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With Fire TV, Amazon aims to sever Prime viewers from streaming competitors

Amazon Fire TV went on sale Wednesday. The set-top box  — slim, square and priced at $99 — enters a crowded field. 

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Amazon Fire TV went on sale Wednesday. The set-top box — slim, square and priced at $99 — enters a crowded field. 

NEW YORK — Amazon.com has unveiled Amazon Fire TV, its new set-top box.

The slim, square device, priced at $99, went on sale Wednesday, entering a crowded field that includes Apple TV, Google Chrome­cast and Roku. Peter Larsen, a vice president in Amazon's Kindle division, said the new gadget is more powerful than those of all of its rivals.

"This thing is tiny. It's incredibly powerful. And it's unbelievably simple," Larsen said at a media gathering in New York.

In addition to streaming movies and TV shows, the device will play video games downloaded from Amazon's application store. Gamers can use their phones as controllers or buy a controller for $40.

And users can play slide shows on the gadget, showing pictures they've uploaded to Amazon's Cloud Drive application.

Rumors have swirled for nearly a year that Amazon was working on a streaming-media device. The reason is pretty straightforward: The device would allow Amazon to control the way its Netflix-like Amazon Prime Instant Video Service appears to consumers without having to rely on streaming-media gadgets from rivals such as Apple and Google.

The device could also help Amazon collect valuable information about the way its customers watch video, data that could be used in its growing advertising business. And Amazon could also use the device to market products and services to viewers.

Larsen said that in developing the device, Amazon was trying to solve problems that rivals hadn't. He went through a litany of complaints from Amazon customers about searching for actors' names by clicking on letters to spell them out.

"Search is hard, particularly if you're looking for something that's not on a 'top hits' list," Larsen said of the competing devices.

To solve that, Fire TV's remote includes a microphone into which viewers can speak an actor's name, a show title or a genre and have it pop up on the screen.

Consumers often complain about the performance of rival devices, particularly when the picture freezes and a digital spinner appears as the video buffers and catches up, Larsen said.

"Nothing drags you out of the director's world more than seeing the spinner," he said. "Customers shouldn't have to tolerate lagging performance anymore."

To address that, Amazon has created software dubbed ASAP that anticipates what viewers will watch, based on viewing habits. Then it preloads those programs so that they'll show faster.

Amazon is diving deep into gaming with the device as well. There's no slot for a game disk, so gamers will have to download titles from Amazon's app store. The company has already lined up games from top game publishers such as EA and Ubisoft. And Amazon has launched Amazon Game Studios and will release a new sci-fi shooter, Sev Zero.

The company said the average price of a paid game will be $1.85, well below the cost of titles on high-end video consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4.

Amazon claims that Fire TV will have three times the performance of rivals such as Apple TV, Roku 3 and Chromecast. It has a quad-core processor and 2 gigabytes of RAM.

As for appearance, Fire TV is trim and matte black. Larsen said it is thinner than a dime standing on its side.

With Fire TV, Amazon aims to sever Prime viewers from streaming competitors 04/02/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 7:10pm]

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