For anyone unsure which streaming media device represents the best value, Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) just made an compelling argument in its favor by adding a slew of new features to its Fire TV and Fire TV Stick products.
If you already own Fire TV, don't worry: Amazon is providing the enhancements for free as part of an over-the-air software update.
Before we delve into the details, keep in mind Amazon's Fire TV and Fire TV Stick retail for $99 and $39, respectively. Meanwhile, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) took the opportunity at its "Spring Forward" event last month to lower the price of Apple TV from $99 to $69 -- which seems fair considering the current version of Apple TV was launched in early 2013 -- while Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) Chromecast can be had for just $35.
But that begs the question: How much value can Amazon possibly add to Fire TV and Fire TV stick through a simple software update? As it turns out, more than you might think.
Road warriors rejoice
First, Amazon added public Wi-Fi compatibility to both Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. Translation? Fire TV will now work on those pesky hotel Wi-Fi connections that require a Web browser to sign in.
This might sound like a minor improvement, but it addresses a major complaint among a large group of media streaming connoisseurs who have so far been disappointed by the lack of options to seamlessly complete this task. For example, neither Google Chromecast nor Apple TV currently support public Wi-Fi by default. As a result, users of these devices have had to resort to cumbersome workarounds such as spoofing their MAC address or using a separate travel router to essentially trick such Wi-Fi connections into allowing their devices to connect.
Next, Amazon Fire TV now supports the use of USB flash drives (up to 128GB) for additional storage of games and apps. This update doesn't extend to the smaller Fire TV Stick -- which is roughly the same size as a USB flash drive in the first place -- but it's still great for Fire TV users given the thousands of games and apps the platform has supported since its launch. Apple TV, for its part, has a USB port for service and support, while Chromecast has a size/hardware dilemma in this case that is similar to Fire TV Stick's.
Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick each come standard with 8GB of internal storage, anyway. By comparison, Google Chromecast comes with 2GB, while Apple TV has 8 GB of internal storage that's primarily used to cache streaming content.
Rounding it out
Finally, most notable among Amazon's other Fire TV improvements is support for Bluetooth remotes, headsets, and keyboards. Chromecast has no Bluetooth support, and Apple TV allows only Bluetooth keyboards.
In both Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Amazon also added more secure PIN entry options for parental controls, improved Prime Music search capabilities, better support for videos rented or purchased from third-party apps, and a number of other interface improvements centering around ease of use.
All things considered, this is an impressive slate of new features to provide free of charge. Amazon has obviously been busy gathering and incorporating consumers' feedback in order to give Fire TV and Fire TV Stick an edge over the competition. But it's arguably most impressive that Amazon had the foresight to design the hardware of both products so that these features could be rolled out in a quick over-the-air software update.
That's not to say the Fire TV line has struggled so far. To the contrary, when Amazon unveiled the update, it called the customer response to both products "overwhelming," and stated "we've been working hard to build more of both as quickly as possible." In the end, as word of these new features spreads, I suspect that enviable problem won't dissipate anytime soon.