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Amazon Fire TV 4K HDR review: compact upgrade to make your TV smarter

Amazon Fire TV 4K HDR review
No longer a set-top box … the new Fire TV. Photograph: Amazon

The Amazon Fire TV with 4K HDR is arguably the easiest and best way to play ultra HD content on your TV, condensing what was great about the previous generation into a smaller, cheaper package.

The new Fire TV is no longer a set-top box – instead it’s more like the cheaper Fire TV Stick, hanging off a built-in flexible HDMI cable. It means the new Fire TV can be inserted straight into the back of a TV, hidden from view, and likely powered straight from the TV’s USB port.

The downside is that by shrinking the Fire TV down to an 87.1g dongle, Amazon has cut the built-in ethernet and microSD card sockets. The former is available as an optional extra through an adapter, but this Fire TV is clearly more about streaming and less about Android games than the previous generation, so expandable storage is less important.

Plug in, switch on, log in

Amazon Fire TV 4K HDR review
The Fire TV plugged into a free HDMI socket on the back of your TV and powered either by the TV’s USB socket or the included power adapter. Photograph: Amazon

Setup took about five minutes. It comes with a remote (complete with batteries), a USB power adapter and microUSB cable for powering the Fire TV. Some will need the power adapter, others will be able to power it straight from a USB port on their TV – the USB ports on the Sony Bravia 55XE9005 were capable of powering it playing 4K HDR content.

Once connected the remote pairs up with the Fire TV at the touch of a button and all you have to do is follow the instructions to connect to wifi and the necessary Amazon account – you don’t have to subscribe to Amazon’s Prime subscription service, but you can’t use the Fire TV without a basic account.

You’re then shown an introductory video that guides you through the basics of using the Fire TV and Alexa via the voice remote.

The interface of the Fire TV remains pretty much same as previous versions, despite running on a newer version of Amazon’s Fire OS. It’s focused around getting you to the content or content apps as fast as possible, and it works well.

There are plenty of options beyond Amazon’s built-in video and music services. Netflix, all the UK terrestrial broadcaster streaming services, Spotify and others are free to download from the Amazon App Store.

Amazon Fire TV 4K HDR review
The home screen of the Fire TV puts content and content apps front-and-centre. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Subscriptions to Discovery, Eurosport Player, ITV Hub+ and Hayu are also in the subscription Amazon Prime account, with free trials to see what’s available. The only big one missing other than Apple’s iTunes is Google Play Movies, but movies bought via Google are available through YouTube, which is viewable through a built-in browser but not an app as Amazon and Google are squabbling at the moment.

Services such as Netflix can suggest content directly within the home screen, making it easy to get straight back into what you were watching last night. Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa is also integrated into the Fire TV. Hold the mic button on the remote, make your request and Alexa will respond via voice and on-screen cards similar to that available on the Echo Show.

Searching for content is as easy as asking for a show, movie, actor or genre. Alexa then shows the results with options to stream from a subscription you already have or buy it from Amazon’s video library if you don’t already own it.

4K HDR in all its glory

High dynamic range (HDR) video is that recorded and displayed with a wider range of colours than so called standard dynamic range (SDR).

HDR video therefore has a greater range of both contrast and colour  than SDR, resulting in a more true-to-life picture and producing scenes with more "pop" or depth. HDR is usually combined with the increased resolution of 4K video producing greater detail and immersion.

HDR video is different to HDR photography, where the latter is a technique that combines multiple exposures of a scene to create a single image with a greater dynamic range of luminosity, mimicking what is seen by the human eye.

HDR video comes in several different standards or formats.

HDR10

HDR10 is the most widely supported format available and controlled by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). It is an open standard, using a 10-bit colour depth, and is backed by the big players, including Samsung and Sony, used by the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One S and X. Both Netflix and Amazon Video also support HDR10.

HDR10+

An update to HDR10 backed by Samsung and Amazon, HDR10+ adds metadata that aids brightness adjustment on a scene-by-scene or frame-by-frame basis.

Dolby Vision

Dolby Vision is a proprietary HDR format from the makers of Atmos. Vision uses a 12-bit colour depth and includes dynamic metadata, but has limited support in TVs and streaming content.

Hybrid Log-Gamma

Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) is an royalty-free HDR standard developed by the BBC and NHK. It requires systems capable of 10-bit colour depth, but is compatible with SDR displays. HLG is supported by some versions of traditional digital broadcast systems, as well as BBC iPlayer, Freeview Play and Google's YouTube streaming services.

The previous version of the Fire TV could manage 4K content, but not the new high dynamic range content (HDR), which like HDR photography, is richer, with a wider colour range. Paired with the right TV, such as the Sony Bravia 55XE9005 it looks absolutely stunning.

The new Fire TV supports HDR content from Amazon’s Prime Video service as well as from Netflix’s catalogue, giving you access to two of the largest libraries of 4K HDR content available at the moment.

The catalogue is growing too, with many new TV shows being available in 4K HDR, and almost all the Netflix and Amazon own-brand movies and TV shows available in the format.

The Fire TV also supports Dolby Atmos, for improved surround sound with compatible systems, but the catalogue of content that supports Atmos is quite limited, as is device support.

Observations

  • You can control the Fire TV with some TV remotes, although not all the functions work
  • Videos normally start at a higher quality sooner than the old Fire TV connected to the router via ethernet, but are more susceptible to quality dips mid stream
  • Some apps could hang or crash early on, but updates appear to have fixed any issues
  • The Amazon remote cannot do volume on your TV

Price

The 2017 Fire TV with 4K HDR costs £69.99 (buy here).

For comparison, Google’s Chromecast Ultra costs £69 (buy here), the Roku Streaming Stick + costs £79.99 (buy here) and the Apple TV 4K costs £179 (buy here).

Verdict

The Fire TV with 4K and HDR is one of the best streaming devices around. It takes most of what was good from the last generation and squeezes it into a dongle that’s at least £10 cheaper and you can hide behind your TV.

What was taken away in that shrinking process hasn’t hurt what most use it for: streaming content. But if you do not have an up to date router that supports the latest 802.11 ac wifi standard, the lack of ethernet might make streaming 4K more difficult.

With a Prime and Netflix subscription, the Fire TV gives UK users access to one of the largest collections of 4K HDR content available in a neat and tidy box. The Fire TV’s 4K HDR content looks stunning when paired with the right TV, making even scenes featuring three old men driving around in Amazon’s The Grand Tour look beautiful.

Given the mess that built-in smart TV software can be, the Fire TV is blessed relief.

Pros: simple to set up and use, compact, good remote, slick interface, wide UK catchup service support, Alexa integration, 4K and HDR

Cons: no support for iTunes or Sky content, requires Amazon account, wifi only, needs £79 Amazon Prime subscription to get most out of it, no expandable storage

Other reviews


This article contains affiliate links to products. Our journalism is independent and is never written to promote these products although we may earn a small commission if a reader makes a purchase.

This article titled "Amazon Fire TV 4K HDR review: compact upgrade to make your TV smarter" was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14 December 2017 10.57am

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