Amazon’s new Fire TV box blasts 4K Ultra HD streaming content into your living room along with a host of bells and whistles like voice search and X-ray, Amazon’s IMDb-powered database.
It’s a good solution for folks who’ve coughed up for an Ultra HD TV but can’t get much in the way of 4K content to actually enjoy at the moment.
While many 4K smart TVs out there come with access to the much of what the Fire TV box offers in terms of on-demand services, Amazon’s smart user interface does away with all of the labyrinthine tedium of TV menus by making things simple.
Over Black Friday this year, Amazon’s reported a big spike in sales of all Fire TV products – six times more than last year. While it’s mainly been the cheap and cheerful Fire TV Stick that’s been shifting units, this powerful, 4K-ready device hasn’t exactly been sitting on the shelves either.
Amazon Fire TV 4K (2015 edition): What’s is it and what’s the fuss?
The new Fire TV box from Amazon does the same as all the others in the line up – it gives you fast, streamlined access to Prime Instant Video content as well as popular services like BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix and more recently, ITV Player.
The ace up the sleeve of the 2015 edition of the Fire TV box is its ability to deliver 4K Ultra HD streams to your living room.
4K Ultra HD, broadly speaking, provides four times the amount of detail of Full HD. If you’ve not seen any 4K footage yet, do yourself a favour and check it out. It’s pretty special. 4K petrolheads will already know this and will want to know how Amazon’s Ultra HD playback fares.
If you’re only here for the 4K goods or you’ve already got a Fire TV device and you’re thinking of upgrading, you can skip forwards to the ‘What can I watch?’ section of the review. If you’re new to Amazon’s smart TV ecosystem and want to know more, read on.
Amazon Fire TV 4K (2015 edition): What’s in the box?
As with previous Fire TV devices, Amazon keeps things light on the packaging side. Aside from the box, there’s the mains adapter, the remote control plus two AAA batteries and that’s it. It’s refreshingly light on paperwork and there’s no bumf whatsoever.
Amazon Fire TV 4K (2015 edition) remote control: Talk to me
The supplied remote is gently curved, lightweight and has a matt finish, all of which make for a comfortable grip.
A clickable circular D-pad sits above media controls and shortcuts for home, back and menu. It’s essentially a lighter, less premium-looking version of the old Apple TV remotes, but with more buttons and voice search.
The voice search button sits at the top of the remote, which makes sense as the microphone is actually built into the head of the control.
When you activate voice search – by pressing and holding the button – it’s best to hold the thing up to your mouth. This isn’t entirely necessary, as the mic will still pick up your voice if you’re holding it normally, but in a busy, crowded room, you might want to move it closer, lest your commands be lost in the background noise.
The buttons feel a little on the flimsy side and don’t feel like they’ll stand up to repeated wear and tear over the years. The remote could also do with a text search shortcut key; while it’s great to be able to activate the microphone and talk to your Fire TV box, there are some of us who prefer to type for things rather than pretend we’re Star Trek characters.
That said, you don’t have to use the supplied remote. The Amazon Fire TV companion app for iOS and Android replicates the functions of the remote perfectly. In fact, the app is so good we actually preferred using this to using the regular remote. Whichever you prefer, you’ll need to have the actual remote up and running as part of the set-up process.
Amazon Fire TV 4K (2015 edition) set-up: (Fire)works like a charm
The set-up process is practically idiot-proof; after you’ve plugged in the HDMI lead and connected the power cable, the box will spring into life and start searching for the remote.
Click the OK button to begin the set-up process. You’ve got the option of connecting to the Internet over WiFi or Ethernet. If you pick the wired option, you should connect automatically and won’t have to bother searching for your home WiFi network or inputting the password.
If you don’t have a decent WiFi connection or your miles away from your router it’s best to opt for the Ethernet option. In fact, even if the WiFi signal is pretty good, we’d always recommend going for Ethernet if you can – there’s no sense in clogging up the airwaves in your home and you’re going to want to stream 4K video on this thing too. Go for the most stable and secure option.
Once you’re connected, a short animation will start playing, showing you the ropes and how to get to grips with the Fire TV basics. It’s the same cartoon that Amazon’s included on all of its Fire TV devices to date, so if you’re upgrading from the old Fire TV box or you simply don’t want to watch it, you can skip through.
Finally, you’ll be asked to turn on parental controls (if that’s required) and asked whether you want to sign up for Amazon Prime, unless you’re already a paying customer.
Amazon Fire TV 4K (2015 edition) UI and menus: Colourful clickable boxes
The user interface of Fire TV has not changed from the original version; it’s got the same black, charcoal and orange colour scheme and the same acrostic-esque layout.
Amazon content is pushed to the fore here; there’s section for Prime Video titles pushed close to the top beneath manual Search and a Home banner, which collates all of your latest viewings as well as recent additions and recommendations.
We really like this aspect of the Home section, as it makes it easy for you to pick up where you left off and jump from app to app without having to search every time. It would be nice if you could permanently pin favourite services to the home screen like you can do on Roku devices, but it’s not like it’s hard to find your way around the Fire TV menus.
This nicely complements Amazon’s ASAP software (short for Advanced Streaming and Prediction) which claims to ‘pre-buffer’ certain shows depending on your viewing habits. So if you’re halfway through a season of Extant or something, the Fire TV box will guess that you’re probably going to want to watch epsiode 6 after episode 5 and so will start loading a chunk of that in anticipation of you hitting play.
In the time we’ve had our review unit, we’ve not played around with enough content to tell you how well this works, but it worked fine on the Fire TV Stick and we’ve got no reason to suspect that it wouldn’t here.
The Watchlist section is a nice feature for folks who like to prepare a weekend’s worth of telly gorging in one, but as we said, thanks to the Home section keeping tabs on what you’re watching anyway, it’s easy to pick up where you left off regardless.
The same IMDb-powered search tool returns on the 2015 Fire TV box, which lets you perform exhaustive searches of the Amazon content library for movies starring Nicholas Cage, or directed by Kathryn Bigelow or featuring Selma Blair or whoever – if their name’s on IMDb and related content is available, Fire TV will be able to find it.
Another neat feature of this is something Amazon calls X-ray. When you pause a TV show or movie on Prime, a tap of the options button on the remote will tag everyone in that scene, even background extras credited as things like ‘paperboy’ or ‘woman in mental hospital’ will show up.
Regrettably, as with previous Fire TV devices, all of this awesome search power is reserved for Amazon services and Amazon services only. Unlike Roku, which has worked hard to develop a service-agnostic search tool, all of the goods are kept away from Netflix and the rest.
Fire TV 4K (2015 edition) services: What can I watch?
Unless you skipped ahead, we’ve covered how Fire TV works and how easy it is to get set up and find what you want. TELL ME ABOUT THE 4K ALREADY, you may be screaming. Alright then.
Right now, there’s but a handful of services in the UK which are streaming or broadcasting 4K Ultra HD content and with the exception of BT Sport Ultra HD, all of them – that’s Netflix, Prime Instant Video and YouTube – are present on the 2015 Fire TV box.
Netflix’s 4K content at the time of writing consisted of Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Daredevil, Grace and Frankie, Marco Polo, Bloodline and Sense8, as well as the foodporn-tastic Chef’s Table as well as Moving Art, a series of eye-candy videos that are reminiscent of the kind of show room footage you typically see in department stores and trade shows – slow moving footage of oceans, deserts, forests. That sort of thing. While there’s no discrete Ultra HD section within the Netflix app, simply entering ‘4K’ into the search bar conjures up a list of all currently available content.
Amazon on the other hand has a separate section for 4K shows, punted to the very top of the ‘Prime Video’ section on the main menu. This makes it dead easy to browse through the latest offerings from Prime Instant Video, taking in the likes of Mozart in the Jungle, Bosch and Transparent as well as pilots like Casanova and Sneaky Pete.
As with Netflix, you can also just as easily find Ultra HD titles by dropping ‘4K’ and ‘Ultra HD’ into the search bar or even speaking into the mic.
Because both Netflix and Amazon’s 4K content currently streams at 24fps, they’re both comparable in terms of quality.
Needless to say, everything looks pretty amazing. The folks at LG were kind enough to loan us a UF950 for the purposes of this review. 4K streamed content looked fluid and remarkably detailed. Even Full HD streams looked razor sharp, benefitting nicely from the upscaling.
This TV doesn’t current support HDR (High Dynamic Range) and it’s currently unclear if it will. In the near future, HDR will be coming to Prime Instant Video (and presumably other services too), but neither feature this right now. While we obviously can’t say how this looks right now, we’ve seen some HDR and non-HDR footage running side by side at BT’s R&D facility, which will hopefully give you an idea of the difference this will make. If you’re bothered about HDR and having a future-proof system, make sure your TV supports this before shelling out.
4K uploads to YouTube can also be viewed on the new Fire TV box and looks equally, if not more sensational. We marvelled at this test footage shot in Costa Rica but because the Fire TV box caps 4K streaming at 30fps, we weren’t able to bask in the full majesty of some of the higher frame rate uploads the 4K evangelists have posted to YouTube. That didn’t stop it looking great, mind.
Of the three services, it was Netflix’s 4K content that was fastest to load. YouTube took a little longer to load and Amazon 4K content like Mozart in the Jungle wouldn’t always immediately start streaming, but we were never more than a few seconds away from Ultra HD heaven.
In order to get Netflix’s 4K content, you’ll need to upgrade to the £8.99/month Premium plan. Amazon, notably, does not charge its punters extra for Ultra HD streams, so you’ll still pay the same £5.99/month or £79/year if you’re an Amazon Prime punter.
YouTube is obviously free, so you’re good to fill your boots with as much footage as your connection can handle.
While we know that Ultra HD streams are in the pipeline for BBC iPlayer, there’s still no official ETA from the Beeb on this and therefore we’re unable to tell you whether or not it’ll be compatible with the Fire TV box, though we imagine that it almost certainly would.
Ditto the forthcoming ITV Hub (if that’s even going to offer 4K content from launch). We imagine given that the traditional providers are still hashing out broadcast standards for 4K TV transmissions, it’ll be a while before they start making 4K shows available on catch-up.
Other services that are now available on Fire TV include UKTV Play, which gives you access to catch-up content from Dave, Drama, Really and Yesterday, and Channel 5’s Demand 5 service. Channel 4’s All 4 hasn’t materialised on Fire TV yet, but in the meantime there’s always TV Player, which lets you stream the majority of channels you’d find on Freeview over an Internet connection.
On top of this, you’ve also got the option of paying a fiver a month for TV Player Plus, which gives you access to live streams of Cartoon Network, TLC and Discovery for £5/month.
In many ways, the Fire TV box is a viable alternative to a Freeview Play device. With the obvious exception of All 4, you virtually get the same content, plus access to on-demand services that currently aren’t available on the recently-launched TV platform.
Amazon Fire TV 4K (2015 edition) gaming credentials: Casual and retro
Like a well worn pair of Adidas Track Tops, Amazon’s gaming creds are decidedly retro and casual as hell.
Amazon’s pitching its Fire TV devices firmly at the type of gamer who probably doesn’t have the time to get their teeth into something epic like Fallout 4, but absolutely does have the time to twunt around on something like Goat Simulator.
Other titles available are Telltale’s Game of Thrones (essentially a decent visual novel featuring voice actors from the TV show) Pacman 256 (essentially, er, Pacman) Minecraft: Pocket Edition (an Android port of full-fat Minecraft) plus a port of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
We think it’s important to bring this last one up in particular as it’s a good indication of how the 2015 Fire TV fares against the Nvidia Shield TV, which lets you play current gen PC titles (albeit via screen mirroring) and the Fire TV, which lets you play a PC game that’s over ten years old. While we’ve got a lot of time for Knights, a game which first came out on PC in 2003, it mainly served as a nice trip down memory lane, as well as reminder of how far graphics have come since then.
I becomes obvious pretty early on that the 8GB of storage you get really isn’t that big at all. Knights took up 2.04GB and it’s not exactly a long or taxing game. We also noticed that when we maxed out the FIre TV’s innards with apps and games, overall performance dropped. Navigating the menus was noticably less smooth, no doubt due to the extra strain placed on the processor.
You’ll be pleased to learn that there’s a microSD card slot on the back, which lets you expand the storage by up to 128GB. Whenever you pop a new memory card into the back of your Fire TV box, a small message will flash up, telling you how much storage is available to you.
If you think you’re going to exhaust this 8GB fairly quickly, don’t skimp. Go large and pick up a 32GB, 64GB or 128GB card, whatever you can spare. You don’t want to be switching out microSD cards half-filled with game save data.
Amazon Fire TV 4K (2015 edition) controller: If it ain’t broke…
The controller, (£40, sold separately) while not exactly revolutionary in design, is well built. It’s lightweight, but feels solid. While we didn’t like the glossy plasticky, fingerprinty coating of the front, we’re grateful that the controllers wings are coated in a nice matt finish.
We like that the game controller supports voice controls, so that when you’re done gaming you can ask your Fire TV to load up a movie or TV show.
Fire TV 4K (2015 edition) app: Verdict
4K content on the new Fire TV box positively shimmers. It does everything that the other Fire TV devices already do and while there’s something of a trickle of 4K content available now, what is there is nice enough for the time being and we’re expecting an eventual flood.
How future proof the Fire TV box is is another question – in terms of frame rate support, it can’t handle 4K at 60fps, but as there’s hardly any 60fps content around right now, this is a fairly moot point. Also, at £80, it’s not going to make a massive dent in your outgoings.
Should 60fps become the norm anytime soon, we imagine it won’t be long before Amazon launches a third Fire TV box.
We’ve yet to test out the Fire TV’s gaming creds and compare it to Nvidia’s Shield, a system with which we’re very enamoured.
Our final verdict will take into consideration how the new Fire TV stacks up against this as both a gaming system and a media device. Given that the Shield lets you stream full PC games compared to the Android-bases titles, we’re already pretty certain how that particular battle’s going to turn out.
If you’ve already got a Fire TV device and you’re firmly plugged into the Amazon ecosystem, we’d recommend shelling out for this; it’s more of what you’ve already got, plus almost all of the 4K providers in one place.
For the a UK 4K royal flush, you’d need BT Broadband and BT Sport Ultra HD too, but that’s another story… Check back soon for our final verdict and rating.