Amazon is primarily known for delivering products faster than any other e-commerce platform. However, it has constantly shown its ambitions in the hardware business with products like the Amazon Kindle. While its Fire Phone wasn’t quite on fire in terms of sales, the company has seen more success with products like its Echo speakers and Fire TV streaming media players. With very little competition, Amazon is trying to champion this space, which is ripe for innovation.
Televisions, for generations, have done only one thing: transmit moving images in color or black and white. The single functionality of TVs gave the devices its popular nickname ‘idiot box. However, with the advent of devices like smartphones and tablets, the TV business is trying to get smart as well. If you recently shopped for a TV then you would have observed how they are classified into smart and non-smart type. The distinction is simple; if there is an operating system and internet connectivity on the TV, then it is called smart. Otherwise, it is just another TV.
So, if you have one of those non-smart TVs at your home then the easiest way to make them smart is by adding a streaming media player. The choice in this space is realistically limited to the Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV Stick, which are the only two major devices in the segment. While the primary purpose of the Chromecast is to stream your mobile content on the big screen, the Fire TV goes far beyond. It is so far ahead that there is now even Alexa baked into it.
Imagine those days when you would remember that channel 438 always led to ESPN. With Alexa, you simply need to ask for something via the remote and it will take you just there. So, the Fire TV stick is not new but with Fire TV Stick 4K, which is priced at Rs 5,999, Amazon is showing a future where you may not subscribe to cable or satellite channels again. So, for all you cord-cutters out there, is the new Fire TV Stick 4K the ultimate companion? We find out.
Packaging and Setup
The Amazon hardware that I have include the Echo Spot, Kindle Paperwhite and now this Fire TV Stick 4K. The one common thing about all these devices is packaging. It is compact and packed in such a way that you will wonder if there is a device inside it after all. Amazon is known for minimalist packaging and that ethos extend completely to its hardware portfolio.
Once you open the box, there is a Fire TV Stick 4K, a micro-USB cable to supply power, Alexa-enabled remote, two AAA batteries that pop into the remote and an HDMI extender. To get started, you simply connect the Fire TV Stick into any of the open HDMI ports on your TV and turn on power.
Once turned on, the Fire TV guides you through steps including logging into your Amazon account and setting up apps like VOOT and enabling parental controls. This is the most important setting, in my opinion, and one that you should not ignore. If you have a kid at home then this feature will ensure they are not exposed to unsuitable content. Once the Fire TV is setup, you will then be guided through setting up the Alexa voice remote. After that, it will only be a matter of minutes before you see a grid of icons taking over the large screen.
A lot of the changes that Amazon is introducing this year have to do with the remote, rather than with the Fire TV Stick itself. For starters, the remote is now capable of controlling power and volume, and even has a mute button. It really simplifies life by understanding what kind of TV you have. By pressing the volume button a couple of times, the remote can be configured to control your TV when using the Fire TV Stick.
Since we are talking Amazon, the remote goes a step further by including an IR blaster, which can be used to control an external sound system. Since connecting the Fire TV Stick 4K to the back of my television, I have not bothered to look at the remote that came bundled with our television. This is the kind of thing modern devices should do; remove friction but not add another device to control.
What can the Fire TV Stick 4K do?
The improvements are just not limited to the voice remote and it extends to the Fire TV Stick as well. Like it’s predecessor, the Fire TV Stick 4K connects to any TV via a free HDMI port and if the port is placed on the interior side of your TV then it is advisable to use the HDMI extender. A supplied USB cable needs to be connected to the side of the Fire TV Stick for power, which can either be drawn from a USB port on your TV or through a standard USB wall adapter into a power socket.
This is textbook design that we saw first on the original Fire TV Stick and the real improvement would have been if Amazon found a way to deliver both video and power via a USB port. Beyond that, the hardware checks every box of a video nerd: Ultra-HD playback, HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Atmos. Two of those features, Ultra-HD video playback and Dolby Atmos sound, require special hardware in the form of a 4K TV and Atmos-enabled speaker or sound bar.
As soon as we fired up the Fire TV and played the first content, my family quipped that the quality is much better than before. For instance, we streamed the Harry Potter series over the weekend, and every time a family member noted how certain elements look clearer than when they last watched it. This is coming from a family that does not delve deep into technology and rather prefers to enjoy their comfort.
Watch: Amazon Echo Spot First Look
Our Sony TV at home is capped at Full-HD resolution and hence, I could not enjoy the Ultra-HD content. But support for HDR 10 and Dolby Vision means that you get much clearer video playback if the creators support it. Both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix support HDR 10 or Dolby Vision and every time the colors just pop out and everything on the screen seems clearer than before.
There are a wide variety of applications including Prime Video, Netflix, Hotstar, Sony LIV, VOOT, Viu, Sun Nxt and many others. The interface alone is very striking and easy to navigate with the remote but it does have content placement issues.
The home screen of the app is mainly dominated by content from Prime Video, which is a streaming platform owned by Amazon. While there are recommendations from Netflix and other apps, the popularity pales in comparison. Amazon really needs to strike a balance and probably populate the home screen based on the service that users prefers the most, rather than pushing its own.
While the interface and Alexa via voice remote is not really new, what is different is the ability to control Fire TV via any Alexa smart speaker on the same network. The Alexa functionality is the single major reason to get this over its predecessor. The linking between Fire TV Stick 4K and Echo smart speaker happens automatically if these devices are on same network and you sign in using same Amazon ID.
You can simply say, Alexa play Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and it will understand it needs to be streamed from Prime Video. You can even say ‘Alexa, show me 4K content’ and it will generate 4K content from across platforms. Apart from looking for content, Alexa can also be used to forward or rewind a stream and you can ask to start from a specific time. Alexa also plays nice with weather updates and can play back music from Amazon Prime Music on your TV screen. You can also enable Alexa Skills but not every skill is optimized for the large screen yet.
If there is something I don’t like about the Fire TV Stick then is the lack of a native YouTube app. If you have a small kid at home then the lack of YouTube app will hurt but Alexa does try to play those videos over the web version using Silk browser. It is not an ideal experience but it works. I also dislike the fact that you don’t really have an option to change the layout of the home screen. After installing a dozen apps, you will feel that there is more vertical scrolling involved than what you’d ideally like.
Should you buy the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K?
After using the Fire TV Stick 4K, I’m convinced that this is the most effective way to turn any dumb TV into a smart TV. I started this review by talking about how TVs have done only one thing since inception and with the Fire TV Stick 4K, they still do only one thing. But the difference is that it outputs video from multiple sources and over the internet, which ties in with a modern lifestyle.
The lack of a native YouTube app is a problem, but other Alexa works really well and is capable of understanding your commands and even controlling other smart devices at home. The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is an effective streaming media player in the market right now but it won’t really be as useful as it can be if you don’t have an Echo smart speaker in the first place.
Furthermore, as the name suggests, you’ll also want a 4K TV to make the most of the new device. If these factors don’t concern you, you might want to look at the more affordable standard Fire TV Stick instead, which retails at Rs 3,999.