Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max (2023) Review: Amazon's Best Streamer Picks Up New Tricks
The new Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max is not too different from the one it replaces, apart from a handy new set of widgets.
Updated Oct. 20, 2023 4:00 a.m. PT
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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
ExpertiseTy has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast.Credentials
Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
The Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick Max (2nd Gen) name brings to mind an episode of The Simpsons where an "evil" Bill Gates wants to buy out Homer's technology company because, even though he doesn't know what it does, he doesn't want any competition. The name of that company? Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net.
Mouthful of a name aside, at $60 the new Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick Max (2nd Gen) is still one of the easiest and relatively inexpensive ways to get into streaming. Like most Fire TV models, it offers tight integration with many of Amazon's products as well as the Alexa voice assistant. The stick includes all of the video niceties you'd want, too, including 4K Ultra HD and Dolby Vision, plus a new Ambient mode that can check on when your deliveries are coming.
While it's not an essential upgrade from its predecessor -- it's only a slight uptick in terms of specs -- the 2023 update is a great option for people who have an Alexa smart home. Or, for those who are looking to add Amazon-centric streaming to their living room setup.
The new Max (no relation to HBO)
This streaming successor to the original Fire TV 4K Stick Max was announced in September, but it's only a slight bump in terms of features and processing power. It comes with a quad-core 2GHz processor (up from 1.8GHz), and a wireless uptick from Wi-Fi 6 to 6E, which means the device can use the newly freed 6Ghz spectrum. In addition, the Max now has 16GB of memory, which is double that of the new Fire Stick 4K.
The other feature of note, and why you'd probably be most interested in this over the Stick 4K, is the new Ambient experience. First appearing on the company's 2022 Omni TVs, the mode includes new wallpapers and a series of widgets that appear while you're not actively watching your screen. The widgets include weather, calendar, live TV, music, smart home, notes, what to watch, recipes and deliveries.
While I'm on the topic of screens, the Fire TV interface has had quite the makeover itself since we last looked at the Max. In comparison, the Roku interface has remained the same for years, while Apple TV had a slight upgrade with TVOS 17. Yet, the trend is toward a more dock-like appearance that both the Fire TV interface and the Xbox interface have incorporated. Back in his review of the original Max, CNET's Eli Blumenthal asked for "a tab to quickly see all your apps and channels", which has since manifested as a small dock at the center of the screen. This strip incorporates shortcuts to popular streaming services which are configurable, and an icon that opens up the app drawer.
Lastly, the Max includes what has to be my least favorite remote with its squishy, crowded buttons. But at least the Home button has a nub on it to assist navigation without looking. This is a voice remote, and it has an Alexa button for voice commands. It's lagging in the charging department though, using the old-school micro USB connection, especially when competitor Google has long since moved to USB-C.
The Ambient experience
The TL:DR of the Ambient experience: It's not worth buying a whole new stick for. The widgets are kind of useful, however, and I especially liked the Deliveries tab for tracking Amazon purchases, though some people may still prefer to check their phones.
In terms of the weather app, I was surprised it is stuck in Fahrenheit, even if you want to know the temperature in Celsius (if you're an expat like me). Obviously, this is going to be less of an issue for most Americans.
In general use, I found I got everything I could want from a Fire TV 4K stick with its Dolby Vision support, smooth navigation and quick app loading. With such a small specs increase it's unlikely anyone will notice the difference between the original model, though we weren't able to test them directly against each other. I even did a little bit of cloud gaming using Amazon's Luna service, and it worked well, even though the Luna catalog is quite limited for $10 a month. If you don't like the Fire TV interface's inclination to promote other Amazon shows or products, then you may be disappointed to see it continues on the updated Max.
But the Google Chromecast with Google TV is also worth a look, especially for people with Google smart devices, as it also has voice control and a solid remote control.
For the ultimate experience though, the Apple TV 4K is an excellent streamer, especially if you want a device with enough horsepower for gaming including streaming Steam Link from a local PC.
Should you buy it?
With its specs bump and new mode, the second-gen Max is now, by default if nothing else, the best Fire TV stick that Amazon makes. But this comes with a number of caveats.
More so than other companies, Amazon's devices tend to stick around after they've been discontinued. Sometimes for years. In the case of the Echo Dot, for example, this meant you could still buy a fourth-gen Dot with a 3.5mm output for connecting to a speaker system, which the fifth-gen model doesn't have. This likely means you'll be able to buy either a first- or second-gen Max for some time to come, but the differences aren't as stark as with the Dot.
If you want a brand new Fire TV stick, and you have the choice between the two versions, there's no real reason to seek out the original. The handful of extra features in the 2023 update are worth having for only $5 more.