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The streaming set-top box space is becoming increasingly crowded, and the latest focus of the big players in the market is 4K.
Although it might have some strong competition from the Nvidia Shield TV, Amazon is making a play for the 4K streaming crown with its updated Amazon Fire TV.
For just £79.99 – plus the cost of a 4K TV and the streaming services themselves, of course – you can get top-notch Amazon Prime Instant Video or Netflix content in stunning 4K UHD quality. That’s a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160p in 16:9 aspect compared to the usual 1,920 x 1080p at Full HD.
Aside from the access to UHD 4K content, Amazon has also tweaked the internal hardware of its little black box, improving the processor for better performance across the board. And that’s all without raising the original £79 price point.
Does that all add up to a worthy investment, though?
From the outside, it isn't possible to notice a difference between the 2015 4K Amazon Fire TV box and last year’s iteration. It’s still a neat, matte-black box with all its ports hidden around the rear. Glossy panels around the box's sides add some style, while the familiar Amazon logo sits on the top panel.
When it’s turned on, only a small white LED blinks in time with your button presses. Amazon has done well to keep the Fire TV’s design simple, so that it easily blends into your entertainment system.
On closer inspection, there are some subtle – and some more divisive – changes between the two.
For a start, Amazon has changed the finish of the top panel on the latest Fire TV. The previous model's soft-touch matte finish was prone to picking up dirt and fingerprints. The latest model has a more textured finish, meaning you won’t notice those grubby marks appearing anywhere near as often.
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Around the rear Amazon has swapped out the optical audio port of the older model for a microSD card port with support for up to 128GB of additional storage. The Fire TV only comes with 8GB as standard.
There’s been a fair bit of debate as to whether this was a smart move on Amazon’s part. You can take a look at the customer comments on the website to see that many are irked by the lack of optical audio on the new box, especially for those using it to connect to their home audio systems.
But the microSD card slot is certainly a welcome addition. It’s just a shame that the design of the Fire TV doesn't allow Amazon to include both ports.
Under the hood, Amazon has kitted out the new Fire TV with a MediaTek, 2GHz quad-core processor, upgraded from last year’s 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 CPU. However, the 2GB of RAM remains the same.
Its graphics prowess has received a bump though: the Adreno 320 has been replaced by a Power VR GX6250 600MHz here.
Aside from the box itself, Amazon has also tweaked the Fire TV remote, which still comes with built-in voice-search support.
The new remote is around 1cm longer than its predecessor, but is a little lighter. And Amazon has swapped the glossy finish on the buttons for a soft-touch matte effect.
There’s still the same array of buttons: a row of three playback buttons sits at the bottom; the back, home and options buttons sit above that. Of course, you’ll also find the directional pad built into a ring around the central select button, with the microphone above that for voice searching.
It’s a well-put-together remote, although I’m just not sure the changes have added anything to its overall appeal – apart from the fact that, if you’re lucky enough to own both generations of Amazon Fire TV boxes, distinguishing between the two remotes is easier.
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The Amazon Fire TV setup process should be an uncomplicated affair. You plug in the power adapter (a slightly thinner version of last year’s adapter with a beefier plug socket), attach an HDMI and wait until the Fire TV blinks into life.
You’ll be asked to connect your remote, which may seem like it's a simple task but it actually took me a while.
First, I was asked to press the home button so the Fire TV box can see it – but after pressing it repeatedly like an angry YouTuber, it was having none of it.
Then I was asked to hold down the home button for 10 seconds, and even though the Fire TV’s LED changed from blinking white to yellow, the remote still wouldn't play ball.
When you consider that I was sat at a distance of less than a meter from the box, you may understand my frustration. In the end, I had to press the remote to the front of the Fire TV box to get the two to connect. Not a great start.
Once connected, I was walked through the Amazon Fire TV interface with the help of a short and snazzy tutorial video. This is great for those coming to a device such as this for the first time.
Then you're ready to start your full Amazon Fire TV experience.
Surprisingly, your experience with the Amazon Fire TV box will be exactly the same as it was with last year’s Fire TV box, and with the Amazon Fire TV Stick too.
It’s a picture-led UI with rungs of content falling into various categories such as Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Games, Apps and more. Tapping through to any of the categories brings up a single line of content, with large images and a brief description beneath.
Thanks to the upgraded processor, the UI is noticeably faster to navigate – particularly with services such as Netflix – loading apps in less than two seconds compared to around 10 seconds on the older model.
The latest box is also better at suspending content if you press the home button. For example, pressing home while watching Netflix on the older box would have resulted in you having to start it up again. With the new box, however, Netflix will be suspended while you look at the homescreen. Although this will be for only a few seconds – unlike the functionality of the Xbox One or PS4 – it’s certainly useful if you accidentally press the home button mid-episode of The Walking Dead.
Plus, you’re looking at faster results for voice searches, but film and TV content is still limited to the Amazon libraries. You’re not going to get universal search across services as you are with the new Apple TV or select Roku boxes.
As far as content is concerned, the issue of it all being Amazon-centric remains. All the video content is directly from Amazon Prime Instant Video, with BBC iPlayer, Netflix or other content hidden away behind their relevant app icons.
If you’re an Amazon Prime Instant Video member, this won’t be an issue. Items are clearly labelled as Prime content, or are available to buy or rent if they’re not available through the streaming service.
I’d recommend subscribing to Amazon Prime Instant Video prior to buying the Amazon Fire TV. It costs £5.99 a month, or £79 for a year if you want to take advantage of the Prime delivery and other perks. But for that price, all of Amazon’s 4K content is included for free.
This isn’t the case with Netflix. The standard £5.99 membership gets you the ability to watch in HD on two screens at a time. Upgrading to the £8.99 plan gets you access to UHD content, along with the ability to watch on four screens simultaneously.
Note that the 4K content on both Amazon and Netflix is limited at the moment. Many popular TV shows and movies aren't yet available to view in the stunning 3,840 x 2,160p UHD resolution. At present, it's mainly the Amazon and Netflix original series that are receiving the 4K treatment.
At the time of writing, Amazon has select seasons of Transparent, Sneaky Pete, Casanova, Bosch, Hand of God, Just Add Magic, Alpha House, Red Oaks, Orphan Black and Mozart in the Jungle available to watch in 4K UHD.
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However, there is a bit of an issue with the new Fire TV if you’re looking to give your older 4K TV an upgrade with Amazon’s latest streaming box: your TV or monitor needs to have HDCP 2.2 support and at least one HDMI 2.0 port. Although the latter probably won’t be an issue, HDCP 2.2 – a copy protection for 4K content – isn’t often found on older models of 4K TV.
You’ll need to check out the specifications of your TV before you fork out for the Amazon Fire TV. If you’re lucky enough to be compatible, you might want to invest in a HDCP 2.2-compatible HDMI cable since the Fire TV doesn’t come with one.
I also had some concerns with the 4K Amazon Fire TV in terms of software. Despite running an update of the software when prompted, I've found it to be incredibly temperamental and glitchy.
The remote disconnect itself from the box randomly, unable to reconnect unless I restarted the Amazon Fire TV – which is only possible by turning it off at the wall. This wasn’t a one-off occurrence either; it happened several times over the period of a week.
Connectivity can also be an issue over Wi-Fi. I often found the box complaining that there wasn’t a Wi-Fi connection, even though it was showing full bars on the UI.
Then there are the quirks with voice search. It almost seems like you can catch the Fire TV off-guard, with voice search failing to initiate properly. Sometimes it even fails to find content that you know exists, especially when it comes to apps.