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Amazon Moves into the Living Room with Fire TV

Of all the facts and figures that were thrown out yesterday during the introduction of Amazon’s Fire TV, perhaps the most surprising was the revelation that Americans still spend four hours a day watching TV. Even though we love our smartphones and tablets for news, games and the occasional movie, the TV is still the go-to screen when it comes to serious viewing.

This has not been lost on Apple, Google and other technology innovators, who have all laid claim to a new mobile world order at one time or another only to come back with “if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em” products that adapt content specifically for the TV.

Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, TiVo, Xbox and PlayStation are just some of the brands that have survived to compete in this space, but none of them have been able to achieve the Holy Grail of access to widespread content, ease of use, and an affordable price. Perhaps the Roku 3 comes closest: it has a huge selection of content; it’s small, with a great user interface; and it costs just $100. Unfortunately, Roku has never quite shaken off a reputation of being a bit of a maverick upstart; like the Tesla, you’re never quite sure if it’s still going to be around in 12 months’ time.

Into this confusing but potentially lucrative space comes Amazon, with its billions of development dollars and its oft-acknowledged goal of being the leading purveyor of all things digital, particularly when it comes to content. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon has realized that you can have all the available content in the world but unless you give your customers a way to watch that content on their favorite screen, you are missing out on a big piece of the puzzle.

Fire TV has some significant advantages over its rivals. With its quad-core processor and 2GB of memory, Fire TV is significantly faster than even the Roku 3, and something called ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction) allows Fire TV to learn what movies and shows you like and get them ready for you even before you ask. It also has voice search, which Amazon claims will do away with all that annoying single-letter input that passes for search on most set-top boxes.

Like Apple TV and Roku, Fire TV combines all the usual streaming services and subscriptions, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, WatchESPN, Pandora, VEVO, and more. But perhaps the biggest advantage of Fire TV is the existing Amazon eco-system. Prime members (of which there are at least 20 million) can enjoy unlimited, commercial-free streaming of tens of thousands of popular movies and TV shows through the Amazon Instant Video service.

Amazon is also offering a separate Xbox-style Fire Game Controller, which can be used to turn your Fire TV into a gaming console. Current available titles include the ever-popular Minecraft, as well as Asphalt 8 and The Game of Life. Many more future games are promised from Amazon Game Studios.

Coming soon is Amazon FreeTime, a service whereby parents will be able to create custom profiles for up to four kids, allowing Fire TV restrictions on content and the amount of screen time. There will also be a FreeTime Unlimited subscription service, where kids can get an all-you-can-watch diet of Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, and PBS kids for just $2.99 a month.

All in all, Fire TV promises to do for TV streaming what the Kindle Fire did for tablets – offer a cheaper, safer and reliable brand name alternative to what is already available. That may not be enough to dominate the fledgling TV streaming marketplace but it certainly changes the dynamics of what has been, up until this point, a fairly rudderless ship.

Fire TV costs $99. The Amazon Fire Game Controller is an additional $39.99. Both are already available through Amazon.

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