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...
If you're not familiar with the original Amazon Fire TV box, I recommend you read my review of that product first. The menu design and overall user experience have not changed dramatically, so my focus here will be primarily on what's new and different.
I will remind readers that--as with the previous player--the Fire TV's menu design has a strong Amazon emphasis and is ideally suited to Amazon Prime subscribers. For $99 per year, subscribers get unlimited access to a large selection of TV shows, movies, and music (along with unlimited cloud-based photo storage and 5 GB of video/file storage). The Fire TV menu is designed to give you easy access to all of that Prime content, as well as Amazon's pay-per-use video purchases and rentals that do not require a Prime subscription.
That being said, the player does include access to a ton of entertainment apps. Amazon claims over 3,000 channels, apps, and games at this stage, and most of the big names in video/music streaming are represented. The list includes Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Sling TV, HBO Go/Now, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Pandora, Vevo, TuneIn, Plex, and various Disney, NBC, Fox, and CBS channels. A few notable omissions are VUDU, CinemaNow, M-GO, Google Play, Tidal, and Rhapsody.
For video fans. the big addition, content-wise, is support for the 4K/Ultra HD versions of Netflix and Amazon, and I encountered no playback issues with this 4K content. As always, video quality is dependent primarily on the source and on your Internet speed at any given moment, So 4K playback quality through the Fire TV ranged from mediocre to excellent, depending on what I watched and when I watched it. I liked that, through both Netflix and Amazon, film and TV episodes--like The Da Vinci Code, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Transparent, and Mozart in the Jungle--were output at 2160p/24 instead of 2160p/60--something the Roku 4 that I recently reviewed does not offer. However, the fact that player's resolution switches between 1080p and 2160p, depending on the source, might be an irritation for some people. Not everyone likes a Source Direct mode, as it can trip up AV receivers and video projectors that are slow to switch between resolutions.
The second-gen Fire TV promises faster performance, so I compared it directly with my original Fire TV, which had received an automatic update to add features like Alexa and create an interface identical to the new model. The second-gen model was definitely faster to open apps the first time I launched them; however, when returning to an app during the same viewing session, the speeds of the two products were nearly identical, with the new model have only the slightest advantage. Once an app has been launched, it re-opens instantaneously; and, due to Amazon's Advanced Streaming and Prediction technology that learns your habits and prepares content for fast playback, streamed content begins immediately, too. The new model did prove to be just a hair faster than the Roku 4 in launching apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora, but the speed of navigation and response to remote commands were virtually identical between the two boxes. The Fire TV platform was very reliable; I didn't experience freezes or crashes with any of the big-name apps--although some of the smaller apps like the VLC and Vimu media players weren't as stable.
Speaking of media playback, there are a host of apps available that allow for playback of your personal media files, including popular ones like Plex and VLC and a number of low-priced AirPlay/DLNA apps. However, Amazon doesn't offer its own media app that puts access to all of your USB or NAS files--be they photos, videos, or music--in one place, the way Roku does with its Media Player channel. The VLC app did not play back the full 4K resolution of files stored on my Video Essentials UHD USB drive, nor could I find another app that was able to do so.
One nice, relatively new feature (technically, it was launched last April in an update to the previous Fire TV) is called X-Ray. Exclusive to content being streamed by Amazon, X-Ray allows you to dig deeper into a show or movie's actors, music, director, etc. Pressing the remote's down arrow during playback reveals little icons for the actors currently on the screen or the song that's currently playing. Trying to remember where you've seen a certain actor before? No need to pull up IMDb on your phone; X-ray is linked to IMDb, and you can click on that actor's name to get a list of his/her well-known roles. Yes, this could get quite annoying for anyone watching the movie with you, but it's a convenient tool nonetheless.
Now let's talk about Alexa, which is the same voice-activated service used in the Amazon Echo. The original Fire TV's voice search was already very good at finding content based on title, actor, director, or genre. Alexa broadens the scope beyond video. For instance, you can search for music content in Amazon Prime. Ask Alexa to play music from a certain artist like Alabama Shakes, and it will immediately launch a shuffle of that artist's music. You can ask what the weather will be like in your town and get a local forecast. When I asked, "Did the Texas Longhorns basketball team win?" Alexa showed me the score of the most recent game, as well as a listing of when the team was scheduled to play again. If you own any Alexa-compatible smart home devices, you can control them via the Fire TV.
In terms of 4K content, the Fire TV doesn't currently have as many options as some of its competitors. It lacks 4K apps for VUDU, M-GO, and UltraFlix, and it lacks the needed VP9 decoder to stream 4K content from YouTube. Also, the USB port does not appear to support a full 4K output resolution.
Although Alexa works well and is very easy and convenient to use, the search function is still Amazon-centric. Hulu, HBO Go, Crackle, Showtime, and Starz have been added to the search function, but Amazon is always going to show you its streaming options first. If (and that's a big if) Amazon lists another service in the search results, it's usually buried under the heading "More Ways to Watch." Netflix is not included in the search function.
It's disappointing that Amazon opted to remove the optical digital audio output, as that makes it harder to connect the player to many soundbars, powered speakers, and older AV receivers.
Comparison and Competition
The biggest competitor to the second-gen Fire TV is the $129 Roku 4. As I discussed above, the two players are very similar in speed and reliability, they both offer 4K support and voice search, and they both offer a lot of big-name apps/channels. Roku has more 4K apps and better overall 4K support, and it has a more comprehensive cross-platform search tool that gives you more options. Also, while Amazon got rid of its optical digital audio output this year, Roku added one to the Roku 4 to improve compatibility with a wider range of audio products.
the NVIDIA Shield is another competitive 4K streaming media player with voice search and a strong gaming emphasis. The Shield is built on the Android TV platform and thus emphasizes Google Play over other services; it offers Netflix and YouTube in 4K, but not Amazon, M-GO, VUDU, or UltraFlix. However, it supports HDR and has a 16GB hard drive for media storage. The Shield's speed and reliability are on par with the Amazon and Roku players. It comes with a gaming controller instead of the HT-style remote (sold separately), and NVIDIA offers its own streaming game service. At $199, the Shield is twice as expensive as the basic Fire TV, although Amazon's comparable gaming-oriented system costs $139.99.
the new Apple TV ($149 to $199) has enhanced Siri voice search, a 32- or 64GB hard drive, a stronger gaming emphasis, and (finally) access to an apps store. However, it does not support 4K and thus isn't really in the same competitive category as the Amazon, Roku, and NVIDIA boxes.
With the second-generation Fire TV, Amazon has made a very good product even better, adding 4K support, a faster processor, and more robust search capabilities without increasing the price. My general verdict about the Fire TV remains the same as it did in my review of the original: It's a great streaming solution for Amazon Prime customers who can make the most of its Amazon-centric search tools and its unlimited movie, TV, music, and photo services. We're a Prime household, and the Fire TV has been and will continue to be great for us--our six-year-old loves the voice remote, and we love that there's lots of clearly labeled Prime content at the ready that doesn't cost us extra. There are also a lot of fun, family-friendly games that are easy to play using the basic Fire TV remote.
That being said, for the serious 4K fan, the Fire TV doesn't compete with the Roku 4 in current content or future compatibility, nor does it offer the 4K-focused menu design and cross-platform search that make the Roku 4 such a pleasure to use. Amazon needs to at least add a few more 4K-friendly apps--particularly, VUDU and M-GO--if it wants to take on the reigning champ in this new 4K era.
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