The next battle to win the set-top box war has begun even if the newest devices are not quite available yet.
While Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has announced its new TV hardware, it has not set an on-sale date with its website simply saying "coming soon" for the improved Apple TV. Its biggest rival in the set-top streaming box market, Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Fire TV also has a new edition coming with pre-orders being taken now for an Oct. 5 release.
The Apple device is expected to be on sale by the end of October -- in time for the big holiday push. That sets up a major battle for customers between two very similar products.
So, while it's early in the fight consumers are faced with multiple dilemmas. For existing customers of either device, the question is whether it's worth updating to Apple's new product. For new purchasers the question is wait for the new boxes or take the low-priced alternative with Apple's older hardware, which is being sold for $69 or Amazon's Fire TV Stick, which can be had for $39.99 (with a new version being released October 22 with some enhancements which may be worth the wait).
Buying your first streaming device
Anyone who currently does not own a streaming device can choose to wait for Apple's new $149 box, wait for Amazon's new $99 box or opt for one of the earlier, cheaper models. In the case of Apple TV, it might be worth waiting because the new hardware offers an app store while the current model is a closed environment. For potential Amazon customers, the choice is a little easier since the older set-top box model is not available and the new one has enhanced voice search through Alexa (its answer to Apple's Siri, which is included in the new Apple TV).
The best deal out there for anyone however is Amazon's new version of the Fire Stick. The $49.99 updated model of Stick come with the voice remote feature including Alexa. For less than even the older Apple TV you get access to basically everything the full-sized boxes offer.
Apple TV is an excellent box for $69, but the lack of an app store is a major drawback because there is no guarantee the company will add new or even updated apps to the fixed selection offered on the now-outdated device. In reality, though Apple offers a sleek device, with an easy-to-use interface on its $69 model, Amazon's stick may be less pretty to look at, but it's very small and out-of-sight while offering an equally pleasant interface and the ability to add new apps.
Should you upgrade?
For Apple customers, the choice to upgrade comes down to their personal usage pattern. If you have a streaming box because you use a small selection of apps which the existing Apple TV offers, then it makes sense to hold on to your existing device. If you want a wider range of apps and a very robust voice search then you should consider upgrading.
The new Apple TV is a big move forward from the previous one. It has an enhanced remote with a glass touchscreen as well as Siri-enabled search which allows for broad questions like "show me something funny." It also offers games and the aforementioned app store which makes it a potentially much more useful product than its predecessor.
Amazon fans have a harder choice. The addition of Alexa as well as 4K Ultra HD support, improved video overall, and more processing power are tempting, but probably not worth upgrading from the company's already excellent existing box. Like most Amazon hardware upgrades, the changes appear to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Adding Alexa is cool, but it's not that useful since the original voice search works fairly well.
For Amazon fans there is little reason to upgrade while Apple customers have many reasons to opt for the new hardware.
The bottom line
The biggest argument against Apple's new hardware is price. It's around $100 more than then new Fire TV Stick, which seems like a steep price to pay for the advantages it brings. Yes, Siri-enabled voice search seems useful, but it does not feel particularly necessary or worth the added price. It's also hard to imagine that it's that much better, or better at all, than Alexa.
In the end, it comes down to what you do with your streaming device. Apple looks to have created a superior product, but it's advantages may not mean much to many users and they're probably not worth upgrading your device.
For new customers, Apple has an elegant package, Siri, and a fancy remote. It also has a strong likelihood of attracting a robust selection of apps for its store given its proven ability to attract developers to its platform. Still, the new Fire TV Stick and Fire TV set-top box have comparable specs at lower prices. Amazon also has a pretty impressive apps store making it very hard to see why anyone besides the truest Apple diehards would opt to pay more for Apple TV.