The odds are pretty good that Amazon will toss its digital hat into the set-top box ring sometime within the next month. The market is not exactly suffering from a shortage of set-top box contenders, but Amazon could still theoretically bring something new to the tablet, if the rumors about it are true.
Rumors of the Amazon set top box first surfaced in April 2013 with stories from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek. Sources report that the device will have a compact design, a variety of video services and some gaming capabilities. In fact, various sites claim to know an awful lot about Amazon's upcoming box. Here's what we think we know so far.
"Set-top box" may be a misleading term to refer to Amazon's new device. If a report from TechCrunch is accurate, Amazon's new box won't be a box at all. Rather, it will take the form of a smart stick, like Google's Chromecast or Roku's Streaming Stick.
The choice between a box and a stick is an aesthetic one: the same components go into making both devices. A Roku Streaming Stick, for example, is functionally identical to one of its boxes. An Amazon streaming box in stick form would still do everything that's expected of it: stream video content from the Internet.
The stick form has advantages over its boxy counterpart. In addition to taking up less room and being more portable, sticks also generally have lower power consumptions. Instead of running yet another cord to your surge protector, you can power it with your TV via USB cord.
If and when Amazon's box launches, it will likely exist primarily as a portal for Amazon products and services. Including Amazon Instant Video (with Amazon Prime subscription functionality) is a no-brainer. That said, a set-top box that doesn't offer comparable services, like Netflix and Hulu Plus, would be at a distinct disadvantage.
Gigaom reported that Amazon's box will have Netflix and Hulu Plus in addition to its own Amazon Instant Video service. Most streaming boxes offer Netflix and Hulu Plus, but Amazon Instant Video support is hit-or-miss.
While offering Netflix and Hulu Plus is expected for a set-top box, Amazon may also be shooting itself in the foot with one sizable omission: YouTube. The Gigaom report mentions that the Amazon box will likely use the same Android build as its Kindle Fire cousins. Since the Fires lack the YouTube app, it's possible that the box will not have it, either.
Gaming content is not uncommon for set-top boxes. High-end Rokus can play simple games and more complicated boxes like the Satechi can run full Android titles. With the leaked photo of an Amazon controller from Zatz Not Funny!, it's probable that the Amazon box will offer more than just rudimentary gaming features.
Playing "Angry Birds" with a Roku remote control is one thing, but a full-fledged controller with 21 buttons could play anything from "Cut the Rope" to "Grand Theft Auto III." Whether Amazon will offer unique games for its box is unknown, but a controller of that magnitude indicates that the company is courting more than a strictly casual audience.
Dedicated Android consoles have had a checkered reputation thus far. The Ouya was underpowered and did not sell nearly as many units as intended. That said, the basic theory behind the device — playing complex games on a big screen without dropping hundreds of dollars on a full-fledged console — was sound. The Amazon box could make good on the Ouya's promise, or it could fall flat again.
Of course, everything about the Amazon box at this point is speculation, with reports citing unnamed sources. The rumors are reasonable, but it's best to take them with a grain of salt until Amazon makes its announcement official.