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Move over Apple and Roku, Amazon is heating up the battle for your living room with its new set-top box streamer, Fire TV. Unveiled in New York on Wednesday afternoon, the new Fire TV boasts a quad-core processor with dedicated graphics, 2GB of RAM, and built-in voice controls.
But are these specs important to users who just want to stream Netflix on the cheap? Amazon hopes so, although its $99 price tag isn't doing much to win consumers over, since the Apple TV and Roku 3 all cost the same. Here's how the company's much-anticipated streamer stacks up against the competition.
While the average consumer probably doesn't think twice about the hardware that sits inside their streaming box, Amazon is hoping they do; the retailer is touting the Fire TV's quad-core processor as a major selling point. Coupled with the fast CPU, the Fire TV also houses 2GB of RAM, which is a significant jump from the 512MB found in Apple TV and the Roku 3. As the newest kid on the block, Amazon has the advantage with regards to hardware since Apple TV and Roku were last refreshed in January 2013 and March 2013, respectively.
The added muscle power should make for fluid, jitter-free movie browsing and playing. Likewise, the dedicated graphics processor is intended to make gaming a smooth experience, should users opt to use their Fire TV as a game console. On the hardware front, Amazon is the indisputable winner.
Content-wise, the differences are much smaller. For starters, they all support streaming from most if not all of the big three — Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus. Roku is the only device to support Vudu (if you're a fan of Vudu's HDX-quality streams) and Fire TV is the only device that currently omits HBO Go. Likewise on the music front, all of the devices support Pandora, YouTube, and Vevo, but Roku differentiates itself with support for Spotify. However, this can change as the Fire TV matures and adds additional channel support.
The real ace up Amazon's sleeve is the Amazon Fire Game Controller ($39.99 with free shipping). Cut from the same cloth as the Xbox 360's gamepad, Amazon's controller lets Fire TV owners play games from Amazon's growing library of Android games. The controller includes 1,000 Amazon coins (about $10), which should help gamers explore various titles; most of Amazon's games are free, or cost about $1.85 on average.
While these games won't pry you from your beloved PS4 or Xbox One, it's a nice bonus for casual gamers who didn't pony up for the Ouya or simply don't want to pay $60+ per title for today's console games. The controller has received positive initial reviews, but even if shoppers find it too pricey, the Amazon controller isn't required for gaming. The Fire TV will also work with the Xbox 360 gamepad (via USB) and third-party controllers.
Another win for Amazon is its voice commands. Anyone who has tried typing a movie's title using the Roku's remote knows how frustrating the process can be, but the Fire TV should make tedious typing a thing of the past. Again, initial reviews seem positive, though Engadget reports that the device stumbles with foreign words. In these instances, you'll have to fall back on the Fire TV's remote, which the article says is even more onerous than Roku's. Nevertheless, it's a unique feature to have, and it opens the door for other possibilities as the set-top box matures.
Though many thought Amazon's set-top box would undercut Apple's and Roku's price points, it's actually the most expensive streamer of the bunch if you factor in all the deals we've seen for the latter two devices. And that doesn't include a subscription to Amazon Instant Video, which isn't required, but adds an additional $99/year should you opt for their video service. In such a competitive market, that's a bold move on Amazon's part, especially with streamers like the Google Chromecast, which is priced at $35 and has been seen discounted down to $28. Granted, the Chromecast requires the use of a laptop/tablet/smartphone, but it's still a viable option with a smaller footprint both physically and financially.
In the end, there's room for all three streamers, and the Fire TV's ecosystem will only grow with time. With Amazon's recent interest in gaming, the Fire TV offers the most bonus features if you want a streamer that does double duty and you also own a Kindle Fire tablet, but you generally can't go wrong with any of these options.
As far as deals are concerned, Roku and Apple TV have the advantage as both are mature products with plenty of discounts available on any given week. Amazon used to guard its new products from deals, but if we look at its last batch of Kindle Fire HDX tablets, they received 15% off discounts about a month after their release, which means the Fire TV might see a similar discount from Amazon in a month's time (especially if Apple updates its Apple TV on June 2 at its WDDC) So early adopters might benefit from waiting a few weeks before buying the Fire TV. Otherwise, it's a buyer's market.