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HolidayBuyer's Guide

Amazon Fire TV (2015) review:

Great streaming features to tangle you in Amazon's jungle

I did just that with the Sony XBR-75X950C, a high-end 75-inch TV, to judge 4K image quality between the old, non-4K Fire TV box and the new one. As I've seen in the past, 4K delivered only minor improvements at best over Amazon's "1080p HD" stream, the highest achievable with non-4K devices.

Switching quickly between the two boxes watching "Lawrence of Arabia" from a theatrical seating distance of anout eight feet, I detected slight increases in sharpness at times, for example in the shag of the rug and the actors' hands in Prince Feisal's tent. Even on the big 75-inch TV, however, the 1080p HD stream looked great, and it was tough to tell the difference. I also didn't detect much, if any, difference between the 4K and the Blu-ray version of the film; if anything the Blu-ray looked a bit cleaner in parts.

Even for 4K TV owners who want that last bit of streaming image quality, however, the 4K capability of the Fire TV box might not be that important. That's because nearly every 4K TV already has the ability to stream 4K video from Netflix and Amazon, and often from other sources, including YouTube, Vudu, UltraFlix, ToonGoggles and others.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As of today the only sources on the Fire TV box that support 4K are Amazon (duh) and Netflix. Amazon tells me that 4K support for both YouTube and PLEX are coming soon, but didn't name any other forthcoming 4K-capable apps.

The two main competing 4K-capable boxes, the Nvidia Shield and the Roku 4, have more 4K apps today. The Shield has Netflix, YouTube, PLEX and numerous video player apps including VLC Player and MX Player, but it doesn't have an Amazon Video app. The Roku 4 has better 4K app support than either one, with Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, PLEX, Vudu, M-Go, ToonGoggles and the Roku Media Player app all offering 4K content.

Unlike those two boxes, the HDMI output on the Fire TV is only HDMI 1.4, not HDMI 2.0. It works fine for 4K material up to 30 frames per second, which includes just about everything available today. On the other hand, 4K material at 60 frames per second is certainly possible in the future, and the Fire TV won't be able to play it.

The lack of HDMI 2.0 support also means that the Fire TV box won't be able to play back HDR sources, which generally require HDMI 2.0a connections. HDR promises even better image quality than 4K, with brighter highlights and expanded color. Amazon itself was the first to deliver HDR content, and offers a handful of HDR shows and movies. Ironically, if you have an HDR-capable TV, the only way to watch Amazon's HDR content is via the TV's own built-in Amazon app, not via the new Fire TV 4K.

Both Nvidia and Roku have told me their boxes might be able to be updated to support HDR, but Amazon told me the Fire TV cannot.

Amazon touts the ability of the Fire TV to handle 1080p TV shows and movies that are delivered via the HEVC codec. HEVC is a new compression scheme that can deliver the same quality as its predecessor, AVC (aka H.264), but use half the bandwidth to do so. It's most often associated with 4K streaming, but Amazon is saying that it also provides benefits with 1080p content.

I asked for further clarification and here's what Amazon told me. "Currently HEVC is used for our Ultra HD titles, but 90% of the Amazon Video catalog (UHD and non-UHD) will be encoded with HEVC by the end of the year. Good examples include Elysium, After Earth and Laurence of Arabia. We'll begin encoding non-UHD titles with HEVC in November. We'll deliver HEVC streams on any device with 1) the Amazon Video app, 2) an HEVC capable Amazon Video player and 3) HEVC capable hardware. This would include the new Fire TV, 4K TVs and the Roku 4."

Sarah Tew/CNET

The apps: Almost everything is here, if you can find it

Even though Fire TV really tries to get you to use Amazon for everything, the device also supports numerous third-party apps. In fact, Amazon claims to have the most "channels, apps and games" of any streaming media player -- more than 3,000 by its count. Yes, that's more than Roku's latest claim ("2,700 video and music channels, and more than 100 games") but I'm guessing Amazon's "more than 800 games" is what pushes it over the top.

To find them you'll use the Apps tab waaay down at the bottom of the menu, which is broken down into categories like Top Free, Spotlight (with promoted apps), Recommended for You, Top Grossing, Based on Your Books, Recommended Games and more. The Categories section is further broken down by genre. You can also search for and add apps at Amazon's website, which is quite a bit easier in my experience.

Despite Amazon's higher overall total, Roku maintains the upper hand in supporting major apps. Fire TV doesn't support the Vudu app, nor does it offer an app for Google Play Movies and TV, M-Go, NFL, NHL, CBS All Access, Nick, Comedy Central, or SiriusXM, for example (Amazon says apps for NBC, Fox Now, FXNow and Sony Vue are coming soon). All of the ones I just named, and Sony Vue, are currently available on Roku. Meanwhile just about every worthwhile video and music app on Amazon is also on Roku; the only other exceptions I found were Watch ABC and file hoarder favorite Kodi.

There's no native Spotify app for Fire TV, but the platform does support Spotify Connect. If you're a Spotify Premium subscriber, you can use the Spotify app on your phone or tablet to play music via the Fire TV. This feature doesn't work with free Spotify accounts.

By the way, some early Amazon user opinions complain about lack of support for 5.1 audio on some new Fire TV apps, namely Netflix. In my testing of a unit that Amazon supplied me, one with older software (version, that was the case, and in fact that unit also failed to show Amazon's own 4K content. Meanwhile a unit CNET bought from directly, one with software version, delivered 5.1 surround on Netflix as well as Amazon's 4K content. Amazon says the latest software will be available to all users.

In my testing PLEX and of course Amazon videos also delivered 5.1 surround, and Amazon claims Starz and HBO Go do as well (I didn't test those).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fire advantages: Hotel Wi-Fi, parental controls, and everything Amazon

Fire TV offers a few extras you won't find on other streamers. Most of them are specific to Amazon content, or require Amazon content to work, but they're still potentially appealing.

One of the most useful for travelers is the ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks that require an extra layer of security, known as captive portal. It allows Fire TV to work with a hotel's Wi-Fi or wired Internet connection, even if those force connecting devices to see a special Web page to grant access. Such pages are typically filled with fine print, advertising and confirmation buttons, and might even ask for your name or room number. The Fire TV's native network setup screen (below) allows you to click "I agree" and input that information, after which you'll have all the connectivity your hotel room offers.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In addition to hotels, captive portal authentication is common in college dormitories, apartment complexes and offices. The feature should work on them all. Roku recently added this feature too but it requires you to use the Roku app to connect; it's not native to the device like with Fire TV.

Among the Amazon-centric features, FreeTime is my favorite. It's great for parents who want an easy way to limit what kids do with their Fire TV screen time, and no other TV-based has anything like it. You can create a profile for each kid, and designate which videos, games and apps they can access. You can also set time limit. Leaving FreeTime mode requires entry of a PIN (one that your kid, ideally, doesn't know) to prevent access to other content on the device.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a great system and very well thought-out, but of course it requires a $2.99/month subscription to activate. And of course it's no proof against a kid who knows how to use your universal remote to switch away from Fire TV altogether.

Tip for parents: Even if you don't subscribe to FreeTime, it's still worthwhile activating Amazon's basic parental controls, which require a PIN before any purchase. You can also block access to the Games & Apps, Photos and/or Music sections of the menu.

X-Ray is Amazon's distraction engine. Watch an Amazon video with X-Ray and at any time you can summon information on the actors, the characters, the music and even trivia. Of course it doesn't work with video from non-Amazon apps.

MayDay Screen Sharing allows a live Amazon support rep to help you by accessing the Fire TV directly, to walk users through issues and even drawing on the screen. You can call a service number, or select an option on the Fire TV's menu and have someone call you.

Also worth a mention is ASAP, the feature that starts streaming many TV shows and movies almost immediately. It works very well in our testing, beating out any other app or device to the punch by a few seconds at least, but (all together now) IT ONLY WORKS WITH AMAZON CONTENT.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Like other streaming devices, Amazon has a dedicated Fire TV remote app for iOS and Android. It replicates all of the functions of the main remote, including voice recognition, and can ease entry of text characters via the keyboard on your phone.

Gaming Edition: Swap the remote for a controller, SD card

Ever since its debut Fire TV focussed on gaming, offering an optional game controller ($40 US) to save users the horror of trying to play its 800-plus games via the included remote. Almost all of those games are classified as "casual," meaning they were originally developed for phones and tablets, and don't typically offer the depth, or the graphics, expected of a current video games for consoles and PCs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you care about casual gaming on a streaming box, you may be interested in the Fire TV Gaming Edition. It swaps out the Fire TV remote and replaces it with an all-new, redesigned game controller, complete with a mic for voice interaction, and includes a 32GB SD card to allow storage of more games. Two free games are also included, DuckTales Remastered and Shovel Knight, a $25 value.

Otherwise it's identical to the standard Fire TV; there's no hardware or software difference between the boxes themselves, just between their included accessories.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I played a few games including Pac-Man 256, Rabbids Big Bang, Lego Star Wars, Disney's Castle of Illusion and RipTide GP2. The new controller is an improvement on the old one. The shape felt more natural and compact, and the triggers, buttons and D-pad more solid rather than clicky and hollow. I didn't miss the dedicated transport controls found on the old one. Voice recognition seemed just as good as on the standard controller.

It's no grade-A controller like those of the PS4 or Xbox One, but I felt it more comfortable to play than the overlarge Nvidia Shield controller. You can add additional controllers for split-screen and co-op gaming on titles that support it. You can also supposedly pair the Fire TV with just about any third-party Bluetooth controller, although the PS4 controller I briefly tried didn't work.

It's also worth noting that the Fire TV is one of the only devices to work with GameFly Streaming, a game streaming service similar to Sony PlayStation Now or Nvidia GeForce Now that starts at $6.99 per month. I tried giving it a spin but got an error message claiming that my network wasn't supported, and to check the FAQ. Annoyed by the failure -- my Fire TV was connected to a very fast 5GHz network, which the FAQ says is supported -- I gave up.

For just about everybody, the standard Fire TV box at $99 is a better value than the Gaming Edition at $139. Amazon sells the voice control remote for $30, and since the new gaming controller with voice is $50, that's a difference of $20. 32GB SD cards can be bought (at Amazon!) for about $14. The free games make up the difference, but $140 is still a lot to pay for a streaming box.

If I cared that much about casual gaming on a big screen, I'd try out a standard Fire TV with a third-party controller first (here's a decent guide). Or buy an Nvidia Shield.

The Fire TV Stick is a better value than the Fire TV box. Sarah Tew

Conclusion: A very good streamer that's best for heavy Amazon users

If you subscribe to Amazon Prime Video and not to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Sling TV or other apps, the Fire TV is a great device. But if you get your streaming video from multiple sources, especially if you pay multiple monthly subscription fees for it, Roku has the advantage.

Even for buyers firmly and happily enmeshed in Amazon's jungle, the new box isn't the best value. The Fire TV Stick costs half as much (or less, if you don't want the voice remote), performs just as well and offers nearly every worthwhile feature the box does, with the exception of 4K and high-end game support. If you like the Fire TV's Amazon-friendly extras but want to pay less, go with the Stick instead of the box.

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