Amazon Fire TV Fights Apple with 4K, Alexa Voice Control

A week after Apple took the wraps off its updated Apple TV, Amazon countered with an overhaul of its $100 Amazon Fire TV set-top box, led by one feature missing from the new Apple device: 4K.

The new Fire TV adds support for 4K Ultra HD videos, letting you watch movies and TV shows at four times the resolution of 1080p video. And Fire TV owners will have plenty of 4K content to watch: All of Amazon’s original programming is offered in 4K and the Fire TV interface highlights movies available in 4K for your viewing pleasure. Amazon says it’s working on adding support for 4K streaming with Netflix content to Fire TV.

It’s no secret why Amazon would tout the Fire TV’s newfound 4K capabilities, even if TV watchers haven’t necessarily embraced 4K televisions sets yet. At $100, the Fire TV is less expensive than other 4K Ultra HD streaming devices and $50 cheaper than the Apple TV update that will be coming out soon after the Fire TV’s Oct. 5 ship date, but maxes out at 1080p.

There’s more to the new Fire TV than just 4K, though. The set-top box also supports High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), which will appeal to users who haven’t yet bought 4K sets. HVEC is more efficient at encoding video, meaning 1080p video streams require less bandwidth.

In another seeming swipe at Apple’s revamped Apple TV, Amazon is also expanding the voice capabilities of its Fire TV, which already let you search for movies and TV shows by voice. The new Fire TV adds support for Alexa, the cloud-based voice service that powers Amazon Echo. Adding Alexa support lets you do more than just search for shows; now you can ask your Fire TV to show you the weather and display sports scores and schedules.

Next year, Amazon will add voice-powered app launching, navigation, and more context aware searches like “movies featuring Matt Damon.” You’ll be able to tell Fire TV to play the Star Trek movie or play the next episode of the Key & Peele TV show, and the set-top box will pick up wherever you left off. These features more or less mirror what Apple plans for its new Apple TV, which indicates that Amazon is not about to be left behind on the voice-powered controls front.

Existing Fire TV owners won’t be left without as strong a voice, either. Amazon plans to add Alexa-powered features to existing Fire TV boxes via a software update. In addition, the Fire TV Stick will now come bundled with a Voice Remote, giving users of that streaming stick the ability to tap into Alexa-powered voice controls. The Fire TV Stick with Remote bundle will cost $50; Amazon will continue to sell the Fire TV Stick as a standalone device for $40.

The Fire TV set-top box comes with 8GB of storage, which Amazon executives feel will satisfy the majority of its customers. Gamers, however, may demand more capacity, especially with games taking up more storage space. To that end, the new Fire TV features a microSD slot for adding up to 128GB of storage, just like Amazon’s new Fire tablets do.

The Fire TV takes a cue from Amazon’s tablets in another way, by adding support for the Mayday customer support feature. You’ll initiate Mayday calls on a phone and not on your Amazon device in this case, but Mayday on Fire TV does feature screen sharing, in which you give permission to an Amazon rep to remotely connect to your Fire TV and troubleshoot any problems you have. In a particularly helpful touch, an outline of the Fire TV remote pops up on your TV screen, so you can see which buttons the Amazon rep is pressing to solve your problem; the Amazon rep can even circle items on your screen to call attention to them.

Amazon claims the new Fire TV delivers 75 percent more processing power than the original model with a GPU that’s twice as fast. The new Fire TV supports 802.11ac wireless networking as well as MU-MIMO technology, which should mean faster throughput.

Gamers will be interested in the Fire TV Gaming Edition, which bundles the set-top box with a Fire TV game controller that features integrated voice commands and a headphone jack. Amazon says it worked with gamers to build a more precise and ergonomic controller that features 90 hours of battery life from two AA batteries. The $140 bundle also ships with a 32GB microSD card for expanding your Fire TV’s capacity as well as two games, DuckTales and Shovel Knight.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.