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Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review: hold the remote

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Amazon’s latest streaming player supports all the important formats and costs just $50

When shoppers look for a streaming player this holiday season, they’ll likely be choosing between Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick 4K and the Roku Premiere I reviewed earlier this month. Both are right near the $50 mark and the most affordable 4K HDR devices you can get (assuming your TV’s built-in apps aren’t already good enough). Each has its upsides: Roku has the most simplistic, easy-to-use software and offers more apps, while Amazon supports Dolby Vision and lets you control the Fire TV Stick 4K with Alexa.

After spending a few days reviewing Amazon’s latest, it’s an easy recommendation. But unless you’re already someone using Alexa daily, I don’t think there’s anything that makes it the definitive choice.

One of the best changes Amazon made has nothing to do with the Fire TV Stick 4K itself. The company has improved its bundled Alexa voice remote by adding power, volume, and mute buttons that can directly control your TV. Setup is dead simple; you just push the volume buttons a couple times until Amazon figures out what TV you’ve got. After that, you can leave the TV clicker alone when using the Fire TV. Roku has been doing this for awhile with some of its remotes, so it’s about time Amazon added the same convenience.

But Amazon is going a step beyond just handling volume and power: the new voice remote contains IR blasters, so it can actually change your TV’s current HDMI input, control an attached soundbar, or even tune to a specific channel on supported cable/satellite boxes (“tune to channel 4 on cable” or “tune to ESPN on cable”) — just like the Cube. The new remote can be purchased separately by existing Fire TV owners and, starting today, also comes included with the Fire TV Cube. It’s a much-needed upgrade for that product, too.

The new Alexa voice remote adds power, volume, and mute buttons. It can also change HDMI inputs or tune to a specific channel on some cable boxes.

But the actual Stick hardware does have its share of improvements. It plugs directly into a free HDMI port, and you run an attached USB cable to a nearby outlet to get up and running. (The USB port on most TVs isn’t enough to adequately power the Fire TV Stick 4K.) In terms of audio/video presentation, the Fire TV Stick 4K checks off every box that home theater enthusiasts want: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HDR10+ (really only of interest for Samsung TV owners), and Dolby Atmos. This is the only streaming device in Amazon’s lineup that does Dolby Vision; the $120 Fire TV Cube oddly lacks it, as does Roku’s entire player lineup. So at just $50, the Stick delivers excellent picture and sound at a price that’s substantially less than Amazon’s hands-free Cube or the Apple TV 4K. It’s also been upgraded with a faster processor that makes menus and starting up a video feel responsive and fast.

Unfortunately, Walmart’s Vudu service — a major source of Dolby Vision content — still hasn’t released an app for Fire TV, which leaves you left with Netflix and Amazon. Both largely limit Dolby Vision (and HDR10 for that matter) to their original content, whereas Vudu supports HDR for many Hollywood releases.

The Alexa functionality is very appealing. Roku’s voice remote lets you open a certain streaming app, search for content, or play music. But with Amazon’s, you can do all of that and also check the weather, control your smart lights, pull up a feed from your doorbell cam, or access Alexa’s other skills with a simple voice request. Out of the box, you’ve got to press the microphone button on the remote to use voice. But if you’ve got an Echo device in the living room, you can link it with the Fire TV Stick 4K to gain hands-free Alexa capabilities.

You can say “Alexa, show me 4K movies” and get a list of choices pulled from both Prime Video and Netflix. Or you can ask for content starring a certain actor. Alexa can also access any film in your Movies Anywhere collection and play it through Prime Video. When you search for something (or just select it with the remote), the Fire TV always favors whatever service will let you watch it for free. For example, when I pulled up Halloween, the first result shown was a free trial of Shudder, with options to rent or buy the movie from Amazon next to it. Similar to Roku, the Fire TV tries to avoid bias in where and how you stream. I also like that TV shows and movies go directly in the recents row instead of the app they came from, which makes resuming playback much quicker.

Top: Roku Premiere (2018). Bottom: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

With that said, Amazon’s habit of plastering its own content all over the main home screen can be irksome. There’s a “Netflix recommends” row and others that mix content from different streaming apps to help balance things out. But sometimes you’ll scroll through enough Amazon stuff to let out an “enough already.” Does Thursday Night Football really need its own dedicated row? Beautiful Boy looks to be a fine film, but a big banner ad for an Amazon Studios theatrical release doesn’t do me much good. Putting up with these little things is probably still worth it when you consider everything the Fire TV Stick 4K offers for 50 bucks.

The Fire TV home screen offers little customizability — moving tiles around in the “Your Apps & Channels” section is the extent of it — and requires more horizontal scrolling than I’d prefer. Most often, I find myself just having Alexa open whatever app I want and then controlling things with the remote from there. Couldn’t be much easier.

Still, Alexa voice commands need to get better and more dependable. The Fire TV Stick 4K failed to find The Romanoffs, one of Amazon’s more recent originals, instead showing me a 1960 film staring Kirk Douglas. And while Netflix recently added “deep” support for voice controls, some basic requests — like “play the next episode” or “skip this episode” — didn’t work for me. “Play The Good Place” gets the job done. “Next episode” or “skip this episode”? Not so much. This shouldn’t be too much to ask from Alexa, and running into walls where you don’t expect them is annoying. (Hopping between episodes works just fine with Prime Video and other apps.)

Not quite what I asked for, Alexa.

YouTube doesn’t exist on Fire TV as a proper app like Netflix or HBO Go. Instead, Amazon directs you to it through either its own Silk web browser or Firefox. I know that comes off as a hassle, but once you’ve signed into your YouTube account, it’s just fine. YouTube can still play 4K content and looks great, native app or not. Watching YouTube TV is a different story. There’s simply no good way of doing it on this device, which I find incredibly frustrating since I consider it to be the top streaming TV service. Hulu with Live TV or PlayStation Vue subscribers can hop right into live TV, but not YouTube TV customers. When will this silly feud between Amazon and Google end?

Despite those gripes, the Fire TV Stick 4K comes away as a very strong value. If you’ve got a Dolby Vision-compatible TV, it’s probably a better buy than the Fire TV Cube (and will cost you less). Even if you’re not a smart home person, Alexa is very helpful for quickly pulling up a show or movie, and the voice remote now has the TV control buttons that were long overdue. Amazon is getting a little self-indulgent with its ads and featured content, and the company seriously needs to work things out with YouTube ASAP, but those downsides aren’t enough to ruin the rest of what’s here.

But even with its excellent remote, is the Fire TV Stick 4K an obvious winner over the Roku Premiere/Premiere+? Not for everyone. Roku has better app selection, provides a simpler and more customizable experience, offers similar 4K HDR visuals, and has a voice remote that can handle the entertainment side of things. Plus, it also now supports Google Assistant to help level up against Alexa. But Alexa certainly gives the Fire TV Stick 4K powers that Roku lacks on its own out of the box. Its video looks terrific.

Photography by Chris Welch.

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