Amazon Fire TV Versus Apple TV, Roku And Chromecast

Apr 2 2014, 4:20pm CDT | by

Amazon Fire TV Versus Apple TV, Roku And Chromecast
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With the announcement of its Fire TV set-top box, Amazon finally breaks into the streaming video player market. The $99 Fire TV faces strong competition for living room dominance, however. The increasingly crowded marketplace includes the top-selling Apple TV, Roku’s well-regarded lineup of players, and Google's budget-priced Chromecast.

Full disclosure: As a former employee of an Amazon subsidiary, I own shares in Amazon.

Roku, a company originally spun off from Netflix, essentially created the set-top market, and its lineup of players offer the widest selection of “channels”, including Amazon Instant Video. The Apple TV, despite very little promotion, still managed  to generate $1 billion in sales (including downloads) last year, according to Apple. And Google’s Chromecast, released last summer, has regularly been the top seller in the electronics category on Amazon’s own site.

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While all of these devices cover the basics, letting you watch on-demand content on your TV in full HD, there are some important distinctions to be aware of. You can watch Netflix, Hulu Plus and some pro sports leagues on all of them. One big limitation of the Apple TV, however, is that you can’t access the Amazon Instant Video library. Instead you’re offered access to the iTunes Store, which is in turn unavailable on non-Apple set-top boxes. The two dongle devices from Roku and Google, while lower in price and able to be hidden away behind your TV, do entail compromises. The most obvious being the lack of a wired Ethernet option and other external ports. The more expensive set-top boxes offer more flexibility in this regard. Both the Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV offer optical connections for audio devices and the Fire TV and Roku 3 have a USB port.

In terms of user experience and core features, it’s become increasingly difficult for Apple and Roku to differentiate their products. But Amazon offers some useful features that its competitors lack. The most impressive is Voice Search, in which you use the remote’s built-in microphone to say the name of a movie, actor or genre and see an immediate list of matching options to choose from. Users have always been frustrated by the arrow/OK button dance required to type in a search query. Roku does offer the option of using the virtual keypad of your mobile device, but that means one more device to keep track of when you sit down to watch a movie. The Voice Search presentation at Amazon’s demo was impressive. We’ll have to see how it performs in the real world, of course. But this could be a real breakthrough if it’s consistently accurate.

Amazon has chosen to push content to the forefront, so instead of a list of apps on the homescreen, you see large thumbnails of movies and TV shows. Select one, and you’re presented with all of the options for watching it. Amazon, I’m sure would prefer you to watch it from their library, but if its available as part of your Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription, for example, you’ll find those options displayed prominently as well.

Amazon credits its quad-core processor for an impressively responsive interface. And the hefty 2GB of RAM helps eliminate the few seconds of buffering at the start of streaming movies. While the immediate start to movies was impressive in the on-stage demo, I’m not sure just how many users are overly bothered by waiting a moment for their movie to start. Buffering during a show is another matter, of course, but that’s typically due to poor broadband performance.

Amazon’s other big advantage lies with the casual gamer. Amazon has no illusions about peeling off hard-core PS4 or Xbox users. But providing access to a reasonably varied, and inexpensive selection of games could make the Fire TV a very attractive option for families. And speaking of families, Amazon’s new FreeTime feature that allows parents to give their kids a customized subset of content to watch, and set daily time limits will be appreciated (at least by the adults) in my household.

What really works in Amazon’s favor is that even if gaming or parental controls aren’t your thing, you’re not paying any extra for them. At the same price as an Apple TV or Roku 3, you’re getting a potentially much better search experience a sleek, responsive interface, and a solid lineup of content providers. (HBO Go is conspicuous by its absence, but Amazon says it is still talking with potential partners). Add it all up and it’s hard to make a case against the strong value that the Fire TV presents over its rivals.


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