AMAZON FIRE TV 4K (SECOND-GENERATION) WITH ULTRA HD REVIEW
Amazon may not have cracked the smartphone market with the Fire phone but it’s forging ahead with its Fire tablets and Fire TV media streamers, taking on the Roku, Chromecast and Apple TV. This is the second generation of its tiny set-top box: here’s our Amazon Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD review.
You can buy the new Fire TV from Amazon for £79.99/$120 but there have been regular sales which have seen it discounted to £64.99/$97. The first-generation model is still available to buy refurbished by Amazon for £69.99/$105.
There are several updates in the new model. Key is the support for 4K Ultra HD (see also What is 4K?). It’s not the only box to tick the UHD box: Nvidia’s Shield does this too. But as you’ll read in our Shield TV review, it stumbles when it comes to content.
4K support means you can hook up the Fire TV to your 4K TV, and you can watch videos in Ultra HD (3840 x 2160) at up to 30fps. In order for this to work you will need a compatible TV with an HDMI 2.0 port which supports HDCP 2.2. Here’s a selection of 4K TVs which will work with the Fire TV 4K.
You will also need a relatively fast internet connection. Amazon recommends at least 15Mb/s for Prime Video in 4K, but Netflix says 20Mb/s. Other apps may require more. The Fire TV has an HEVC decoder, so it can play videos streamed in this new format. Amazon is making much of its 1080p content available in HEVC so you’ll be able to watch Full HD videos on a slower internet connection, and less data will be used – roughly half.
More processing power is needed for 4K video, so Amazon has upgraded the processor to a 64-bit Mediatek quad-core chip which it says is 75 percent faster than the Qualcomm Snapdragon in the previous model. It also has more powerful graphics, although the PowerVR GX6250 chip is no match for the graphics chip in the iPad Air 2, to give you some context.
Amazon has also changed the Wi-Fi and upgraded to dual-band 802.11ac, and there’s now a microSD slot on the rear so you can add to the 8GB of internal storage. However, this comes at the cost of the optical audio output which has disappeared on the new box (it’s the same sacrifice on the new Apple TV, oddly). That means HDMI is your only audio output, so you won’t be able to easily pipe audio to an AV receiver as well as your TV.
The final change is that the remote control communicates via Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth. Some people have had problems with it losing connection with the box, or losing pairing entirely. However, we didn’t experience any issues at all.
FEATURES, DESIGN AND SETUP
One of the main reasons for buying the new Fire TV is to get Amazon and Netflix’s 4K content on your TV. Amazon doesn’t charge extra for watching 4K content, but Netflix does.
The Fire TV also offers plenty of other content including Spotify, BBC iPlayer and more. For some people, this makes it a better choice than the new Apple TV (which doesn’t support 4K) as the Fire TV similarly allows you to install apps and play games using the bundled remote or the optional game controller (which costs £35/$53). However, we’ll get to the games later.
The top is like the back of a Fire tablet or Kindle: matt black with a glossy Amazon logo. The front and sides are also glossy black and a small white LED lets you know the box has power – just like an Apple TV.
An external power supply is included in the box, but you’ll need to provide your own HDMI cable.
Setup is easy, as you simply choose your Wi-Fi network (unless you’re using an Ethernet cable), enter your password, then enter your Amazon email address and password. It’s a bit fiddly using the on-screen keyboard and directional pad on the remote. The Chromecast is easier since the remote is your smartphone or tablet. And the new Apple TV lets you use an iPhone or iPad for painless setup. The Fire TV doesn’t require you to own any smartphone or tablet: you need only an internet connection and an Amazon account (you don’t need a Prime Instant Video subscription).
The box runs a version of Amazon’s Fire OS which is also used on Fire tablets and the Fire phone. It’s based on Android, but you’ll never see so much as a hint of recognisable Android anywhere.
Fire OS is a dark-looking, easy to use system on Amazon’s tablets, and things are much the same on the Fire TV. If you’ve already used the Prime Instant Video app, you’ll already know how to navigate around the Fire TV.
A main menu runs down the left-hand side and includes Home, which shows things you’ve watched or played recently, newly added Prime Instant Video items and other featured or ‘top’ content.
Other sections include Prime Instant Video, Watchlist (everything you’ve bookmarked to buy, rent or watch later), TV, Films, Apps, Games, Photos and Music. Quite obviously there are no books, magazines or newspapers, and no web browser or email apps – these are all better suited to tablets. Video Library is a place to see all your bought and rented content from Amazon.
If you head to the settings menu you can synch all relevant purchased Amazon content, rather than going through each section or searching for that content and downloading it individually.
You can also set restrictions to prevent anything being purchased without entering a passcode, and even block different types of content entirely such as apps.
VOICE SEARCH AND USABILITY
The interface couldn’t be simpler to navigate and button icons are shown on screen whenever there’s a shortcut, such as pressing the play/pause button when you’ve finished entering your password.
It’s a well-designed controller whose only flaw is that it’s quite small and easy to lose. You can search by simply speaking the title of a TV show or film. You hold down the microphone button and say what you’re searching for. It’s fast and accurate and far, far easier than trying to enter text via the D-pad. You’re not limited to saying titles: it also works with actors and directors, so you don’t necessarily need to know what you want to watch. It’s not as versatile as Siri on the new Apple TV, however. You can’t say “Show me all recently added action movies”, for example.
The voice search isn’t universal, either. If you’re in the Netflix app and use the microphone, the results will show matches for Amazon’s content, not Netflix.
Another source of confusion is the fact that prices are shown for episodes and series even if you have a Prime Instant Video subscription. To watch something with your subscription, you have to wait a second until “Watch now with Prime” appears on the video’s thumbnail.
However, even if you’re browsing in the Prime Instant Video section, you’ll still come across content that isn’t included in your subscription. For example, only not all seasons of Mad Men have the all-important Prime tag at the top-left corner. The latest couple are just tagged as HD. But it’s easy to miss that difference as you scroll through the list and wonder why the “Watch now with Prime” wording doesn’t appear on the thumbnail.
A good feature is that a white progress bar is shown across the bottom of each movie or show you’ve watched, so it’s easy to see which episode of a TV show to watch next. Amazon’s predictive ASAP technology also works well, with videos beginning almost the instant you press the play button – so much so that you sometimes forget that you’re streaming them. 10-second skip forward and back buttons are useful for replaying a section, and didn’t cause big buffering delays in our tests.
The game controller has to be paired via the settings menu, but you’ll get a warning if you attempt to buy a game which requires a game controller and you haven’t paired one. The controller is also updated since the original, and now has a microphone button so you can use voice search.
We tried several games, some of which we’d bought previously on a Fire tablet. Sonic the Hedgehog was pretty much the ideal type for the controller, a classic platform title, while Flow Free proved that games designed for touchscreens aren’t enjoyable on a console-style gamepad. With those, you can use the shoulder buttons to speed up or slow down the cursor, but even so, it’s hard work.
The games library has quite a bit of choice, including Terraria, but it’s limited when compared to the choice available on a Fire tablet let alone an Android tablet or iPad. There’s starting to be more console-style games such as Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, though.
Amazon Prime Instant video has a fairly decent selection of films and TV shows. Like Netflix, it has its own exclusive titles and in-house content, too, with Amazon’s Transparent, Extant and The Man in the High Castle being three popular examples.
4K content is still pretty thin on the ground, but Amazon is adding a lot more now and over the next few months. 4K playback was smooth on our admittedly fast BT Infinity broadband, but we did have a couple of issues with lip-synch when running audio from the TV to an AV receiver, and couldn’t find any option to adjust this.
It’s good to see some UK-specific services such as iPlayer and Demand 5, but it’s by no means comprehensive yet. And don’t expect to see any UK catch-up TV in 4K anytime soon. While the BBC has done some technical tests, there are no plans to roll out a 4K-capable version of the app.
You can install Plex and VLC for streaming 4K content you have on a NAS or on your microSD card, though.
If you’re looking for the widest array of content available directly via the set-top box, then Roku is the obvious choice at the moment, especially as it has just added the Google Play store. The 4K-toting Roku 4 isn’t yet out in the UK though, and there’s no confirmed launch date.
From our testing of HD video, the quality is excellent and if you have an AV receiver you can use the HDMI or optical outputs to benefit from 5.1 or even 7.1 surround sound where the content has it. Netflix will soon add Dolby audio to some of its content, which will be a bonus.
You’ll also benefit from the new X-Ray feature for certain videos, which lets you pull up IMDB information so you can check which actors are on screen or who directed it.
We’re glad to see that Amazon has added subtitles as these were missing a year ago.
It’s with large libraries that the Fire TV’s powerful processor comes into its own. Thumbnails load almost instantly and there’s little or no lag when scrolling through long lists of episodes.
- Media streamer
- Mediatek quad-core processor (Dual-core @ 2GHz + Dual-core @ 1.6GHz) with PowerVR GX6250 graphics @ 600MHz
- 2GB RAM
- 8GB storage
- dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO
- Bluetooth 4.1
- 10/100 Ethernet
- USB 2.0
- microSD card slot for adding up to 128GB
- Output: HDMI – 720p and 1080p up to 60fps, 4K up to 30fps
- Support for Dolby Audio, 5.1 surround sound, 2-channel stereo and HDMI audio pass-through up to 7.1
- Remote included
- 115 x 115 x 18 mm
The Fire TV is an excellent set-top box which is powerful and well designed. The voice search works well too, but isn’t available in all apps. There are other foibles, too, such as confusion over whether videos are included in your Prime Instant video subscription or not. Even so, the Fire TV is one of the best video streamers, but it really makes sense if you pair it with a Prime Instant Video subscription and use Amazon’s other services. 4K content is still limited, and many 4K TVs already have the Prime Instant Video app. This means it’s going to appeal to people who want 4K Prime Instant Video (or Netflix) but their TV doesn’t have it. If that’s you, just double-check your TV has an HDMI port which supports HDCP 2.2, otherwise you’ll find 4K videos won’t play.