With 4K HDR streaming, Dolby Vision and all the voice goodness of Alexa, does Amazon's new streamer pose a real threat to Roku?
Update, Oct. 14, 2021: The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K debuted in 2018 and at the time, we thought it offered great features and value for the money. In 2021, Amazon released an impressive update to the original Fire TV Stick 4K: the Fire TV Stick 4K Max. The Max is slightly more expensive than the Fire TV Stick 4K, but we think the $55 price is justified due to its blazing speed, Wi-Fi 6 support and ability to meet all of the latest playback standards. We've lowered our rating of the original Fire TV Stick 4K to reflect its age and the existence of a worthwhile new update to the product. The remainder of the review originally published Oct. 31, 2018, is largely unchanged.
Hey TV owner, are you annoyed by your set's streaming and "smart" features? There's a cheap fix for that.
Get a media streamer that serves up Netflix , Amazon Video, Hulu, HBO, DirecTV Now, ESPN and all the rest in a package that puts most smart TVs to shame. If you have a TV that handles 4K resolution and high-dynamic range video, you should get a 4K HDR streamer to take advantage of your TV's best video capabilities.
By that logic, if your TV supports Dolby Vision HDR, you should get a Dolby Vision streamer, right? Alas, as with most things that have to do with HDR on TVs, it's more complex than that.
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is the cheapest streamer that supports Dolby Vision, one of a handful of HDR formats. In fact it's the only one, aside from the Apple TV 4K , which costs more than three times as much. But that doesn't mean everybody with a Dolby Vision-capable TV should go out and get a Fire TV Stick 4K.
One reason is because on most TVs I've tested, Dolby Vision doesn't provide much, if any, image quality boost over "regular" HDR (also known as HDR10), which is available on plenty of competing streamers, including Roku . Another is that, beyond Netflix, there isn't much to watch in Dolby Vision on the Fire TV 4K right now. Apple's iTunes store has a bigger selection of 4K HDR movies than Amazon, as does the Vudu store available on Roku.
Amazon's Fire TV 4K's best feature isn't Dolby Vision, it's Alexa , which lets you use the included voice remote or a paired Echo speaker to control video playback, launch apps and, yes, check the weather with just your voice. The Fire TV's chief competitor Roku works with Google Assistant now so the voice gap is narrower than before, but Assistant on Roku isn't as capable as Alexa yet, and can't control Netflix.
If you don't care about Dolby Vision or controlling TV hands-free with your voice, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus is still a better choice than the Fire TV Stick 4K, even though it's $10 more. The main reason is Roku's interface, which puts all apps on an equal footing. Fire TV's menus are more modern-looking, but they steer you toward Amazon's stuff. You can't use Fire TV without experiencing a screen full of Amazon videos and promotions everywhere you look.
Both the Fire TV Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick Plus can control your TV's volume and power, load apps lightning fast and run circles around the built-in app suites on most 4K TVs. Among sub-$100 competitors they also trounce Google Chromecast Ultra, which doesn't have a separate remote or 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 a choice between voice features and Dolby Vision (Amazon) or a neutral interface (Roku). In my opinion Roku still wins, although this year the race is closer than ever.
Amazon "borrowed" a page from Roku by adding the option to control your TV's volume, mute and power with dedicated buttons on the remote. I love that feature on Roku's devices, such as its Streaming Stick Plus, because it allows you to pretty much ditch your TV's clicker.
On the TVs I tried from LG , Samsung , Sony and Vizio the Fire TV's remote worked perfectly, automatically detecting my TV type and programming the remote accordingly. All I had to do was confirm it worked. The one exception was the Sony TV, which it detected as a Samsung. The setup menus made it easy to correct and once I'd specified I was using the Sony, everything worked perfectly.
In addition to Mute, a button Roku's clickers lack, the Fire TV goes one better with more control options. If you have a soundbar, you can set up the remote's volume and mute keys to control it instead (while the remote's power button still controls TVs). It worked well with a Vizio soundbar I tried.
Voice control opens up even more options. You can change volume via voice (complete with the ability to specify volume increments), turn the TV on and off (although I couldn't get this last function to work correctly), or even switch TV inputs to another device. It's like a "lite" version of the voice controls available on the Fire TV Cube, except it uses infrared commands sent from the remote.
Amazon sells the new remote separately for $30 (£30), so you can use that sweet TV control on older Fire TV devices.
Voice control with Alexa and an Echo Dot worked well, just like I found on other Fire TV devices. Launching Amazon shows was as simple as saying, "Alexa, play Jack Ryan," and most searches for non-Amazon shows returned relevant results. Commands such as "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.
Searches for specific shows worked on Netflix, as long as (as usual) I was exact in my phrasing. "Play Sabrina the Witch on Netflix" played Sabrina: The Teenage Witch on Hulu, not The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix. My bad, I guess.
Voice support on Hulu worked particularly well, including support for commands like play, pause, stop, rewind and so on, as well as "tune to ESPN" to get live TV. Movies Anywhere also worked well with voice commands. Amazon says voice controls are coming to more apps, including A&E, AMC, Sony Crackle, Hallmark Movies Now, HBO Now, History, IFC, Lifetime and VH1.
Control wasn't perfect, 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. And when I asked for "cat videos on YouTube" it didn't work at all. I was able to launch the YouTube app, er, browser, via voice, but doing anything required me to pick up the remote. If you want to control YouTube by talking to it, get a Chromecast or Android TV device like the Nvidia Shield.
The three best places to stream the highest-quality 4K resolution, high dynamic range TV shows and movies today are Netflix, Amazon and newer Hollywood movies from services like Apple's iTunes and Vudu.
The Fire TV has the first two covered. With two Dolby Vision TVs I tested (the Vizio PQ65-F1 and the LG OLED B8P), it streamed selections from Netflix's large Dolby Vision catalog -- namely its originals, which include Sabrina, The Haunting of Hill House and Chef's Table -- with no issues and all of the awesome picture quality I expected from Dolby Vision.
Amazon's catalog of Dolby Vision titles is limited to the original series Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and Bosch (season 2 only), as well as a handful of old Sony Pictures movies like The Smurfs 2 and After Earth. Most of its original series are in standard HDR10 or the new HDR10+ format, however, the latter only supported on Samsung TVs. I checked out a few titles on a Samsung Q8, including The Romanoffs, Lore and The Man in the High Castle and the screen indicators on the TV and the Fire TV's menu said "HDR." I'm guessing they were in HDR10+ (the Fire TV Stick 4K supports that format too) but it was impossible to tell by looking at the video quality -- I couldn't tell it apart from standard HDR. Anyway, they too looked superb.
Of course the video quality and ability to play back Netflix and Amazon stuff in HDR is shared by Apple and Roku too. Where the Fire TV falls short is the third area: current Hollywood movies in 4K HDR with Dolby Vision.
Here's a look at a handful of new movies available to rent or buy from the three services.
|Fire TV Stick 4K (Amazon)||Apple TV 4K (iTunes)||Roku's 4K players (Vudu)|
|Incredibles 2||4K (no HDR)||HD only||4K HDR|
|Antman and the Wasp||HD only||HD only||4K HDR|
|Mama Mia||4K (No HDR)||HD only||4K HDR|
|Solo: A Star Wars Story||4K HDR||HD only||4K HDR|
|Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom||HD only||4K Dolby Vision||4K HDR|
|The Meg||HD only||4K Dolby Vision||4K HDR|
|Skyscraper||HD only||4K Dolby Vision||4K HDR|
|Ocean's 8||HD only||4K Dolby Vision||4K HDR|
|Sicario: Day of the Soldado||HD only||4K Dolby Vision||4K HDR|
|Hotel Transylvania 3||HD only||4K Dolby Vision||4K HDR|
Vudu and iTunes, neither of which are available on Fire TV 4K, offer a much larger selection of Dolby Vision movies than Amazon. Yes, Amazon does have a handful of movies in 4K and HDR, like Solo: A Star Wars Story in this example (which is only available in HDR10, not Dolby Vision), but until it allows Vudu on Fire TV -- or upgrades its own catalog -- the Fire TV remains a worse place to get buy or rent movies than its competitors.
It's also worth noting that Movies Anywhere films you may own will be not be playable in Dolby Vision via the Fire TV Stick 4K. You can link movies and play them back in 4K, but not Dolby Vision.
In terms of setup, just like Apple TV 4K, the Fire TV Stick 4K gives you the choice of either watching everything in HDR -- including standard dynamic range content and even the menus -- or only watching actual HDR content in HDR. The former is the default, but I prefer the latter. To choose one or the other, go to Settings > Display & Sounds > Display > Dynamic Range settings.
In general the Auto resolution setting worked fine, but I did run into one apparent bug. Despite the Fire TV Stick 4K being attached to a TV's HDCP 2.2-compliant, when I bought a 4K HDR movie I got a message saying "The selected input on your TV or AVR doesn't support HDCP 2.2, which is required for 4K Ultra HD playback…" The movie still played back fine in 4K HDR, however.
The show-centric Fire TV menu system should feel familiar to anyone who's used Netflix -- but be prepared to see more ads. 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 when you scroll beyond the first couple rows. The first row shows your most recently used apps grouped next to Amazon shows and movies you've watched. Then there's a customizable row called "your apps and channels," but below that, Amazon shows you what it wants you to see.
At press time my Fire TV Stick 4K was showing a row of 4K original series, one with Amazon's Thursday Night NFL games, and another with Halloween thrillers and kids' shows from Prime video or Amazon's movie catalog. The exception to the "only Amazon" rule was a row of promoted Netflix titles, but the rest was basically pure Prime and promoted apps.
Text at the top of the page labeled Your Videos, Movies and TV Shows lead primarily to Amazon videos, rather than incorporating stuff from a bunch of sources, like Apple's TV app does. Search results also tend to favor Amazon, although other services including Hulu and Netflix come up in results, too, if you click through.
Overall I really prefer a more neutral home screen, like the ones found on Roku, Apple or even Android TV with Nvidia Shield.
Despite its warts, including a weak 4K HDR movie catalog and the fact that it bludgeons you with Amazon content, the Fire TV Stick 4K is a great streamer at an excellent price. It's a hands-down better value than the Apple TV 4K if you want Dolby Vision for less -- I'm looking at you, Vizio owners -- and its Alexa integration beats both Apple and rival Roku. If you're deep in Amazon's ecosystem already or you're fed up with Roku's old-school approach, the Fire TV is a better choice. But if you prefer a clean, simple, neutral interface, like I do, Roku is still the better everyday streamer.