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The Fire TV Stick 4K is the media streamer that Amazon should have released years ago.
Cooler than a Roku and much cheaper than an Apple TV, the new $50 streaming dongle offers 4K HDR video in every conceivable format while outperforming Amazon’s more expensive Fire TV Cube ($120) and third-generation Fire TV ($70, now discontinued). It also corrects the stupidest mistake of previous Fire TV models by including TV volume and power controls on its remote control. Factor in powerful Alexa voice commands and you have a compelling 4K HDR streamer at any price, let alone the lowest price on the market.
The Fire TV Stick 4K won’t be for everyone. It remains, as always, optimized for Amazon Prime subscribers, and its interface, while interesting, remains bloated with promotional material and redundancies. It’s also a non-starter for YouTube TV subscribers—currently our favorite live TV streaming service—as Amazon and Google avoid supporting one another’s TV platforms. But if those issues aren’t dealbreakers, you’ll find a surprising number of things to love about this budget streamer.
Last year’s Fire TV pendant included a 1.5GHz quad-core processor, as did the Fire TV Cube from earlier this year. The Fire TV Stick 4K, despite its smaller size, gets a boost to 1.7GHz, and that goes a long way toward addressing previous models’ performance issues.
With PlayStation Vue and Hulu with Live TV, for instance, the Fire TV Stick 4K started playing video several seconds faster than its predecessors, and scrolled through the TV guide without any lag or stutter. It was also less prone to dropping in frame rate while scrolling around the home screen. (The Fire TV Stick 4K did fail to deliver 60 frames per second video in Hulu, but hopefully this will be rectified soon. PlayStation Vue had no such problems.)
Amazon even threw a bone to nerdier antenna users by including hardware-accelerated MPEG-2 video support in the Fire TV Stick 4K. That means you can plug an HDHomeRun Connect TV tuner into your Wi-Fi router and watch over-the-air channels from an antenna at full broadcast quality from any television around the house.
Amazon’s Fire TV pendant and Fire TV Cube technically support this as well, but Roku doesn’t support MPEG-2 playback at all. The Fire TV Stick 4K with HDHomeRun is now a cost-efficient way to get free broadcast channels at full quality throughout the home, even with just one well-placed antenna.
Doing 4K right
The Fire TV Stick 4K is Amazon’s third crack at 4K HDR, which allows for both a crisper picture and more vibrant colors on supported televisions. But while the previous Fire TV pendant and Fire TV Cube supported only the basic HDR10 format, the Fire TV Stick 4K goes further to support both Dolby Vision and HDR10+. TVs that support these formats can then optimize colors on a scene-by-scene basis. There’s support for Dolby Atmos soundtracks, too, if you have the home audio gear to take advantage of it.
To be honest, I struggle to discern HDR10 from these more advanced formats, but videophiles like my colleague Jon Jacobi can, so it’s nice to have a streaming player that can keep up. The Fire TV Stick 4K is now the cheapest Dolby Vision streaming player on the market (the other options being the $70 Chromecast Ultra and the $180 Apple TV 4K), and Amazon’s player is currently the only option for HDR10+.
The Fire TV Stick 4K is also one of just two streaming players that renders its entire menu system in HDR, and it can convert standard dynamic range video to HDR. (The other is the Apple TV 4K.) Purists can disable this feature, but I enjoy the extra punch it gives to menus and non-HDR content.
Even if you don’t have a 4K HDR TV, the Fire TV Stick 4K is worth an upgrade for the remote control alone. This is the first Fire TV device whose remote includes an infrared emitter and buttons for volume and power, so you can control basic TV functions without a separate remote. If your TV supports HDMI-CEC, the Fire TV can also automatically switch to the correct input when you hit a button.
None of this is new in the streaming world—Roku, Apple TV, and the Nvidia Shield TV all have TV controls on their remotes—so Amazon is long overdue to catch up. Credit where due, though: The Fire TV Stick 4K is the first streamer to include a dedicated mute button.
Like other Fire TV devices, the Fire TV Stick 4K can also be controlled by voice commands, either by pressing the remote’s microphone button or talking hands-free with an Alexa device, such as the Amazon Echo speaker. You can use these commands to launch videos or music in supported apps, search for content, or control video playback, and you can use the remote like any other Alexa device for asking about the weather, looking up sports scores, or controlling smart home devices. The TV can even display live video from supported home security cameras.
Voice control on the Fire TV still has some limitations: Alexa’s genre-search capabilities are frustratingly basic (you can search for “comedies,” but not “80s comedies” or “comedy movies”), and you can only launch video directly if the app supports it.
Still, Amazon has steadily improved the experience over the last year. You can now ask Alexa what’s currently airing on a specific channel, for instance, and certain apps such as Netflix allow you to search within their own libraries. The list of Alexa-enabled apps has increased over time as well, and now includes live TV services such as PlayStation Vue and Hulu with Live TV. (Asking Alexa to turn on ESPN never gets old.) Even among apps that aren’t officially supported, Alexa can now provide basic playback controls such as pausing and rewinding.
In a pleasant surprise, Alexa can even manipulate the remote’s TV controls, so you can control TV volume and power with hands-free voice commands when the remote is pointed toward the TV. This mostly obviates the need for Amazon’s slower, less feature-packed Fire TV Cube. The only thing you can’t do with the Fire TV Stick 4K is switch to an external cable box and launch live cable channels by voice.
As with previous Fire TV devices, the Fire TV Stick 4K’s menu system is both its biggest downside and its greatest source of potential.
Amazon takes pretty much the opposite approach from Roku, eschewing a simple app launcher and instead splaying out row after row of content recommendations. While there is a customizable row of apps near the top of the menu, only five apps fit on screen at once, so getting to all your apps requires either a lot of scrolling or a long-press on the home button, which brings up another menu that lets you see all your apps together.
Amazon clearly prefers that you instead scroll aimlessly around the Fire TV home screen, so it can get down to the business of selling you more stuff. There’s still an obnoxious banner ad below your apps list, and as you scroll further down, you’ll find movies to rent, subscriptions to add, and suggested apps to download.
The approach isn’t all bad. Having lots of content on the home screen means less time jumping in and out of apps, and some of Amazon’s home screen rows—such as the “Netflix recommends” row and the “On Now” row for live TV channels—are genuinely useful. And for Prime subscribers, the Fire TV is great at surfacing videos you might have otherwise missed.
But overall, the menu system is just too chaotic. Banner ads shouldn’t be getting in the way of basic navigation, and there ought to be options to disable content rows you don’t want. (I could do without all the Halloween movies, for instance; and as a cord-cutter, I have no need for a row of cable-authenticated TV channel apps.)
Until recently, those downsides weren’t worth tolerating, not when Roku was offering markedly better hardware for comparable prices. The Fire TV Stick 4K levels the playing field. It’s not as simple to use as Roku, but its voice controls are far more sophisticated, its 4K HDR features are uncompromising, its content-first menus are more interesting, and it finally has hardware fast enough to handle its software. It even gives a nod to nerdy antenna users with MPEG-2 support, and it has the good grace to include an HDMI extension cable in the box. (Roku makes you fill out an order form to get one.)
Now, the Fire TV Stick 4K’s upselling and advertising seem like an acceptable trade-off. They’re just the price you pay for an unbeatable value.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.