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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). IMO Roku wins. Look for my Roku Streaming Stick Plus review soon.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.