When it comes to streaming devices, you do have quite a wide choice to take advantage of now. Certainly more than you did last year and when the first generation Fire TV device was released. Since then, Android TV had arrived with its many guises and as a result, the options to how you digest your digital content have significantly grown. So when the next generation Fire TV was announced last month, immediately, attention was drawn to what have Amazon improved on? What does the Fire TV do better? What does it now offer that it did not before?
In terms of the specs, the Fire TV has seen some changes since last year, while other elements have remained the same. Inside, the new Fire TV comes equipped with 2GB RAM and is now powered by a 2.0 GHz MediaTek Quad-core processor (instead of the Qualcomm Snapdragon which was in use on the first generation). While graphics are processed by a Powervr GX6250 GPU. Internal storage is set at 8GB internal as standard, although the Fire TV does also come equipped with a microSD card slot for expansion when needed (up to 128GB). Connectivity is decided over Wi-Fi 802.11ac as well as Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity for your accessories. USB ports are 2.0 rated while, there is also HDMI and Ethernet connectivity on offer as well. The Fire TV measures 4.5" x 4.5" x 0.7" (115 mm x 115 mm x 17.8 mm) and weighs 9.5 oz (270 grams).
Hardware & Design
In reality, there is very little to comment on in terms of the design of the new Fire TV when comparing to the previous generation. You would be very hard pressed to be able to tell the difference between the two generations on looks alone. The new Fire TV makes use of an almost identical form factor, consisting of the same small black square box. The only notable aspect includes the obvious Amazon logo on the front of the unit.
Around the back though, is where you will notice a difference and the most obvious visible differential between the two, as the new Fire TV comes with a slight increase in the number of ports on offer. To be clear, the same layout is generally in use with the power socket far left positioned, followed by the HDMI port, Ethernet port and USB port. However, where this version differs is the inclusion of the microSD card slot for expanding the storage. Not to mention, the ports all come with icon labels for easy identification. Although, the inclusion of the microSD card slot does seem to have come at the expense of the optical audio out which is noticeably absent from the new Fire TV player.
These changes aside and the general look and presentation of the new Fire TV is very much the same as that of the old Fire TV. This also goes for the remote control too. Without dwelling on this point too much, the new Fire TV remote control is essentially the same remote control as the previous generation. Same look, same button configuration and same functionality.
Software & UI
When it comes to streaming boxes, it does seem that the software is quickly becoming the most identifiable differential. At this level, most of the hardware on offer is (generally) the same, or at least close enough not to warrant any major issues. As such, the software is where a company can really push you towards their product. Not to mention, as this is an entertainment device primarily, the emphasis on software is even more apparent.
In Amazon's case, this software experience comes in the form of Fire OS. This is the company's own take on Android and will already be familiar to those who come from or have used a Fire tablet or the previous generation Fire TV. In fact, if coming from the previous Fire TV, then you will be very familiar with the software experience as again, very little has actually been changed.
Generally speaking, the layout, presentation and general usage of Fire OS on the Fire TV is identical to the old Fire TV. As Such, you are presented with the same darkened theme with the same rowed services and features on offer, with very little change.
One area which does seem to have been improved from last year's model though is the voice search functionality. Amazon's Voice Search Assistant, Alexa, is now on-board and this means that as well as the standard searching that you could do last year, you can also now search for more random or less obvious answers. Like checking the weather, game scores and so on. It is basically Amazon's Google Now feature and is a nice touch being included on the Fire TV. During testing, Alexa was able to answer some brief and basic questions, although, the functionality is nowhere near the level of Google Now as of yet.
The other improved feature on the latest Fire TV is the general ability to search. As well as being able to search for a specific title, the ability to search many third party apps seemed very well polished now. It is still a developing feature, but works nice enough for it to be functional and is a nice added benefit to Fire TV. You find a movie you want to watch but don't want to pay for it via Amazon, if it is available via one of the other 'main content provider' apps, Fire OS will let you know and even provide you the link to directly download the app, it it is not already installed on your system.
On a final software point, one interesting use of the software is that it essentially comes ready-to-go on arrival. Unlike the other options available, there is very little setup with the Fire TV. As Amazon assumes that you will be ordering the Fire TV directly from Amazon (and you need to use n Amazon account to work the Fire TV), the device essentially comes set up with your account out of the box. Once you connect the remote control (which is little more fiddly than on the Android TV counterparts), you are asked if you want to use the account you ordered the device with. If you do and click yes, the account and device is immediately ready to go and loaded with all your Prime content. No inputting of passwords or setting up accounts. This was a quite a good feature when compared to Android TV and one which Android TV device manufacturers should look to take on board, if they can. Of course, you can always sign-in with a different account if that is what you want or if this is ordered as a gift for someone else.
This is quickly becoming an interesting section for streaming devices. Any streaming device manufacturer which offers 4K playback, is typically very quick to point this feature out as one of its main selling points. Amazon is no different. Streaming 4K content is a big deal to manufacturers, even though, it doesn't seem to be that much of a big deal (right now) for the consumer. There are simply too many caveats. Your TV needs to be 4K compliant, your leads (to a point) need to be 4K compliant and of course, there needs to be enough of variance of 4K content on offer, to make the feature one worth caring about.
Now, compared to the other 4K ready streaming devices, this last point, content, is where the Amazon Fire TV excels as it does have access to a very large degree of 4K content. However, and this is a big however, it is not cheap. Yes, Amazon has some 4K content that you can watch as part of your Prime membership. However, it is mainly only the Amazon Original shows. If none of them take your fancy, then your option to watch 4K content as part of your Prime membership is extremely limited.
Amazon does have a very wide selection of paid 4K content though and this is where the Fire TV could have really stood itself apart. However, as the Fire TV is essentially a selling platform, Amazon only seem interested in pushing the 4K content at a very high price. The sheer majority of 4K content that is on offer is available for about $25-30 per title. Amazon have forgone the option to rent 4K content and therefore you do have to actually purchase a title to be able to watch it in 4K.
If Amazon had made these available to rent, then this could have really made the difference for the Fire TV. Although, in its current state and charging up to $30 per 4K title (regardless of age of movie/show), it does seem that Amazon are pricing the 4K feature out for the average consumer. This was one of the most disappointing features of the new Fire TV, as Amazon does have all the components in place to make 4K content its main competitive feature, but in its current state, it fails to utilize them.
As you would expect with a streaming device, there is a ton of gaming that you can make use of. Now, as this is essentially the Amazon Appstore, there is no shortage of games on offer. In fact, the selection of games is extensive. Not to mention, you do have the added benefit of being able to play a number of the Fire only games. However, unless you purchase the aftermarket gaming pad or buy the gaming bundle, the number of games that you can make use of is limited to the more basic content. Of course, not anymore limiting than what you have on Android TV without the gaming pad, but you do need to keep in mind that you won't have access to any of the games that you may have purchased from the Play Store.
Although, again, if you are more heavily involved with the Amazon ecosystem and have downloaded games from there routinely, your game selection is very conveniently available and shown on the main games screen when you log in. This includes all the games you have in your Amazon Appstore cloud, which makes it very easy to pull and download them. In terms of actual playing, there were no issues noted at all with the system seemingly very stable in this respect. Games played well and fluidly when tested.
The takeaway from our experience with the Fire TV is a mixed one really. Whether you should buy the Fire TV comes down to one main question - How involved are you with the Amazon Ecosystem? If you are a Prime member and already do use Amazon Instant Video (and don't already own the first gen Fire TV), then this will be a good streaming device for you to go for. You do get access to all your Prime content, as well as the likes of Netflix and so on. Not to mention, general navigating and finding content is rather easy and the interface is a nice one to use.
However, if you are not so ingrained in the Amazon lifestyle or would like more variance with your streaming box, then this probably is not the best option for you. Likewise, if you are coming from the first gen device, in truth, there is very little to grasp hold of and convince you to upgrade. Of course, by upgrading you will gain access to 4K streaming, although, this will be additionally dependent on if your TV (and internet) can handle the signal and as long as you are willing to pay for the content.
The truth of the matter is that a lot has changed in the market since the launch of the first Fire TV and this generation device does not seem to have changed all that much. Although, the changes they have included do refine the experience and offer a better product, whether they are any better than the more affordable Android TV options (or even the Fire TV Stick) remains to be seen. If you have yet to invest in a streaming device and want access to Prime Instant Video and can forgo most of the Google services, then this is worth a try.