TIME FindTheBest

18 Streaming TV Boxes Ranked from Worst to First

Quick: which type of device is currently dominating Amazon’s Best Sellers list, holding the top two overall spots (as of this writing)?

A) Smartphones

B) Tablets

C) Headphones

D) Laptops

E) Streaming Media Players

Answer: E. And it’s not close. Between the Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Roku 3, and Apple TV, streaming media players are lighting up online retail. As customers continue to cut cable, the streaming box (or stick) is the hottest new device, a product that is somehow both affordable (usually, sub-$100) and magical (can beam just about any media from one screen to the next).

But which streaming device should you pick? Clearly, a lot comes down to content. If you’re a Yupp TV fanatic, you’ll pick the Sony NSZ-GS8, ASUS Cube, or VIZIO Co-Star LT. Decision made. Suppose, however, you’d simply like a nice blend of Netflix and Hulu, plus the ability to use your friend’s roommate’s password to access HBO Go? Good luck choosing: You’ve still got a dozen different boxes, sticks, and hockey-puck-shaped streamers that meet your needs.

Since we have no way of know whether you’re a Mad Men junkie or Game of Thrones fan—and since all the top boxes seem to be getting all the same services anyway—let’s put the actual content aside.

Instead, we set out to rank the 18 most recent streaming media players based on specs, features, usability and expert reviews. We considered every major streamer released or updated since January 2013, looking at the following factors:

- Specs and features: This primarily includes output resolutions and audio support, but also factors in wireless connectivity and features (like voice control, screencasting, and DVR functionality).

- Expert reviews: What do the likes of PC Mag, CNET, TechHive, TechRadar, LAPTOP Mag, Home Theater Review, and Wired think? We aggregated review scores to get the best big picture perspective.

Here’s what we found:

The Rejects

18. Sony NSZ-GS8

17. TiVo Roamio

16. ASUS Cube

Like a rejected TV script, these media players simply don’t have the mass appeal or originality to become a true success. With limited inter-device streaming (the NSZ-GS8), clunky user experience (the ASUS Cube), and lackluster file-format support (the TiVo Roamio), they’re all stuck in pre-production. You can feel bad for them, but let them die their natural death. It’s better this way.

The Cancellations

15. Roku LT (2013)

14. TiVo Roamio Pro

13. TiVo Roamio Plus

Give these players credit for trying: Each brings something unique to the market. The Roku LT offers a low-priced, lower-resolution alternative to its cousins (the more popular Rokus 1, 2, and 3), while the TiVo Roamio Pro and Plus provide a strong feature set and all the familiar benefits of pause-and-rewind TV. Unfortunately, each ends up feeling a little like a lesser version of a more popular show, like Last Resort was to Lost or like Low Winter Sun was to every detective show ever made.

The One and Dones

12. Philips HMP2000

11. Samsung Smart Media Player

10. VIZIO Co-Star LT

Each of these players gets a lot right, with reasonably simple set-up, moderate feature sets, and decent compatibility. Still, clicking the Co-Stars’ retro-style remote or navigating the Smart Media Player’s menus has a subtle, dated feel—the kind of feeling you get when watching Seinfeld, licking an envelope or signing a check. These players had their day, but the world is moving on. Oh well. We’ll always have that one season.

Renewed for a Season

9. Matricom G-Box Midnight MX2

8. PLAiR 2

Unique, intriguing, and capable, both the Matricom G-Box Midnight MX2 and PLAiR 2 offer something special. The MX2 features full Android-based web browsing, something none of the top-selling players allow. Meanwhile, the PLAiR 2 is among the cheapest streamers you can buy (as low as $25), a good Chromecast alternative for Google haters and capitalization ignorers across America. Still, neither device is as polished or as reliable as any of the products below. Keep these options in mind, but don’t be surprised if they fade off in another year, like a once-renewed, forever-forgotten sitcom.

Network TV

7. Roku 1

6. Roku 2

Solid, predictable, and popular, the Roku 1 and 2 are a great choice for anyone who can’t afford the more full-featured Roku 3. Each offers top output resolutions, compatibility across dozens of file formats, and low prices to match (approximately $45 for the Roku 1 and $65 for the Roku 2). Like CSI and Law & Order, expect the two entry-level Rokus to stick around for several more years.

Cable TV

5. Google Chromecast

4. Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version)

Compared to the bulky shells of their competitors, Google’s Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick feel like the future: lighter, more efficient, and best of all, under $50. Experts say Roku’s Streaming Stick is roughly comparable to the Roku 2 in features and capabilities, while Google’s Chromecast oozes the company’s commitment to simplicity and user-friendliness. If you’re always using a tablet, laptop, or phone anyway, consider saving the extra cash and grabbing one of these.

Emmy Winners

3. Apple TV

2. Amazon Fire TV

It’s one thing to make a popular TV show. It’s quite another to bring home the hardware year after year. Whenever they present their new streaming media players, Apple and Amazon don’t walk on stage: they swagger. Where their competitors make simple streaming gadgets, the two tech giants create whole entertainment ecosystems, complete with industry-leading features and seamless operation. Even if you can’t stand one (or both) of these companies, it’s hard to argue that their offerings are simply bigger and better than most. If you already own three Apple products, or if you’re a long-time Amazon Prime subscriber, look no further than the company’s corresponding streamer.

The All-Time Classic

1. Roku 3

Sometimes focus is more important than money and talent. The Roku 3 is the best product of the bunch, with the snappiest operation, top-tier video and audio support, and extra features that make each part of the experience just a little better (for example: the headphone jack on the remote allows for convenient, private listening). Better yet, a Roku 3 won’t lock you into the Apple or Amazon ecosystem. Yes, you can guarantee some success if you hire all the best actors and spend the most money. But Roku understands that the best shows aren’t always about star power and special effects, but rather about tight execution and smart, ensemble casting. For the best overall streaming experience, get the Roku 3.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

TIME streaming video

HBO Is Coming to Amazon Prime

HBO

A new licensing deal will bring HBO movies, comedy specials and series to Amazon's $99-per-year Prime subscription service, with the first shows due in May

Amazon and HBO are joining hands for an exclusive licensing deal that will bring HBO’s content to Amazon’s $99-per-year Prime subscription service, with the first shows hitting Prime on May 21.

Assuming you’re a fan of the sort of content HBO offers, including some of the highest-acclaimed series in television history, that’s as big a deal as any in recent memory — the first time in history HBO’s paired off with an online-only subscription-based streamer.

It means access to HBO will no longer be limited to cable or satellite provider packages, opening the door wide for the first time to cord-cutters who’ve doubtless been waiting for a deal like this to go down. It means you’ll be able to tap HBO with anything that currently supports Amazon’s Prime channel — set-tops, tablets, phones, game consoles, etc. — and gain access to whole swathes of HBO content (as well as free two-day shipping and Kindle library lending) for Amazon’s standard $99-per-year fee.

Bear in mind, if you’re not a member, that Prime content is free to Prime members; this isn’t HBO signing up to let Amazon charge you to watch these shows. Amazon says Prime members will have “unlimited streaming access” to shows that include:

  • All seasons of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome and Six Feet Under, as well as Eastbound & Down, Enlightened and Flight of the Conchords
  • Miniseries, including Angels in America, Band of Brothers, John Adams, The Pacific and Parade’s End
  • Select seasons of current series such as Boardwalk Empire, Treme and True Blood
  • Original movies like Game Change, Too Big To Fail and You Don’t Know Jack
  • Documentaries including the Autopsy and Iceman series, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and When the Levees Broke
  • Original comedy specials from Lewis Black, Ellen DeGeneres, Louis CK and Bill Maher

Amazon says earlier seasons of HBO shows like Girls, The Newsroom and Veep will roll out over the course of the multi-year agreement, approximately three years after airing on HBO.”

Not to worry, cable subscribers and HBO Go users: Amazon assures HBO content will remain “on all HBO platforms.” HBO hasn’t signed any of its series over to Amazon exclusively, in other words; only the right to stream existing shows through Prime. What’s more, Amazon says the HBO Go app is coming to Amazon’s Fire TV set-top box by the end of the year, the upside being access to the full HBO caboodle if you pay monthly for HBO: “1,700 titles online including every episode of new and classic HBO series, as well as HBO original films, miniseries, sports, documentaries, specials and a wide selection of blockbuster movies.”

TIME Gadgets

Set-Top Showdown: Amazon Fire TV vs Apple TV vs Roku

Amazon

It wasn't enough to be another channel on someone else's box: Amazon had to throw its hat in the hardware ring, too. And so it's expanded its "Fire" brand to include Fire TV, a tiny black-plastic slab that does significantly more -- and in some cases, notably less -- than its competition.

Which streaming media box should you buy? We’re here to help by taking a look at the three most popular price-comparable set-top boxes on the market today.

Let’s start with a quick-reference comparison chart, then we’ll go point-by-point through the most obvious (and some not-so-obvious) features below.

Amazon Fire TV

Apple TV

Roku 3

Price

$99

$99

$99.99

In Box

Remote

Remote

Remote
Earbuds

Processor

1.7 GHz
Quad-core + GPU

2 GHz
Single-core

900 MHz
Dual-core

Memory

2 GB

512 MB

512 MB

Storage

8 GB

Only for caching

External MicroSD

Sound

Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital

Network

Dual-band Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Dual-band Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Video

HDMI 1080p

HDMI 1080p

HDMI 1080p

Pre-Cached
Streaming

Yes

No

No

Voice Search

Yes
(Amazon-only)

No

No

Gamepad

$40

No

Included
(remote/wand)

Cloud Music

Amazon
(Coming in May)

iTunes

Third-party

Tablet/Phone
Mirroring

Kindle Fire

iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch

“Select” devices

App Remote

No

iOS

iOS
Android

Channels

24+

30+

1,200+

Games

134

AirPlay

77

All three boxes are the same price — unless you’re a gamer.

A hundred bucks covers the basics across all three boxes, including remote and power supply (none include an HDMI cable, however, so remember to factor that in if you don’t have a spare). Amazon Fire TV costs another $40 if you’re eyeing the optional game controller, a necessary purchase if you want access to Fire TV’s library of first- and third-party games. Roku sells less powerful boxes for $80 and $50, too.

Fire TV is primarily for Amazon Prime users.

Unlike Roku or Apple TV, Amazon’s interface has Amazon Prime DNA pretty much embedded throughout, and that’s an annual service that costs another $99 (bringing your total all the way up to $240, plus the recurring subscription fee, if you opt for the Fire TV gamepad).

You can buy a Fire TV and use it for Netflix or Hulu, of course, but everything else about the Fire TV, from voice search to interface layout, is organized to push Amazon’s services. If you’re not planning to subscribe to Prime, the reasons to invest in Fire TV (and not a much more broad-minded Roku 3, app-wise) shrink dramatically.

On the other hand, if Prime gets the job done for you, $99 a year for free two-day shipping, Kindle library lending and unlimited streaming of a sizable selection of video content may be a better deal than paying $96 a year ($8 a month) for either Netflix or Hulu Plus.

Fire TV is a lot faster than its rivals…for now.

The Apple TV tends to be an interface dog, lagging behind your commands and sometimes pausing for several seconds in processing limbo-land. The Roku 3 is significantly zippier, but still occasionally has to play catch up when you’re trying to move quickly between apps or a crowded menu. Not so Amazon’s Fire TV, which responds effortlessly and immediately to virtually any command, letting you speed through menus and dialogue boxes as fast as you’re able to input commands.

Here’s a five-minute walkthrough of the Fire TV interface and a few of its features:

I’m sure Apple and Roku have faster boxes in the oven, but for the moment, Fire TV is the king of set-top interface responsiveness and speed.

No one has Roku’s channel library.

Apple TV has a little over 30 channels (not counting Apple’s own), and Fire TV has fewer still at this point. Roku, by comparison, has a smorgasbord, making it the obvious pick if channel versatility is paramount. And since Roku doesn’t have a particular service dog in the hunt, you can probably expect it to remain the most channel-agnostic (and well-rounded, support-wise) of the bunch going forward.

Roku’s version of Amazon Instant Video is Prime-friendlier than Fire TV’s.

Amazon’s interface to its content is slicker, especially with voice search, granted, but where Roku’s version of Amazon Instant Video includes a discrete Prime-only content view, Amazon folds its Prime content into the interface in a way that makes browsing only Prime videos much less straightforward (and makes it much easier to stumble into for-pay content, which is clearly what Amazon wants to happen).

My favorite remote is still the Apple TV’s…

Apple’s aluminum remote sports the best in Jobs-ian minimalism: unbelievably slender (almost too slender, in fact, if you have large hands), with all the navigational functionality smartly encapsulated by its wheel and center button and self-explanatory “Menu” and “Play/Pause” ones.

Roku’s remote, by comparison, feels chunky and confusing (What does an “asterisk” button do again? What’s the difference between a backwards arrow and a backwards circle arrow?), and it’s easily the heaviest, though it has a few nice extras, notably the headphone jack for private wireless listening and the option to tilt it sideways like a Wii Remote with d-pad and A/B face buttons.

The Fire TV’s relatively slim, matte-black remote makes its own design case fairly well, though it also employs less common button symbols (like its three-dash options one). It feels the best in my somewhat larger hands, and sports a microphone button at top, just below the microphone hole.

…but Fire TV’s voice search option (in its remote) feels terrific.

I’ve thrown everything I could at the Fire TV’s remote in hopes of stumping it, from movies to TV shows and actors to directors to genres. Exceptions made for instances I clearly mispronounced something, the closest I got was “Peg-plus-cat,” which returned “Peg plus cat,” as desired, but also nonsense entries for “Pague Pluskat” and “Pigplus Kat.” Just to be a wise guy, I tried the one word almost no one can spell (but almost anyone can sing) from Disney’s Mary Poppins: Fire TV not only knew what I meant, but spelled it correctly.

Voice search seems to rank results identical to manual searches on Amazon’s website (in the Instant Video category), which sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t. When you search “Ricardo Montalban,” for instance, Amazon brings up the somewhat obscure film The Desperate Mission first, followed by the second season of Bonanza (Montalban starred in just one episode). You have to cycle over several entries to get to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which, Fantasy Island aside (it’s not on Amazon Instant Video), I suspect many would argue is his best-known role.

The one hard-to-miss downside, also noticed by my colleague Harry McCracken, is that Fire TV’s voice search works best and most often to summon Amazon content, failing to bring up the same content in a rival service’s channel, even if the rival service offers it free.

Instant video playback works eerily well.

How does Amazon know what I want to watch? How much stuff could it possible be presciently caching? So far, pretty much everything. Amazon calls this ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction, obviously a play on “as soon as possible”) video buffering, and its job is to eliminate the wait you’re accustomed to experiencing when a streaming video buffers, as it will if you play anything on an Apple TV or Roku (or your computer or game console).

Amazon claims the more you use the Fire TV, the better ASAP gets. I can’t confirm that because it has yet not to work. In fact, so far, it seems to be cataloging things that relate to nothing I’ve searched previously. I don’t know what sort of voodoo’s involved behind the scenes here, but it definitely seems to be working.

Fire TV lets you play games the way they’re meant to be played…

Which would you rather play a first-person shooter with:

  • A Wii remote-like wand with absent buttons?
  • Pretending your arms, hands and fingers are weapons, but ones that only work properly some of the time?
  • The tried-and-true method: a straightforward gamepad, honed and respected in gaming-dom for decades?

Fire TV is the only set-top that offers the latter.

…but the gamepad’s a little chunky.

Not original-Xbox monstrous, but Amazon’s definitely erred on the side of large, clapping a sizable flat-lying faceplate on top of a battery-thickened body with enormous handlebars that’ll make you extra-grateful for the smarter design advances both Sony and Microsoft employed in their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s controllers, respectively.

I’ll have a more detailed review of the Fire TV-as-games-microconsole soon, after I’ve spent more time with the games (especially Amazon Game Studios’ Sev Zero), but at this point, I’d say the gamepad reminds me most of the Xbox One’s controller, only bulkier.

Amazon has the most games, including the only first-party titles.

Not by much at this point — Roku has a decent number, too. But Amazon is the first of these three to offer first-party games, developed by its own Amazon Game Studios, which probably signifies the company committing to this space long-term. Amazon’s also promising “thousands more [games] coming soon,” meaning, I assume, that it intends to eventually crack open the entire Android games library.

Fire TV syncs with your Amazon account before hitting your doorstep.

When I plugged my Fire TV in, it automatically figured out who I was and signed me in — no fuss, no muss. That’s a little creepy, but also kind of cool. I have long, random, easily forgettable passwords unique to each of my accounts, which means I’m often summoning a password management app on my computer or smartphone to sign into things. With Fire TV, Amazon removes that step by taking care of business beforehand.

There’s just one potential problem: This past year, Amazon mis-delivered several items I’d ordered, presumably sending them to someone else or simply losing them. If someone intercepts your Fire TV, unlikely as that sounds, then opts to misbehave, they’d have temporary access to your account simply by plugging the device in. That’s probably a security risk Amazon’s going to have to address at some point.

Fire TV can partner with Amazon’s Kindle Fire Tablets.

Remote control apps aside, Roku only works with “select” Android devices (see here). Apple TV, as you may know, can partner with iOS products, allowing you to AirPlay-stream videos, pictures and even select games through your television set.

Fire TV includes an AirPlay-like feature that lets you mirror movies, TV shows, music and photos from your Kindle Fire tablet to your TV as well as control the display remotely, but it also lets you turn your TV into a “second screen” by clicking what Amazon calls a “fling” icon to fire audio or video running on the tablet at your TV (and freeing up the tablet for other tasks). There’s also a Wii U-like contextual view feature, content-depending, that lets you view additional info, pulled from IMDb, about whatever TV show or movie you’re watching.

Who cares what these boxes look like? They’re basically invisible.

All three boxes are roughly the size of hockey pucks, and when you’re the size of a hockey puck that can fit pretty much anywhere, aesthetics cease to matter. I couldn’t care less whether one has beveled edges or another’s the height of a dime (faced up). Here’s what all three have in common in my household: they go on my entertainment center’s top shelf and I never look at them again.

Fire TV has slightly higher-end audio, but only audiophiles are going to notice.

Amazon does its best to play down its competitors’ sonic capabilities on its comparison site, but while Fire TV supports Dolby Digital Plus surround (and includes an optical audio out option), both Apple TV and Roku 3 support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (that is, 5-channels plus a subwoofer).

The difference? Dolby Digital Plus supports higher bit rates for improved audio quality and has better techniques for reducing compression artifacts, though it still involves compression. (No one’s doing lossless streaming at this point, or what’s called Dolby TrueHD, for which you’ll have to turn to high-end Blu-ray playback hardware like the PlayStation 4.)

In practice, we’re talking subtle differences most won’t notice (and certainly not in scenarios where you’re playing sound through your TV’s speakers, as I do). And if you’re an audiophile with a stacked, component-filled living room, chances are you’re going to be more interested in a much higher-end streaming video-capable box like Sony’s PlayStation 4 anyway.

Fire TV is missing Amazon Music for now.

Amazon says Fire TV is “made for music,” but apparently not Amazon-bought music out of the gate, which is strange indeed. If you’re an Amazon Cloud Player user, or you’ve simply purchased music through Amazon, you can’t access it directly through Fire TV right now (there’s not even a music option in the menu — the only music features are third-party ones like Pandora, TuneIn and iHeart Radio). The company says integration with Amazon Cloud Player will be here in May, however.

For Roku owners, there’s a dedicated Roku app — dubbed “Amazon Cloud Player” and made by Amazon — precisely for that.

In summary…

If you already own a Roku 3 or Apple TV and don’t play games and don’t care about Amazon Prime, there’s not much that argues for the purchase of Amazon’s Fire TV at this point (if you already own the vastly content-superior Roku 3, in particular, which includes Amazon services Fire TV doesn’t, I’d steer clear of Fire TV for now).

If you own none of the three boxes above, this gets trickier, because it depends to an extent on what sort of ancillary devices and services you own or use. If you’re an iOS user and/or invested in iTunes, there’s a strong argument for the Apple TV because nothing else supports iTunes or AirPlay. Likewise, if you’re a Kindle Fire user and find the second-screen angle appealing, there’s a very strong argument for Fire TV. And if you don’t really care about device-partnering and you prefer to hop around services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) in more of an egalitarian environment, interface-wise, the Roku 3 should be at the top of your buy list.

But if you do use Amazon Prime, you’ve already invested in a Kindle Fire, you want to dabble in Android gaming on your TV screen with a proper gamepad, and you care about interface responsiveness and voice accessibility, Fire TV becomes easy to recommend. It has no obvious bugs or performance issues or gotchas (beyond the ones mentioned above) at this point. Short of missing services like Amazon Music — albeit temporarily — it already feels like a second- or third-gen product, reasonably priced, content-rich and refined.

TIME video

Here’s a 5-Minute Amazon Fire TV Walkthrough

TIME Technlogizer

Hands On with Amazon’s Fire TV: 10 Things I’ve Learned So Far

Fire TV
Amazon

It's not a Roku- or Apple TV-killer. But it's got some clever touches

What you are about to read is not a full-blown review of Amazon’s Fire TV, the $99 video set-top box the company announced at a New York press event on Wednesday. In the short time I’ve had with it so far, I’ve only dipped briefly into the games, which are one of this Android-based gadget’s major features. And I haven’t yet tried the integration that lets you throw video from a Kindle Fire tablet to the Fire TV.

With that disclaimer out of the way, some initial impressions and notes:

1. It doesn’t blow away the competition. The Fire may be a latecomer, but it’s not a me-too knockoff: It has the beefiest specs of any product in its category and by far the most ambitious approach to gaming. But if you’ve already got a Roku or Apple TV, you don’t need a Fire TV. And if you haven’t bought one yet, all three contenders are worth considering.

2. It’s a bit thin on content. Not that there isn’t a lot to watch. And if you’re mainly interested in Amazon’s own stuff–including rentals, videos to purchase, and the items available at no extra cost to Amazon Prime members–you’ll probably be very happy. But Roku and Apple TV, which have been around for years, both have more in the way of sports (Fire TV just has Watch ESPN, MLB.tv and NBA Game Time) as well as HBO Go and other significant offerings not yet available on the Fire. Actually, Roku has over a thousand channels of content–a figure I can’t see either Amazon or Apple approaching any time soon.

3. The voice part of voice search works just about perfectly. At least for me. When I pressed and held the voice button on the little remote control, its built-in microphone understood almost everything I said–“Albert Brooks,” “Lady Gaga,” “The Freshman,” “Sonic,” “Pandora,” “comedies,” “new releases” and much more. Slick indeed.

4. The search part has some quirks. In the majority of cases, it does more or less what you’d expect: Search for “John Wayne,” and you’ll get John Wayne movies as far as the eye can see. But in multiple cases, I found the results to be anywhere from slightly weird to very weird. For instance:

  • Slightly weird: Some searches returned results that don’t make obvious sense. For instance, searching for “Peter Sellers” got me movies with Peter Sellers in them–but also the TV series Frasier, produced long after Sellers left us.
  • Very weird: Searching for “Beatrice Arthur” (or “Bea Arthur”) returned a number of films she isn’t in, including Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis (!), but not the two things she’s most famous for: Maude and The Golden Girls. Even though both are available from Amazon.
  • Not weird, but not helpful: Precise search results such as “Jason Alexander” often return one or more TV series in their entirety, dumping you at season one, episode one. As far as I can tell, there may or may not be something in there truly relevant to your search, and you may or may not be able to find it.

5. It is really, really easy to rent or buy content from Amazon with this thing. The voice search, generally snappy interface and 1-Click-style integration with your Amazon account add up to the fastest way I’ve seen to find something you want to see, pay for it and begin watching. It’s the best implementation of Amazon’s streaming service yet, which helps explain why Amazon decided it was worth building its own box even though it’s already on so many other companies’ devices.

6. Video sources other than Amazon are mostly second-class citizens. I noticed that voice search sometimes pulled up music videos from Vevo. But even though the Fire TV offers two major competitors to Amazon’s own video service, Netflix and Hulu Plus, they’re self-contained apps rather than part of the primary, Amazon-centric interface, and they don’t work with voice search. Use voice (or the main text-based search) to look for “House of Cards,” for instance, and you’ll only get the show’s first season, which is available for purchase from Amazon–even if you subscribe to Netflix, where you can watch the first two seasons at no additional cost.

7. The ASAP video feature really works. Amazon says that the box attempts to guess what you might want to watch before you’ve asked for it, so it can pre-fetch it and play it back instantly. And indeed, some videos started the moment I selected them, in a way that feels borderline impossible. Others took a few seconds, but were still speedy compared to the norm for Netflix and Hulu.

8. The box seems to err on the side of smooth video quality over a crisp picture. When I connected to my home network over Wi-Fi, I noticed that the image was often a bit blocky, but that the stream almost never stalled. (I ended up plugging the Fire into a wired network connection, which got rid of the blockiness.)

9. I don’t care much about the relative industrial designs of these little TV boxes. Amazon brags about Fire TV being .7″ thick, the same height as a dime balanced on its edge. But really, the nice thing about this device, Apple TV and Roku is that they’re all about the size of a sandwich, and easy to tuck out of the way. The aesthetics and exact sizes don’t matter all that much, because all of these boxes blend so unobtrusively into the background.

10. Amazon’s own music service is missing. I’ve bought a fair number of albums from the company, but I can’t listen to them on Fire TV. Which is a tad odd, since it does have Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn.

When Amazon introduces something new, it often does so at a price that changes the game. That hasn’t happened here. Instead, it tried to put together a really nice product at a price point ($99) with plenty of precedent. A couple of days ago, there were only two viable competitors in the market for small, simple, affordable TV boxes: Roku and Apple. Now there are three–and it’ll be fun to see where Amazon, which takes categories seriously when it gets into them, goes from here.

TIME Video Games

Amazon’s Fire TV Gaming Angle Sounds Intriguing Enough that I Ordered One

Amazon

This looks like Amazon throwing some actual muscle behind the micro-console gaming concept, as opposed to Apple's roundabout AirPlay approach, or Roku's half-hearted, clumsy Wiimote clone.

So I ordered one of these Amazon Fire TV boxes, because they’re available now, with overnight shipping (mine’ll be here tomorrow), and the only way you’re going to know is if you know, right? It’s only $99, and speaking partly as an Amazon Prime user who just gave Netflix the boot, the Fire TV sounds very cool. And speaking as a gamer, it looks like Amazon’s not just inching but leaping into the micro-console arena, sliding the powerful internals of a Kindle Fire up next to your television set.

My entertainment center’s currently rocking a Roku 3 (where I spend most of my TV time watching “Kids & Family” movies or TV shows on Amazon Prime with my son), a second-gen 720p Apple TV (for AirPlay iTunes streaming) and an Ouya (at this point, for reasons unknown, because I don’t use it). I keep my PlayStations and Xboxes in the study, where they’re used strictly as gaming devices.

My colleagues Doug Aamoth and Jared Newman already covered Amazon’s launch today in detail, so I’ll zoom in on just the gaming components, since they’re what nudged me over the edge. You’re looking at a quad-core processor, 2 GB of memory, a dedicated GPU and up to 1080p video support, Dolby Digital Plus surround sound (with optical audio out), Ethernet, Wi-Fi and an optional gamepad (which I also snagged — it’s $40) that looks more or less like any other gamepad of recent vintage, only packing discrete media playback buttons just below the d-pad and right thumbstick, e.g. backwards, play/pause, forwards. Amazon claims battery life (it uses regular AA batteries) lasts up to 55 hours.

Amazon says the Fire TV supports over 100 games at launch, and promises “thousands more coming soon.” Game-wise, the launch lineup builds mostly on existing fare, so stuff like Minecraft Pocket Edition, Asphalt 8 (a racer from Gameloft), 2K Sports’ NBA 2k14 b-baller and an endless runner based on Disney’s Monsters Inc. But it also ships with an Amazon Game Studios tower defense shooter called Sev Zero, which, the game’s quality aside (and I have no idea this point), is a lot more than Apple or Roku or even outfits like Ouya have ventured at this point.

I know, you’re probably muttering, “Another set-top box? This late in the game? Come on.” And I was too going into today’s event. But this looks like Amazon throwing some actual muscle behind the micro-console gaming concept, as opposed to Apple’s roundabout (and developmentally sleepy) AirPlay approach, or Roku’s half-hearted, clumsy Wiimote clone. Amazon’s also launching Fire TV with a leaderboard and achievement meta-service, accessed with a GameCircle button on the gamepad, that it claims “lets you track progress and compare scores with friends and millions of other gamers.” Again, say what you will, but this looks like Amazon taking a real swing at gaming, not throwing it in like its competitors as a perfunctory checkbox.

There’s not much about Fire TV that other micro-consoles like Ouya aren’t already doing, to be fair — Ouya has a quad-core processor, discrete GPU and a decent chunk of memory, too — but people aren’t buying Ouya to stream Amazon Prime movies and TV shows, and you have to sideload mainstream apps like Netflix or Hulu, making the process a little less than intuitive for the sort of consumer who’d rather everything route through something central and official. In short, Fire TV brings Amazon’s brand recognition and inline portal (Amazon Prime) to a market that’s arguably going to be swayed by name brands and officiated portals. It’s Amazon taking much closer aim at Netflix’s streaming service and Apple TV’s rent/buy service and Roku’s hardware business, as well as the traffic jam of cheap Android-based gaming micro-consoles presently cluttering up that aspect of the market.

And it’s Amazon using its breadth to hedge its bets, leveraging brand recognition (and Amazon Prime) against a slow start on the gaming side. If Sev Zero turns out to be a dud or mediocre, and if gamers (casual or mainstream) don’t flock to play games on this thing, the streaming media features could easily carry it long enough for Amazon Game Studios to pull a rabbit out of its hat, or the company to broaden its deals with industry players, or the hardware to iterate enough that it’s eventually competitive with the PlayStations and Xboxes of the world.

We’ll see. But as an opening move, I’m more intrigued than I thought I’d be. I’m a sucker for first-party software — a thousand percent more interested in hardware-makers willing to give that angle a go, than all these ones drafting off overloaded app stores flush with gaming bric-a-brac, attempting to transmogrify mobile gaming’s successes to the set-top arena.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Amazon

Fire TV: Amazon’s Television Set-Top Box Revealed

Amazon Fire TV
Doug Aamoth—TIME

The online giant's small television set-top box, which costs $99 and begins shipping today, will stream movies, TV shows and music from users' Amazon libraries, services like Netflix and Hulu, and apps like Pandora and iHeartRadio

Amazon has announced the Fire TV, a small television set-top box for streaming movies, TV shows and music.

The box is slimmer than a dime (standing up, that is), and can either sit in an entertainment center or mount behind the television. A small Bluetooth remote has a handful of buttons for media playback and navigation, similar to an Apple TV remote, but it also has a microphone for voice search.

As with Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, the software is partly based on Android, but it also uses HTML to support easy porting of apps from other television platforms. Apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, WatchESPN, MLB.tv, NBA, Crackle, Bloomberg TV and others will be supported at launch, and of course Amazon will have its own services on board, such as Amazon Prime Instant video and a store for purchasing and renting videos.

Beyond video, Fire TV will stream music from users’ Amazon libraries and from streaming apps such as Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Users can view photos as well, as long as they’re stored in Amazon’s Cloud Drive services.

Kindle Fire users can see information about what’s on the TV using Amazon’s “X-Ray” feature. Users will get a notification on their tablets, letting them tap to learn about actors and other information on a video, and see lyrics for music. Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited service is supported as well, allowing parents to set time limits for their children and get recommendations on kid-friendly content.

As rumored, Fire TV will have a gaming component, and Amazon lists Disney, Gameloft, 2K, Ubisoft and Double Fine as some of the publishers that are on board. An optional Fire Game Controller will sell for $40, but users can also play games through the remote control or with a companion phone and tablet app. The games are mostly adaptations of mobile titles, such as Gameloft’s Asphalt 8, Minecraft Pocket Edition and Disney’s Monsters University; many are free to play, and the average price of a paid game is around $1.85.

Amazon did recently acquire a game studio, Double Helix, and Amazon is now building games specifically for the Fire TV and Kindle Fire tablets. One example Amazon demonstrated is Sev Zero, a third-person shooter that includes some tower defense elements. (Amazon’s website shows how a second player can use a Kindle Fire tablet to view the map, collect resources and launch air strikes.)

Fire TV’s components are similar to that of a smartphone or tablet, with a quad-core processor, a dedicated graphics processor, 2 GB of RAM and dual-band Wi-Fi. It supports 1080p video and offers Dolby Digital Plus Surround Sound via HDMI or optical output.

Amazon says it set out to fix a few common complaints with existing TV boxes: Performance can be laggy, search is too difficult on a typical remote control, and closed ecosystems don’t always offer the services users want. The Fire TV’s powerful specs and remote control microphone may solve the first two problems, but with the exception of Apple TV, many other set-top boxes are open to competing music and video services. Still, the gaming element is a unique feature, and the focus on a simple, speedy interface could help Amazon stand out.

Amazon’s Fire TV costs $99—same as an Apple TV, but twice the price of the cheapest Roku device—and is shipping today.

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