Amazon Fire TV (2017) review – CNET

Amazon is all-in with Alexa voice control, and that goes for its Fire TV streaming devices, too. The $40 Fire TV Stick can now work with an Echo in your home to control TV, reacting to your voice commands without having to use the remote, and it works great.

If you’re also all-in with Alexa, and happen to own a fancy new 4K TV, the new $70 Fire TV is the logical choice over the stick. It streams 4K HDR TV shows and movies from Netflix, Amazon and others, promising the best video quality those services have to offer. Of course, its direct competitor — the identically priced Roku Streaming Stick Plus — does all that too, but Amazon’s voice features are much better. Being able to say “Alexa, play Orange is the New Black” into thin air and have your television react is pretty cool, and I’m pretty sure Roku knows it.

If you don’t care much about controlling TV hands-free with voice, however, the Roku is a better choice. The main reason is Roku’s interface, which puts all apps on an equal footing. Fire TV, on the other hand, heavily steers you toward Amazon Video, at the expense of staples like Netflix and HBO. You can still use those apps easily enough but not without experiencing the hard sell — a screen full of Amazon videos and promotions — everywhere you look.

Both $70 streamers work very well and run circles around the built-in app suites on most 4K TVs. They also cost less than any other 4K streamer aside from the Google Chromecast Ultra, which lacks both a separate remote and Amazon Video, rendering it a distant third place in my book. The choice between the two, at least for folks unwilling to fork over for an Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield boils down to voice features (Amazon) vs. a neutral interface (Roku). In my book, Roku wins. Look for my Roku Streaming Stick Plus review soon.

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Like a streaming stick, the Fire TV can be powered by your TV’s USB port (pictured) or the included power adapter. I recommend using the power adapter for faster start-up.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fire TV fun facts

  • It’s designed to hide behind your TV out of sight, and attached to an HDMI port with the included built-in cable, like a slightly larger (and square) version of Google Chromecast rather than a streaming stick.
  • To use hands-free, far-field voice control, you’ll need to get an Echo or other Alexa-capable speaker. Otherwise you’ll have to use the remote for voice commands, just like on Roku.
  • It lacks apps for Vudu and Google Play Movies, but if you own titles on those apps (or even on Apple’s iTunes) you can play them using Movies Anywhere. They’ll just appear in your Amazon library — which may necessitate a lot of scrolling. And you’ll also miss out on 4K, HDR or Atmos.
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Thanks to Movies Anywhere, my Google Play, iTunes and Vudu movies appear in Fire TV’s video library.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Just like Roku, it lacks Dolby Vision HDR, so all HDR is delivered as HDR10. This isn’t a big deal unless 1) you have a Dolby Vision-capable TV, and 2) it performs significantly better with Dolby Vision compared to HDR10. If you want Dolby Vision your only current streaming options are the much more expensive Apple TV 4K or the apps built into your TV.
  • 4K HDR video on Fire TV is currently available from Netflix, YouTube and Amazon itself. Apps with 4K (but not HDR) support are Smithsonian and Curiosity Stream, and Amazon says it’s working to add more 4K and HDR support soon. Roku has more selection, including all of those as well as FandangoNow in 4K HDR, Vudu and Plex in 4K (but not HDR), and niche apps like UltraFlix, Toon Goggles, 4K Universe.
  • Streaming in 4K requires more bandwidth and, in the case of Netflix, a more-expensive plan. Amazon recommends 15mbps is ample for 4K streaming, while YouTube and Netflix recommend 20. If your Wi-Fi near the Fire TV isn’t up to snuff, Amazon sells a wired Ethernet adapter for $15.
  • Aside from 4K the only major advantage over the standard Fire TV Stick is a faster processor. In my side-by-side tests, however, navigation, app loading and general responsiveness were identical (and excellent) between the two, even on “heavy” apps like PlayStation Vue.
  • Some apps, like Vue, HBO Now and Watch ESPN, are better on Fire TV than on Roku, with a more updated interface and in some cases, more features. Many others, however, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and Sling TV, are basically the same on both.
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Brace yourself for ads from Amazon.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Welcome to the Amazon jungle

The show-centric Fire TV menu system should feel familiar to anyone who’s used Netflix. It borrows heavily from that interface, with a prominent image at the top and rows of thumbnails below. Unlike Roku or Apple TV (or your phone) you can’t fully customize the home screen layout, and as a result you’ll see more Amazon content than anything else, but you can control some things. Your most recently used apps and a row called “your apps and games” both appear toward the top, offering easy access, and you can customize the latter row.

Some apps like Netflix and HBO get “recommends” rows to show promoted titles, but only Amazon titles get a spot in the top Recent row. Text at the very top of the page labeled Your Videos, Movies and TV Shows lead to primarily to Amazon videos, rather than incorporate stuff from a bunch of sources, like Apple’s TV app does. Search results also tend to favor Amazon, although other services like Hulu and Netflix come up in results, too, if you click through.

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“Alexa, watch Stranger Things.” If you own an Echo, Dot or other Alexa speakers, it’s that easy to command TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Voice control with Alexa and an Echo Dot worked very well, just like I found on other Fire TV devices. Commands like “Home” and “Launch Netflix” worked as expected, and I didn’t have to use cumbersome phrasing like adding “on Fire TV” to the end of commands. Don’t expect perfection, however; “Show me the weather on Fire TV” caused a search for shows with the word “weather” in the title, not the on-screen weather report I wanted. In short, you can’t completely ditch that Fire TV remote just yet. Check out my Fire TV/Echo deep dive for more info.

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