Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review: Superbly priced Prime streamer

Not content with just releasing bundles of new Echo devices over recent years, Amazon has also been refining its streaming offering, cumulating in the Fire Stick 4K.

As the name suggests: it's essentially a dongle-form version of the Fire TV box (from 2017) for sourcing Amazon, Netflix and other streaming services in Ultra-HD form, AKA '4K'.

Crucially, the 4K Fire Stick is affordable. And with a bunch of additional dongle/stick-form devices also available on the market, that's important. Unlike the Now TV Stick, which maxes out at 720p on a lot of content (think: 720 horizontal lines to the picture), Amazon's device ups the ante by offering 2160p (that's triple the number of horizontal lines, so you can imagine the picture quality difference).

Amazon's nearest rival is the Roku Streaming Stick+ – which is a good option if you don't want to be tied to Amazon services. Further up the chain there's the Google Chromecast Ultra (although there's no Amazon Prime Video there), with the top price spot occupied by the Apple TV 4K (if you're invested completely into the Apple ecosystem, anyway). Of them all, we think Amazon's is the best balance of price to performance.

Design and remote  

The Fire TV Stick 4K's design means it's small enough to just plug into the back of your TV via an HDMI port. Well, just about. The stick itself is quite fat, so neighbouring ports may become inaccessible. However, an HDMI extender is included if you don't or can't plug it into the telly directly. As with other such streamers, power comes from a USB-to-mains-power adapter, which is also included.

We powered our 4K Stick from a USB port on a review TV – which, as we found out when switching TVs, isn't supported by all sets, so you may have to use the included mains plug adapter instead. The benefit with the USB-powered arrangement is that the 4K Stick powers on with your TV rather than being permanently powered. Indeed, the included Amazon remote can be paired with many TVs to power the set on in tandem.

Amazon has slightly redesigned the functional-yet-unexciting Alexa remote compared to the earlier Fire TV products, as you can see in our picture below. There's now a standby button as well as volume up and down buttons on the bottom of the main body. There's an Alexa button at the top, which works fine. The remote takes two AAA batteries (which are included) so you'll want some spares in a drawer for a future day when these inevitably die and you're stuck unable to finish that must-watch box set.

Amazon has also changed its logo on the remote and main body of the stick – it's now just the 'Amazon arrow' – which seems a trifle odd given Amazon's brand recognition, but this is the trend on Amazon devices now.

As an alternative to the remote, you can use an app on your phone, which can also be used for keyboard input. However, we think the inclusion of the remote is one of the more compelling aspects of the Fire TV devices versus their Google Chromecast equivalents; not everybody is happy using their mobile device as a controller for their TV and connection difficulties. Coincidentally, it is possible to connect the Fire TV Sticks via Ethernet using an optional adaptor

Setup and navigation

Setting up the Fire TV 4K is a pretty standard process: you have to enter your Amazon account credentials and your Wi-Fi password using the arrow keys on the remote. Amazon has talked about its Echo devices being easier to setup via your Amazon account – and we'd expect it will do this for other products like future Fire TV devices, too, so there's less arrow key tapping.

Software hasn't always been Amazon's strongest suit over the last few years – as we've noted with various Echo updates – but that doesn't apply to the Fire TV OS, which remains slick and very simple to use thanks to a top-navigation with content suggestions, topics and groups as you scroll. It's similar to that on Fire tablets and always seems bulletproof.

Let there be no doubt that Amazon services are prioritised, but there is naturally support for other players and apps, and it's easy to position your favourites to the 'front' – we have Netflix and Plex sitting pride of place as the first two available, because our Prime membership is one of those things we dip in and out of in various months of the year (you can deactivate whenever you please).

We've had rare issues with connectivity, usually following internet downtime, but this can typically be fixed by finding the Restart option within the settings menu. Don't do a full-on reset (that's a different option) as the Restart will maintain all your sign-ins rather than totally stripping the Stick's apps and memory.

What you need for 4K, HDR and Dolby

The 2017 Fire TV offered 4K with high dynamic range (HDR) and Dolby Atmos support, but there was no Dolby Vision out of the box. The newer 4K Stick corrects this so HDR, HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG and HDR10+ are all covered.

Note that you will need to have a compatible TV to get the most out of the Stick, with an HDMI capable of 4K (2160p) at 24/25/30/50/60Hz (most recent TVs will have HDCP 2.2 support, which you'll need for 4K content).

You'll need an HDR compatible TV to view HDR content, naturally, which is typical of most current 4K TVs – but not all. And if you're connecting via another device, like an AVR, then you need to ensure that's capable of 4K HDR passthrough. 

For Dolby Atmos, you'll need a compatible Atmos sound system, while your TV will also need to be able to passthrough using an ARC-compatible HDMI port.

The Ultra-HD dream

There's no doubt that 4K HDR content from both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are stunning on a compatible display. While Netflix has always labelled HDR content pretty well, Amazon had some catching up to do in this department.

4K content is easily accessible through the Fire TV interface, but finding HDR content specifically isn't really covered: it's a case of most recent content being HDR compatible and therefore it'll play as so, where available.

Not everything is available in 4K though. The BBC had to pull its 4K support from its Amazon-positioned iPlayer app, for example, which is a shame. The ITV Hub, All 4 and My 5 apps are also available – but none have yet announced any 4K plans, so it's also just Full HD (with upscaling by your TV) for the time being.

There are, of course, plenty of other apps, including Spotify, Curzon Home Cinema, TuneIn Radio, Twitch, Plex, and more – but it's likely you'll stay within the apps we've mentioned already, where the best content exists.

That's really the sell of having an Amazon Prime account: you can get free deliveries from Amazon, sure, but it's the shows like Sneaky Pete and others will keep you watching for hours on end.

Without a Prime Subscription the Fire Stick 4K doesn't shut down, so you can still access your other apps no problem. You just might miss some of those top Amazon shows – but then you can always sign-up again as you please.

Alexa on the Fire Stick 4K

As before, Alexa voice control is surprisingly powerful on the Fire TV Stick 4K. Searching for programmes by actor, title or other details is really easy: just hold down the microphone button at the top of the remote and speak aloud what you're searching for.

This is really useful, too, as the Apps section of the main interface seemingly lacks a number that do exist – Plex wasn't there by manual search upon setup, for example – so you can use voice instead.

What's especially great is that it brings Alexa into your living room, whereas you might well have your main Alexa device in your kitchen, bedroom or study. So you're able to adjust the heating or ask for the weather just as you would on an Echo or, more accurately, just as you would on the Echo Show. As with all the other Echo devices, the best uses are simple; for more complicated stuff you might just as well get your phone out of your pocket.