4K Ultra HD Instant Video and Netflix but some missed opportunities
What is the Amazon Fire TV?This is actually the second generation Fire TV but the first product in the family to support Ultra HD 4K resolution. It follows the successful launch of the predecessor in 2014 as well as the low budget, Fire TV Stick. On the face of it, the biggest upgrade the second gen 2015 Fire TV brings over the original is that support for Ultra HD 4K resolutions but there’s also been a significant change under the hood with a major update to the operating system since we last reviewed a Fire TV device. The 2015 Amazon Fire TV (2) is widely available for £79 although it’s worth looking out for promotions as they are reasonably frequent and typically shave £15 off the asking price. So let’s see if the new Amazon Fire TV is a) worth upgrading to if you own the first gen product already and b) worth getting if you’re looking to get your first media streamer or upgrade from another.
Design, Connections & ControlThere are no immediately obvious design differences when comparing the 1st and 2nd Gen Fire TVs so the squared-off look remains and that’s no bad thing since we think it looks pretty nice. The surfaces are smoothed and a mixture of shiny black, around the edges, and a deep matte charcoal on the top, on which is situated the Amazon logo. It’s only when we get around the back and look at the connectivity that we see there is a change with a mini SD card slot now added and the Toslink digital audio output removed; we’re not sure how to feel about that; on the one hand, being able to mount an SD card is handy as you can store app data on it but then you do have an active USB port and some folks don’t have HDMI enabled audio equipment – perhaps a sideways step would be the best summary and the fact that the USB is version 2.0, rather than 3.0, is slightly disappointing. Speaking of HDMI, the port you plug the Fire TV in to, on your Ultra HD TV, must be HDCP 2.2 compliant to see any of the paid-for (Netflix/Amazon) 4K content, else you’re restricted to 1080p. Also at the rear is a LAN port for a wired internet connection but there is also dual-band (802.11ac)Wi-Fi capability built-in, as well as Bluetooth.
The new remote feels slightly different to the original although it also looks pretty much identical. We complained (only a little) that the original’s buttons produced too ‘clicky’ a sound and that’s been toned down a touch so we won’t moan again as we think they’ve got it just right this time. The remote mirrors the aesthetics of the Fire TV box and carries a very simple set of command buttons. There’s a circular control dial towards the top, consisting of a Select button, in the centre, and directional controls surrounding; beneath those are two rows of buttons; the top row has Back, Home and Menu, while the bottom is home to the playback controls.
The most interesting aspect of the remote, however, comes with the in-built microphone, which is utilised for voice search commands. Specifically, it’s a search mechanism that you can use to summon up apps or, more interestingly, to find movies, TV shows and music. That can be done on a specific title or even by actor or director and it works extremely well in practise, although it only covers Amazon video content and not the likes of Netflix and iPlayer, which is again a bit of a disappointment given that some of the competition are more content provider agnostic. This is also probably a good point to mention that Amazon’s voice assistant and their answer to Siri, Cortana and Google Now – Alexa - doesn’t make an appearance in the UK market but we’re hopeful Amazon will rectify that going forwards.
Launcher and User InterfaceWe wouldn’t go as far as saying that Amazon’s content takes up all of the space on the homescreen but it does account for the vast majority of what you see, which is understandable but it does make things less accessible if you want an all-round media player. A row of recently accessed apps, games and video right at the top ensures you’re not just seeing Amazon material, however, so if you’re a frequent Netflix user, for example, then you’ll be presented with that app tile in a very easily accessible position on start-up.
On the left of the screen is the downward scrolling Menu system, from where you can access a selection of widgets including Apps, Games and Music etc. It’s very easy to get to grips with and if you’re having any problems, there’s a tutorial video in the Settings Menu. We do have to say, in comparison to the original device, navigation is that much snappier and responsive and there’s no discernible lag, even when quickly moving between tiles at breakneck speed.
It’s probably worth mentioning that if you don’t want to be over-faced by all of Amazon’s plugging of its own content, you can – sort of – replace the homescreen (launcher) with something different; by installing the FireStarter launcher, which can be activated by a click, or two (your choice), on the Home button of the remote. You will briefly see the default homescreen flash up, as Amazon doesn’t officially support it, but it works well and if you have any sideloaded (see below) apps installed, it allows much quicker access to those.
Apps and PerfromanceWhilst the number of available apps to the Fire TV through the Amazon store have undeniably burgeoned, in terms of the ones most folks will be interested in there’s not that much been added since the last review. That’s not a complaint as the FireTV platform does possess most of what we would consider to be the key video services, although Channel 4’s on demand player – All 4 – is still missing. There are catch-up players from the BBC and Channel 5, as well as the recently re-launched ITV Hub although, unbelievably, ITV’s offering is still only (sub) Standard Definition resolution; that’s not a failing on the Fire TV’s part but hopefully someone from ITV will be looking in as that’s a poor state of affairs in the year 2015. Other noteworthy official apps include TV Player – which has most of the Freeview channels streamed live over IP, Spotify Connect, UK TV Play, Vimeo, STV Player, Vevo and TuneIn Radio. And, in terms of major omissions, we’d like to see Sky’s NOW TV, Sky GO, Virgin TV Anywhere and the aforementioned All 4 but the likelihood of seeing Sky apps, at least, is remote.
Of course, the two headlining apps are Amazon video and Netflix, both with the ability to stream Ultra HD content to a TV or projector. We realise that most of the Smart TV platforms built-in to TVs, at least, have both but there can be benefits in a dedicated device, particularly in terms of the software being kept well up to date. Prior to launch, we had hoped that Amazon would have taken advantage of the fact that the Fire TV operating system is based on Android Lollipop which has the ability to detect the framerate of video content and adjust the output refresh rate of the signal accordingly, but they haven’t and that’s a big miss. What’s more, there’s no (easy) way to set the correct output for the majority of films and top US TV shows, either.
What we’re talking about here is a 24p mode which will display the content as it was captured and in Amazon’s own case, at least, how it is delivered. We know from analysing Amazon video content on other devices that they do send video in 1080p24 and 2160p24 so the fact their flagship player can’t play it correctly is all the more bewildering. As we alluded to above, there is a way to force the Fire TV in to 24p mode but it comes with a couple of comprises and most end users will never find out how to do it; it’s actually just a matter of pressing the Up directional key at the same time as the rewind button and the Fire TV will then cycle through a selection of resolutions, including 1080p24 and 2160p24 that you can choose with the Select button. Be warned, if you choose 3840x2160p24 moving through menus becomes very laborious and you will lose access to the all the audio and video settings in the Settings menu until you factory reset the device. What's more, the 1080p24 reverts to 1080p60 upon playback of content but it does stick in 2160p24 mode. We played back some content we know to be 24 frames per second Ultra HD and the results were definitely much smoother than it was as the default 60Hz option but there is still the odd skip every 40 seconds, or so, as the timing is just out – when we say 24 frames per second, the reality is that the vast majority of content is 23.976 fps, so it looks like the player is using actual 24fps.
Sideloaded AppsThe Fire TV operating system is essentially Android, with a couple of tweaks here and there, and so the Fire TV is capable of running many apps designed to run on Android phones and tablets. Those requiring a touchscreen operation will mean you’ll either need to plug in a USB mouse/wireless keyboard or pay for an app called Mouse Toggle for Fire TV (£2.39), which adds a mouse mode to the stock remote. It would be nice if Amazon built the function in to the software but we’re not expecting that to happen. There are various means of sideloading apps to the Fire TV, including PC and mobile apps and you can even FTP, if you have ES File Explorer installed.
Fire TV KODI (XBMC)Since Amazon, somewhat controversially, removed KODI from their own app store the incentive for the KODI developers to give the Fire TV any special treatment virtually vanished and, with it, the incentive for anyone to pick one up as dedicated KODI box. There is no longer any easy way to be able to launch KODI from the Fire TVs default homescreen, either, which wasn’t the case with the first-gen product. As noted with the mainstream apps above, the Fire TV also lacks some of the video agility of the better competition, so you won’t get dynamic refresh rate switching or even Ultra HD output via KODI and the chances are that won’t change. On the plus side, the Fire TV 2 can play VC-1 files, which the original couldn’t, and if you do want a box covering 4K Amazon Prime/Netflix and KODI then this is the only game in town. If you do plump for one and you do use KODI we’d advise seeking out the ‘Sync playback to display’ in the KODI menus and setting output to 50Hz in the Fire TV settings for better – but not perfect – movie playback. It will be sped up by 4% so you can’t use that setting if you use audio pass-through to an amp – instead of the displays’ speakers – as it will be out of sync.
How future-proof is this video streamer?
4K Ultra HD playback up to 60 frames per second
HEVC decoding Full HD
HEVC decoding Ultra HD
7 Channel HD Audio pass-through
3D ISO playback
Over The Air (OTA) Software Updates
Manufacturer version of KODI
- Great price
- Very snappy in menus
- Loads of apps
- 4K Netflix & Amazon in one place
- Can sideload Android apps
- No 24p mode easily accessible
- 4K limited to 30 frames per second and no HDR support
- User interface will be too Amazon heavy for some
- Voice search only for Amazon content
Amazon Fire TV (2015) Review
Should I buy the Amazon Fire TV?The 2015 Amazon Fire TV is an extremely well-priced media streamer with an excellent range of services; it’s currently the only one to support Ultra HD streaming from both Amazon Instant Video and Netflix - a fact, alone, that will make it a must have for some. There are plenty of other key apps, besides, including BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, YouTube and Spotify, plus there’s the ability to load it with thousands of Android apps not available through Amazon’s app store’ the most popular of those being the open source media software, KODI.
The second generation Fire TV is not only an upgrade on the older model, in terms of the 4K services, it’s also noticeably quicker through menus but that’s probably about it, in terms of it being an upgrade. All the cool features, such as voice search through the snazzy remote, were in place prior to the release of the Fire TV 2 so if you’re not yearning for an external box for Ultra HD, there would be no compelling reason to upgrade; that’s only exacerbated by the fact the HDMI output of the new Fire TV isn’t the most future-proofed and isn’t capable of sending HDR video and nor can it send an Ultra HD signal above 30 frames per second. These aren’t particularly immediate concerns but it might tempt some to hang fire for the inevitable 3rd Gen Fire TV which will surely have both capabilities.
In the here and now, the biggest issue we had with the 2015 Fire TV was in its lacking of a 24p video mode in the user menus. Such output is necessary if you want to see playback of almost all movies and the majority of blockbuster TV shows at their best. It’s a curious omission on two fronts; first and foremost, a lot of the content Amazon Video, itself, provides is 24 frames per second material and, secondly, the ability to switch video is embedded in the operating system on which the Fire TVs is based and you can access a 24p mode through a button combination on the remote. The upshot of this lacking is that some will notice a judder/micro stutter with a lot of video content and once seen, it can’t go unseen.
If it wasn’t for the slightly less than ideal video playback we would have no hesitation in giving the 2015 Amazon Fire TV loftier praise but, as it is and until Amazon update their software to rectify the issue, we can go no higher than an AVForums Recommended Award. It really is a very good little product but it has the potential to be much better and we hope that’s exploited.
What else could I consider?This particular market is really hotting up with new devices seeming to appear by the week, but it all really boils down to what you’re exactly looking for in a media streamer. If you want a device with virtually all the major apps but less opportunity to go off piste, with the likes of sideloading and KODI (although it does do PLEX), then the Roku 3 is a winner but lacking the Ultra HD output, hopefully the Roku 4 will get a UK release soon. If a mixture of Android apps - including excellent KODI support – and 4K Netflix, not to mention the best gaming experience in the sector appeals, then we’d have no hesistation in directing you towards NVIDIA’s outstanding Android SHIELD TV. For those not interested in mainstream apps and just want a great vehicle to run KODI, our top 3 would be the Chromebox, Minix X8-H Plus and the HiMedia Q5 which all have their own set of virtues. For a more general look, check out all our media streamer reviews.
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality7
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.