This story has been updated to include hands-on photos and video. More updates and impressions will be added soon.
Amazon is ready to battle Apple, Roku, and Google to earn a spot in your living room.
The Fire TV streaming box was announced at Amazon's press event in New York this morning, focusing on improving search, performance, and gaming over competitors. The new box is already available for purchase from Amazon for $99, as well as the new gaming controller accessory, the Fire Game Controller, for $39.
The Fire TV's focus on gaming goes well beyond current streaming devices like the Apple TV, Chromecast and Roku's boxes. The included Bluetooth remote will be capable of playing some games, but Fire Game Controller allows for a more game console-like experience. Amazon is working with several developers, including Sega, EA, and Disney, in addition to mobile game developers, to populate its game library, which Amazon claims will be in the thousands. Amazon Game Studies will also be developing games for the Fire TV, including a third-person shooter called Sev Zero.
For search, Amazon is implementing voice search using a mic built into the remote. The idea is to finally ditch the annoying process of typing in search phrases letter-by-letter, which is how search is done on Roku's boxes. From the initial demo, it's unclear whether the search will be able to comb through services other than Amazon Instant, but Fire TV will support a healthy collection of apps, including Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Watch ESPN, Showtime, MLB, iHeartRadio and Disney.
On the performance side, the Fire TV has a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, which Amazon claims delivers 3 times the performance of competitors like Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast. Amazon also highlighted a new "ASAP" feature designed to get movies and TV shows streaming faster, cutting down on tedious "buffering" screens.
The device itself has a familiar set top box look, although its slimmer than average; Amazon says Fire TV is thinner than a dime standing on its edge. Around the back, you get all the typical connections, including HDMI, an optical audio output, Ethernet and USB. Dual band Wi-Fi is built-in as well, and the remote works via Bluetooth, so you won't need to point it at the box to control it.
The biggest surprise of all from Amazon's new box may be the price. Amazon has a history of offering aggressively-priced hardware, but the Fire TV's $99 price is significantly more than current budget options like the $35 Google Chromecast and $49 Roku Streaming Stick. That puts more pressure on Amazon to deliver a superior overall experience to justify its price.
Amazon had review units of the Fire TV available right after its press event, so I've had a chance to check out the new box for the last few hours. Here are my initial impressions:
The Fire TV is superfast, but not always
The Fire TV is most impressive when it's streaming Amazon Instant content. Loading videos from Amazon Instant is near instant at times -- faster than I've seen any other box load a video. It definitely appears to be pre-loading some content behind the scenes as you browse, but even when I delved deep into the catalog I found load times were very fast, albeit not instant.
Another way that the Fire TV feels faster than other boxes is that it appears to offer some limited multitasking ability. If you're watching Netflix, jump back to the home screen, then jump back to Netflix, you don't need to wait for the Netflix app to boot up again -- it's more like switching between apps on the phone or tablet.
On the other hand, loading the Fire TV doesn't feel any faster when it comes to loading videos from Netflix and Showtime, which feel about as fast as other boxes, such as the Roku 3. It's a recurring theme with the Fire TV: it works best with Amazon content.
A speedy user interface that's pushy with Amazon content
The user interface is very responsive and the layout is similar to Roku's, with a menu running down the left hand side and cover art filling the screen to the right. As you'd expect with an Amazon box, the Fire TV puts Amazon Instant content front and center at all time.
In fact, many of the menu options (movies, TV, watchlist, video library) only show Amazon content and even the home screen is primarily Amazon-centric. So far, I haven't found a way to customize the home screen, which makes it harder to quickly get to your favorite apps. At least recently you used apps show up at the top of the home screen.
A solid app library, but not comprehensive
For a brand new product, the Fire TV has a pretty solid app library out of the gate, in addition to the heavily integrated Amazon Instant content. There's a lot of high-quality services available, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN, Pandora, Vevo, iHeartRadio, Crackle, and Bloomberg TV. The Plex media server is also supported, which means it should be relatively easy to get your personal media streaming to the Fire TV from a computer running Plex's software.
But there's no HBO Go. Or Vudu. And if you're a real streaming hound, you'll notice there's no Spotify, PBS, Rdio, Fox Now, Time Warner Cable and a host of other smaller apps that are available on Roku. The Fire TV also doesn't have an AirPlay-like feature that would allow to play music and video from services that aren't available on the box, but are available on mobile devices. It may not be fair to compare the Fire TV to more mature platforms like Roku and Apple TV, but it certainly has room to grow before its comparable.
On the other hand, the Fire TV does have a healthy selection of games, which exceeds any other streaming box that's currently available -- more on that later.
Voice search works, but only with Amazon content
The Fire TV's voice search gets a lot right. Putting the remote in the mic means you don't have to yell across the room, as is often the case with the Kinect on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. It also lets you speak right into the remote, which in my limited testing appears to be more accurate than Kinect as well.
But the Fire TV's search only works for Amazon Instant content. So when I searched for "Parks and Recreation", it only shows the option to purchase shows, even though I know the series is free to stream on Netflix for subscribers. So it's useful for finding content on Amazon, but it's not nearly as useful as Roku's cross-platform search. Even though Amazon harped on the difficulty of typing with an onscreen keyboard, I've found it's predictive searching works pretty well and the ability to find content between several services is a huge bonus.
More testing to come, including gaming
I'm continuing to test the Fire TV, so there will be more impressions, including the gaming functionality, as I have more time with the box.