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Amazon Fire TV (2015) review: A powerful streaming box to tangle you in Amazon's jungle

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.

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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.

Fire TV isn't the only box capable of handling 4K. Both Nvidia's Shield and the Roku 4 will handle ultra-high definition, and can be found on sale in the UK if you're willing to do a little digging. Our reservations about 4K's limited advantages over 1080p streaming aren't limited to Amazon's box however, so don't expect a radically different 4K experience from a different set-top box.

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 colour. 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. Amazon told me the Fire TV cannot be updated to support HDR.

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 percent 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 'Lawrence of Arabia'. We'll begin encoding non-UHD titles with HEVC in November."

The apps: A healthy selection, if you can find it

Amazon's Fire TV packs in dozens upon dozens of apps, but as anyone with a smartphone is well aware, it's app quality -- not quantity -- that counts. The Fire TV's hottest competition in the app selection stakes comes from Roku, whose variety of streaming boxes grant you access to BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, Channel 4's All 4, Demand 5, Netflix, Sky's Now TV subscription service and Sky Store for one-off purchases or rentals, as well as Amazon Instant Video. As that list covers every major force on the UK TV scene there won't be many programmes that air here that you can't track down through one service or another.

From that list, Fire TV is only missing Sky's Now TV and Sky Store apps, making for a relatively healthy selection of apps and services. By comparison, the latest Apple TV only offers Now TV, Netflix and iPlayer.

There are caveats to the Fire TV's services. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, it can be hard to find non-Amazon apps in the interface, and non-Amazon programming doesn't show up in search results. Secondly, even Amazon's own-brand roster of films and movies can take some getting used to.

That's because Amazon divides all its films and TV into those you can buy as one-off purchases, and those than can be viewed at no extra cost when you're a member of its Prime Video service, which can be joined for either £5.99 per month, or as part of Amazon's broader £79 annual Prime membership, which also includes perks such as one-day free delivery on physical items.

Where things can get confusing is that Fire TV doesn't separate out those two categories, and so within the interface or in search results you'll often find movies or shows that are free with your Prime membership alongside those that will cost you cash. It can feel confusing, and it makes it tough to see exactly what your Prime Video membership gets you. This is in contrast with Netflix for instance, whose entire catalogue falls under the same subscription -- so what you see is what you get.

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To find extra applications and services, you'll use the Apps tab way 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, Recommended for You in 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.

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 5.0.2.1), that was the case, and in fact that unit also failed to show Amazon's own 4K content. Meanwhile a unit CNET bought from Amazon.com directly, one with software version 5.0.2.2, 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.

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 travellers 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.

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In addition to hotels, captive portal authentication is common in plenty of other locations, such as 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.

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. Meanwhile, using parental controls, you can block access to the Games & Apps, Photos and/or Music sections of the menu.

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 any other app or device to the punch by a few seconds at least, but (all together now) IT ONLY WORKS WITH AMAZON CONTENT.

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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.

If you enjoy a little casual gaming, Amazon also sells a Fire TV-compatible game controller to use with its roster of gaming apps. The controller has a built-in microphone for voice search, and a button layout that will be familiar to anyone who's encountered an Xbox controller in the last decade or so. The new controller is an improvement on older Amazon models. 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.

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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 controller for the Nvidia Shield. 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.

At £40 the controller is also pricey. If you're considering spending that much extra on a controller, odds are you already own a fully fledged games console, or would be better off saving up to buy one. Also, bear in mind that the Fire TV's gaming app roster is rather ropey (Beach Buggy Racing, Crossy Road and Tetris might serve as brief diversions, but won't be troubling the Xbox or PlayStation), and I wouldn't hold out much hope of big-name console games making their way to Fire TV any time soon.

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

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

If you subscribe to Amazon Video and not to Netflix, Now TV and other services, 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, the £60 Roku 2 has the advantage.

Even if you're firmly and happily enmeshed in Amazon's jungle, the new box isn't the best value. At £35 the Fire TV Stick costs less than 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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