Does Amazon's Fire TV live up to expectations?
Some of the rumors preceding the device were true. But the company did not unveil an ad-supported video service, and its gadget doesn't look like Google's Chromecast at all.
Amazon (AMZN) delivered on its promise to announce the next chapter in its video business, but is this what consumers wanted -- or expected?
The company unveiled a compact video streaming device called Fire TV Wednesday, but contrary to one of the rumors, Fire TV is not a Chromecast-like HDMI stick. Instead, the device looks more like an Apple TV clone.
Amazon kicked off the event by mocking its competitors -- especially their restrictions (Apple TV cannot play videos from Amazon Prime, for example). However, Apple (AAPL) won't allow other manufacturers to build devices that play iTunes music or videos natively, so don't expect Fire TV to be any less restrictive. With either device, consumers will be locked out of a competing content hub.
That said, there are two unique features that set Fire TV apart from the crowd:
Amazon's new, $99 device comes with a thin, rectangular remote that doubles as a microphone for voice-based searches. If it's anything like Siri, consumers might be disappointed. But if it works as well as the demo (which immediately responded to searches for 'Umizoomi' and 'John Malkovich'), it could prove to be a huge selling point for Fire TV.
Is this the long-rumored game console that Amazon was thought to be developing?
It could be -- but Fire TV is not a full-fledged game console. While it appears to be more than a simple Android-based gaming machine, Fire TV is limited by a quad-core processor and a "dedicated" Adreno 320 GPU from Qualcomm. This, according to Amazon, makes it three times as powerful as Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast. But it pales in comparison to PlayStation 4, which features an eight-core AMD x86-64 CPU and an AMD Radeon GPU.
The PlayStation 4 also has 500 gigabytes of storage space and 8 gigabytes of memory versus Fire TV's 8 gigabytes of storage and 2 gigabytes of memory.
Of course, Fire TV is also $300 cheaper than PlayStation 4, which could make it a good family device for those who don't play many games.
Over time, Fire TV could turn out to be a decent (albeit low-powered) gaming device, thanks to early support from Ubisoft, Disney (DIS), Electronic Arts (ERTS), 2K, Sega and Telltale Games. Double Fine, the studio from critically acclaimed game developer Tim Schafer, has also signed up to develop for the platform.
Early screenshots showing the games "Minecraft," "Monsters University," "Sev Zero" and an unnamed prehistoric adventure indicate that the first batch of games may be no more complex than those found on traditional Android and iOS devices. But that could change as Amazon Game Studios and other developers begin to work on additional projects.
Last but not least, Amazon will sell a game controller (which appears to be the same one that leaked last month) separately for $39.99. Alternatively, Fire TV users can play games with a tablet or the included remote.
Beyond that, Fire TV is a familiar set-top box. The device comes with a wide variety of video apps, such as Netflix (NFLX), Hulu, Flixter, WatchESPN and YouTube. Many more are on the way, including a number of music apps (Pandora, iHeartRadio, etc.). Spotify and HBO Go appear to be absent from the current list, however.
Amazon attempted to differentiate Fire TV by adding other features, such as a best value tool that will allow users to find the cheapest video option for individual purchases.
The device will also display photos taken with an iPhone (and likely Android devices). New photos will be added automatically for those who use Amazon Cloud Drive.
Another feature, X-Ray for Movies and TV Shows, provides details on actors and movies while videos are being played. This feature displays song lyrics when a music video is playing, and can also be used with a Kindle Fire HDX.
Amazon will also bring its famous parental controls to Fire TV in the form of FreeTime mode.
Fire TV ships today and is already available to order from Amazon.com.
Many, but not all, of the rumors were true. Amazon announced a set-top box that plays games, music, movies and TV shows. It will sell for less than $300, as rumored.
The company also unveiled a game controller, along with its first two games for Fire TV: "Sev Zero" and an unnamed prehistoric adventure.
Amazon did not announce a free, ad-supported video service. The company didn't introduce a cheap, Chromecast-like device, nor did it make any announcements regarding new content deals for Prime Instant Video.
However, on Tuesday Amazon announced that it had acquired the exclusive streaming rights for "24" and "24: Live Another Day."
Disclosure: At the time of this writing, Louis Bedigian had no position in the equities mentioned in this report.
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