Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review: The best streaming dongle for the money

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The holidays are nearly upon us, and iterative hardware updates abound.

The new $50 Fire TV Stick 4K, which Amazon announced somewhat unceremoniously earlier this month, isn’t so much a revelation as a natural progression. It’s the first in the Fire TV Stick lineup to support 4K high dynamic range (HDR) content, and the first to pack in a new remote control — the somewhat clunkily dubbed Alexa Voice Remote with Device Control — that lets you control devices with a flick of the wrist.

It’s quite a comeback for a dongle the Seattle company let languish for the better part of two years and a shot across the bow at Roku, which in September took the wraps off the 4K-compatible, IR remote-touting Premiere+. The good news? It was well worth the wait.

4K everywhere

Amazon launched the Fire TV (2017) — a diminutive flat cube of a thing —  at a September hardware event last year. It supports 4K (up to 60 frames per second) in HDR10, which covers 100 percent of DCI-P3 and Rec. 2020 color spaces for a total of 1.07 billion colors (1,024 shades of each primary color), plus Dolby Atmos, a premium audio format for multichannel surround sound setups.

At the time, the company pitched it as a replacement for the discontinued Fire TV set-top box, and the Fire TV Stick 4K appears to be positioned to replace it. The Fire TV Stick 4K similarly supports 4K and HDR at 60 frames per second — specifically HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, Hybrid-Log Gamma (HLG), and Dolby Atmos.

Judging by the spec sheets, you’d think they were the same — right down to their quad-core processors. But first impressions can be deceiving.

Take the design, for instance. The Fire TV (2017) plugs into the back of a television or receiver and dangles off the end of a flexible cord, while the Fire TV Stick 4K is a self-contained affair. An HDMI plug juts out from the 3.9 x 1.8 x 0.5-inch housing, which measures slightly wider and longer than the second-generation Fire TV Stick (3.4 x 1.2 x 0.5 inches). It’s ever-so-slightly heavier, too, at 1.8 ounces (versus 1.1 ounces).

Just like Fire TV Sticks before it, the Fire TV Stick 4K draws power via MicroUSB — both a cable and wall adapter are included in the box. The port is positioned at a right angle to the HDMI plug, off to the side, which works just fine on my living room setup. But it’s not particularly amenable to multiple devices — if you’ve already got a jigsaw puzzle of set-top boxes to contend with, you might have a tough time making room.

Alexa Voice Remote with Device Control

Once the Fire TV Stick 4K is plugged in and powered on, it’s on to the remote. You could argue it’s the star of the show, in fact.

It provides a means of navigating Fire OS, the Fire TV Stick 4K’s operating system, of course, but it also doubles as a universal remote control for the tens of thousands of sound bars, TVs, cable and satellite boxes, and AV equipment that accepts IR signals. Just like Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, it uses a potent combo of HDMI CEC — a feature of HDMI designed to allow users to command and control devices connected through HDMI — and a cloud database of device profiles to control the volume, change the channel, and power toggle target devices.

They’re carryover features from the Fire TV Cube, which Amazon launched in June.

The Fire TV Stick 4K had no trouble detecting the Samsung TV in my relatively spartan setup — during the onboarding process, the dongle instructed me to try increasing and decreasing the volume, which worked without a hitch. However, your mileage may vary. I can’t speak to more complicated home theaters, and Amazon notes that some categories of devices — namely projectors, HDMI switches/hubs, and universal remotes (like Logitech Harmony) — aren’t compatible yet.

The new Alexa Voice Remote’s button layout is slightly different from the model it replaces, mostly to make way for the volume controls. The mute button sits nearest the bottom below the volume rocker, and six playback and navigation controls — back, home, settings, rewind, pause/play, and fast forward — occupy the middle. Above the buttons is a circular, clickable directional pad (the center serves as a selection button), and almost adjacent to it near the top is a microphone button. Pressing and holding it triggers Amazon’s Alexa assistant on-screen.

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The build quality is measurably improved from the Voice Remote that ships with the Fire TV. The buttons feel tighter and more responsive. That’s true of the directional pad, too — it’s stiffer (in a good way) and much less likely to register false positives if, like me, you lose your grip on the matte plastic rear cover.

Just make sure you have two AAAs handy, as it’s battery-powered.

Performance

Amazon claims the Fire TV Stick 4K is 80 percent faster than the Fire TV Stick, and it certainly feels that way.

The little dongle handles menus and animations like a pro, launching apps and shows nearly instantaneously — excepting the occasional bout of stuttering on menus with image-rich carousels. And when it needs to reboot — say, after an update — it’s up and running in 30 seconds or less.

It delivers the sort of glass-smooth, ultra-slick experience I’ve come to expect from pricier set-top boxes, like the Apple TV and Nvidia Shield TV, and it’s far and away the best Fire TV Stick I’ve tested.

That’s strictly subjective, of course. In an attempt to quantify the improvements, I launched GFXBench — a popular cross-platform benchmarking tool — and fired off a round of tests on the Fire TV Stick 4K and the Fire TV (2017).

Amazon lists the Fire TV Stick as sporting a nondescript quad-core ARM processor clocked at 1.5GHz with a Mali450 MP4 GPU; Geekbench reports an Amlogic Cortex A53 ARMv8 system-on-chip and roughly 1.5GB of usable RAM. And Fire TV Stick 4K has a MediaTek MT8695 Cortex A53 ARMv8 chip paired with about the same amount of RAM — 1.5GB.

In GFXBench’s T-Rex offscreen test at 1080p, the Fire TV (2017) averages around 10 frames per second. The Fire TV Stick 4K fares slightly better, hitting around 14 frames per second.

Its advantages aren’t confined to raw processing speed. It has a dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi chip for “faster streaming” and “fewer dropped connections,” according to Amazon, and Bluetooth 5.0 (compared to the Fire TV Stick’s Bluetooth 4.2).

4K HDR

The Fire TV Stick 4K’s spotlight feature is 4K HDR, and it doesn’t disappoint on that front.

4K is easy enough to wrap your head around — it’s 3840 x 2160 pixels, or twice the resolution of 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) and 4 times the resolution of 720p (1280 x 720 pixels). And the Fire TV Stick 4K supports it at up to 60 frames per second. But the benefits of HDR are a bit harder to convey in writing.

Suffice it to say that HDR takes advantage of the greatly expanded color depth and brightness supported by newer, premium TVs to produce more natural, vibrant pictures. Whereas the average flatscreen produces about 300 to 700 nits (one nit is equivalent to a candela, or the intensity of a candle), HDR-capable displays can drive up to 4,000. And they max out at 12-bit color instead of the traditional 8-bit — the difference between 68.7 billion colors and 16 million.

HDR comes in several different flavors, all supported by the Fire TV Stick 4K: the aforementioned HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG. Let’s break down each in turn.

  • HDR10: an open format certified by the Consumer Technology Association that any display manufacturers can adopt free of charge. It’s defined by 10-bit color depth (over a billion possible colors), 4:2:0 color subsampling (a type of compression that reduces the color information in a signal in favor of luminance data), and support for up to 4,000 nits peak brightness with a 1,000 nit peak brightness target.
  • HDR10+: an enhanced version of the original standard developed jointly by Samsung and Amazon Video. It’s largely identical to HDR10, but adds dynamic metadata that can be used to more accurately adjust brightness levels on a scene-by-scene or frame-by-frame basis.
  • Dolby Vision: a proprietary format developed by Dolby Laboratories for which it charges a royalty — meaning, manufacturers have to pay a royalty to implement it. It’s by far the most capable of the HDR formats, with a 12-bit color depth (over 68 billion possible colors), up to 10,000 nits maximum brightness, and dynamic metadata.
  • Hybrid Log-Gamma: an HDR standard engineered by the BBC and Japanese broadcaster NHK that boasts 10-bit color depth and is backward-compatible with standard dynamic range displays.
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So what does all that mean in plain English? The Fire TV Stick 4K offers the widest support for HDR of any HDMI dongle on the market, even rivaling set-top boxes like the Apple TV. And as production houses draw lines in the sand, that’s becoming increasingly important.

HLG is already in use in BBC iPlayer, the BBC’s on-demand streaming portal, and can be used for HDR videos on YouTube. Studios like 20th Century Fox and Universal have thrown their weight behind HDR10, while Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, and Lionsgate continue to full-throatedly endorse Dolby Vision.

The nice thing about having a device that supports them all is there’s no FOMO — even the Firefox and Amazon Silk web browsers on the Fire TV Stick 4K can play back HDR content. As long as you’ve got a compliant TV, projector, or monitor, you’ll always be good to go.

Unfortunately, I don’t — my roommate’s aging Samsung Smart TV makes do with HDR10. But be that as it may, I can still appreciate the wealth of 4K HDR content on tap. There’s a much larger selection than there was just a few years ago, as evidenced by the new 4K TV Prime Original Series in 4K Ultra HDR Row on the home screen. Amazon Video’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, and every recent Amazon Original — including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Bosch, Sneaky Pete, and The Man in the High Castle —  is available in 4K and HDR. And on Netflix, titles like Ozark, Lost in Space, Godless, Stranger Things, Marvel’s Daredevil, and Chasing Coral are available in HDR.

A good chunk of HDR content supports Dolby Atmos, a standard that expands on 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound setups to create more “immersive” experiences and which is present and accounted for on the Fire TV Stick 4K. Atmos can technically take advantage of up to 34 speakers (the recommended maximum is 12), but specially designed Dolby Atmos systems like Onkyo’s SKH-410 and Sony’s SSCSE (and aftermarket modules) mimic its multidirectional effects by directing sound upward, which rebounds it off the ceiling.

Fire OS

The Fire TV Stick 4K runs Amazon’s in-house Fire OS, a custom software layer atop Android 7.1.2. In addition to one-tap access to the retailer’s Alexa voice assistant (and more than 50,000 third-party Alexa skills) tens of thousands of channels, apps, and games are available through the Amazon Appstore. They’re too numerous to list here, but the catalog includes Prime Video, Hulu, Starz, Showtime, ESPN, CBS, Spotify, and iHeartRadio.

Collectively, they serve up more than 500,000 movies and TV shows.

If none of those strike your fancy, there’s the On Now row, an auto-populated row of live television content from a mix of internet and over-the-air sources. This draws from channels like Hulu, PlayStation View, and Amazon’s a la carte Prime Video Channels, in addition to programming from a Fire TV Recast and HDTV antenna. (The Fire TV Recast, which was announced in September, can record two to four shows at a time from channels like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS, and The CW, and starts at $229 for two tuners and 500GB of storage space; the four-tuner, 1TB version costs $279.)

TV show and movie searches will always favor free services, and in some cases, surface trials or limited-time offers for premium channels like Shudder. It never feels like an upsell, though — whenever possible, the Fire TV Stick plays the role of an impartial mediator, making a good faith effort to avoid biasing its recommendations toward Amazon’s services.

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That’s not true of the home screen, however, which serves no fewer than three carousel’s worth of Amazon movies, original series, and featured TV shows.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Fire OS lacks a proper YouTube client, a result of an ongoing feud between Google and Amazon. And Walmart’s Vudu isn’t here, either, which is a bit of a disappointment — it supports HDR for a number of Hollywood releases you won’t find on Amazon Prime or Netflix.

New capabilities landing alongside the Fire TV Stick 4K include enhanced voice controls. In apps from A&E, AMC, Sony Crackle, Hallmark, HBO Now, History, IFC, Lifetime, and VH1, you can use Alexa to play, fast forward, and navigate through content. And if you have an Amazon Echo speaker, you’ll benefit from hands-free control with far-field voice recognition; nearby Echo devices pair automatically as soon as you ask Alexa a question that includes the Fire TV (“Alexa, show me comedies on Fire TV”).

Rounding out the new features are Alexa voice controls — you can launch apps (“Alexa, launch Starz”); search for movies by actor, director, and genre (“Alexa, find drama”); control playback (“Alexa, pause the movie”); or even ask about the weather (“Alexa, what’s this week’s forecast”) with voice command — which includes support for routines. “Alexa, good morning,” for example, can be programmed to trigger multiple devices in a sequence, like the TV, speaker system, and other Alexa-compatible smart appliances.

Voice controls extend to live TV and input controls. You can switch channels by saying commands like, “Alexa, switch to channel 15,” and “Alexa, switch to ESPN”; adjust the volume of a TV or soundbar when you’re viewing content on a different HDMI port; or switch to another device by saying “Switch to PlayStation” or “Switch to HDMI.”

Conclusion

The Fire TV Stick 4K doesn’t look like much from the outside, but I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best HDMI streaming dongles for the money right now.

Its unrivaled support for 4K Ultra HDR formats is almost worth the price of admission alone — it’s the only player that has 4K, HDR10, Dolby Vision, HDR10+, and HLG on tap, and it significantly undercuts set-top boxes such as the Apple TV 4K ($180) and the Roku Ultra ($100), neither of which can play back HDR10+ content. In this respect, it even bests Roku’s competitively priced Premiere and Premiere+.

I’m equally impressed with the Alexa Voice Remote with Device Control. While it doesn’t go toe-to-toe with universal remote systems like Logitech’s Harmony, the convenience of an IR remote with voice controls can’t be overstated.

This is all to say that the Fire TV Stick 4K is the cream of the crop when it comes to set-top devices — lack of YouTube client and Vudu aside, of course. It’s fast, smooth, and chock-full of features that’ll delight not just cinephiles, but folks looking to fire up Netflix at the end of a long workday.

Source: VentureBeat

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