The streaming box wars are heating up.
About a week after Apple took the wraps off the long awaited refreshed Apple TV, Amazon unveiled a new version of its Fire TV, the powerful set top box that it first introduced last year.
The products are very similar: both connect to your TV and allow you to stream content from services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Spotify. Both also have app stores, so developers can create apps and games for them. And both can be used for gaming — the remote controls have sensors in them so they can be used as game controllers.
They also both harness the power of digital personal assistants and allow you to use your voice to do more than just search. Apple’s new Apple TV uses Siri, which you may know from your iPhone or iPad, while Amazon’s Fire TV uses the lesser-known Alexa, a digital personal assistant that comes on the Echo, a connected speaker from Amazon.
But there are also some huge differences between them.
The remote controls for Apple TV and Fire TV have microphones, but Apple's has sensors in it so you can use it as a game controller.
The remotes from both Apple TV and Fire TV are the gateways to the boxes' personal assistants.
But the Apple TV's remote is more advanced -- it has a glass touchpad that allows you to scroll not only up and down, but also side to side, allowing you to quickly go to a movie or TV show or skip ahead in a program.
It also has an accelerometer and gyroscope, so it can be used as a gamepad.
I haven't been able to use either of the remotes -- neither device is for sale yet -- but Apple's has received some early praise. Tech Insider's Steve Kovach called it 'intuitive and easy to use,' while Ben Thompson, who writes the tech newsletter Stratechery and also used it briefly at the Apple event earlier this month, wrote that it 'worked well' and swiping was 'quite accurate.'
Neither remote, however, comes with a headphone jack that allows you to watch without disturbing other people. The Roku 3 comes with this, and it's a great feature.
(Amazon's game controller, which comes as part of the $US139 Fire TV Gaming Edition package, has a headphone jack. But this package doesn't come with the remote with voice support.)
Amazon's Alexa, the cloud-based personal assistant that first appeared in the Echo connected speaker, is great, and it continues to get better, but when it comes to streaming, Siri can do more.
People can command both Siri and Alexa to play music, check the weather and sports scores, and search for actors, directors, and TV shows and movies.
But at this point, Siri can also answer more complicated questions, like 'what are some new movies that are good to watch with kids?' or, as Apple demonstrated, 'Show that Modern Family episode with Edward Norton.'
You can also utter 'what did he just say?' into the remote and Siri will rewind 15 seconds, and play the clip again with closed captions temporarily on.
Even though an increasing number of movies and shows from Netflix and Amazon are streamed in 4K, very few people actually have 4K TVs, so this will only matter to a few people.
If you have a library of movies and TV shows on iTunes and subscribe to Beats Music, you're better off with Apple TV.
Even though developers can create apps for Fire TV, it's extremely unlikely you'll see an iTunes app there anytime soon.
Apple TV will also likely have an Amazon app, so you'll be able to watch movies and shows you've bought on Amazon on your Apple TV.
Mayday is an Amazon customer service feature already available on some of Amazon's tablets, and it's coming to Amazon's new Fire TV.
Mayday connects you with a live customer service representative to help you with whatever problem you're having. But instead of tapping a button, as you'd do on an Amazon tablet that has Mayday, you call a number on your phone. The Mayday representative can (if you allow) access your Fire TV and draw on the screen, helping to answer questions you may have.
One great Apple TV feature is AirPlay mirroring, which allows you to turn your TV into a huge monitor. And many iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch apps and games are AirPlay compatible, allowing you to play the games or watch the video on your TV.
Amazon says that the new Fire TV will allow mirroring from some mobile devices from Motorola and LG, but it doesn't appear that you'll be able to mirror your PC screen or iOS devices.
Both the Apple TV and Fire TV have universal search, so if you say 'show me movies with Brad Pitt,' you'll see results from Hulu, HBO, and Showtime.
But Apple TV has a huge advantage when it comes to universal search, because it supports Netflix, the most popular subscription streaming service. The Fire TV, at least for now, doesn't search Netflix when you do a universal search.
Fire TV searches across more apps, like Vevo, Starz Play, and Encore Play, but not having Netflix is a huge deal.
Both Apple and Amazon will also search their own stores -- iTunes, for Apple, and Amazon Instant, for Amazon.
Both companies also say that the search functionality will be expanded across more apps in the future.
There are some big differences, though, and they have to do with how they're controlled.
Since Apple's remote has an accelerometer and gyroscope built in, it can be used as a gamepad. You can also use iOS devices, like the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, as gamepads.
If you want to play games on Amazon's Fire TV, you'll need to get an Amazon Game Controller, which costs $US39.99. You can also buy a Fire TV Gaming Edition, for $US139.99, but it doesn't come with the Amazon voice remote.
It depends! If you're a die-hard Amazon customer, and you use an Android phone and a Windows PC, the new Fire TV is probably a better choice for you.
But if you're heavily invested in Apple's ecosystem -- maybe you have an iPhone and a Mac, and over the years you've built up a collection of movies on iTunes -- then the new Apple TV will likely be a better device for you.
And since Amazon sells a lot of its hardware at cost and makes money when you use those devices to buy movies, TV shows, and physical goods from Amazon, you can't beat Amazon's $US99 price.
Luckily you don't have to make up your mind right now. Both devices don't come out until next month, so keep an eye on Tech Insider for reviews of the new set-top boxes from Amazon and Apple.
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