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Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review: 4K HDR stick speaks Alexa, carries big streaming features

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.

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The biggest source of Dolby Vision on Amazon Fire TV 4K isn't current movies. It's Netflix.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dolby Vision and 4K: Amazon's catalog falls short

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 just the original series Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and Bosch (Season 2 only), as well as a handful of old Sony Pictures movies including 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.

Recent movies to buy and rent by format

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.

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The default on Fire TV 4K is to deliver everything in HDR. Happily, you can change that.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 home page: Amazon's jungle of shows

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The best Fire TV yet, FWIW

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.

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