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Toshiba Amazon Fire TV Edition series review: Budget-friendly TV bets big on Alexa and Prime video

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon everywhere

Roku's on-screen menus beat Fire TV. As I swapped back and forth, I appreciated the clean, simple design of Roku. In comparison Fire TV's menus are busy, cluttered and crammed with ads. Getting to the most recently used apps is easy here too, thanks to the top "Recent" line. The next one down, "Your apps and channels," lets you move apps around.

But the remainder of the screen, including the main top section, is used to promote various shows, many from Amazon's Prime library, that I had little interest in watching. There's a big "sponsored" ad immediately below the first two rows that always seemed to advertise Amazon stuff, and the majority of the rows that are revealed as you scroll down are devoted to Amazon videos. The rows of thumbnails is similar to the Netflix layout, but there's more chaff and the overall effect makes me feel force-fed by the big A.

Going back to Roku's simplicity, even with its single big ad, was a relief. Roku's search results are also more agnostic, putting TV shows and movies from various apps side by side and sorted by price -- including "free" options if you subscribe.

Like Roku, Fire TV puts your external devices right next to apps and lets you rename them. Fire TV's over-the-air antenna menus are also excellent, with thumbnails for shows in the grid guide.

Picture quality tests

As I mentioned at the start, don't expect any of these Fire TVs to perform like champs, but many people will probably feel satisfied for the price.

I compared four Amazon Fire TV Edition televisions -- the 32-inch 32LF221U19 (720p) and 50-inch 50LF621U19 (4K) from Toshiba as well as the 39-inch NS-39DF510NA19 and 50-inch NS-50DF710NA19 from Insignia -- to the TCL 50S425 and the Vizio E50-F2. I didn't put them through my usual TV review process and measurements, but I did some basic measurements, and saw enough to convince me that, like the TCLs, these Fire TV are just "good enough." Neither one was as good as the Vizio, but between the 50-inch TCL and the Fire TVs, I preferred the image quality of the TCLs.

First off, the TCL Roku TVs make it easier to adjust image quality. In addition to the standard picture modes (Standard, Movie, Dynamic and so on) they offer five names brightness levels, from Darkest through Normal to Brightest. Fire TV buries the picture settings somewhat -- you either have to dive deep into the menu or long-press on the remote's Home key and choose "Picture" from the list. I tried saying "picture settings" into the remote mic and Alexa just said "hmmm, I'm not sure."

TCL's settings also look somewhat better than Fire TVs. For my dark room tests I compared the best default settings (Darker or Movie for the TCL, Movie for the Fire TVs, Calibrated Dark for the Vizio) and the Vizio won going away. I watched the dark parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and Black Panther, the Vizio showed a clear advantage with deeper, more realistic letterbox bars and shadows.

The 50-inch TCL was better than the 50-inch Fire TVs, however, which looked washed out (lighter black levels) in comparison and obscured details in shadows quite a bit. In Chapter 2 of Black Panther, for example, I saw more of the jungle foliage behind the rebels on the TCL than on either of the Fire TVs. The Toshiba was especially bad.

In brighter scenes, like the Wakanda flyover in Chapter 3, the TCL again showed better contrast and pop than the Fire TVs thanks to its darker black levels, while the Vizio again looked best. Between the two 50-inch Fire TVs the Insignia beat the Toshiba, with slightly more accurate color and better contrast, but the difference wasn't massive.

Light output was mediocre, as you'd expect from a cheaper TV. For bright rooms the Natural setting on the Fire TVs is the best choice. It measured 363 nits on the 50-inch Toshiba and 286 on the 50-inch Insignia, both brighter than the Vizio's Calibrated mode at 192 nits. The Vizio's Vivid mode was quite a bit brighter at 422 nits meanwhile, but it's quite inaccurate.

Screen uniformity wasn't great, with test patterns showing brighter areas and backlight structure on all of the Fire TV samples at various brightness levels. The Roku TVs weren't any better, while the Vizio was significantly more uniform than any of the Fire or Roku TVs.

The Fire TVs didn't introduce much input lag for gamers, which I've seen from many inexpensive TVs. Here's a quick look at each TV's measurement in Game mode. Keep in mind that anything under 40ms is considered "Good."

Input lag in Game mode

Model Size 1080p lag (ms) 4K HDR lag (ms)
Toshiba 32LF221U19 32 28.27 N/A
Insignia NS-39DF510NA19 39 39.1 N/A
Toshiba 50LF621U19 50 38 39
Insignia NS-50DF710NA19 50 33 27

These are all 60Hz TVs, and Best Buy's website is actually honest about the specification (unlike TCL's fake "120Hz CMI effective refresh rate"). My tests indicated as much: They delivered only 300 lines of motion resolution and there's no smoothing or soap opera effect option.

Like many HDR TVs that lack local dimming, the 50-inch 4K HDR Fire TVs showed little advantage, displaying 4K HDR content instead of standard HD SDR. I watched Russian Doll from Netflix swapping between 1080p SDR and 4K HDR. The differences on the two Fire TVs as well as the were subtle enough that I would have a tough time telling them apart.

In fact the 1080p SDR version looked better on the Toshiba Fire TV. That's because the HDR version's color was pale and undersaturated in comparison. The Insignia's HDR also looked less rich and saturated, for example in the red of actress Natasha Lyonne's hair, than either the Roku TV or the Vizio.

The advantage of HDR was a bit more apparent than on the others. There was more dimension and pop to the image (thanks mostly to the better black level) and slightly improved color. HDR looked better on the Vizio than on the TCL overall, but the advantage wasn't as great as with SDR. It's no surprise that brighter sets with more local dimming zones, like Vizio's M series or TCL's 6 series, do a much better job showcasing HDR.

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