Amazon Fire TV (2015) Review: Don’t Buy it for the 4K

By on October 26, 2015

Overall Grade

5 /10


  • -8GB storage and expandable to 128GB
  • -Alexa voice assistant works reasonably well
  • -Gaming is limited but shows potential


  • -Inconsistent buggy 4K performance, esp. with Amazon Video
  • -GUI doesn't highlight 4K content
  • -Remote is so-so, and not super sensitive

This fall, Amazon introduced the 2nd generation Fire TV ($100) amidst a slew of hardware updates for other big-name streaming devices from Roku, Apple and Google (and to a lesser extent, Nvidia). Two new features headline the second Fire TV: 4K streaming video support and Alexa, the “Siri-like” voice assistant that’s currently found on Amazon’s Echo “smart” speaker.

The Fire TV is identical in form factor to the first version, measuring a compact 4.53″ x 4.53″ x 0.69″.  The optical audio output is gone, in favor of a microSD slot to expand your storage up to 128GB. (It has 8GB onboard storage.) I think this change will be welcome to most users, especially for gamers.

Speaking of gamers, Amazon has also released a $140 Fire TV Gaming Edition with a 32GB microSD card, game controller and two games.

The internals of Fire TV 2 now boast a 64-bit quad-core processor and dedicated GPU for “75% more processing power” over the 1st generation Fire TVs. While the interface and loading of content seemed snappy, I didn’t notice any huge difference, but the potential for gaming is there—should the current anemic selection improve.

Connectivity has been boosted this year. You get HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 and dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi over last year’s 802.11n. Much needed when it comes to the bigger bandwidth required for 4K streaming.


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.


Fire TV 2 GUI Looks the Same

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.

A shot from Amazon's Sneaky Pete in Ultra HD. Good luck seeing it on the Fire TV.

A shot from Amazon’s Sneaky Pete in Ultra HD. Good luck seeing it on the Fire TV.

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 problems 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.


The new micro SD slot (up to 128GB) is good for gaming... if the games were there.

The new micro SD slot (up to 128GB) is good for gaming… if the games were there.

I tried out a couple free games like the popular Crossy Road and Table Top Racing, and these Android games worked perfectly well, but with the Amazon Fire TV’s specs, there should be more interesting games made for this platform. There are rumors that Amazon is working on a game, but right now gaming on the Fire TV just feels like untapped potential.


Before I started reviewing and using the 2015 Fire TV, I was not aware of just how many problems people were already having with it. If you go to to customer reviews on Amazon or Best Buy, you will see many legit reports of buggy performance all over the map. (the unofficial Amazon Fire news site) reported that nearly 500 Amazon employees have been doing internal testing on the 2nd gen Fire TV. Due to Fire OS 5 issues, the 2nd Gen Fire TV orders are now delayed to November 7, and the new voice-activated Fire TV stick orders are delayed to November 13th on Amazon.

No doubt the pressure of today’s expected annual release cycle for tech products has something to do with it. And while firmware updates may (and will) fix some of the glitches, consumers have other choices to throw their money at in the meantime.

If you’re buying the Amazon Fire TV specifically for its 4K capabilities, I cannot recommend it. If you just want a regular HD streaming box, there are too many options out there, especially cheaper ones—including Amazon’s own Fire Stick—that do the job just as well or better.

About Joe Warner

I'm the senior editor of The CheckOut. I am an aficionado of shiny gadgets and classic Hollywood movies and can also tell you the names of the late '80s Swedish Davis Cup team members.

One Comment

  1. theresa j

    November 28, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    I have the fire stick and love it

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