Amazon Fire TV 4K Ultra HD
Let’s Get to the 4K!
I was very anxious to test the 4K capabilities of the Fire TV 2. TL;DR: it’s disappointing. And that’s not because of the limited 4K content out there, which has been well-documented. Read on for the long version.
While you already know you need an Ultra HDTV to play 4K material from the Fire TV 2, you may not know that you need an HDMI input that’s HDCP 2.2 -compliant (aka the copy protection). Most major brand 4K TVs produced since 2014 have at least one HDMI input with HDCP 2.2, but definitely check your 4K TV to make sure.
You’ve probably also guessed you need pretty fast internet to handle Ultra HD resolution (3840 x 2160). Amazon says you need at least 15Mbps, but that’s the bare minimum and real world speeds never match the listed speeds that your cable company tells you.
The Fire TV offers 3840 x 2160 content at up to 30fps, although the new Roku 4 will do 60fps. Since most content is not even there yet (e.g. Netflix Ultra HD is 24 fps), that’s not a deal breaker.
My first disappointment with 4K on the Fire TV came in the user interface. The new Fire TV sports the same platform as the previous Fire TVs, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good platform, albeit Amazon Prime-centric, as we already knew going in from last year’s version. No, the main problem is Ultra HD (4K) content—the whole reason for this unit’s existence—is buried 4 or 5 rows from the top, after Recent, Featured Apps, Prime Originals, etc. I wanted to dig into 4K stuff right away, and it wasn’t easy to find.
Granted, there isn’t much 4K content to begin with, but actually with Amazon Instant Video alone, there are at least 12 Prime shows available in Ultra HD, including the new alternate history series The Man in the High Castle (which is pretty cool). These 4K shows should be plastered all over the new Fire TV. Instead you’re more likely to stumble upon the 1080p versions first. Boo! (Also if you start watching the 1080p version and switch to Ultra HD, it won’t remember your place. 1080p and Ultra HD (“UHD”) versions are displayed as two separate programs.)
A Bag of Hurt
First off, 4K in general looks great, although the “wow” factor is dependent on the content itself and what kind of cameras it was shot in. I found new 4K content on Netflix, Amazon Video and YouTube to watch.
But I ran into two major —very serious—problems. One is speed. I tried all sorts of 4K content on Amazon Instant Video, and it would frequently take several minutes (if ever) to start streaming in 4K. At first the video would be HD (720p), then switch to 1080p HD, and after a few minutes—if I was lucky—finally become Ultra HD. Sometimes the transition didn’t happen at all and would stay stuck at 1080p after 10 minutes.
I thought maybe something was wrong with my internet (although it’s 150Mps on a 5GHz wireless network). But when I switched over to the built-in Amazon Instant Video app on the 4K test TV (a Vizio), Ultra HD content streamed within seconds.
Then I tried Netflix 4K content on the Fire TV 2, and lo and behold, it was streaming in Ultra HD within seconds. Ruh-roh!
The second major problem began occurring after a few days of testing. Once again, it was Amazon Instant Video. After a minute of playing Ultra HD video, the screen turned to black and returned to the menu screen, which possibly indicated an issue with the input or HDMI cable… except that other 4K content through other channels (Netflix, YouTube) was still working fine.
So there are serious issues with 4K on Amazon Instant Video, and it looks like a software issue. It better get fixed fast.
It’s not the only software issue – people are Having Problem with Dolby Surround everywhere else but Amazon Instant Video. I wasn’t able to test this bug, but as you can see, there are definitely issues with 4K streaming, particularly with Amazon’s own service.
Alexa, Your Digital Voice Assistant and Other Goodies
Alexa is the cloud-based digital voice assistant found in Amazon’s Echo smart Bluetooth speaker. It’s an evolution of last year’s Gary Busey-endorsed voice search, so it will tell you the weather (it works) and trivia like who the Prime Minister of Canada is (currently Stephen Harper but didn’t mention the new PM-designate) or when World War II started (it went with Sept 1, 1939). Alexa works pretty fast when she can deliver what you’re asking.
While weather and trivia are nice additions, content search is the most essential and practical aspect, and I’d like to see more improvements, beginning with search that goes outside of Amazon Instant Video. Roku’s been doing for years, and the new Apple TV promises this feature, as well.
I’d also like to see improved filtering of results. For example, “Show all movies with Tom Cruise” came up with a nice list of Cruise movies, but “Show all Amazon Prime Movies with Tom Cruise” or “Show all Oscar-Winning Dramas” got nothing.
X-Ray was added to the 1st Gen model earlier this year, but it’s worth mentioning this fun feature that lets you pull up actor/IMDB info on command, like on the Google Chromecast. ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction) is another cool feature which pre-buffers Amazon Instant Video shows based on viewing habits. But it’s also not new to the 2nd Gen Fire TV.
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