Amazon Fire TV (2015) review: The streamer your 4K TV has been waiting for
Amazon Fire TV: What’s new?
Despite the Fire TV’s newfound 4K talents, you’re unlikely to be able to tell the new model apart from the previous one. All the serious changes have taken place inside the square, flat glossy black plastic shell. Wi-Fi support now stretches up to 802.11ac speeds, which is helpful for maintaining a smooth, steady video stream if you have a compatible router, while internally the quad-core processor and GPU have both received an upgrade.
Amazon claims this the new pairing is 75% faster than the previous one, and that the new PowerVR GX6250 GPU is dramatically faster than last year’s Adreno 320, something that promises smoother frame rates across the variety of gaming titles in Amazon’s Appstore.
Otherwise, though, the specifications are much the same. There’s 8GB of storage, of which around 6GB is free for storing apps and downloads, a 10/100 Ethernet port, and a USB port that still does nothing of any use. Streaming content from mobile devices is still on the cards, with Bluetooth 4.1 allowing you to “throw” content from Fire OS and Android tablets using display mirroring, while iOS and Android devices alike can take advantage of the DIAL protocol – the wireless streaming standard pushed by Netflix and Amazon (and used by the original Chromecast) – which permits compatible apps to play back content on any compatible device on a home network.
Home theatre enthusiasts, myself included, won’t be especially pleased by some changes, though. If your home cinema amplifier doesn’t support 4K HDMI passthrough, then you’re out of luck: Amazon has dumped the optical S/PDIF output in favour of a microSD slot that accepts cards up to 128GB in size.
It’s also a touch disappointing that the HDMI port is only capable of delivering a 4K signal at a maximum of 30Hz. Sadly, if you want super-smooth 60Hz/60fps gaming, you’ll just have to switch display resolution to 1080p on your 4K TV. It’s also worth checking whether your TV supports HDCP 2.2, since without it your 4K TV will be limited to 1080p content, an issue that has already generated plenty of negative user reviews on Amazon’s website.
Amazon Fire TV: Remote control and game controller
Despite the niggles, there’s much to like about the Fire TV. The remote control is an exercise in simplicity. It’s compact without being uncomfortably small, and all the buttons respond with a firm, high-quality click: the four-way navigation ring works without hassle, and the layout makes it easy to memorise the location of the play/pause, rewind and fast-forward buttons. Best of all, because it uses Bluetooth, you can hide the Fire TV behind your TV or projection screen and it still works just fine.
The Fire TV’s remote also has another, handy trick up its sleeve. At the top of the remote is a microphone button that lets you carry out voice searches, and it’s darned quick too. It’s much, much quicker than typing out the name of a film or TV series, and only occasionally did I ever have to repeat myself – most of the time, it understood even my most half-asleep of mumblings. It’s great.
There is room for improvement, though. For instance, one quibble is that it only works for film and programme titles rather than actors and directors. Given the wealth of information available via Amazon’s IMDb-searching X-Ray feature, it’s a shame you can’t use voice control to search for content more creatively. Another annoying limitation is that it doesn’t work with the third-party streaming services: use the voice search function while you’re in the Netflix or the BBC iPlayer app, and you’re unceremoniously dumped out of that app and back into the Amazon front-end. Support will be coming sometime in the near-future, though.
And, while I’m being incredibly demanding, I wish it were possible to do a cross-service voice search, to check which movies are available on which service, and for how much. Currently, the process of checking whether movies are available on Amazon Prime or Netflix and whether they’re free or not, is aggravatingly clunky and time-consuming.
However, Amazon is keen to tout the Fire TV as one part media streamer and one-part lightweight gaming machine. We’re generally talking unchallenging gaming titles here – Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Grand Theft Auto III and the like – and you’ll need the optional £40 controller to play many of them. At half the price of the Fire TV again, you’d hope to get a premium controller – it’s the same price as a new PlayStation 4 or Xbox One controller – and we can only hope that Amazon has improved on last year’s plasticky, underwhelming effort. Due to be released on 22 October, we’ll be updating this review the moment we get some hands-on gaming time with it.
Amazon Fire TV 4K specifications
|Video outputs||HDMI to 4k (30fps)|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet, Bluetooth|
|App support||Amazon App Store|
|Dimensions||115 x 115 x 17.5mm|
|Audio formats||AAC, AC-3, E-AC-3, HE-A, PCM, MP3|
|Video formats||HEVC, H.263, H.264, MPEG4-SP, VC1|
|Price including VAT||79|
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