Amazon stuffs games into Fire TV box: Soz, rivals... WE don't need to make cash on hardware

Fires opening salvo on Apple, Google, Roku

Amazon moved last week to join Apple, Google and Roku as a player in the OTT Set Top space – releasing a box that gives it control of Over The Top TV experiences in the home.

Its core aim is to be able to sell video that goes to a traditional TV, without lining the pockets of one of its rivals.

What Amazon unveiled is called the Fire TV set-top. At a $99 retail price, the box closely resembles the Apple TV in design, rather than the Google Chromecast, and it comes with remote control for free and an optional game controller for $39.99. So perhaps this should be seen more like a low-end rival to the console players: Microsoft with its Xbox device and Sony’s PS3 and PS4.

A certain type of pro-Amazon buyer will revel in this device and make it an automatic choice. The key question over this device’s success is how rapidly Amazon can make this an international offering with sufficient global content deals.

If all 20 million Amazon Prime customers around the world were able to go out and buy this tomorrow, it would overtake Apple TV in a single jump. And the combination of US Prime users buying this – together with the cheapness and simplicity and portability of Chromecast and all of its copycats – should virtually halt Apple TV sales, forcing it to introduce similar features (known to be planned) as soon as possible.

The Fire TV is driven by a powerful quad core processor – the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8064 – and comes with 2GB of RAM, an Adreno 320 GPU, two-antenna MIMO Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port. It also comes with 8GB of flash memory to store games and apps and such – but all of your video is stored in the Amazon cloud.

The system comes ready for market, and can be bought today in the US.

With a HDMI output, the set-top supports 1080p, with Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 surround sound through an optical output. The small form factor claims to be silent, so we can assume it is using a fanless construction as it is just 0.7 inches thick.

Amazon was keen to stress that the machine has three times the processing power of the Apple TV, Chromecast and Roku 3, as well as four times the amount of RAM.

The speed of navigation was the explanation given for the extra power. Amazon also has voice searching which it claims "actually works", which functions via a microphone in the Bluetooth remote. The X-Ray feature of the UI/EPG pulls information from IMDb and shows it alongside the current selection to help inform content purchases and choices.

The Fire TV presentation also demonstrated that the set-top can play games but so far these are only titles from Amazon’s own games studio – although it promises thousands of games within weeks from all the major gaming providers.

The Fire TV has a dedicated game controller that can be bought for $39.99. The platform looks capable of playing any kind of Android game, but is not as powerful as the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One which can function as OTT players – but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.

The box looks like it could be a solid music platform, thanks to the Dolby Digital connection. In terms of apps, the set-top will offer Pandora, Amazon MP3, iHeartRadio and TuneIn, as well as music stores in the Amazon cloud. X-Ray information is also included into the music service.

Second screen

A Kindle Fire HDX tablet can act as a second screen, with the ability to “fling” content to the set-top from the tablet once Amazon starts to offer these with Miracast to achieve this. It will also add the Discovery and Launch DIAL protocol that was developed by Netflix and YouTube. The X-Ray information can also be shown on the tablet.

Tying into the focus on speed is what appears to be a pre-caching system called Advanced Streaming and Prediction (ASAP). It functions in much the same way as the Broadpeak nanoCDN we discussed in a recent edition of Faultline – predicting the content that a user is most likely to watch and pre-caching it to the set-top so that it can be watched instantly.

The streaming box was available to ship as soon as the Amazon presentation was over, and customers would receive a one-month trial of Netflix and Amazon Prime. The set-top is preconfigured to ease installation in the home and has “seamless integration with Amazon Cloud Drive” so that users can access their photos, music and video that they’ve stashed in the cloud.

In terms of content, Fire TV “is seamlessly integrated with Prime Instant Video, Amazon’s subscription streaming service.”

The SVoD platform claims to have over 200,000 movies and TV episodes to rent or purchase, and Amazon says it is the only service that currently combines subscription streaming, renting and buying. It will also merge the search results from Amazon with Hulu Plus (with more services to be added) so that users can choose the lowest price per video.

Amazon has also introduced the FreeTime option for children. FreeTime Unlimited is available for Prime customers at $2.99 per child or $6.99 per family ($4.99 and $9.99 if not a Prime member). Parents can create time limits and playlists for each child from a catalogue that is included in the price. The FreeTime environment can only be exited via password, so parents shouldn’t have to worry about the child watching content without parental approval.

Amazon is known for being a global company, so the fact that this is for delivery only in the US right now will need to be swiftly swept aside, and how well it manages that, with all the video rights negotiation hurdles it will have to overcome, deciding how much of an impact this makes on Apple TV.

But the genius of including the gaming, and the fact that Amazon feels it is entirely about content and is not trying to make a 50 per cent margin on the box, suggests that it has left the Apple TV miles behind and that this will eclipse both Chromecast, which is limited but cheap, and Roku, which for the moment has to be seen as its first real rival. However once Verizon launches with its own mobile content service, that too is likely to be seen as a head-on competitor.

Other video apps available on Fire TV include Time Warner’s Flixster, Vimeo, Bloomberg TV, Sony’s Crackle, Plex, Red Bull TV, Qello Concerts and RealNetworks’ RealPlayer Cloud.

HBO Go is currently absent from the lineup. Amazon said additional services including WWE Network, MLB.TV, Watch Disney Channel, Watch ABC and Twitch will be coming soon.

Copyright © 2014, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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