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Great choice if you're already within the Amazon ecosystem, but the performance and interface really need to improve.
You won’t find Chromecast or Apple TV on Amazon. For a while now, tech companies have been involved in a multi-front platform war. This war includes some strategic power plays to try and outmanoeuvre each other. One of which was Amazon banning Chromecast and Apple TV from their store, while pushing the Fire range instead. But does Amazon’s latest offering – the 2017 edition Fire TV – have what it takes to lure consumers into its ecosystem? Let’s find out.
- Dimensions: 2.6in x 2.6in x 0.6in (65mm x 65mm x 15mm)
- Weight: 3.1oz (87.1g)
- Processor: Amlogic Quad Core 1.5Ghz
- GPU: Mali450 MP3
- Storage: 8GB (Not upgradable)
- RAM: 2GB
- Operating System: Fire OS 6 (Based on Android Nougat)
- Max Resolution: 4K HDR up to 60fps
- Networks: Wifi (802.11ac), Ethernet via $15 optional adapter
- Ports: Micro USB, HDMI via non-removable cable
- Audio: Dolby Atmos compatibility, Dolby Digital Plus, and Dolby Digital
Unboxing and Getting Connected
After prying open the Amazon fire orange box, you will find the “pendant,” power brick, micro USB cable, remote, and 2 AA batteries. It would be advantageous to have a free USB port on your TV to avoid having to need the power brick for the sake of neatness. However, using the power brick will mean a slightly faster boot up time. It will also warn you if the port on your TV doesn’t have enough power for the device. It will still work but be unable to push 4K content.
When the device first boots it will ask for some internet. This is where I seem to have hit my first snag. The Fire TV wasn’t picking up any 5Ghz Wi-Fi networks. I thought this might have been a software issue. So I connected via the detected 2.4Ghz network and the device immediately did a software update. Upon reboot still no 5Ghz network. After rummaging through the internet, this seemed only to be remedied by manually setting my router’s 5Ghz network to channel 36. As soon as I changed it, the Fire TV detected and connected to it without complaint.
The reason this is a concern is 2.4Ghz networks have fewer channels and are generally much busier and prone to interference. This may make it difficult to stream 4K content if your device is quite far away from your Wi-Fi access point. This is where 5Ghz comes in with its many channels. I’d much prefer to leave my router in auto mode because it will detect busy channels and automatically switch to one that has the least traffic. If you’d prefer to forego the Wi-Fi issues entirely, there is a $15 optional ethernet adapter that is available from Amazon. Just something to bear in mind.
Another thing to be mindful of is the device is not engineered to be a set-top box like the older 2nd generation Fire TV it is replacing. It is referred to as the “Pendant” and is made to hang from your HDMI port similar to the Chromecast. You may want to spend a few dollars and grab a male to female HDMI cable to avoid the dangle look in the interest of neatness.
The initial software update took around five minutes. One neat but simultaneously concerning feature is that the device is pre-programmed with your Amazon account details. So you will see your name on screen before actually typing anything.
If you prefer, you can download the Fire TV app on your Android or iOS device. As long as your device is on the same network as your Fire TV, you will be able to use your device to control your Fire TV. This makes typing your login info much easier, text-based searches, and even Alexa controls work from within the app.
Once you’re signed in, there are options for setting parental controls which will require a PIN when trying to watch specific content. You are then awarded the opportunity of choosing which additional streaming apps you’d like to download. From here there is a short but informative introductory video to the Fire TV. It covers some of the integrated Alexa features and a quick a reminder of the 4K HDR content which is now at your fingertips.
Home and The Interface
The header is occupied by some featured content followed by any apps you’ve interacted with recently, then all the additional downloaded apps. If you wanted to avoid the now unwatchable HD content (I’m such a resolution snob), Amazon highlights the 4K HDR content, so you can bask in the glory of your expensive TV. Remember, certain apps like Netflix will require a premium subscription to take advantage of the additional pixels.
This is where things start going a little south for the Fire TV. The User Interface (UI) is extraordinarily busy. Scrolling through each of the tabs there’s waves and waves of Prime content. HBO and Netflix remain the only services with their own sections on the home screen. There is a “Recommended By Your Apps” section, which aggregates content from more than 150 apps into a single home screen row. Helpful, but it’s very disorganized and impossible to customize. There is some benefit of getting content from within other apps, but there just isn’t any method to the madness.
In terms of internal specs, the 2017 Fire TV is faster than the Stick, but actually has a slightly slower processor than the retired Fire TV (Gen 2). This translates into quite a fluid interaction overall, but some apps like Playstation Vue have been reported to lag behind button presses. Hopefully this down to the app developers and not the hardware implementation.
As for 4K HDR, it’s a nice perk for users with compatible TVs. HDR essentially creates a wider gamut of colors allowing for a more vivid image. This allows the screen to run at higher brightness levels without blowing out colors in bright scenes or ruining shadow detail in dark ones. Some of the Apps available on the Fire TV that take advantage of this technology are Netflix and YouTube.
Alexa Has a Face
One of the exceptional benefits of having Alexa connected to your TV is that you now have a visual representation of Alexa’s results. This makes things like checking the weather, shopping on Amazon, and even buying food quite intuitive. Weather is displayed as a week-long forecast as opposed to just being read out aloud. And if you couldn’t be bothered to open your browser on your phone to search for food, Alexa will display restaurants nearby, with their opening times and contact info if available.
You can bring up Alexa simply by holding the mic button on the remote or swiping down if you’re in the Fire TV mobile app. One considerate exclusion is that you don’t say “Alexa, play Stranger Things.” All you need to do is just hold down the mic button and say: “Play Stranger Things.” This prevents any other Echo devices that are within earshot listening to your request and getting confused. If you do have an Echo device near your TV, you won’t need to have the remote near you to command your Fire TV. It all works as part of the ecosystem.
The disappointment with Alexa is that results are sometimes convoluted especially for slightly advanced searches. Asking for “New horror movies” will generate many results that may have just had those words in their titles. Alexa is also incapable of contextual searches here to help refine those results any further. Launching directly into movies is possible but currently only available with Amazon Video for the time being. The sad part is, Siri and Google Assistant are quite far ahead for their respective devices.
Should You Buy the Fire TV?
The Fire TV will make a good addition if you fall within one of two categories. If you are already heavily invested in the Amazon Echo ecosystem, the Fire TV makes a helpful companion to your other devices. If you are looking to sideload Android apps like Kodi onto a device, the Fire TV also caters for this. In those regards, the Fire TV provides an adequate performance boost over the Stick with the addition of 4K HDR support. If you don’t fall within those categories be sure to check out other devices like the Chromecast Ultra or Roku Ultra, which may better fit your use case.