Amazon's Fire TV: set-top box meets game console

Amazon Fire TV home screen

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In the war for your living room, Amazon just wants to play. The company wants to make it easy for you to enjoy its content, of course, but the new Fire TV set-top box also literally wants to play: It's a game console as well as a media streamer. Amazon announced the $99 Fire TV on Wednesday, shipping immediately in the United States, but no word yet on international availability.

Fire TV is a set-top box much like the Apple TV or Roku, but it comes with a voice-activated remote control. Like other media streamers, Fire TV supports the usual suspects: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, YouTube, and more, plus Amazon Instant Video so you can rent titles through the device or watch the free content included with an Amazon Prime subscription. Unlike other set-top boxes, Fire TV will become a gaming console with a $40 Amazon-branded game controller and a slew of games coming next month.

Amazon Fire TV Amazon

It's a box, not a stick, to allow it to pack enough computing power to stream decent games.

The media move was widely anticipated, but many had expected Amazon’s offering to be a streaming stick, given the popularity of Google’s Chromecast, which is constantly adding support for new apps. Roku recently released its own Streaming Stick to complement its lineup of set-top boxes. Fire TV isn't a stick; it's a more conventional, dime-thin box, but it takes streaming a step further with its support for games.

Fire TV takes on common complaints

The set-top box hardware itself is pretty standard, but has some beefed-up components compared to the Apple TV and Roku 3. The 2GB Fire TV has a quad-core processor with dedicated GPU. (This comes in handy for all those games you’ll be able to play.) The user interface is similar to the Kindle Fire’s, with a black background, left-hand menu, and an image grid of new titles and featured apps.

Amazon Kindle Vice President Peter Larsen said Fire TV was designed to address the most common complaints customers have about the Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV, some of which related to performance. Fire TV promises you won’t see that spinning wheel of death.

Amazon Fire TV back Amazon

Ports on the back include power, HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet, and USB.

Other complaints were about the “closed ecosystem” of some streaming devices. Larsen said Fire TV will point you toward Amazon content, but will also support competing content providers like Netflix and Hulu. Even better, when you search for a TV show or movie on your Fire TV, Amazon will show you the lowest-cost option to watch it—if it’s free with your Netflix subscription or $3.99 through Amazon. Android app developers should have no problem building new apps or porting existing apps to Fire TV, so you can expect plenty of new offerings down the line.

Amazon is obviously hoping that you’ll use Fire TV to watch Amazon content. The company has locked down exclusive streaming rights to fan favorites like Downton Abbey and is also working quickly to develop its own original content. Amazon Studios is busy churning out titles like the recently renewed Alpha House and new dramas from The X-Files creator Chris Carter (The After) and The Wire producer Eric Overmyer (Bosch).

Amazon Fire TV remote Amazon

The Fire TV's remote connects with Bluetooth and lets you search with your voice. 

Fire TV's Bluetooth remote has a built-in microphone, which alleviates the difficulty of search. Instead of hunting and pecking with the remote's arrow keys or the game controller, you can search with your voice instead. And just having a remote beats the Chromecast's model of using only your mobile device, so you don't have to hand your smartphone off to your children every time they want to watch.

Speaking of children, Amazon packed in FreeTime, a kid-friendly mode also available on Kindle Fire. Parents get to decide what kids are allowed to watch and can easily set limits, including specific times of day and categories of content. Kids can't switch out of FreeTime to access other apps without a passcode, and parents can even have the Fire TV boot into FreeTime by default. FreeTime is coming to FireTV next month.

If you've got a Kindle Fire, the Fire TV has an X-Ray feature for using your tablet as a second-screen experience. You’ll be able to look up actors, music, or other IMDB-provided details, as the content plays on your TV. Amazon says that X-Ray will add support for iPhones and iPads later this year.

All fun and games

The rumors were true: Amazon is positioning Fire TV as a gaming console for people who don’t want to pay for an Xbox or PlayStation.

“Many people don’t have game consoles—they don’t have them because they can’t afford them or they don’t want to pay for them,” Larsen said. “These customers now have to go to their smartphone or tablet and play games there.”

Larsen couched game support as a “bonus,” but we think it's really the selling point for a new streaming set-top box in a crowded, well-defined space. Now viewers can turn to their TV box to stream games, too. Amazon has partnered with major gaming studios like EA, Disney, Ubisoft, Sega, Double Fine, and others to get popular titles on FireTV. You might not be able to play Minecraft on Oculus Rift, but there’s a version for Fire TV.

Amazon Fire TV Minecraft demo April 2 2014 Caitlin McGarry

Amazon's announcement included a demo of a version of Minecraft ported to the Fire TV.

A $40 Amazon-branded game controller comes with 1,000 preloaded Amazon Coins so users can buy games to try out when gaming support launches next month. You don't actually need the controller to be able to play games, though—the Fire TV's remote can control some simple games all on its own, and others can be controlled by a Fire TV app on a smartphone or tablet. Never one to miss an opportunity to keep customers in its own house, Amazon is also developing games. First up: a tower defense/first-person shooter called Sev Zero that can be turned into multi-player action when paired with a Kindle tablet. Sev Zero will be available at launch.

We'll have a full review of the hardware soon, but based on what Amazon showed today, the Fire TV could really heat up the competition for your free HDMI ports.

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