If you're getting a budget TV for a bedroom or secondary room, you should be looking for something with a good "smart TV" system built in. It's more convenient to get your streaming shows and movies from the TV itself rather than bother with a separate stick or other device.
Two smart TV systems today stand above the rest: Roku TV and Amazon's Fire TV. Both deliver more apps, better search and more options than competitors from traditional TV brands like Samsung, LG and Vizio.
Between the two I favor Roku TV. It's simpler and puts every app and service on a level playing field. Fire TV, on the other hand, naturally favors Amazon, and it seemed like Amazon Prime Video was everywhere I looked on these TVs, relegating Netflix, Hulu, HBO and the rest to also-rans. That's why, for most people, a Roku TV like the TCL S425 or S325 is a better choice than one of these Fire TV Edition sets from Insignia or Toshiba.
There's one exception to that rule: You'll love these sets if you love Alexa. Unlike those Roku sets, every Fire TV Edition television includes a voice remote with Alexa. And if you have an Alexa speaker like an Echo Dot, you can turn on the TV, switch inputs, perform searches and do a bunch of other stuff hands-free, no remote required.
In terms of image quality, neither these Fire TV sets nor the TCL S325 and S425 Roku models are any great shakes, but I liked the TCLs a bit better. If you want a home theater-worthy image in a budget set, start with the Vizio E series -- just keep in mind that it's not available in sizes under 43 inches.
There are a lot of different models of Fire TV Edition sets, so before we get into it, here's a breakdown.
Despite the fact that some of these TVs are branded Insignia and some are branded Toshiba, I reviewed them at the same time. According to my tests, both brands have similar (not great) image quality and the only other differences are cosmetic.
The same goes for the 4K and 1080p or 720p versions of each brand. The less-expensive Fire TV models have 720p resolution in the 24- and 32-inch size, and 1080p resolution (aka full HD) in the 39- and (some of the) 43-inch sizes. They can't do high dynamic range (HDR). Meanwhile the models at 43 inches and larger have 4K resolution and HDR capability.
Most people choose a TV size first, then worry about everything else. In the 43-inch class, however, you have a choice. If the 4K version costs extra when you read this, save your money and get the 1080p version. I saw almost no improvement in image quality when feeding these TVs 4K HDR video. See the picture quality section for more.
Between the two brands the main cosmetic difference is the stand legs. The Toshiba's legs are a bit closer together and angled more sharply, while the Insignia's are further apart and more squared-off. Both have the same remote, menu system and connectivity:
TCL's cheaper Roku TVs such as the S325 and S425 lack the microphone and voice buttons found on every Amazon Fire TV remote. You can talk into the remote after pressing a button, and stuff happens. Normal TV commands such as, "Launch Netflix," "Show me sci-fi movies," "Play Black Mirror" (which launches the Netflix app and starts an episode), and "Skip ahead 30 minutes" worked as I expected. Many popular apps, including Hulu, HBO Now and Movies Anywhere, support voice commands. YouTube doesn't, however.
Fire TV also lets you do everything Alexa does. It can control smart-home devices, get a weather report and answer questions, complete with on-screen results. Alexa's voice also talks back through the TV's speakers.
The Fire TV also works with Alexa speakers for the same voice commands, hands-free. Using a paired Echo Dot I said, "Alexa, turn on the TV," Alexa, launch Hulu," "Alexa, play Handmaid's Tale," "Alexa, play Westworld," "Alexa, go Home," "Alexa, pause," and they worked as expected. I also appreciated not having to use cumbersome phrasing like adding "...on Fire TV" to the end of most commands. Here's Amazon's list of voice controls.
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.
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."
|Model||Size||1080p lag (ms)||4K HDR lag (ms)|
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.