THE NEW AMAZON FIRE TV – IT DOES WHAT APPLE TV AND ROKU DON’T

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 Back in the heyday of the early 90s videogame console wars Sega was seeking to establish its new Sega Megadrive 16-bit console in the North American market. At the time, the videogame industry was dominated by Nintendo, with its 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Sega has attempted to compete with the NES in the past with an 8-bit games console of its own, the Sega Master System, which they released in North America in partnership with Tonka. That attempt ended in failure, despite the fact that the Master System was technically superior to the NES. However, Sega/Tonka spent next to nothing in marketing and advertising the system, hoping that the system’s superior graphics would do the selling for them. That clearly did not work, and it didn’t help that Nintendo had most third-party game developers locked in exclusivity contracts (meaning that in order to be a licensed NES developer they had to agree not to release their games on competing consoles.)

Sega was determined not to repeat the same mistakes of the past. It rebranded the Megadrive as the Sega Genesis for the North American market, and they created an aggressive advertising campaign, promoting the incredible visuals (for the time) of the system, under the slogan “Genesis Does! … What Ninten-don’t!”. The strategy worked, and millions of kids asked their parents to get them the new Sega console for Christmas.

Jumping forward to the present, and the current state of the television industry, we can see that it’s in a state of transition. The onset of faster broadband Internet speeds, coupled with the appearance of online video streaming options like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and iTunes are leading more and more people to “cut the cord” each day, meaning cancelling their Cable or Satellite TV service in favor of one, some, or all of the aforementioned streaming options. The software needed to access these services has spread, and can be found in most modern “smart” HDTVs and videogame consoles, as well as specialized video streaming devices from Apple, Roku and Google. Now Amazon has jumped into the fray with its new Fire TV.

For the past year, technology blogs have been discussing speculation and rumors that Apple would come out with an improved Apple TV, with better hardware that would support apps and games. Those rumors still persist, and now include an alleged deal with Comcast that would make the upcoming new Apple TV box an all-in-one solution, supporting digital cable service as well as Internet streaming audio and video, as well as apps and games. However, there has been no formal announcement from Apple regarding this device, and, in the meantime, Amazon has one-upped its rival with its new streaming box. While all current streaming devices run on ARM microprocessors, they are really low-powered in terms of hardware, running on single-core Cortex A9 processor (Apple TV) or dual-core Cortex A9 (Roku 3). In order to keep the costs and prices for these devices below the $100 mark. The Fire TV runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core system-on-a-chip, with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 225 GPU. This is the same hardware inside the Samsung Galaxy S4, the original HTC One and the Nexus 7 (2013) tablet, and, compared to the hardware in those other streaming boxes, it’s a monster. Amazon did this, because, unlike those other streaming boxes, the Fire TV runs apps and games that you can download from the Amazon App Store. However, Amazon wants people to know that they’re serious about the Fire TV as a gaming device. To this end, they had been quietly putting together its own first-party game developer for the past year, Amazon Game Studios. Their first game, Sev Zero, was released along with the Fire TV, and is free if you pick up the Fire TV Game Controller ($40). The game is very, polished, a combination first-person shooter and tower defense affair, with beautiful, smooth graphics that are just as good as anything on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. Amazon Game Studios has released a trailer full of games its working on for release in the next few months. In the meantime, Fire TV users can access and play Android-compatible games available on the Amazon App Store, the same games Kindle Fire tablet owners can get. As with other Amazon Android-powered devices, the Fire TV has no access to the Google Play Store, or Google’s own apps.

But the Fire TV’s main role is as a video streaming device to complete with Apple TV and Roku. So how does it perform in that regard? Awesomely, I’m happy to say. Thanks to its quad-core processor and ample memory, the Fire TV trounces the other streaming solutions where it counts. It responds instantly to the remote control or the game controller, scrolling smoothly to show you your content, and when you do select what you want to watch, playback is instantaneous, much faster than on the Apple TV or Roku 3. The powerful hardware also allows for a voice search feature, which currently only works with Amazon’s content library, but is being expanded to work with Netflix and Hulu as well. Amazon has also made a deal with HBO to bring HBO content to the Fire TV, including older HBO series from the 80s and 90s (“First and Ten”, here I go. 😉

Is the Fire TV the TV streaming box to rule them all, at $99. From a hardware standpoint, it is. As a gaming device, it’s full of promise, providing excellent graphics and gameplay for a fraction of the price of specialized game consoles. The Fire TV gaming controller feels excellent in use, though you can use other Bluetooth game controllers if you want. Amazon will no doubt refresh the hardware every year, as it does with its Kindle Fire tablets. However, Fire TV right now lacks the access to content that the Roku, and to a lesser extent, Apple TV, offer, though that is changing fast. I definitely recommend it, especially if you are subscribed to Amazon Prime, and it’s the premiere device for Amazon video services included in the subscription, and if you like to play games – in that regard, it certainly “does what Apple TV and Roku don’t”. 😉

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