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Amazon is taking another stab at taking over your living room with a new, 4K-streaming Amazon Fire TV, and a new version of the Fire TV Stick that comes paired with a voice remote, to offer voice controls. The devices look identical to their predecessors, but Amazon claims that dramatically improved hardware and some new software tricks will give these devices an edge over the recently announced Apple TV, or the Google Chromecast.
We'll start with the main event: the new Amazon Fire TV, which is available for pre-order for $100, or £80 in the UK. Amazon doesn't yet sell hardware in Australia, but if you were to import one the US price works out to about AU$140.
The new Fire TV looks identical to the model it's replacing: a simple, small black box with the Amazon logo up top, and a few ports in the back. Don't let looks deceive, though. Amazon claims that the new Fire TV's 64-bit, quad-core MediaTek CPU will serve up 75 percent more processing power than its predecessor -- a device that already packed a zippy interface. There's also a microSD card slot with support for up to 128GB cards to bolster the meager 8GB of onboard storage, Bluetooth, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Dolby Audio.
If you pair Bluetooth headphones to your Fire TV, you'll also get Dolby surround sound. About those ports on the back: you'll find the power jack, an HDMI port, the Ethernet jack, the microSD card slot and a USB port.
But the real standout feature here is 4K streaming. If you've got a 4K-capable TV, and your broadband connection is up to snuff, you'll be able to pipe in all of the glorious ultra high-definition content -- and both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have content at the ready.
The new Fire TV also supports High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), which should deliver 1080p streaming video without gobbling up as much bandwidth. This could prove to be a good option for folks with lackluster Internet connections who want to do a bit better than standard video.
The Fire TV, like its predecessor, offers voice controls. But Amazon has also baked in Alexa, the brains behind the Amazon Echo smart speaker. Press the microphone button on the Fire TV's remote control and you can ask Alexa questions, in much the same way you might talk to Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, or Google. You can ask her for sports scores, check the weather, or find your favorite music. Starting next year, you'll also be able to ask Alexa to play movies, or call up a particular episode of a TV show.
We got a chance to see the feature in action on beta hardware, and it works as expected: name your favorite actor, or search for a particular movie, or just ask to resume whatever you were last watching, and Alexa will be able to do just that. That update will be available as a free download, and Alexa's voice search will work on all existing Fire TV and Fire TV Sticks.
The new Fire TV also offers access to Amazon's Mayday tech support service. Already available on higher-end Amazon tablets, Mayday lets Amazon customers connect to a live customer service person. You can call a service number, or select an option on the Fire TV's menu and have someone call you. If necessary, tech support staff can actually take over your screen: you'll see a mockup of your remote so you can see exactly what they're doing, and they can highlight or circle particular menu options, to walk you through the issues you're having. It could be a nice step up from fielding calls from bemused relatives, if nothing else.
There's something in store for gamers too: the Fire TV Gaming Edition. It's a bundle that'll set you back $140 in the US (about AU$195), but includes the Fire TV (but not the voice remote), a new gaming controller, a 32GB SD card, and two free games that have been ported to Amazon's console: Ducktales Remastered and Shovel Knight. In case you're wondering, they're both excellent games on other platforms. The bundle is not available in the UK, but the controller will be sold separately from October 22 for £40.
The Amazon Fire TV's actual gaming prowess is still up for debate, but Android games have become increasingly controller- and TV-friendly. I'll need to spend more time with the new controller, but it feels nice at first blush, and has a built-in microphone for voice controls.
Finally, there's the new Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote. It'll set you back $50 in the US, and £45 in the UK (about AU$70), a $10 premium over the existing model. But that extra money gets you all of the voice control functionality you'll find the standard Fire TV. Amazon will continue to sell the standard Fire TV, and if you'd rather not pick up the remote, you can grab Amazon's Fire TV remote app to tackle voice search -- that'll be especially useful once next year's purported improvements to Alexa roll out.
If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, the new Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick make for tantalizing prospects. You're getting easy access to Prime Video, 4K streaming, and intelligent voice search, powered by Amazon's Alexa. I'll need more time with the controller before I can make a real call there, but proper sticks and buttons might be a bit easier to wrap my mind around than Apple TV's new remote. And the price -- even for the gaming edition -- is lower than the Apple TV, which could be enough to sway cord-cutters who're already in Amazon's fold.
But let's not rule out Apple: the Apple TV might be pricier, but a dedicated app store offers quite a bit of possibility -- even if the initial offerings are a bit lackluster. And multiplayer gaming, with spare iOS devices as additional controllers and the backing of the iOS app store, could make for a far more compelling casual gaming scenario.
The new Amazon Fire TV starts shipping on October 5, while the new Fire Stick with Voice Remote starts shipping on October 22. If your interest is piqued, pre-orders start today.