(Pocket-lint) - Amazon gives you two choices when it comes to buying Fire TV products: there's the Fire TV Stick or the increasingly minimalist Fire TV.
The 2017 iteration of Fire TV sees it move closer to the Fire TV Stick in terms of form, moving on from being a set-top box and essentially becoming an HDMI accessory. In that sense, Amazon is mirroring the moves of Google's Chromecast, presenting a 4K device and a non-4K device, for those looking to increase the offering of their TV.
In this latest iteration, Amazon is not only offering 4K HDR but Dolby Atmos audio support too, in a box that's smaller and cheaper than the last iteration. What's not to love?
Dongle design removes distractions
- Single HDMI connection to TV
- 65 x 65 x 15mm
- Alexa Remote in box
Moving from a set-top box to an HDMI dongle that measures 65mm square and only 15mm thick is a big change of direction for Fire TV. It was compact before, but the latest iteration is an exercise in making it invisible; very much like the Chromecast Ultra, this is a potent device you can connect to an HDMI socket and then barely have to see again.
There's only one other connector on the Fire TV and that's the Micro-USB you'll need to power it and this will have to run out to a plug socket, so you'll need to hide that cable somewhere. Unlike the Chromecast Ultra there's no connection to Ethernet. If you want to hard-wire your Fire TV rather than using Wi-Fi, you'll need to buy the £13.99 accessory - and you'll need a good strong connection to get the best results.
Unlike the previous version, there are no microSD card slots or anything else, this is about as minimal as it gets.
The remote is the standard Alexa Voice Remote. It's not really a masterclass in remote design or build, but it's a lot better than some of the cheap remotes that are bundled with some other devices. You don't have to use it either, as you can use the app on your phone if you prefer, although we don't think that results in such a slick experience.
The buttons have a nice crisp action to them, so there's plenty of feedback so that you know you've pressed them. It also connects via Bluetooth rather than IR, naturally. As the box is hidden out of view, IR wouldn't work because there would be no line of sight.
- Connect, sign-in, watch TV
- HDR10 support, no Dolby Vision
- Dolby Atmos support, but no content
As we've said, all you have to do is plug the Fire TV into the wall and into a spare HDMI socket on your TV. Once you've switched to the relevant HDMI socket, you'll be in the setup pages for the Fire TV and asked to complete the essential tasks of connecting to a Wi-Fi network and signing into your Amazon account, as well as selecting the apps and services you'd like on your Fire TV.
The Fire TV will also go and check for software updates, which there may or may not be depending on when you buy your device. In all, setup takes less than 10 minutes in our experience.
That's about all there is to it, but you'll have to make sure that you get all the connections right to make the most of the Fire TV's potential. Firstly, you'll need to be connected to an HDMI socket that supports 4K HDR, and gives you HDCP 2.2 content protection. On older TVs you'll have to ensure that you have these, or if you're connecting to a AV receiver, again you need to make sure you have the right support.
As a general rule of thumb, recent devices will give you that support for HDCP 2.2, but you'll also need 4K HDR support. If connecting to a receiver, you need to make sure its capable of 4K HDR pass-through so those glorious pictures arrive on your screen. For some devices, you might have to enable Ultra HD colour or other settings to ensure that the TV knows it's getting that high-quality content.
The Fire TV supports HDR10 - the so-called generic standard for HDR, but there's no support for Dolby Vision.
We also mentioned Dolby Atmos on the audio front. If you're looking to extract the Atmos, you'll need to ensure that your TV will pass the audio out to a compatible sound system. Modern TVs will be able to do this via HDMI ARC connected to your Atmos soundbar or AV receiver. For many, connecting to an input on your Atmos AV receiver is likely to be the better option.
That said, we didn't find any Atmos content. It's early days for streaming Atmos, with most getting their immersive sound kicks from Blu-ray; Okja was the first show to offer Atmos on Netflix, but we've only seen that on LG TVs and Xbox One so far and it didn't appear to be enabled on the Fire TV when connected to an Atmos soundbar. Equally, we've found nothing in Amazon Video offering Atmos either, although we've asked Amazon to clarify what the position is with Atmos content.
We found that a Wi-Fi connection was good enough to support 4K streaming, although it depends where your router is and how you arrange your home network. Amazon say you'll need about 15Mbps to ensure you get the best quality, but if the connection dips, most of the services have some sort of variable bitrate that will reduce the quality to avoid buffering.
Amazon Video and Netflix are really what this is about
- Amazon, Netflix and YouTube offered
- Lacks strong 4K HDR catalogue
The two headline services on Fire TV are likely to be Amazon's own video and Netflix, as two of the biggest content providers offering 4K HDR content and with the most aggressive content procurement programmes, both come with high profile exclusives. For Amazon Prime members, there's the obvious advantage that the TV service is essentially free, right up to the highest quality. If you're not a Prime subscriber, then your access to content is going to be more limited to the stuff you want to rent or buy, although, if you've got Netflix, you could well enjoy that while dipping into Amazon's selection for rentals or purchases.
Both services have a great deal of 4K HDR content, although it's mostly TV programming, with access to movies being rather limited. Netflix is good at labelling the content so you can see what your TV can accept, so you'll find the HDR label in place, revealing that you'll be getting that higher-dynamic range performance. Some are Ultra HD instead, denoting that they are 4K resolution, but without that contrast and colour boost that comes with HDR.
The app on Fire TV is the same as you'd get on a smart TV - we tested it with the Samsung MU9000 - and found both to be as speedy as each other. What Netflix is not good at doing is telling you the quality you're actually watching. Samsung's native app will if you hit the "info" button on the remote, but Fire TV doesn't offer this, more's the shame.
Flip over to Amazon Video and again there's a good deal of 4K content, but Amazon isn't good at labelling it. It will break things down into Ultra HD recommendations, but it's not as well labelled when you open a specific programme as Netflix is. There's a huge advantage that Amazon offers, however, and that's telling you the quality of the stream when you hit a button on the remote.
Both these services offer great performance and if you're looking for the argument for getting the 4K HDR box, then you're mostly going to be sitting in these services. Watching Star Trek Discovery in HDR is wonderful, as are the moody depths of Bosch.
What's missing is easy access to a wider catalogue of Ultra HD HDR content. While you can buy a range of movies from Amazon, it sort of feels as though we're waiting for a big revolution in Amazon's content. Prices vary and the labelling, as we mentioned, is rather poor, so it feels like it needs an update.
For the UK you have BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My 5, so that's a full complement of those catch-up services, as well as some other offerings, the biggest of which is likely to be Spotify. There's no sign of the UK's other major service, Now TV, but there's also no support for 4K HDR content on any of those services either (although the UHD HLG demo on BBC iPlayer also works).
You also have access to YouTube and once you've signed in, this is also a back door to Google's Play Movies, so anything you buy or rent through that service will also be available through YouTube on Fire TV - although there's no 4K HDR content in the UK yet. YouTube is also one of the most progressive services you'll find, adopting new formats and higher resolutions too, so is a source of a good quality content (as well as a lot of rubbish).
The great thing about Fire TV is that these services are held together in a slick user interface, easily navigated with that remote, with the added advantage of using Alexa. This not only completes the picture for a smart entertainment system - Alexa can search really easily, but mostly across Netflix and Amazon - but also in terms of bringing Alexa to another room in the house, so you can do all those regular Alexa things, like control the lights, heating, or asking a load of whacky questions.
Alexa can't quite yet play something on your TV. When we asked our Echo to play Bosch on the TV, it directed us to set the TV service in the Alexa app, but there was no option for that in the menu, so we suspect it needs an update in the UK (this should work in the US). However, having access to Alexa via the remote saves a lot of typing in search requests. Ask for Luke Cage and it appears labelled as Netflix content, ask for The Goonies and you're served up the option to buy it from Amazon Video. Within an Alexa household familiar with the Echo, Alexa on the TV soon becomes rather normal, especially for children.
There's also integration with Amazon Video apps on other platforms too. If you want to switch from watching on your phone or tablet to your TV, then that's really simple too, basically offering the same sort of service that Chromecast does. There's also a second screen experience that will work through the app on your phone. When you're watching something that supports this service - like San Andreas for example - you can then get X-Ray details on your phone rather than on the TV screen.
Outside of those core apps, the appeal of Fire TV - and many devices like it - begins to wane. There are a lot of apps on offer, but some are likely to be of limited appeal, or only serve up a very limited selection of content. It's a distraction rather than a core offering and as we mentioned, it doesn't actually open the door to wider 4K services.
Amazon Fire TV vs Google Chromecast
- Fire TV gives you a remote and user interface
- Chromecast lacks Amazon Video
- Chromecast Ultra has Ethernet built-in
Seeing as we've just mentioned Google's rival, let's give you a quick run-down of what the difference is. Google Cast is an open format that many apps choose to support, both on the video and audio fronts. You can be browsing your phone and choose to watch a wide range of programmes via your Chromecast on your TV.
There's support from all of Google's holdings, like YouTube, Play Movies, as well as Photos and screen sharing from Android devices. Apps like BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Now TV support Chromecast, a does the Eurosport app, in fact the only real omission that matters is Amazon Video - that doesn't support Google Cast at all, we imagine, because Amazon has its own platform in Fire TV that it would rather promote.
Google's Cast is slightly more complicated to understand because there's no user interface: you browse on your phone and cast that to your TV, with your phone remaining as the controller.
Fire TV therefore is rather more conventional. You switch over to it and use the remote, so it's easier to understand for those who are less technically minded. It's also not dependent on the phone to control it, so it's better for children, who can pick up the remote and watch what they want without needing to mess around with a phone, with Alexa playing a part too.
With all that said, you'll find that "casting" works with Netflix from your phone on Fire TV too. When you hit the cast button, you'll see a range of options for viewing, and Fire TV is one. You just hit that and it will start playing on your TV. You can use Spotify Connect too, so there's a lot of parity between the offerings on these apps.
Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast Ultra are the same price at £69, but you get the feeling that Amazon offers you a little more, because it has a simpler interaction with the remote. In this case, being a little more conventional results in a better user experience.
Parental controls are well handled
- Control purchases
- Age restrictions on Amazon content
One thing that might not worry some users is parental controls, but Amazon seems to be doing a good job of including good controls across its products. Here you have the option to setup a PIN code that you'll need to enter for particular actions - like purchases - otherwise anyone could be spending your Amazon money.
You can also set the PIN code on app launches, but that's a little heavy handed. It means you'd need to use the PIN to do anything, which can be a little restrictive - and a little tedious. Amazon will also let you set the levels that apply to its own content, and these follow general video ratings - so you can allow access to everything, but if it has a 12 rating or above, a PIN will be needed.
Other apps will need to be manually configured, however, so if you want to restrict YouTube you'll find those settings in its own app, for example. On Netflix, it's worth setting up a child with their own profile so they are served content that's suitable for them.
Reality bites: Do you even need Fire TV in the smart TV era?
- Smart TVs offer most of the same apps
We love 4K HDR. It's something we seek out because it really takes advantage of the power that modern TVs have. But that's also one of the reasons to stop and question whether you actually need a device like this. If you have a TV that supports 4K HDR, you probably have all the smart apps that this device offers on your TV already - all the ones that matter, anyway.
If you're using a recent TV from Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Philips, LG and many others, you'll probably be well served for those major apps like Amazon Video and Netflix anyway. If you have a 4K HDR TV that doesn’t have any smart offering it's either a monitor, an older TV or something from a cheaper brand.
If you happen to fall into this latter category then go for it, it's a definite enhancement, bringing smart features to your TV.
We said the same thing of the Chromecast Ultra when we reviewed that because for all the fun it offers, a lot of the supporting apps exist as TV apps on most smart TVs already. We'd apply that same logic to Apple TV 4K, but there's one big difference: you can't get access to Apple's content via any other means and it's muscled onto the scene as one of the major providers of Dolby Vision and HDR10 content, so it has some unique appeal that these other devices don't offer, especially as a rental device for new releases.
In this sense, the regular Fire TV Stick makes a lot more sense than this more enhanced box; it will bring content to a wide range of TVs that aren't smart and typically, they tend to be TVs that aren't 4K HDR they're regular Full HD - so make sure you're buying something you actually need.
We can't fault Fire TV's redesign. Moving to be a more compact package is always good news, although the need to buy that Ethernet accessory sets it at a minor disadvantage to Chromecast Ultra. However, the addition of the Alexa remote, a stable and easy-to-use platform serving up everything you've been watching recently, and wider interaction with other Amazon devices, really sets the Fire TV out as a star product for those Prime members.
At the time of review it feels like there are a few dots to be connected: full integration with other Alexa devices around the home in the UK is missing and not being able to find any Atmos content leaves that feature as something we're yet to explore. There also isn't really a huge wealth of 4K HDR content to access, outside of the Amazon or Netflix catalogue.
What the Fire TV offers is a way to plug a potential hole in your entertainment setup and it does so in a fun way that's easier to understand than Google's Chromecast. The only barrier that remains is whether this actually does anything that your 4K HDR smart TV can't already do.
Fire TV comes recommended, but make sure you actually need it.
Alternatives to consider
Apple TV 4K
Apple TV is twice the price of the Fire TV, but it offers something that Amazon lacks: access to a wider catalogue of quality content. While many aspects of the Apple TV are fairly irrelevant to a smart TV owner, it's access to HDR and Dolby Vision content that makes this box unique. It might be expensive, but it's more than just a streaming box for Amazon and Netflix. Apple is also unlikely to relinquish this content to anyone else, so it's Apple TV or nothing. There's no support for Dolby Atmos, however.
Read the full review: Apple TV 4K
Google Chromecast Ultra
Chromecast is about as simple as it gets. It might even to too simple to understand, with no remote or user interface, just the necessity that you cast what you want to watch from your phone. Like the Fire TV, its position is mostly about serving up YouTube and Netflix on your TV, lacking the ability to offer Amazon Movies. There is some integration with Google Home, however, but the lack of remote usually makes it a bit confusing for some.
Read the full review: Google Chromecast Ultra