Amazon Fires Up Connected TV Rival to Apple, Google, Microsoft

$99 Set-top box Features Video, Music and Gaming Apps

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Amazon's set-top box FireTV
Amazon's set-top box FireTV

Amazon has joined the battle to overtake the living room.

The e-commerce giant unveiled a streaming video device on Wednesday that connects to a TV and streams content from Amazon's video services as well as from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, ESPN and others.

Amazon's Fire TV will face-off against similar devices from Apple, Google, Roku and Microsoft that offer people a more direct way to watch digital video on the biggest screen in their homes in hopes of increasing the size of that audience and owning those eyeballs.

In many respects, Amazon's product isn't too different from the competition, particularly the Apple TV set-top box.

Here's a rundown of the top similarities between Amazon's and Apple's products.

  • Both cost $99.
  • Both are square boxes packaged with remote controls. Both offer content from their own video libraries.
  • Both offer so-called TV apps from other video services including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, WatchESPN and Vevo, though only Apple's offers HBO Go.
  • Both offer music through their own music services and others like Pandora, though only Amazon's features Clear Channel's iHeartRadio.
  • Both allow people to beam what they're watching on their tablet to their TV and limit that capability to their own hardware. Amazon plans to make the feature available through Apple's iPhones and iPads later this year, and Google's Chromecast streaming-video dongle enables such content-flinging across any device using its Chrome web browser.

Fire TV looks to stand out from its rivals in a few ways.

First it offers access to Amazon's Netflix-rivaling Prime Instant Video subscription service and its iTunes challenger Instant Video a la carte store. Amazon claims to have more than 200,000 movies and TV episodes in its pay-per-video library and more than 40,000 available on its Prime Instant Video subscription service. Amazon doesn't disclose the number of people who watch videos via its services, but the company claims to have "tens of millions" of people around the world who subscribe to its Prime service, which includes access to Prime Instant Video.

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Second its remote control sports a microphone to enable voice-directed search, as opposed to hitting the up-down and left-right buttons to punch in a show's name.

Fire TV also has a feature that aims to be an uber-programming guide for bargain watchers: When someone searches for a show or movie, Fire TV will sift through its apps and tell that person what's the cheapest way to watch a show, like either buying an episode on Amazon Instant Video or subscribing to Hulu Plus. Right now that's limited to Amazon's service and Hulu Plus.

Perhaps Fire TV's biggest differentiator is gaming. Unlike Apple TV or Chromecast, Amazon's device will enable people to play games on their TV using the Fire TV remote, a tablet app to be released next month or a $39.99 gaming controller. Top gaming companies including Ubisoft, Gameloft, Electronic Arts and Disney have signed on to add to the 1,000-plus games available on Fire TV.

Fire TV's gaming feature may make it more of a competitor to Microsoft's Xbox gaming console than Apple TV. The initial gaming content on Fire TV seems more like a step up from mobile gaming than a leap into the traditional console gaming market, so Microsoft may not yet have much to worry about in that respect. But recently Xbox has been marketed as an all-in-one living room box that spans gaming and entertainment. Microsoft's gaming console serves up video and music content from its own library as well as from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, iHeartRadio and even Amazon.

However unlike Amazon's or any of the aforementioned connected TV products, Microsoft's is the only one to pull in someone's cable TV feed, which remains the most prized video content for any device.

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