HOT ON THE HEELS of the UK release of Google's Chromecast TV streaming dongle, Amazon announced its entry into the big screen viewing market on Wednesday with the Amazon Fire TV. The two devices take different approaches to projecting content onto the big screen, but which is the better buy?
Amazon has opted for the more traditional set-top box with a handheld remote control, while the Chromecast is a USB stick the size of a standard flash drive.
Amazon launched the Fire TV priced at $99 in the US, while the impulse buying friendly Chromecast retails for £30 in the UK. No details are available yet as to when Amazon will bring its Fire TV to the UK.
Both devices run on a customised version of their operating system. Amazon's Fire TV uses its own fork of Android. Apps are compatible, but access is not available to Google's apps including those in the Play store. The Chromecast is a much simpler device, a stripped down version of Google's Chrome web browser that renders apps to beam them onto the big screen, with the hard work being done by the controller.
As a result, the devices are entirely different. Amazon's Fire TV is a box about the dimensions of a Blu-ray drive with power, HDMI, audio, optical USB and Ethernet ports.
The included Bluetooth remote is smaller than a standard DVR remote with seven buttons and a scroll wheel that will have old school iPod owners all misty-eyed. The optional gaming controller ($40) is about the size of an Xbox One controller with comparable layout.
The Google Chromecast, on the other hand, is as simple as can be. It resembles a flash drive but has an HDMI output that plugs into your TV. A microUSB socket draws power either from the included USB power brick or straight from your TV's USB port. The only button on the device is a single reset button for use as a last resort.
The controller for the Chromecast looks like, well, any compatible device you have. At the moment this means screencasting from any Chrome web browser, as well as the full range of apps for Android and iOS. There are no limitations as to who can write an app for Chromecast, so although there is no support for Blackberry or Windows Phone at present, it will take only one developer to change that for either operating system.
Amazon claims that its new device is three times faster than the competition, however because Chromecast does nothing but rendering, its difficult to make a comparison. However the Chromecast is a fast and reliable device and if fast is good, more might be better.
Functionality and apps
Amazon has made it clear that Fire TV will not be a closed environment and in addition to its own Prime Instant Video service has also confirmed availability of rivals Netflix and Hulu from launch. This is a shrewd move on its part, as it continues to withhold the Amazon Instant Video app from Android users apart from those on Kindle devices, which instantly puts Chromecast on the back foot.
Amazon has also announced that Fire TV will run games from the Amazon Appstore, bringing titles from major publishers to the big screen, in conjunction with the games controller available separately for an extra $40.
Gameswise, the Chromecast can't hope to compete. Because it is a Chrome device, rather than Android, it can only access Android through APIs, which will mean that publishers will need to add Chromecast functionality to their titles separately, and it's likely that performance will be affected, so don't expect a huge scrum for this functionality. There have been some good attempts at basic gaming already, using your phone as a controller, including Snake and the inevitable port of 2048, but don't expect Titanfall anytime soon.
However, what the Chromecast lacks in gaming, it gains in support from a range of existing portals - YouTube, Vevo, Netflix, BBC iPlayer and BT Sport and also the developer community, which has allowed the number of Chromecast ready apps to balloon to over 150 and counting, including art packages, quizzes, photo frames, news aggregators, podcast managers and more.
Check out our list of the top 10 Google Chromecast apps you should install.
Until we know what partners Amazon has lined up for the UK launch, and what other broadcasters are working on Chromecast support, it's difficult to know what the best buy for telly addicts in the UK will be, and with other contenders like Apple TV and Roku also competing in the market, the battle for the living room has only just begun. µ