Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review

More than remotely brilliant

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

Amazon is having a blockbuster year (when is it not?), slinging smart home and TV devices from all angles. Now it’s rounding off 2018 with the Fire TV Stick 4K, its best streaming stick to date.

For years, Amazon has kept 4K playback exclusive to its higher-end Fire TV devices. That changes now, but the new Fire TV Stick also offers HDR10+ and Dolby Vision to make that 4K content sing – all for a modest $50.

Read this: The best streaming sticks

So yeah, Roku, Google, Apple – be afraid. On paper, this HDMI stick has it all, but does it deliver in the living room? We’ve been living with it to found out.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K: Design, controller and setup

The Fire TV Stick 4K is exactly that… a stick. If it ain’t broke – and it’s most likely going to be hidden behind your TV set out of view – don’t fix it. Without the connector, the stick measures 99mm x 30mm x 14mm, which is a little longer than the standard, slightly cheaper Fire TV Stick. But should your HDMI ports be placed a little awkwardly on the TV, as they are on mine, there’s a dongle in the box that will let you fit the Stick at any angle.

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The Stick also needs to be connected to a power socket, and there’s a micro USB cable and power adapter in the box, so Amazon’s not skimping on the accessories.

Also in that box is the new Alexa remote, one of the best parts of the new Fire TV Stick. For a while Amazon’s been bundling in an Alexa remote with its Fire TV devices, letting you call on Amazon’s assistant to pull up shows and apps. The button meant you didn’t have to say “Alexa” before each command – just hold it down and ask – and it’s the same story with the 4K remote. That includes smart home controls, too, for asking Alexa to power down the lights or turn up the heating.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review

But even with the Fire TV Cube, a streaming box we loved, there was a glaring omission on the remote: volume controls. Asking Alexa to change the volume is an unnecessary annoyance, so I always have to reach for the TV set remote. The Fire TV 4K remote changes that with IR control and new volume buttons that can actually be used to control your TV, soundbar or AV receiver. As well as the volume ricker, you’ve got a mute button and, now, a power button at the top that will also work with your TV.

You’ll be guided through setting this up when you first connect the Fire TV Stick 4K, so you’ll know right away if this won’t work. Amazon says there are some TVs and soundbars that might not be compatible, and there’s a compatibility checker at the top of the Amazon page.

The other good news is that, if you just want the remote, Amazon is selling it separately for $30, so anyone can upgrade.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K: Streaming, 4K, HDR10+ and Dolby

The new Fire TV Stick is packed to the rafters with features, but it’s not just about 4K, or even HDR10+ and Dolby Vision support. Amazon’s fitted out the new streaming stick with a new Quad-core 1.7 GHz processor too, making for a noticeably zippier experience when flicking through menus and booting up apps.

It's smoother to use than the standard Fire TV Stick – 80% faster than the standard Fire TV Stick, by Amazon’s own calculations – and that goes for using Alexa, too, which is faster at surfacing search results.

As for 4K, well, obviously you need to make sure you have a TV that supports it. If you don’t have one, you’ll still be able to use the 4K Stick for all its other purposes, albeit in a slightly inferior resolution. Dolby Vision and HDR10+ are also new to the Amazon lineup here, and (again, assuming you have a compatible TV) both deliver better HDR mastering, so the brightest and darkest parts of any picture are enriched with more detail.

Another key differentiator is Dolby Atmos support, a sound boost you'll get here but not on the 2016 Fire TV Stick. When you start pitting all this against the competition, it's absurd that Amazon is offering the same features as the Apple TV for $130 less. As for Roku, you won't find Dolby Vision or HDR10+ on its streamers.

However, it's in the content selection where Amazon falls behind. Right now, Dolby Vision offerings in Amazon's catalogue are pretty bare. The only thing we managed to find was the new Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, although there are more offering HDR10+. But Apple has the largest library of Dolby-supported movies right now, so it's worth bearing that in mind.

We should also talk about the Fire OS experience, which is both a positive and a negative. Amazon's menus have become more cluttered over time, not helped by it too often trying to highlight its own apps and content – not to mention banner ads – in trade for what could be a much cleaner, easier-to-use system. The layout is fine, but I wish I could customise it a little more.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K: Alexa

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review

If you're set on Amazon, you might be wondering if it's worth paying more than twice the amount for the Fire TV Cube. While the Cube doesn't have Dolby Vision or HDR10+, the other key difference is in how Alexa works. That's because the Cube acts like an Echo-Fire TV hybrid, with far-field microphones so you can call right out to it without having to press any buttons.

That also means the Cube works like an Echo, even when the TV is off, something you won't be able to do with the Fire TV Stick. The Stick can, however, do everything else Alexa can do, smart home control included. For example, you could say, "Alexa, give me the news" and get your flash briefing, or, "Alexa, turn off the living room lights" for movie time. Everything that's hooked into Alexa's brain will work here too. The other great thing is having that screen, so saying, "Alexa, show me the weather" means you'll get a nice look at the week ahead on the TV, while the assistant reads out the more immediate forecast.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
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I think where Alexa excels on the Fire TV Stick 4K is in the added speed at which it surfaces search results. That said, I do find Alexa still mishears me too much, while Netflix support is also a bit shaky. Earlier this year, the service was given tighter integration for searching and controlling playback with voice, but it's very slow when switching between shows and Movies.

A request like, "Alexa, play Better Call Saul" will be returned with, "Getting Better Call Saul from Netflix", but it will be several seconds before anything happens, while whatever's playing keeps going. This only seems to happen with Netflix – switching to and between Prime Videos is very quick – and when something is already playing.


Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K offers terrific bang for your buck: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Vision, HDR10+ and 4K resolution. If you've spent money on a TV supporting these standards, Amazon's offering a modestly priced way to make use of them. Roku, Google, Apple – you've reason to be worried.
PROS
  • Superb value
  • Packed with features
  • Controller has volume buttons
CONS
  • Netflix-Alexa integration needs work
  • Apple's Dolby library is better
  • Layout should be better

TAGGED   amazon   televisions

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