Amid a slew of Echo-related announcements last month, news of Amazon’s revamped Fire TV may have gotten a little lost. But the upgraded $70 rival to devices like the Roku, Chromecast and Apple TV, has the potential to be a top seller for Amazon, given its competitive price point for a 4K streamer, and voice support via Alexa.
Yes, it looks weird…
The device itself is a little odd – it’s not a stick and not a box, but is instead a 2.6 inch x 2.6 inch square that hangs from your TV via its attached HDMI cable. This oversized dongle form factor was first seen with Chromecast’s Ultra’s round puck – but Amazon’s is larger.
The advantage of the dongle form factor is that you don’t need to have your streaming box on display. It’s also better if you’re wall mounting a TV, and don’t have a place to put a box. Plus, a dongle is more portable, if you’re thinking of occasionally moving it in between rooms or taking it on trips.
Better 4K & faster
However, the biggest difference with the new Fire TV – beyond its odd shape – is that it now supports 4K Ultra HD up to 2160p at 60fps instead of 30fps, like the old model, and adds support for HDR-10 (high dynamic range).
This is only an advantage for those who have already upgraded their television to a 4K Ultra HD or HDR TV, and are now looking for a streaming device that can deliver this improved, true-to-life picture quality when they’re watching 4K content.
The Fire TV also supports Dolby Atmos audio, and has bumped up to faster 1.5GHz processor compared with the 1.3GHz processor in the older model. But beyond these handful of improvements, there’s not much else that’s new here. In other words, if you’re currently happy with your Fire TV and don’t have a 4K or HDR TV, there isn’t much need to upgrade your existing device for the time being.
That said, if you’re in the market for a streamer and don’t want to pay a premium just to get 4K support, the Fire TV is worth considering. Its nearest competitors, in terms of price, are the Roku Streaming Stick+ and Google Chromecast Ultra – both of which are also $70.
But Fire TV’s advantage here is Alexa.
The Alexa advantage
Even if you haven’t yet been motivated to bring one of Amazon’s smart Echo speakers into your home, the Fire TV is a relatively cheap way to start using the popular virtual assistant.
The Fire TV ships with an Alexa remote, which lets you control your TV and find things to watch just by speaking.
For example, you can ask Alexa to play a favorite show, launch a streaming app, find programs by genre, search titles by actor, fast forward or rewind your program, advance to the next episode and more. This is done by using simple commands like, “Alexa, play ‘Game of Thrones,'”or “Alexa, launch Netflix,” for example, among other things.
And if you already have an Echo device, you can take things even further. Instead of pressing a button on the voice remote to use Alexa, you can just speak out loud to control your Fire TV hands-free. This may feel a little strange at first, especially if you’re not used to talking to Alexa in your home, but for those who’ve grown comfortable with Amazon’s voice assistant by way of the Echo, it feels fairly natural to say, “Alexa, watch Fire TV” instead of digging in the sofa cushions for the remote.
Alexa could be a little faster though…
Still, the bigger advantage to having an Alexa-powered Fire TV is not necessarily the voice-activated TV element, but everything else Alexa does. It’s the same argument as to why an Echo is handy to have around. Alexa in Fire TV can also control your smart home devices – like turning on your lights, adjusting your thermostat, or popping up a video feed from the baby monitor, security camera, or video doorbell, on your TV’s screen.
Today, Alexa works with a number of smart home device makers, including Nest, Ring, Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wemo, Insteon, Arlo, Wink, Ecobee, Lutron, Honeywell, and others.
Plus, Alexa can do many other things, like play music from Prime Music or third-party services like Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and others; give you informational updates, like the weather, traffic and the news; set reminders; create lists; and tap into Alexa extensions, called Skills, that let you do even more, like play games, order a pizza or call for an Uber, for example.
Fire TV isn’t the only streamer with voice control, to be clear. Roku offers a line of popular streamers with voice remotes, but Roku’s voice functionality is limited to searching its channels and finding programs – it doesn’t control the smart home. Apple TV 4K has Siri, but starts at $179. While it does support HDR by way of the fancier Dolby Vision compared with Fire TV’s HDR-10, it’s mainly a device for those who live and breathe the Apple universe, and likely have built their entire media collections from the iTunes marketplace.
Meanwhile, Android TV offers Google Assistant, but the software isn’t powering a line of devices from Google itself. Instead, the TV platform is licensed to third parties who use it in their own boxes or TVs. And many of the Android TV streamers are more focused on gaming, like the Nvidia Shield or Razer Forge TV.
Streaming content, Prime perks
Fire TV, like other home media player devices, supports all the major streaming services, including big names like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, Starz, and of course, Prime Video. It also offers access to the newer crop of live TV internet services, like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, CBS All Access, and Hulu Live TV. There are over 500,000 movies and TV episodes available via Fire TV, and 190 channels and apps can be accessed via voice search. (Roku, for comparison’s sake, can search across over 500 channels.)
Another perk for Amazon Prime members is that, beyond access to the free movies and TV shows via Prime Video, you can now watch Thursday Night Football for free. Prime members can also add take advantage of Amazon Channels to pay for access to premium networks like HBO, Showtime and Starz without a cable TV subscription.
You don’t need a Fire TV to get to Amazon’s content, of course – the Prime Video app will do. But Fire TV does make it easier.
Overall, the Fire TV home screen’s layout is fairly simple to navigate, with its thumbnail images and personalized recommendations, including those from non-Amazon services, like Netflix and HBO. The interface makes it easy to find your favorite shows and streaming apps, though it does promote Amazon’s own content.
I’m also not a fan of the display ads that interrupt the interface:
In the past, I’ve tended to prefer Roku’s agnostic list of streaming apps, but Fire TV’s newer Echo integration is making Amazon’s streamer more compelling for me. But to some extent, the choice between the $70 4K streamers (Chromecast Ultra, Fire TV, and Roku Streaming Stick+) will come down to personal preference.
With so many options for streaming media players today, the new Fire TV makes the most sense for Amazon Prime members, those who want a 4K streamer for cheap, and those who want to leverage Alexa’s voice control capabilities.
The Fire TV is shipping on October 25.
- Size: 2.6″ x 2.6″
- Output resolution: 2160p, 1080p, and 720p up to 60 fps
- Quad-core processor: 1.5 GHz (vs 1.3 GHz for Fire TV Stick)
- Memory: 2 GB (vs 1 GB for Fire TV Stick)
- Storage: 8 GB (same as Fire TV Stick)
- Audio: Dolby Atmos (vs Dolby Audio for Fire TV Stick)
- Wi-Fi: 802.11ac dual-band MIMO wireless
- Amazon Ethernet Adapter supported (optional; $15)
- Alexa Voice remote included