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Amazon’s Fire TV set top box is set to go toe to toe with Apple TV. Can it dethrone the current champion?

The set top box market is heating up. In the U.S. it’s been a two-horse race between the Apple TV and Roku’s boxes, but things began to change after Google introduced its Chromecast device last year. Apple TV remains the champion, but now there’s a new contender: Amazon’s new Fire TV. Does this spell the end of Apple’s dominance in the set top box arena?

A strong contender

The Fire TV goes on sale Wednesday for $99, the same price as the Apple TV. It comes equipped with a remote control that also supports voice control, and features Dolby Digital Plus surround sound. There’s a host of other features that make Fire TV a desirable option for people looking to extend and enhance their TV viewing experience.

A variety of popular streaming video and audio services are supported out of the box. Amazon Instant Video, perhaps predictably, headlines the box but it also supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Showtime Anytime (a feature as yet unavailable on the Apple TV), ESPN, Bloomberg, Vevo, Pandora and many others. HBO Go is a no show, at least to start.

What’s more, you can play games on the Fire TV. Amazon’s launching the box with more than 100 and is promising more to come soon. Many are free to play, many are priced for only a few dollars. Amazon’s also developed a gamepad for the device.

The Fire TV is a more impressive box under the hood than the Apple TV — Amazon has put in a quad-core processor (compared to the Apple TV’s aging single-core A5 processor, the same one found in the now-defunct iPad 2); four times as much RAM (2 GB), and a dual-band/dual-antenna Wi-Fi configuration with Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) support, similar to Apple’s latest Macs and AirPort Extreme.

The Apple TV’s body blow: integration

What the Fire TV is missing, of course, is arguably the Apple TV’s killer feature: integration with other Apple devices. Apple TV and AirPlay makes it easy to stream content from your Mac or iOS device, and many Apple TV users do exactly that. You can control your Apple TV using your iPad or your iPhone, too. And sharing your Mac’s iTunes library is a cinch.

The Apple TV as versatile to use in the boardroom and classroom as in the living room; it’s an easy to configure and use system for Keynote and PowerPoint presentations. What’s more, it has an Apple logo on it, which makes it an object of some familiarity to consumers who already own another Apple product.

Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years

Apple’s sold a lot of third-generation Apple TVs. Tim Cook confirmed at Apple’s recent shareholder meeting that Apple TV sales topped $1 billion in 2013. Steve Jobs once described Apple TV as "a hobby" for his company, but those days are long behind it — the Apple TV is a legitimate and important part of Apple’s revenue stream.

Having said that, Apple TV is very long in the tooth. It’s been more than two years since Apple released the third-generation Apple TV, and save a minor in-line revision in January of last year, the box has gone untouched. There is no question that Apple is working on a new Apple TV to replace its current model.

Now that Amazon has introduced Fire TV, we’re free to focus attention on Apple’s next-generation set top box, whenever it’s ready. Will it be able to match Fire TV feature for feature? Only time will tell. Apple’s focus is on creating products that improve the lives of its customers, devices that surprise and delight them. I’m sure the next Apple TV will.

I can’t wait to see what Apple has in store, but I’m also trying to temper my enthusiasm with realism. For years we’ve been tantalized with talk about Apple in the TV space. Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson quoted Jobs as having "finally cracked" TV shortly before his passing. Tim Cook called television and area of "great interest" in an interview. We’re naturally left to speculate. And speculating on Apple’s plans is often a fool’s game.

One thing is for sure with Fire TV: the set top box market just got really interesting. Amazon doesn’t go half-way when it introduces a new hardware product. It’s arguably the only Android competitor besides Samsung that really competes formidably against Apple in the tablet market.

More than anything, Fire TV means that Apple has to up its game. To that end, I can’t wait to see how Apple counters.