Update: Amazon Fire TV is going to get a bit smarter this week when the Seattle-based company adds new Alexa voice features to the streaming device. You’ll now be able to use the full suite of Alexa features on your Amazon Fire TV, from searching for local businesses and restaurants and using Alexa to accessing Kindle e-books to using the AI to pull local showtimes.
While some products are released in a maelstrom of fanfare and hype, others are released to a quiet, albeit beautiful, melody.
Such is the case with the new Amazon Fire TV, the recently launched set-top box from the internet e-tailer that iterates upon the original and adds 4K support all without a show of support from U2.
Much of the noise about the new £79 Fire TV relates to its 4K Ultra HD playback capabilities. It’s capable of playing shows and movies in the highest commercial resolution available today: 3840 × 2160 or 2160p.
It’s not the only media streamer boasting 4K chops though, and it definitely isn’t the first either. The Nvidia SHIELD console took that honor, with its Tegra X1 processor making it the most powerful streamer around.
But the new Amazon Fire TV is far less expensive – so can this Ultra HD box deliver where the Android TV-hobbled SHIELD falls down?
The new Amazon Fire TV may look identical to the original Fire TV box, but that’s no bad thing.
The sleek, shiny exterior is understated enough to fit into even the most minimalist of modern living rooms, and with the remote control featuring Wi-Fi connectivity you can happily hide the box behind your TV if you’re not into the mini-monolith aesthetic, as there’s no need for a direct line of sight.
Inside, however, things have changed considerably, with a nominally quad-core MediaTek processor sitting at the heart of the new Fire TV. It’s really a pair of dual-core chips (one running at 2GHz and the other at 1.6GHz) strapped together, but that doesn’t stop it from offering around 75% faster performance compared with the old model’s silicon.
There’s also a dedicated PowerVR GX6250 GPU inside to give the new Fire TV that gaming edge, and 2GB of system memory to keep things flowing seamlessly.
The Fire TV comes with a decent 8GB of internal capacity, with the option to expand via the microSD slot on the rear of the box, which facilitates up to 128GB of storage.
In terms of networking there’s a Gigabit ethernet port for wiring in – probably your best bet for a consistent 4K UHD stream – or the dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection.
To nail that Ultra HD playback the MediaTek chipset supports the H.265 (HEVC) codec, as well as the legacy H.264 for 1080p content. It should be noted though that it’s only capable of rocking a 4K UHD stream at a maximum of 30 frames per second, while it stretches to 60fps for 720p and 1080p outputs.
To enable UHD playback you’ll need a compatible display, and that doesn’t just mean the obvious 3840 x 2160 panel resolution – it will also need the same HDMI 2.0 (HDCP 2.2) connection as on the rear of the Fire TV.
Without that you’re not going to get the copy-protected 4K awesome of either Amazon Prime or Netflix; you can still watch 4K YouTube though if that’s of any interest…
The Fire TV remote hasn’t really changed, aside from using Wi-Fi over Bluetooth. It’s still rocking the same voice search functionality which made the first Fire TV a bit of a hit, and it’s also nicely responsive and feels solid in the hand despite its diminutive size.
The new Amazon Fire TV is running on a forked version of the Android operating system, and we don’t mean in the colloquial use of the term; FireOS isn’t totally forked, it’s actually pretty responsive.
Its development was taken down a different path to the final Android OS, making FireOS a distinct operating system in its own right. That’s why you won’t be getting the full Play Store range of apps, and one of the reasons Amazon has its own app store ruling the roost.
FireOS is focused almost entirely upon helping you access content quickly and easily, with a very obvious bias towards the Amazon ecosystem.
This corporate bias is understandable – it’s similar to the way Android TV’s recommendations are only based on Google services and NOW TV is focused on Sky content – but it would make you feel utterly excluded if you weren’t an Amazon Prime member.
The voice search software is an integral part of the Amazon setup, and it’s quick, responsive and impressively accurate, no matter which bastardised version of a regional accent I tried to confuse it with.
Again though, it’s utterly tied into the Amazon ecosystem. No matter if you can access Breaking Bad in 4K via your Netflix account, the search will only lead you to a place where you can pay Amazon again for the privilege; it won’t even acknowledge the existence of any other content, however you vocalise it.
The touted universal search feature of the new Apple TV makes its voice search seem far more relevant than Amazon’s.