Amazon FireTV and Apple TV

Yesterday, Amazon launched FireTV, a competitor to Apple’s set-top box. I’m a heavy Apple TV user and earlier this year I spent some time with a Roku as preparation for my Macworld/iWorld presentation. FireTV is an interesting blend in this market, and it has a good shot at being competitive.

On the hardware side, the FireTV packs an impressive quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM which means this box should be responsive and have the ability to queue up videos and run moderately graphics intensive apps. Amazon highlighted a feature they call “ASAP” which predicts which videos a person is likely to watch and pre-loads them to cut down on buffering time. No doubt they can do so thanks to the generous RAM. The included remote works via Bluetooth rather than IR meaning you don’t have to point it at the box, much less even be in the same room. This is nice if you have your media cabinet closed off or the box hidden behind a TV. Given the Box’s small size (about the height of a dime standing on its end) I suspect some will choose to mount the Fire TV behind their TV screens. There’s also a microphone built into the remote for voice search, though it currently only works for Amazon’s content.

The feature everyone is talking about is the optional $39 game controller meaning that Amazon is setting the FireTV up to be at least a casual gaming platform. Amazon is working with developers including EA, Disney and Sega to bring their games to the FireTV but also hopes that because the FireTV runs on Android, App developers will port their games over for use on the FireTV.

Hardware isn’t the only advantage, Amazon has taken on the idea of a unified search. Rather than having to comb through the various streaming services to know whether or not the movie or TV show you want to watch is available, you can now search for the content you want and be presented with a list of options of where to watch the content prioritized by your available services and cost. I really like this concept and it’s one I hope that Apple and others will adopt. Of course, Amazon seems to prioritize their content over others, but some of that is to be expected.

As far as content, Amazon FireTV has most of the major players, with a few notable exceptions. For example there’s no HBO Go though presumably this could come in the future. As expected, there’s no access to your iTunes content, just as Amazon does not, and likely will not, have a dedicated App on the Apple TV. Notably, Amazon’s iOS App is supported on Apple TV via AirPlay.

Of course the featured provider is Amazon’s own streaming video service. Prime members can stream form a catalog of over 40,000 movies and TV episodes as well as access to their substantial catalogue of movies and TV shows available for rental or purchase. Amazon continues to aggressively pursue exclusive streaming deals they just nabbed an exclusive streaming deal for one of my favorite shows, 24. If you’re a FireTV owner, chances are you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber. Amazon includes a 30 day trial prime membership with every FireTV purchase.

What does this mean for an Apple TV user? I must admit, I’m very impressed with the FireTV and if I wasn’t so deeply embedded in the Apple ecosystem, the FireTV would be something I’d buy. Based on my lackluster experience with the Roku, I would probably already recommend FireTV over a Roku to someone who is not so deeply connected to iTunes.

I’m trilled to see more competition in this market that will push Apple forward. I suspect Apple has an update to the Apple TV on the horizon, likely later this year, and with another serious competitor out there, Apple is going to have to step up their game. Apple TV has been a great hobby product, but it’s time for a refresh. In the short term I expect we’ll see upgrades to the hardware including a faster processor and more flash storage. I expect the IR remote will see an upgrade to bluetooth and we’ll see faster wireless networking. The Apple TV desperately needs a facelift with better organization and unified search. Hopefully WWDC will bring a development kit. Longer term, the Apple TV may incorporate a tuner and onboard storage to be able to handle DVR and cable box features, but I think these updates are further down the roadmap.

Your move, Apple…bring it.