NEW YORK — Amazon.com unveiled a new $99 television set-top box Wednesday, offering viewers voice-controlled search and a wide variety of casual gaming not found in rival streaming-media gadgets.
The slim, square Amazon Fire TV enters a crowded field that includes the similarly priced Apple TV and Roku 3, as well as the more budget-minded $35 Google Chromecast. Peter Larsen, a vice president in Amazon’s Kindle division, said the new gadget is more powerful than those of all its rivals.
“This thing is tiny. It’s incredibly powerful. And it’s unbelievably simple,” Larsen said at a press gathering in New York City.
In addition to streaming movies and TV shows, the device will play video games downloaded from Amazon’s app store. Gamers can use their phones as controllers or pick up an Amazon-branded game controller for $39.99.
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And users can play slideshows 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.
The $99 price tag may be a bit higher that some expected. With its Kindle tablets, Amazon undercut the prices of the Apple iPad and other rivals.
But Amazon Vice President Dave Limp said the Fire TV packs better performance than rival devices and offers more features. And, as with other Amazon gadgets, the company plans to make its money selling applications and content on the Fire TV.
“We try to effectively break even on our devices when we sell them, and we want to make money when customers use the devices,” Limp said in an interview after the press conference. “The $99 price point is almost an output of the process.”
During the press conference, Larsen said Amazon was trying to solve challenges that rivals hadn’t. He went through a litany of complaints that have shown up from Amazon customers who bought rival devices on its site. A frequent gripe centered on the annoying process of 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, where 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 performance of rival devices as well, particularly when the picture freezes and a digital spinner appears as the video buffers and catches up.
To address that, Amazon has created software dubbed ASAP, which anticipates what viewers will watch, based on viewing habits. Then, it preloads those programs so they’ll show faster.
“And it gets better at predicting what you’re going to watch,” Larsen said.
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 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 game is included with a purchase of Amazon’s game controller or costs $6.99 alone.
The company said the average price of a paid game will be $1.85, well below titles on high-end video consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4.
While hard-core gamers won’t mistake the Fire TV for a pricier console, Amazon is clearly trying to appeal to them, as well as casual gamers. The company has aggressively hired game developers in recent months to gin up titles across genres. And while the device has only 100 titles at launch, it expects to add more than 1,000 within a month.
“We wanted to build a device that had a huge selection of fun apps,” said Mike Frazzini, vice president of Amazon Games. “I look at it as a product unto itself.”
Fire TV also will feature apps from Amazon’s streaming video rivals, such as Netflix and Hulu. And it will even include a feature that lets viewers find the least expensive app from which to watch a program, even if it’s not Amazon Prime Instant Video.
“This is not a closed ecosystem,” Larsen said.
Amazon claims that the Fire TV will have three times the performance of rivals.
It puts Amazon into a third category of devices, following its Kindle electronic readers and its Kindle Fire tablets.
Limp said Amazon began working on Fire TV years ago. But it revved up development in the past 18 months, when the technology for speech recognition, in particular, improved to the point where the company felt it could offer a device that would be different from others on the market.
As Amazon packed higher-powered processors into the device to handle speech and improve performance, it found one other benefit. “It turned out games ran really well,” Limp said.
While customers don’t have to be members of the Amazon Prime subscription service to buy the device, it’s clearly designed with them in mind. The “Movies” and “Television” tabs call up programming offered via Amazon. Subscribers have access to a wide variety of that programming at no extra cost.
Subscribers of Netflix, Hulu and other services need to find that programming from the “Apps” tab.
Jay Greene: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com. Twitter: iamjaygreene