Amazon's streaming video player is an always-improving, amazing piece of tech that can show you content you want faster than you can say “I'd like an Amazon Prime account, please.”
Much of the noise about the new $99 Fire TV relates to its 4K Ultra HD playback capabilities. It's capable of playing shows and movies in the highest commercial resolution available today: 3840 × 2160 or 2160p.
It's not the only media streamer boasting 4K chops though, and it definitely isn't the first either. The Nvidia SHIELD console took that honor, with its Tegra X1 processor making it the most powerful streamer around.
But the new Amazon Fire TV is far less expensive and, in some respects, far more capable – so can this Ultra HD box deliver where the Android TV-hobbled SHIELD falls down?
The new Amazon Fire TV may look identical to the original Fire TV box, but that’s no bad thing.
The sleek, shiny exterior is understated enough to fit into even the most minimalist of modern living rooms, and with the remote control featuring Wi-Fi connectivity you can happily hide the box behind your TV if you’re not into the mini-monolith aesthetic, as there’s no need for a direct line of sight.
Inside, however, things have changed considerably, with a nominally quad-core MediaTek processor sitting at the heart of the new Fire TV. It’s really a pair of dual-core chips (one running at 2GHz and the other at 1.6GHz) strapped together, but that doesn’t stop it from offering around 75% faster performance compared with the old model’s silicon.
There’s also a dedicated PowerVR GX6250 GPU inside to give the new Fire TV that gaming edge, and 2GB of system memory to keep things flowing seamlessly.
The Fire TV comes with a decent 8GB of internal capacity, with the option to expand via the microSD slot on the rear of the box, which facilitates up to 128GB of storage.
In terms of networking there’s a Gigabit ethernet port for wiring in – probably your best bet for a consistent 4K UHD stream – or the dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection.
To nail that Ultra HD playback the MediaTek chipset supports the H.265 (HEVC) codec, as well as the legacy H.264 for 1080p content. It should be noted though that it’s only capable of rocking a 4K UHD stream at a maximum of 30 frames per second, while it stretches to 60fps for 720p and 1080p outputs.
To enable UHD playback you’ll need a compatible display, and that doesn’t just mean the obvious 3840 x 2160 panel resolution – it will also need the same HDMI 2.0 (HDCP 2.2) connection as on the rear of the Fire TV.
Without that you’re not going to get the copy-protected 4K awesome of either Amazon Prime or Netflix; you can still watch 4K YouTube though if that’s of any interest…
The Fire TV remote hasn’t really changed, aside from using Wi-Fi over Bluetooth. It’s still rocking the same voice search functionality which made the first Fire TV a bit of a hit, and it’s also nicely responsive and feels solid in the hand despite its diminutive size.
The new Amazon Fire TV is running on a forked version of the Android operating system, and we don’t mean in the colloquial use of the term; FireOS isn’t totally forked, it’s actually pretty responsive.
Its development was taken down a different path to the final Android OS, making FireOS a distinct operating system in its own right. That’s why you won’t be getting the full Play Store range of apps, and one of the reasons Amazon has its own app store ruling the roost.
FireOS is focused almost entirely upon helping you access content quickly and easily, with a very obvious bias towards the Amazon ecosystem.
This corporate bias is understandable – it's similar to the way Android TV's recommendations are only based on Google services and Apple is focused on iTunes content – but it would make you feel utterly excluded if you weren't an Amazon Prime member.
The voice search software is an integral part of the Amazon setup, and it's quick, responsive and impressively accurate, no matter which bastardised version of a regional accent I tried to confuse it with.
Amazon tried for years to keep you walled within its garden with its voice search function. Asking the Fire TV to show you movies that star Tom Cruise and nine out of 10 links would point to a movie on Amazon Prime Instant or Amazon Instant Video. Thankfully, it's changed its tune in the last few months, adding dozens of new searchable catalogs – like Netflix's and HBO's – to the search function. For customers in the US there are even more options like Hulu, Sling TV and DISH's new DISH Now service that lets you stream content from your Hopper to your Amazon Fire TV wherever you are in the world.
Although universal search now thumbs through 75 sources to find movie and TV show information, it can still feel like it panders to Amazon's service more often than not. This, in and of itself, isn't a deal breaker, but it does serve as a constant reminder whose hardware you're using.
The new Amazon Fire TV is an impressive little media box, and it backs up the sleek aesthetic with a slick user experience, whether you’re a first-time user or an experienced techie.
The opening cartoon tutorial is smart, accessible and well-judged. It’s about the right length and gives you a jargon-free rundown of the Fire TV’s key features, and it’s a very welcome sight the first time you boot it up.
It’s something we’d like to see on more consumer devices – a box like the powerful SHIELD should really offer something more than simply dumping the first-time user into the Android TV screen without a word of advice.
The FireOS home screen is clean, simple and easily viewed from the distance of sofa-to-screen, with large images and a black background.
It’s also impressively responsive with that Wi-Fi remote, although if you’re flicking through your options quickly the 30Hz limit really does come into play on a 4K connection. It’s not that movement becomes jerky, but it is noticeably non-smooth.
Where that 30Hz speed limit isn’t a huge issue, though, is in actual 4K Ultra HD playback. The new Amazon Fire TV has full access to the UHD content from both Amazon Prime and Netflix, as well as enabling you to rent or buy extra Amazon 4K content that isn’t available on its Instant Video service.
Netflix was typically smooth and quick to get going on my (admittedly speedy) home connection. In general the same was true of the Amazon Prime video experience too, with the likes of Orphan Black showing ne’er a stutter.
I did have a slight issue with UHD Red Oaks though, where playback again felt ‘non-smooth’. It wasn’t jerky, or stuttering, but in-motion shots especially it didn’t feel particularly smooth in terms of frame rate.
I also experienced some audio de-sync issues thanks to my TV’s audio running through a separate amplifier – curse those slim bezels and their rubbish speakers. On the SHIELD I was able to fix this in the system settings, but I couldn’t find an equivalent setting within FireOS.
The Fire TV’s high-efficiency video codec (HEVC) isn’t just there to make with the 4K loveliness; it also has an impact on your 1080p playback. If the video is compatible then it halves the amount of data it needs to transmit over your network connection – if you’re still on a limited connection that will be a god-send.
It also means Full HD content will start quicker, and run smoother, on slower network connections.
I did, however, experience a few codec fails when trying to play back some of the 4K demo media we use to test out Ultra HD TVs and accessories. Even with usually reliable VLC installed from the app store I struggled with some video content.
The most oft-used codecs are available, but you could find that some of your existing media library won’t play back through either the Plex or VLC apps.
There are also a few additions to Amazon Fire TV’s app library that are worth pointing out, most notably the new-and-improved Twitter app that will allow for live-stream content from the NFL, MLB and NBA.
Another string to the new Amazon Fire TV’s bow is its gaming performance.
For an additional $49 you can buy a dedicated Fire Controller that will give you an Xbox-a-like pad with which to play the suite of games on offer to the Fire TV, although many of the titles on offer will still work with the standard remote’s buttons.
Given the mostly casual nature of the Fire TV’s game catalogue that’s probably going to be enough, but there are some more serious games on offer, such as Telltale’s Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
It’s never going to replace your PC, PS4 or Xbox One, but the level of 3D gaming performance the new Amazon Fire TV is able to offer is rather impressive.
The Amazon Fire TV is arguably the best-value 4K Ultra HD media streamer available on the market right now. I say ‘arguably’ only because of the utter bias towards Amazon content in the Fire TV’s OS.
It’s important to keep in mind that the box itself only costs $99, but you really need to add on the $99 a year cost of an Amazon Prime subscription, as without it the device really does feel rather hobbled.
Granted, Amazon Prime is a pretty good-value bundle, and not just for the video content; you also get a load of freely-accessible music and plenty of picture storage, as well as a host of Amazon shopping goodness. But you have little option other than to sign up if you want to get the most out of the Fire TV.
The performance of the speedy new box is seriously impressive. For the most part 4K playback is smooth and reliable, with only rare instances of it being less than lovely in its super-resolution.
The interface is very responsive too, with voice search being almost instantly accessible.
The fact that both Amazon Video and Netflix are on offer also means it’s got the greatest scope for 4K content on the market; Android TV has to side-load Amazon if it wants to play ball with Prime.
The total dominance of Amazon services makes an Amazon Prime account a virtual necessity if you want to get the most out of the Fire TV.
You could say the same about Android TV, with its recommendations carousel only dealing in Google services, but with the Fire TV Amazon it’s not just a bias – it feels like the be-all and end-all of searched-for content.
You do have access to Netflix, and a host of other service providers, but their icon-only existence on the home screen makes them feel as much of an afterthought as the other video services on Roku.
I’m also not 100% sold on the 30Hz limitations of the Fire TV’s Ultra HD connection. Right now it’s not a huge issue, with most video running at 24fps, but there are times, when running on a 4K TV, when it feels like it’s running the hardware at the ragged edge.
The new Amazon Fire TV is a pretty impressive little device. For your money you get an Ultra HD media player which also makes a decent fist of some light gaming.
4K playback is generally smooth, and the Amazon connection gives you access to the motherlode of paid-for UHD movie content.
If you’ve picked up a cheap, dumb 4K TV (although one that has the necessary HDCP 2.2 compatibility for DRM’d content) then the new Fire TV is a decent choice for getting some UHD Netflix or Amazon Prime viewing on your screen.
However, if you’re already sitting on some Ultra HD smarts within your 4K TV, the Fire TV isn’t really going to add anything else to the picture.
And where the Nvidia SHIELD has the potential to grow and change, with the power to cope with future advances, the Fire TV feels like it’s already running at the limits of its hardware. That 30Hz limit isn’t an issue right now, but you’ll be looking for an upgrade not far down the line.
Essentially, then, the new Amazon Fire TV is fine, and for the Amazon faithful it offers easier access than the abortive web interface – but if you’re just after a media streamer it’s only okay.
If that’s damning with faint praise, so be it.