choose from.
For those without the $99-per-year Prime membership, you'll still have access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and WatchESPN, as well as 175 applications and games. Notably lacking at the moment is HBO Go. Though Amazon has announced that HBO's streaming service will be available later this year, it's still a huge miss. The announcement was part of an exclusive deal that also brings older HBO content (such as "The Sopranos") to Instant Video starting in late May. Older content is nice to have, but a show as popular as "Game of Thrones" is almost a must-have.
By my count, there are two features found in the Fire TV that absolutely blow the competition away. The first, called ASAP, attempts to predict the content you're likely to watch next and starts loading it in the background. The end result is near-instant streaming when you hit the play button.
In my testing, ASAP worked exceptionally well. I rarely waited for any content to buffer or load; something I can't say about my experience with an Apple TV or Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox One. (Microsoft owns and publishes MSN Money.) After using a Fire TV, I've come to the realization that this is how set-top streaming is supposed to be done. Waiting for a video to load is no longer acceptable.
The second critical feature is voice search. As Amazon vice president Peter Larsen noted during the Fire TV announcement, searching for content using a small remote is a frustrating experience. In an attempt to solve this, Amazon included a microphone in the remote for the Fire TV. While holding a button at the top of the remote, you can speak the name of the show you'd like to watch. Once you release the button, you can find a list of options listed on the screen for you to select from.
In testing, I found the voice recognition to be fast and very accurate. My toddler, who just turned 4, was able to successfully request "Power Rangers" on more than one occasion. Anyone with a young child who's also tried using Apple's Siri or Google (GOOG) Now can relate to how impressive that feat is.
The only drawback to voice search at the present time is the lack of services it incorporates. Right now you can only search Prime Instant Video and Hulu Plus. Amazon has said that it is working to quickly bring voice search to more services such as Netflix; in the meantime, with the lack of voice search for the entire suite of services I often found myself doing the exact thing Amazon swore the Fire TV was going to fix: using the more traditional search method of using the remote and entering one letter at a time. Voice search is a promising feature, but on the current version of Fire TV, it's not yet fully implemented. Still, it remains better than what peer devices offer.
In an industry where content is king, the Fire TV's reign doesn't reach very far. Granted, some major players are currently available -- aside from Netflix, Hulu, and ESPN, Fire TV supports Bloomberg TV and Showtime -- but it's not enough. I found myself wanting access to Disney's (DIS) lineup of channels and NHL Game Center, for example, both of which I have on my Apple TV. The good news: Content deals and new apps can appear virtually overnight.
For those already deeply entrenched in Amazon's content ecosystem, the Fire TV is a smart purchase. If you already own a streaming box such as an Apple TV or Xbox One, I find it hard to declare the Fire TV a worthy investment.
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