The selection of set-top boxes available to Brits is growing fast and becoming more competitive, with a host of streaming tech from the likes of Sky, Apple and Roku vying for your cash. Amazon is a high-profile competitor, and its latest streaming device delivers plenty of features and access to many of the UK's most important streaming apps, with Now TV the only notable exception.
Fire TV has some cool advantages over Roku and competing devices, including excellent parental controls, great support and the ability to work with tricky hotel Wi-Fi systems (although Roku recently added that last feature). It's also the only major UK set-top box to have 4K streaming and voice search. It falls down, however, in prioritising Amazon's own selection of TV shows and movies over other providers -- a hard sell that's embodied in the menus and search results, which make it tough to find other programming. Moreover, the UK version of the hardware lacks two key services found on the US version -- the Alexa voice assistant and FreeTime kids' programming package.
If you're already a heavy Amazon Prime user, that may not bother you, but if you're looking for the broadest possible range of TV apps and services, you'd be better off with the £60, which recently added Amazon's own streaming service to its line-up. Alternately, the £35 Fire TV Stick delivers much of the same functionality of the Fire TV box reviewed here at less than half the price.
Version and pricing information: This review applies to the 2015 Amazon Fire TV, in the UK. A 2015 Amazon Fire TV Gaming Edition available only in the US includes a game controller, 32GB SD card and two free games, but doesn't include the voice remote. The Amazon Fire TV sells for £80 in the UK. You can find the US version of this review here.
The hardware: Slick, simple and square
The Fire TV box gets off on the right foot with a slim, sharp design. It's typically tiny for the breed, a perfect square that's shorter than any Roku and either the old Apple TV or the new one, and substantial enough to not get pulled around by connected cords. There's not much else to it: glossy black sides, matte black top with the Amazon logo, a tiny LED on the front and the ports on the back.
Those include one HDMI, one Ethernet, one microSD slot, a USB port and a power connector. The previous version included an optical digital audio jack, which helps with connections to older AV receivers and other audio gear that lacks HDMI, but the new one drops it. In exchange, Amazon added the microSD slot, which can take cards up to 128GB.
While it seems like a great option to allow memory expansion via inexpensive cards -- as opposed, say, to charging an extra £40 for 32GB more, like Apple does -- most people will be fine with the internal storage of 8GB. That's because beyond games, most apps are relatively small. If you plan to do a lot of gaming on the Fire TV, the expandable memory could be a boon.
The USB port allows the Fire TV to play media files from attached USB thumbdrives and other devices. I tested it briefly with the VLC player app and it worked well, although it wouldn't play back 4K files at 4K resolution, only 1080p. The same went for 4K files I had loaded on a microSD card: they only played back at 1080p on the Fire TV. Amazon says 4K support is rolling out to more apps soon, however.
The new Fire TV has 75 percent more processing power than the old one, according to Amazon, with a 64-bit quad-core processor, a dedicated graphics processor (GPU) and 2GB of memory. In my experience these kinds of claims matter little in daily use; most streaming boxes released in the last couple years are very snappy to respond. The exception, again, is for gaming, where the Fire TV's beefier silicon could prove useful.
One advantage over streaming sticks is the presence of an Ethernet port, and in many locations Ethernet will provide a more reliable, higher-bandwidth stream than Wi-Fi (something that's especially important for 4K streaming, which generally needs a hefty 15Mbps connection). Of course, Fire TV supports the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, too, and it worked flawlessly in our test lab.
The remote: Voice tops a top-notch clicker
I've always liked the Fire TV remote, and the new version is an improvement. It's a bit longer with a better-integrated battery cover and better feel on the clicks, particularly the central circle button used to select items. The matte, slightly rubbery exterior feels nice and natural, an impression augmented by the rounded back with its index-finger-friendly indentation.
Button placement prioritises voice, with the mic button and actual microphone topmost on the clicker. Voice is well done from an interface perspective. Click and hold the button from anywhere in the menu system and an onscreen prompt appears with the word "listening" and a blue waveform graphic. Speak, and stuff happens (see below). If the system recognises what you say there's a reassuring speech-to-text rendition of your words onscreen. If not, which happens much more rarely than you might think, you'll get a "Sorry, could you repeat that? It wasn't quite clear."
I appreciate the inclusion of actual fast-forward and rewind keys in addition to the standard play-pause. In addition to Home and Back, there's a key with three horizontal lines, reminiscent of the Android hamburger, that does the same thing: open up menus in some apps for additional functions. More often than not, however, pressing it does nothing.
Like most other streaming device clickers, the Fire TV doesn't require line of sight to the box, so you can point it anywhere, or bury the box deep in the recesses of your entertainment system, and still maintain control. It lacks the nifty headphone jack of the Roku 3 and remotes, but, much like the new Apple TV, you can pair a pair of Bluetooth headphones with the Fire TV for wireless private listening.
Voice search: Satisfying recognition, but not so smart in the UK
The Fire TV's voice search is pleasingly accurate, with the built-in microphone never mangling my words, and doing a great job of finding results. The experience was solid enough that I preferred using voice search over typing in my search terms, which isn't fun using a four-way navigation button to find my way around an on-screen keyboard.
Voice search may be smart, but in the US it's a whole lot smarter. Those living in the States enjoy access to Alexa, the Siri-esque voice assistant Amazon first debuted on the Echo speaker. When you ask a question of the Fire TV, Alexa's dulcet robotic voice replies via your speakers, and results appear onscreen. Alexa can create to-do lists, check the weather, sport results, and even crack a joke on request -- but sadly this feature isn't available on boxes in the UK. Asking the Fire TV, "Tell me a joke," simply searches Amazon's catalogue for that exact phrase.
The lack of Alexa in the UK also means the Fire TV's voice search powers don't match those of the latest Apple TV, which uses Siri to handle information such as sport results, or context-sensitive searches such as, "I want to watch a good Ryan Reynolds movie."
A bigger problem with search on Fire TV is that it doesn't find programming available through non-Amazon services. For instance, if you have Netflix installed, and search on Fire TV for Netflix's original series "House of Cards", the only search results will be series and individual episodes available to buy from Amazon -- even though the whole series is available at no extra cost from the Netflix app. The lack of universal search is part of a larger gripe with Fire TV -- a hard sell on Amazon's own programming.
Search results and interface: The hard sell
The good news is that, just like the previous version, the Fire TV couldn't be easier to use. It accurately recognises search terms, both from voice and text. Its interface is lightning-fast to respond, as well, and its menu system is simple to understand, with the familiar left-hand menu that opens up big, friendly icons and thumbnails on the rest of the screen.
The bad news is that, just like the previous version, the search results themselves, as well as the whole interface at large, shunts you into buying stuff from Amazon. It puts Amazon content front and centre in numerous ways and denigrates other content -- from Netflix, iPlayer, All 4 or wherever -- in comparison.
The majority of the main menu also is devoted to Amazon programming. Below Search and Home, almost all of the the rest of the items on the left navigation column -- Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Music and Photos -- lead to Amazon's own services. There are no TV shows from iPlayer under "TV" and no movies from Netflix under "Movies", unless they're the ones you get from Amazon. At the top of the menu screen is a persistent ad, which usually just pushes Amazon TV shows and movies, though I also spotted an ad for the Microsoft Surface tablet, which feels a little jarring in a product you've paid just shy of £80 for.
Even when I was inside the Netflix app, voice search would pull me out and present me with the Amazon choices. Amazon's system-wide voice and text search still omit Netflix results completely.
That's fine for people who only subscribe to Amazon Prime, but for those who also subscribe to Netflix, it could mean paying extra for something you can get for "free" as part of that subscription.
If you want to arrange the Fire TV interface to your liking, you're out of luck. Unlike with a Roku or Apple TV, there's no way to move or customise which apps appear where. The closest you'll get is the "Recent" tab under Home, which shows a list of recently used apps, games and other stuff. It too favours Amazon content, because it surfaces individual shows and movies from Amazon (and only Amazon). The most recent episode of "Narcos," a Netflix series, won't appear there, but if you watch "Hand of God" (an Amazon show), it will. So will "House of Cards"...as long as you watch it via Amazon and not Netflix.
Likewise, the Music tab leads only to Amazon's Music service, not to apps like Spotify Connect or Rdio. And the Photos tab leads to Amazon Cloud Drive photos, not to another photo app. To find those apps you'll have to delve into the categories under the Apps tab, or add them via the Amazon website. You get the idea.
The 4K factor: Eyes-on with a less important add-on
The other major new addition to Fire TV is support for 4K video. Of course you don't need a 4K TV to use the box, but if you have one, it may be appealing. As with all external streamers, you'll need to connect the Fire TV to an HDCP 2.2-capable input on your 4K TV to enable 4K playback with most copy-protected content, which includes just about everything on Netflix, Amazon and other major apps (Amazon has an excellent guide to the requirements).
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 about 8 feet, I detected slight increases in sharpness at times, for example in the shag of the rug and the actors' hands in Prince Faisal'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.