Amazon Fire TV (2017) review: Voice-centric 4K HDR streaming comes with Amazon's hard sell

If you like asking Alexa for TV shows and getting results, and you happen to have a TV with 4K and high dynamic range, the new Fire TV has your name on it.

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David Katzmaier
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David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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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.

Amazon Fire TV 2017
8.3

Amazon Fire TV (2017)

The Good

The Amazon Fire TV serves up 4K and HDR video in a compact package for an affordable price. Its voice features are best-in-class, and Echo and Dot owners can control it hands-free with "Alexa" commands. App and game selection is superb, responses are lightning-fast and video quality is as good as any streamer.

The Bad

The user interface pushes Amazon content too aggressively and doesn't allow customization. Fewer 4K HDR apps than Roku, and finding 4K content is more difficult.

The Bottom Line

Although Roku's 4K stick is slightly better overall, the Fire TV wins with Alexa devotees who own 4K HDR TVs.

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.

Amazon's $70 4K HDR Fire TV is a weird square dongle

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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). IMO 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.
Amazon Fire TV 2017

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.
Amazon Fire TV 2017

Brace yourself for ads from Amazon.

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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.

Amazon Fire TV 2017

"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. Launching Amazon shows was as simple as saying "Alexa, play Transparent," and most searches for non-Amazon shows returned relevant results. 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. Searches for specific shows worked on Netflix, but they didn't launch immediately; I had to say "Alexa, Play" to get it to work. And when I asked for "Cat videos on YouTube" it didn't work at all, I just got a list of Amazon videos with the word "cat" in the title. Google Home / Chromecast works much better for YouTube searches via voice.

In short, you can't completely ditch that Fire TV remote just yet. Check out my Fire TV/Echo deep dive for more info.

Finding 4K HDR stuff to watch is a bit more difficult than on Roku. On the Fire TV there are rows for "Prime 4K Ultra HD Amazon Original Series," "Prime 4K Ultra HD Movies," "Prime HDR" and "Rent or Buy -- 4K Ultra HD Movies" but they're all Amazon. Roku offers selections from Amazon, Vudu and FandangoNow too in its 4K spotlight app, which also highlights ones with HDR and includes videos from YouTube and Spectiv. Roku also breaks out 4K-capable apps, while Fire TV does not.

Unlike Apple TV 4K, neither Roku nor Fire TV support searches (voice or otherwise) like "Show me movies in 4K" or "TV shows in 4K."

Sometimes, 4K HDR actually does look better

Depending on your TV and the video in question, 4K and even high dynamic range may not provide much improvement in video quality compared to "regular" HD. But it's almost never worse, and often, especially on a good TV with certain content, significantly better.

I compared the 4K HDR capable Fire TV to the non-4K Fire TV Stick using a pair of excellent TVs, the 65-inch LG OLED65E7P and Sony XBR-65A1E, both of which use OLED display technology. With "Mindhunter" on Netflix it was almost impossible to tell between the two, and the differences I did notice were most likely due to the TVs' different calibrations and capabilities, not the source material. The same went for "Mad Dogs" on Amazon.

But when I queued up "Le Mans," an Amazon original documentary, the HDR images raced to the pole. With original sections shot in HDR (as opposed to the older film footage), the blues and reds on the cars, the bright orange uniforms of race officials and the clothing in the crowd looked more full and lush, highlights popped off the screen and the images had a depth and realism absent from the non-HDR version. The standard 1080p high-def image didn't look bad, by any means, but the HDR version was clearly superior.

Amazon Fire TV 2017

Amazon breaks out some of its 4K and HDR shows in their own rows.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In case you're wondering, image quality between the 4K Fire TV and the Roku Streaming Stick Plus was essentially identical, as expected. With "Le Mans" playing on both in 4K HDR, differences again seemed entirely based on the TVs' calibrations. For the record I've never seen any image quality differences worth mentioning between streamers that pull from the same sources.

It is worth mentioning that Movies Anywhere films from non-Amazon sources (Vudu, iTunes and Google Play) won't appear in HDR or 4K, even when played from the Your Library section on Fire TV. Roku doesn't have a huge advantage there, however, since its native Vudu and Google Play apps don't support HDR (yet), although people with large Vudu collections might want to go Roku since its app supports 4K and Dolby Atmos.

Speaking of Atmos, unlike Apple TV the Fire TV can support Dolby's best in-home audio format, but no apps on Fire TV actually support Atmos yet at the moment. Vudu's app on Roku offers Atmos however, so again people with large Vudu libraries (and an Atmos system) might want to go Roku.

Amazon Fire TV 2017

Among the three $70 4K HDR streamers available now, Fire TV gets the silver medal.

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Fire TV vs. Roku: A close call, but Roku wins

Overall plenty of people are sure to choose Fire TV over Roku, especially once Amazon begins blitzing visitors to its web site with promotional pricing over the holidays. And they'll probably be perfectly happy using it, especially if they're already enmeshed in Amazon's jungle of voice control and Prime membership. But I still like Roku's 4K stick better, with its cleaner interface, better search and neat extras like TV control from the remote. Both have their strengths, however, and it's tough to go wrong with either one.

Amazon Fire TV 2017
8.3

Amazon Fire TV (2017)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 8Features 9Performance 9Value 8