Amazon’s Fire TV is a win for everyone, even if its flame dwindles quickly

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Cable refugees who rely on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for their TV already have a veritable buffet of hardware to access them. If your TV doesn’t connect to the standard suite of streaming apps, your Blu-ray player does. If it doesn’t, your console does, and if it doesn’t a slew of companies from Roku to Apple will be happy to sell you a standalone box.

On Wednesday, Amazon gave consumers one more way to connect: the $99 Fire TV. Amazon hopes the box will cut out its slice of the growing cordcutter pie, but with so many other devices jostling to do the same, that won’t be easy. Fire TV needs to be more than just a clone of its predecessors; it needs to outclass and outperform the competition in several key areas, and maybe even bring something totally unique to the table.

Does it succeed? We’ll have our full review of the Fire TV shortly, but in the meantime, here’s our take on where the Fire TV flares up, and where it sputters.

A three-pronged approach

Amazon claims the Fire TV swings at three chinks in competitors’ armor: performance, search and closed ecosystems.

In its attempt to address that first bullet point, Fire TV came out looking a lot like an Apple TV juiced up on steroids. It flexes a quad-core processor, dedicated graphics processor, 2GB of RAM, and dual-antenna, dual-band Wi-Fi with MIMO for quicker downloads; we’ve seen laptops with less impressive specs for Pete’s sake. Beyond brute strength, it also uses its brains to pre-cache content it thinks you’re going to watch, delivering nearly instant streaming with no loading or buffering. Performance? Check.

There’s no question: Amazon’s box delivers where others do not; but how long will that last?

As for search, the jury is still out, but Amazon at least has a unique angle here. The company integrated voice search into the Fire TV, something neither Roku nor Apple TV offer right now. Not only did the voice recognition software appear to work well (it picked up on the word “Umizoomi” just fine), but the results it returned were comprehensive, inclusive of multiple content sources, and snappy. A “Best Buy Box” even shows the least expensive option for watching the requested content. Search? We’ll give it a check.

Attacking the “closed ecosystems” of competitors might be a more contentious claim. We will concede that the system comes with plenty of appealing apps, from Netflix to Watch ESPN and Plex. And some of the Fire TV’s second-screen features will be available in iOS devices, so the system will offer some slick goodies that don’t require owning a Kindle Fire tablet. But, when it comes to getting the best experience streaming for personal music and photos, users are stuck using Amazon’s Cloud Drive, which doesn’t feel “open” to us. And besides, how “closed” are the Roku and Chromecast when they support Netflix, Hulu Plus and even Amazon Instant? No check here, sorry Amazon. 

Amazon’s ‘one more thing’

Thanks to its Android operating system and hot-rod hardware, the Fire TV can run games in addition to all the streaming options, with the addition of a $40 controller. Neither Roku nor Apple TV can touch that right now, making it a unique feature, but how many people really care?

Because the system runs mobile-style games, it probably won’t appeal to hardcore gamers. For another $40, that crowd could score a far more capable Xbox 360. And as Ouya proved, the band of consumers looking to play casual games on a TV just isn’t that broad. So while gaming might be a novel addition, it isn’t enough to make the Fire TV a slam-dunk over the heads of Roku or Apple TV. 

Better, but better enough?

There’s no question: Amazon’s box delivers where others do not; but how long will that last? Apple is rumored to be close to rolling out a replacement for the aging Apple TV, and Roku is always improving on itself. In as little as six months, the Fire TV’s competition could make it look like it’s standing still.

Amazon missed a couple of opportunities with the Fire TV, too. First, it doesn’t follow Amazon’s trend of undercutting the competition on price. Amazon can rightly boast that it offers more power than Apple TV for the same price, but that’s nothing to be proud of beside an ancient piece of two-year-old tech. Then there’s the Roku, which comes in versions as inexpensive as $50, but still offers much of the same core functionality.

Second, Amazon failed to broker any exclusive live-television deals, which would have set the Fire TV miles apart from competitors, and represented a landmark moment in Internet-delivered television. To its credit, Amazon continues to invest in its own original content, and it is letting its viewers pick which pilots will get picked up for full series production. It could be that snuggling up to the old TV guard is nowhere in Amazon’s playbook, and if that’s the case, we can respect it.

That leaves just one more place for Amazon to shine…

Could Prime Instant pull the Fire TV along? 

It may surprise you to learn that, in terms of streaming video sites, Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service has both Hulu and Apple beat. According to research by Qwilt, a provider of online video delivery and transparent caching solutions, Amazon’s streaming video service rose in rank from number five to number three in a single year, experiencing a 94-percent increase in traffic volume in a single year, and knocking Hulu and Apple back a few notches. Qwilt CEO, Alon Maor, attributes the growth to Amazon’s Prime stategy.

On paper, the Fire TV doesn’t look like an Apple TV- or Roku-killer to us.

“Including the membership for Amazon Instant Video for free as part of the Amazon Prime subscription (vs. paid service by both Hulu and Amazon) as well as very tight integration with the Amazon Kindle Fire product line were the key for their success,” said Maor.

Fire TV box may make sense as a go-to accessory for Amazon Prime subscribers to use a service they’re already paying for. And that’s no small number: Amazon has at least 20 million Prime subscribers. If folks are signing up for Prime anyway (in spite of a recent rate increase) and see the $99 set-top box as a natural companion purchase to their membership, strong family ties between service and hardware could be the only “feature” Fire TV needs.

An upstream battle

On paper, the Fire TV doesn’t look like an Apple TV- or Roku-killer to us. It isn’t priced low enough to be the “gimme” product the Chromecast is, and its superior performance may not last long enough for it to put much hurt on its set-top competition. But the Fire TV doesn’t need to “kill” its competition to become successful or have a positive impact on the set-top streamer market. There’s plenty of room in this space for another player, and Amazon’s competitive spirit and aggressive engineering with the Fire TV is likely to spur Apple and Roku to step up to the challenge of designing better versions of their own products. The way we see it, the Fire TV is a win for consumers, no matter how much of that cordcutter pie it manages to slice for itself in the near term. Amazon is into Internet-delivered TV for the long haul, and its great to see it as a leader in the charge into a new era. 

Check out our review of the Amazon Fire TV media streamer.

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