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Amazon Fire Takes On Apple TV With New Streaming Media Boxes

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Attention, cord-cutters: Things are heating up in the world of cable-free TV.

Last week, Apple unveiled a long-overdue overhaul of its Apple TV streaming media device, adding support for Siri, its voice-activated virtual assistant. This week it was Amazon’s turn.

Today, the Seattle-based tech giant announced it would be shipping updated versions of its Fire TV box and Fire TV Stick, featuring beefier hardware, support for 4K content, and enhanced voice command.

Related: The New Apple TV Will Change Television Forever (Maybe)

Using Fire TV, you can stream ultra-high resolution movies and TV shows to your flat-screen display, listen to music, and play games, and you can control most of that with your voice. Even the Fire TV Stick — a thumb-drive-sized dongle that plugs into a display’s HDMI port — will feature a remote that responds to voice commands. Casual couch-potato gamers will be able to use an enhanced controller to play the 800-plus Android-based games in the Fire TV catalog.

Here are the highlights.

Freedom of voice

The original Fire TV was the first streaming-media device to let you search for shows by speaking into the remote. The new Fire TV goes one better, integrating Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant into the box. Using the same technology built into Amazon’s Echo home automation device, Alexa can let you launch shows (“Play The Simpsons”), navigate across content (“Skip to the next track”), and answer trivia questions (“Who directed Star Trek: Generations?”).

Related: Amazon’s Echo Brings the Star Trek Computer to Your Home

You can also ask Alexa for weather reports or sports scores; the results will be displayed on screen. And you can search for video-on-demand across more than 20 apps, including Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go, as well as Amazon Video; Amazon says Fire TV will automatically show you the most affordable option for each program.

[Correction: Amazon says the ability to launch programs using your voice won’t be available until “early next year;” currently, Amazon Fire TV lets you search for videos across 8 apps, a number that will rise to 18 by year end. Yahoo Tech regrets the errors.]

Unlike Echo, however, this version of Alexa won’t be able to control your lights or other smart-home devices (at least not yet). And, unlike Apple TV, you won’t be able to search or navigate inside TV shows using your voice.

4K all the way

Amazon is making a big play for ultra-high-definition programming, more commonly called 4K (for its 4,000-plus pixels of horizontal resolution). There’s even a channel devoted to shows and other content filmed in 4K. (Apple TV does not support 4K.) Amazon also claims that regular old HD content will look sharper, thanks to its High Efficiency Video Coding, which compresses 1080p video streams so they use far less bandwidth.

Beefier hardware

The new Fire TV looks identical to the old Fire TV; all the changes are on the inside. Amazon says the new chip is 75 percent faster than the previous one, and Wi-Fi has also been upgraded to support the current 802.11ac standard, which allows for better connections over longer distances. Like the old Fire TV, the new box comes with just 8 GB of memory for apps and other content, but it will also feature an SD card slot that will let you expand that to 128 GB. That’s primarily designed for storing graphic-intensive games and apps; you won’t be able to play media stored on the card.

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All tech support, all the time

Amazon is also bringing its 24/7/365 “Mayday” tech support service to the Fire TV. Users who find themselves in a jam will be able to call on a live support tech at any time of day or night directly from their set. The techs will be able to directly control your Fire TV box (with your permission, of course) and even highlight controls and other parts of the interface on screen to help newbies figure out what to do next time they run into a snag.

The price remains the same

More good news: All these goodies won’t cost you anything extra. The Fire TV box will still retail for $100, while the Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote will cost $50 (a version without the remote or voice controls will cost $40). Amazon is also offering the Fire TV Gaming Edition, including the updated game controller, a 32 GB SD card, and two games for $140. All are available for pre-order today; the Fire TV will start shipping on Oct. 5, and the Fire TV Stick will be available on Oct. 22.

Amazon says its Alexa virtual assistant will eventually be available to everyone who owns a Fire TV, new or old. And while the new Fire TV does not integrate with Amazon Echo, stay tuned: Eventually the Fire TV could become the hub of an Amazon-powered smart home.

Send email to Dan Tynan here and follow him on Twitter.