Amazon Fire TV Review
Amazon's new Fire TV is sporting a totally different look from the old one. Once a set-top box like the Roku Ultra or Apple TV, the Fire TV now dangles from the back of your TV like a Chromecast Ultra. A bit of flexible HDMI cable helps make sure that it fits in whatever weird place your TV's HDMI port is hiding, and a power cable connects to the opposite tip of the diamond-shaped device. Here's what everything looks like once you have it out of the box:
There's no need for a separate HDMI cable, since it's built into the device itself.
For reference, here's a family portrait of the new Fire TV with its last-generation counterpart:
The Fire TV remote looks pretty much the same. The Alexa remote allows you to – you guessed it – speak to Alexa, who can answer questions and control your Fire TV for you. You press a button on the remote when you want to chat to her, so you don't have to say “Alexa.” You can also use other devices to control the Fire TV, but we're starting to encroach on the next section's territory, so let's make the jump.
Amazon's Fire TV runs Android-based operating system. It's clean and easy to navigate. And, you'll never guess this, but: it has a passion for Amazon services.
On first boot, a friendly how-to video runs through the features of the Fire TV and how to use them – and then sings the praises of Alexa and Amazon Prime, complete with little animations showing Alexa dimming the lights for movie night and a Prime delivery being made at the front stoop. Then the intro was over and it was on to the “Home” tab, where I found Amazon pushing its Thursday Night Football stream, some “Featured Apps & Games,” and Amazon Channels that I had not yet signed up for.
Fire TV's operating system is easy to use, but it always feels like it's selling you something. Across the top navigation (it's no longer on the side) the menu reads: Home, Your Videos, Movies, TV Shows, Apps, and Settings. Home, Movies, and TV Shows all push Amazon content you have not yet paid for. Your Videos is where Amazon stashes the Amazon content that you already own or could access for free. Apps is the only tab on which you can access content from all of the other services you might use, like Netflix or Sling TV.
Amazon's operating system works fine, and it's less obnoxious if you have Prime and a lot of stuff in your Amazon media library. But for folks who aren't Amazon power users, there's really only one useful tab (Apps) and a bunch of ads. It doesn't hold a candle to the user experiences offered by Roku and Apple.
With that said, there's one key part of the user experience that does shine, and that's Alexa. She can do more than just find your next movie – she can answer questions and even order pizzas (you probably won't actually order a pizza with your Fire TV, but you could, and that's kind of cool, right?). You can also use other Alexa-enabled devices in tandem with your Fire TV. I tried that out with an Echo Dot, and it was kind of cool, even though it most likely also ends up in the “neat features you're unlikely to use” file for most of us.
In short, Amazon power users who already have Alexa devices around, subscribe to Prime, and have big Amazon media libraries will probably find it easy to look past the shortcomings of Fire TV's OS. Others may not.
Out of the box, the new Fire TV is a Wi-Fi-only device. But I had pretty much no problems getting it to stream well on WiFi – it worked at least as well as the comparably priced WiFi-only devices in Roku's lineup (the Stick and Stick+, which will get reviews from us very soon). Amazon loaned us an Ethernet adapter for the purposes of this review, but, for the most part, I didn't find that I needed it.
The Fire TV did a great job streaming both on-demand and live content. Breaks in skinny bundle live streams were brief and far between. In my trials, the Fire TV appeared to be the best at smooth, HD streaming of any device in its price range.
And, of course, the Fire TV delivers 4K and HDR streaming. It's tied with the Roku Stick+ and the Chromecast Ultra as the cheapest streaming device offering 4K and HDR.
The new Fire TV is at a great price point: $49.99. That's a better value than the Chromecast Ultra ($69) and Roku Stick+ ($69.99). The Fire TV is also cheaper than the Roku Ultra ($99.99) and way cheaper than the new Apple TV 4K (which debuted at $179 in a year that Amazon and Roku both dropped their prices below $100, so please keep Apple in your prayers).
On a technical level, the Fire TV is one of the best devices of its type on the market. Price-wise, it's doing great (at $69.99, the Fire TV is priced below the top options from Roku and Apple TV). But the Fire TV as a platform can feel gaudy and greedy, always pushing you to turn family movie night into a financial win for Amazon. The Fire TV undeniably offers a special experience for those with big Amazon media libraries, but the degree to which it promotes Amazon is a little over-the-top.
The typical line on the Fire TV is that it's best for Amazon power-users. That's a bit of an over-simplification, but there's a lot of truth to it. Non-Amazon users will find very little to compel them to opt for the Fire TV over something in the Roku lineup, or (if price is no object) an Apple TV, or (if on-screen content discovery is a non-issue) a Chromecast Ultra. Power users have a tougher decision to make. The more you use Amazon services, the more sense the Fire TV makes. Right now, though, I have a hard time making a case for it over a Roku for most users.