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Amazon unveils streaming media device

Brian Stelter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Amazon wants to be the brain -- and the heart -- inside your big-screen TV.

On Wednesday the company introduced a small black box called Amazon fireTV that enables television sets to access Internet programming, including streaming shows from its Amazon Prime subscription service, and a giant library of video games.

The device will cost $99 and will start shipping immediately.

With it, Amazon will compete head-on both with streaming gadgets like Apple TV and console makers like Microsoft and Sony.

All of these companies, in various ways and for various reasons, want to supplement -- and, over time, possibly replace -- the set top boxes from cable and satellite companies that sit in most living rooms.

Amazon's fireTV has a couple unique features, including a remote control with a voice recognition search feature, so a user can speak the name a show, actor or topic and find that content.

Perhaps most importantly, the device doubles as a casual gaming console; the company says it will have a library of thousands of games available to users, some free and others that exist as paid apps. Amazon announced a gaming controller that will sell for $39.99.

The device may help advance Amazon's streaming TV ambitions. The company has started to introduce original shows, like "Alpha House" and "Betas," and has spent handsome sums of money to secure exclusive rights to other shows, like past seasons of Fox's "24." But its streaming service is a fraction of the size of Netflix.

At a press event in Manhattan, Amazon differentiated fireTV by reading snippets of negative user reviews of other streaming media gadgets from Amazon.com. The complaints called out competitors like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung and Vizio by name.

The company said it identified three big issues that make streaming devices "too frustrating:" inadequate search tools, sluggish performance and closed ecosystems of apps.

Peter Larsen, an Amazon vice president, said fireTV specifically addressed gripes with dongles like Google Chromecast and boxes like Apple TV.

He called the new device "tiny" and "incredibly powerful."

One feature, called ASAP, predicts what TV episodes a user might watch next, and "queues them up so that they start instantly," Larsen said.

To underscore the point that fireTV doesn't just exist to support its Amazon Prime service, the demonstration showed off non-Amazon programs like NBC's "Chicago Fire."

"It's the easiest place to watch Netflix," Larsen said pointedly.

But the event also included a highlight reel for Amazon Studios' original shows, including a second season of "Alpha House," which is in production now.

"Customers are loving these shows," Larsen said.

Amazon also highlighted fireTV's easy access to its children's programming interface, called FreeTime, and music and photos.

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