Last October, Amazon introduced a new version of its Fire TV streaming media player. Following the Apple approach, Amazon didn't give the new product a new name; it's still just called the Fire TV, but it's now the only version you can buy via Amazon's website and authorized retailers like Best Buy.
The new player boasts a number of improvements over its predecessor. The most important one for our readers is 4K support. The new box has the necessary HEVC decoder to offer 4K versions of apps like Netflix and (obviously) Amazon's own streaming platform. Other changes include the addition of Alexa for improved voice-activated search, a Wi-Fi upgrade to 802.11ac MIMO, and a new, faster MediaTek 64-bit quad-core processor.
Happily, these upgrades do not come with an upgraded price, as the second-gen box sells for the same $99.99 asking price. I recently ordered one directly from Amazon.com and put it to the test, to see how it compares both with its predecessor and with other 4K-friendly players from the likes of Roku and NVIDIA.
In appearance, the second-gen Fire TV is identical to the original: a 4.5-inch square (0.7 inches tall) that has a matte black finish with a glossy black logo on the top and glossy side panels. The connection panel features one HDMI 2.0 output with HDCP 2.2 copy protection. It's not HDMI 2.0a, though, so the box doesn't support the output of HDR signals at this time (theoretically, this could be added via firmware update). Amazon opted to omit the optical digital audio output found on the previous Fire TV, so HDMI is the only way to pass audio signals.
The connection panel also includes a 10/100 Ethernet port for a wired network connection, a USB 2.0 port for media playback, and a newly added microSD card slot for storage expansion (this port takes over the spot held by the aforementioned optical audio output). The player has eight gigabytes of internal storage that's devoted to app/game downloads. Through the microSD slot, you can expand the storage capability to 128 GB.
The second-gen remote has the same simple, intuitive button layout as the previous version but measures about one inch longer. It communicates with the player via Bluetooth and thus doesn't require line of sight; Amazon did not put an IR receiver on the player the way Roku did with the Roku 4, so you can't control this player using an IR-based universal remote control. The inclusion of Bluetooth 4.1 + LE means you can also connect other Bluetooth remotes, keyboards/mice, and headphones.
Amazon also offers a free iOS/Android control app that features the same button options as the dedicated remote, supports voice search through your mobile device's microphone, and includes a virtual keyboard for faster text input. The keyboard did not work in YouTube, but it did work in most other apps, including Netflix. If you have multiple Fire TVs that you want to control using the app, it's easy to switch between devices.
The Amazon store includes a lot of games, many of which can be controlled via the basic Fire TV remote. However, for those who are especially interested in the Fire TV's gaming capabilities and want to play the most advanced games, Amazon also sells the Fire TV Gaming Edition for $139.99, which includes the Fire TV box, one gaming controller with voice search and a private-listening headphone output, one 32GB microSD card, and two games (Shovel Knight and Disney DuckTales: Remastered).
During my review process, I mated the second-gen Fire TV with two different UHD televisions: the LG 65EF9500 OLED TV and the Samsung UN65HU8550 LED/LCD TV. The setup process is quick and straightforward. Once you power on the device, the onscreen interface walks you through a series of setup steps: pairing the remote, making a network connection (I primarily used a wired connection, but I also tested the Wi-Fi, which gave me no issues), and finally signing in to or creating an Amazon account. Because I ordered the Fire TV directly through Amazon, the box was already registered to my Amazon account, although there was an option to change this. After setup is complete, there's a helpful video tutorial that explains how to use voice search, navigate your Fire TV, and use the free control app.
The player's video resolution is set to Auto by default; other options in the Settings menu are 720p and 1080p at 50Hz or 60Hz. When set to Auto, the player will automatically detect a UHD TV and output a 2160p signal only when the box is playing 2160p content. In other words, the player outputs a 1080p/60 signal most of the time, but it switches to 2160p when you're playing a UHD source from Netflix or Amazon. It's kind of like a Source Direct mode on a Blu-ray player, but 1080p and 2160p are the only two resolutions that will be output. A nice thing about this approach is that you will always get a picture, regardless of whether you connect a TV with a 1080p or UHD resolution.
On the audio side, the Fire TV can pass up to Dolby Digital Plus 7.1-channel soundtracks and basic DTS, but it doesn't support passage of Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio soundtracks. I tested audio playback by connecting the Fire TV to my Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 AV receiver, and I had no issues streaming Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks when available through Netflix and Amazon.
A few other features of note: The Fire TV supports Miracast screen mirroring, in order to display content from compatible mobile devices. You can set up the player's screen saver to play photos stored in your Amazon cloud library. And finally, Freetime is a handy tool for parents that allows you to tailor age-appropriate content for your kids and limit the amount of time they can watch the FireTV.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...