From the new Apple TV to Chromecast to Roku 4, hardly a week goes by without word of a new or updated streaming media player. But, despite the crowded field, we managed to get the new Amazon Fire TV into our streaming media labs for an initial evaluation. The verdict: The Amazon Fire TV is a top-performing streamer worthy of consideration, but there's little reason to upgrade if you already own the older Amazon Fire TV.
Out of the Box
Although the new Fire TV looks just like its predecessor, there are a few noteworthy differences. The new model is a fraction larger, but the input for the AC adapter plug is smaller (as I found out when trying to connect the new Fire TV to the old power supply). The new model also includes a microSD card slot that can add up to 128GB of extra storage, but it lacks the digital optical audio output found on the previous model.
The main differences are under the hood. In addition to support for 4K video, a faster 64-bit quad-core processor powers the new player, and it has a separate, dedicated graphics processor. The new Fire TV box also gets a Wi-Fi upgrade for better Wi-Fi video streaming.
The remote control is slightly longer, and it operates via Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, which the company claims can reduce latency and improve battery life. Like the older remote, it has a microphone button on top for Alexa and voice searches.
Firing Up Fire TV
Setting up the new Fire TV is a snap, especially since, if you're already an Amazon customer, all your info is preloaded in the device. An animation walks you through the basics of using the remote and navigating the menus.
Although it's not hard to navigate through the options on the left-hand sidebar of the main menu, there are so many of them—13 in all—it makes the interface more complicated than necessary. Unfortunately, you can't reorder the screen or pin favorite content or apps to the subscreens. The good news is that there's a Prime Video tab, so you can quickly find programs and movies included in your Prime subscriptions.
Amazon continues to favor its own content over that from other services, which is a bit off-putting. Amazon seems to have most of the major content-services bases covered—Hulu, Netflix, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Sling TV—but it still lacks any Viacom networks (CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, etc.) and Google Play.
Although Amazon claims the new Fire TV is 75 percent faster than its predecessor, we're not sure you'll notice it, since the original Fire TV was among the better performers in our streaming media player Ratings.
For a few tests, we connected both the new model and the older version to the same TV, and in almost all respects, the newer version was a touch quicker. The newer model seemed a bit more fleet-footed when fast-forwarding and rewinding. When we loaded apps or streamed content, the improvements were marginal.
However, if you weren't comparing the two models head-to-head, you probably wouldn't see the difference, except perhaps when you used voice search or played games.
Amazon content seemed to benefit the most from the power boost. Netflix didn't load as quickly or as smoothly, for example, but that held true for the earlier version of the player, too. We imagine this is due to Fire TV's ASAP feature, which preloads content it thinks you're likely to watch.
4K Video and Alexa
We connected the Amazon Fire TV to one of the 4K TVs in our labs. Based on this initial assessment, the picture quality was consistent with that of 4K content streamed directly to a UHD smart TV. The new Amazon Fire TV also supports up to 7.1-channel Dolby Digital Plus surround sound.
One thing to note about Amazon's 4K support: The Fire TV comes with an HDMI 1.4 output, not the HDMI 2.0 connections we see on almost all new 4K TVs and 4K-ready streaming players. This means the Fire TV won't be able to support high dynamic range (HDR) content or 60-frames-per-second video. That's a bit strange considering that Amazon Prime is one of the only services currently offering HDR programs. Still, since most available 4K content is either 24 or 30 frames per second, that lack of support might not be an issue for you.
The Alexa voice assistant is a good addition, although the capability isn't as robust as it is in the Amazon Echo. For example, you can't set timers or alarms or get the latest news updates. Also, things can get a bit squirrelly if you own an Echo: When I was testing the Fire TV in my living room, the excellent microphone array in the Echo in my kitchen picked up my questions and jumped in with responses.
Consumer Reports' Take
If you're in the market for a streaming media player, the new Amazon Fire TV is worth considering. It's a top-performing player and it's less expensive than the new Apple TV or Roku 4. Compared to the previous model, it features some nice enhancements at no additional cost. It's an especially smart choice if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber and use the company's streaming video and music services.
But there's no compelling reason to upgrade unless you buy a smart TV with no 4K streaming; you're unhappy with the smart TV platform on your current set; and you're hungry for Amazon Prime content unavailable on your TV.
Copyright © 2005-2015 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.