Review #51: Amazon Fire TV (Gen 3 - 4K HDR) ★★★★☆


Normally, whenever I get a new device, the instinct is to analyse it in depth. Unfortunately, certain constraints prevent me from doing so with the Fire TV 4K, primary of them being that I have no 4K display devices at present. However, a lot of thought had gone in to purchasing this device for a 1080p non-HDR TV, even though it is not officially available in India. So, I would like to share these thoughts along with the experience of setting it up so as to get the most out of it. Thus, this article will straddle the line between a tutorial and a review, but I have decided to classify it as the latter since this article, while being instructional, is still appraising the product.

00 – The Backstory

I have previously recounted my experience with the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick and was disappointed enough to return it within hours. Since then, I managed to meet my streaming needs using Chromecast and the Smart TV apps. However, I watched in dismay as support was dropped for most of the Smart TV apps over time. At the same time, my DTH service subscription ended recently and I thought it was prime (pun intended) time to go cordless, though I presume the proverbial cord is shorter for DTH compared to Cable.

01 – The Requirements

One has to keep an eye on the future when purchasing a device and even though the present situation doesn't demand it, it is good to have a 4K HDR capable device as long as the premium isn't too high, since upgrades are always around the corner. Hence, I decided against settling for a device that is technically limited to 1080p. At the same time, most modern streamers offer additional features that make it worthwhile to use them on 1080p sets.

02 – The Losing Contenders

Even with the Fire TV Stick out of the picture, there was still a lot to choose from, though hardly any of the products are officially available in India.

1. Nvidia Shield TV:


This is the ultimate Android TV Box, enough said. However, to justify the purchase, one must decide whether the TV box also needs to be a gaming one. I, for one, want to leave the gaming specifically to my PC and as for the living room, I have the option of using Steam Link with my tablet. Undeniably, the Shield also boasts top-notch specs as a media streamer, but the price goes along with it. While it may cost as much as the Apple TV 4K in US, importing the Shield to India comes at a heftier price tag of ₹18000 ($275) which invariably makes the device unjustifiable.

2. Apple TV 4K (6th Gen):

The new Apple TV is the closest competition to the Shield and is one of the few devices officially available in India at a price of ₹15900 ($240). It ticks almost all the boxes like the Shield, though it presently doesn't have Dolby Atmos and YouTube 4K support. However, while I prefer iOS on my phone for its security and privacy, being a tinkerer at heart, I wouldn't jump in to the closed ecosystem of tvOS, especially at this price.

3. Mi TV Box 3:

This is the smaller brother to the Shield in terms of containing all the features one should expect from the Android TV platform, including Chromecast and can be purchased for $65 (excluding import duties). However, with the one-year anniversary of the hair-tearing Nougat Beta being celebrated recently, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Mi has abandoned the device altogether, probably in favour of its PatchWall interface. Things would have been fine if even the outdated Marshmallow system worked properly but even that is not the case as the device seems to struggle with app crashes and DRM. In short, the quality control isn't great and support is non-existent.

4. Mecool M8S Pro L:


If you are going real cheap, then there is no better option than picking up one of the myriad Android boxes from Chinese manufacturers. Apart from being built flimsily, most of them, as this chart illustrates, lack the necessary DRM keys and HDCP support to playback at Full HD resolution. This Mecool box stands out in terms of having Widevine Level 1 support, though it is still lacking in the audio department. This allows YouTube playback at 4K and Netflix at 1080p. Amazon Prime Video device support is much more tightly controlled and hence it is unlikely to work seamlessly. However, most of these Chinese boxes have poor quality control and are not particularly well supported on the software front, leading to issues such as missing DRM keys and app crashes. Hence, I wouldn't recommend going for it unless one has a desperate need to save money.

03 - The Choice

Selecting the Gen 3 Fire TV (4K) wasn't easy as it isn't yet officially sold in India and I had to import it from the US. This inflated the price to a little over $100 compared to its MSRP of $70. However, as all devices, apart from the Chinese ones are subjected to the same taxes, the price is inflated for all mainstream devices. The damage to my wallet was ₹6990 which actually compares very well with the price of the 2nd Gen Fire Stick sold locally (₹3999 for $39.99), a conversion rate of ₹100 for every USD. The only regret is the lack of warranty and the discounts applicable to AFTVs sold locally.

Hence, I had to justify my choice much more than any person purchasing the device locally would have to. Luckily, the Gen 3 AFTV measures up really well on most streaming parameters. It supports everything under the sun apart from Dolby Vision HDR, though it has lost support for some legacy formats (H.263, VP8, MPEG-4). For even a non-HDR 1080p TV, the improvements are immediately appreciable as depicted in the following table covering select parameters. At a Full HD level, the highlight is support for 10-bit, 60 FPS HEVC videos.

Parameter
Amazon Fire TV, Gen 3
Fire TV Stick, Gen 2
H.265 (HEVC)
Hardware accelerated up to 3840x2160p (4K) @ 60fps, 35 Mbps, Main 10 Profile Level 5.0, Colour space 8-bit and 10-bit input with HDR10 support in rendering pipelines
Hardware accelerated up to 1080p @ 30fps, 25 Mbps, Main Profile Level 4.0, Colour space 8-bit support
H.264
Hardware accelerated up to 4K @ 30fps or 1080p @ 60fps, 20 Mbps, High Profile up to Level 4.1
Hardware accelerated up to 1080p @ 30fps or 720p @ 60fps, 20 Mbps, High Profile up to Level 4
VP9 (YouTube 4K)
Hardware accelerated up to [email protected] (including skip frames), Profile 2 with HDR10 support in rendering pipelines
Not supported
Dolby Atmos (EC3_JOC)
Up to 48kHz, 8 channels, 16-bit and 24-bit
Not supported
DRM
Widevine Level 1
PlayReady version 3.0 only
Widevine Level 1
PlayReady version 2.5 only
Screen resolution (px) and Refresh rate (Hz)
3840 x 2160 (2160p / 4K) - 60Hz
1920 x 1080 (1080p) - 60Hz
1280 x 720 (720p) - 60Hz
1920 x 1080 (1080p) - 60Hz
1280 x 720 (720p) - 60Hz
HDCP
2.2
1.4
Memory
2 GB
1 GB
CPU
Quad core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU up to 1.5GHz
Quad-core ARM 1.3 GHz
GPU
Mali-450 MP3
Mali-450 MP4
Wi-Fi
802.11 a/b/g/n/ac; 2x2 MIMO
(2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz dual band)
Dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi supports 2x2 MIMO 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth
BT 4.2 + LE
BT 4.1 (no LE)
Device OS/Platform software
Fire OS 6 — Based on Android 7.1 (API level 25)
Fire OS 5 — Based on Android 5.1 (API Level 22)

04 - The Unpacking

The packaging of the Gen 3 Fire TV is identical to that of the Fire TV Stick, which is to say that it is minimal while the use of space is optimal. It manages to pack in (pun intended) its unique unboxing experience. The contents include the Fire TV itself along with the remote, batteries and the charger/cable.




05 -The Setup (with an Indian Amazon Prime account)

It was a bit of a gamble importing this device as I had nothing to go on in terms of support for an Amazon India Prime account. The official help page only lists support for the Gen 2 Fire TV Stick but then one has to assume that they would only list the devices sold officially within a country. Plugging the device and letting it hang off the HDMI port was a bit unsettling to say the least and the HDMI extender that I had from the Chromecast wasn't simply long enough, but at least I managed to rest the Fire TV on the HDMI cable plugged below it to provide some support.

The first issue came up on powering up the device. The US flat-pin charger wasn't much of an issue in terms of plugging in to my Belkin surge protector without any adapters, but for some reason the Fire TV detected it as being powered from the USB port and hence displayed an insufficient power supply prompt. The charger supports up to 240V input and produces 5.2V/1.8A output, so it was weird to say the least. Switching it with a phone charger worked fine and later, I was able to switch back to the supplied charger without any issues. The only difference I found between the two was that the Fire TV charger operated at 5.3V compared to 5.1V for the Mi phone charger, though the current draw for both was around 0.45A when booting up.

I selected English (India) as the language for the device and on connecting the device with the Wi-Fi network, it downloaded the latest update for the device which happened to be Fire TV OS 6.2.1.2 (NS6212/927). Thereafter, on logging in with the Indian Prime account, I wasn't presented with the introductory video highlighting the 4K HDR features or with the Alexa setup. Instead, I was directly ushered to the app selection prompts featuring the Indian Fire TV apps. Additionally, there was a further minor update available exclusively for the remote, which I guess was meant to sync it with the lack of Alexa support.

So, there you have it. Despite not being officially sold in all the countries with Prime accounts, the Gen 3 Fire TV certainly supports them to the extent of the earlier generation devices. I assume that the lack of 4K content and the associated connectivity required is the reason for Amazon holding back on releasing this device in India, but it does not in any way restrict one from using it to access the existing 1080p library as well as local 4K files.

06 - The 5 GHz Wi-Fi conundrum

When setting up the device, I had selected the 5 GHz Wi-Fi network and the device was able to connect to it to download the initial update. However, after that it could no longer detect my 5 GHz network and instead I had to switch to 2.4 GHz. Initially, I got the impression that there must have been an issue with the update, but after playing around with the router settings, I realized that the device is extremely picky about the Control Channel which has to 36. It supports the AC Wireless mode and 80 MHz Channel Bandwidth just fine.

While the 2x2 MIMO support should ensure better network speed than the 100 Mbps limit using the Ethernet adapter, the 5 GHz reception on the device is quite weak, granting for the fact that my TV is at a distance of over 25 feet and next to a wall. While the 2.4 GHz signal is always at the ‘Very Good’ level, the 5 GHz signal constantly toggles between ‘Fair’ and ‘Good’. So, it would be a good decision to set up the TV within the line of sight of the router and a bad one to purchase the 10/100 Ethernet adapter, if you are on an AC network.

07 – The Starter Kit

Part of the allure of an Android device is the ability to sideload apps. On the Gen 2 Fire TV Stick, the Apps2Fire app was an easy way to do so. However, it doesn't seem to work with the Gen 3 AFTV on Fire OS 6.2.1.2 and hence sideloading now has to be done on the device itself. Thankfully, it is not difficult to do so.

The key to doing so is to have the following apps installed on the device:

1. Downloader:
This is the gateway to downloading and installing APK files off the web on the AFTV. However, the catch, at least when using the Amazon.in App Store, is to find the app itself as it isn't listed and hence is not searchable. However, searching for ES File Explorer on the Amazon.in store results in the Downloader app being available under the suggested apps option, after which it can be downloaded from the Amazon.com App Store.

2. ES File Explorer: 
A file manager wouldn't normally have much utility on a TV box but for the fact that it can connect to various local and online sources. I found it particularly convenient to download APKs on my LAN disk and then install it using this app.

3. Aptoide TV: 
The Amazon AppStore might be pretty barren and the Google Play Store is unavailable but Aptoide TV makes up for it as an alternate and well-stocked app store containing Android TV as well as mobile apps, most of which work wonderfully well on the Fire TV.

4. F-Droid: 
The home of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) on Android, it features numerous applications compiled from source that Google wouldn't allow officially but are a life-saver nonetheless.

08 – The Essentials

With Aptoide and the ability to sideload apps, the possibilities are endless. I would assume the first choice of many would be to install the TV/Movie streaming apps visible in the "Popular" section. However, most of these apps are of questionable legality and hence I wouldn't mention them here. Instead, at present, I have my subscriptions for Prime, Hotstar and Sony Liv doing much of the cord-cutting heavy lifting, augmented with live streaming content from JioTV and Airtel TV.

However, my focus for this section is on select, not-so-obvious apps that help one get a lot more out of the device.

1. Mouse Toggle: 
It enables the mouse cursor within Fire TV and is essential when navigating through phone apps that are not meant to be used with the Fire TV remote. As a bonus, double tapping on the Play button on the Amazon remote also brings up the cursor for some quick navigation and clicking.

2. AirPin: 
AirPin is an AirPlay/DLNA receiver that is particularly useful for an iOS user. While the screen mirroring quality is unflattering, it works well to quickly display some content on the phone. The major benefit of this app is the ability to use the AirPlay functions within various iOS apps. So, Apple Music can be streamed just fine while YouTube allows casting at a quality which is better than what the Gen 1 Chromecast supports. An alternative app would be AirScreen which also works well and has a TV interface, but the subscription model is dodgy at best.

3. DNS66:
Depending on which apps you install, there might be quite a few of them with some obnoxious ads. DNS66 is a quick and easy way of blocking ads over DNS without the need for root.

4. Fire TV Remote:
This one is available on the official Android and iOS stores and is a must-have. As the number of apps build up, ploughing through the Fire TV interface to access them becomes a nightmare and this app offers a quick way of accessing them. The phone keyboard is essential since it is extremely egregious to type using the on-screen Fire TV keyboard and the voice search sans Alexa is way off the mark when searching for local content. Lastly, the touchpad can be easier to use for some than clicking on the remote.

5. Smart YouTube TV: 
Google may have officially yanked YouTube off Fire TV, but that doesn’t mean it is inaccessible from the device. The official Android TV app works fine, though it doesn’t support login due to lack of Play services while the YouTube TV interface can be easily accessed from Firefox. However, having it packaged as an app is a bit more convenient and that is what Smart YouTube TV does well.

09 – The Performance

One of the reasons I hated the Fire TV Stick was because of its struggling interface which was due to a combination of only 1 GB RAM and Android Lollipop. However, the Gen 3 Fire TV has stepped up in that regard by moving on to Android Nougat 7.1.2 along with 2 GB of RAM. As a result, the interface is much smoother and more importantly, background services like DNS66 or AirPin can chug along just fine.

For what is worth, the Antutu benchmark score is a paltry 25,342. Few things to take away from the basic information screen in Antutu are that the accessible RAM and storage are 1.327 GB and 5.34 GB respectively out of total of 2 GB and 8 GB. As can be expected from devices featuring this hardware, the kernel version is 3.14.29, from about 3 years back, though I presume a lot of changes might have been backported.



The Amlogic S905Z SoC in the Fire TV with its quad-core Cortex-A53 CPU and Mali 450 GPU (with a core less than the Fire Stick) seem grossly outdated and some may feel incredulous about the capabilities of the device. However, one must note that the GPU is primarily handling the user interface whereas the CPU is responsible for the processing of various OS functions, for which the meagre specs are ample enough. I have no intention of gaming on a TV box and no one should have much expectations from the device in that regard. Thankfully, the heart of the device is the Amlogic Video Engine and it does a good job of decoding almost everything under the sun. I wish that I could test out all its capabilities to the fullest extent, but for now, performance on a 1080p non-HDR TV set has to suffice.



Coming for a Gen 1 Chromecast as the primary YouTube consumption device, the first thing that strikes you immediately is the quality of playback. As can be seen in the image, the Gen 1 Chromecast is incapable of playing 1080p60 content and instead downgrades the quality to 720p60 while still continuously dropping frames. On the other hand, the Fire TV plays back the content smoothly without any dropped frames. In fact, it can also playback 4K (VP9-Profile 2) content on the 1080p screen without any issues at all and it frankly looks the best of the lot.



No video test would be complete without The Big Buck Bunny and hence the following 5 videos formed part of my local streaming test. Each video was played back for a minute to check for skipped/dropped frames.

1. bbb-3840x2160-cfg02.mkv
2. bbb-1920x1080-cfg02.mkv
3. bbb-1920x1080-cfg06.mkv
4. bbb_sunflower_2160p_60fps_normal
5. bbb_sunflower_1080p_60fps_normal

If you have seen the specifications mentioned earlier, you'd see that the Fire TV does not support 4K x264 content at 60 FPS. However, that is precisely the reason I chose to playback the same. The LAN speed is a major factor when streaming content locally, but fortunately, my aged but trusted AC68U router with Merlin is still up for the job. In fact, performance over the 802.11ac network, despite being about 25 feet away is bound to be much better than what one would get using the 10/100 Ethernet adapter sold for the Fire TV. Since the reception of 5 GHz on the Fire TV is not that great, I tested the videos over the 2.4 GHz network as well with identical performance, though playback at 5-6 Mbps isn't expected to be a challenge for either network. Finally, this is 32-bit Kodi running on top of Fire TV with the screen overlays, so there is some performance penalty to pay.

Serial Number
Video specifications
Skipped/Dropped Frames
(roughly out of 3600)
1
3840 × 2160 8-bit HEVC @60 FPS/6126 kbps
437/0
2
1920x1080 8-bit HEVC @60 FPS/2549 kbps
1129/0
3
1920x1080 8-bit HEVC @60 FPS/2012 kbps
1153/0
4
3840 × 2160 8-bit AVC @60 FPS/8488 kbps
14/0
5
1920x1080 8-bit AVC @60 FPS/4487 kbps
1195/0
As you can see in the table, while there are no dropped frames for any of the videos, the frame skipping is much worse for 1080p content than it is for 4K. This is curious as the 1080p content is also of a lower bit rate which indicates that the Full HD decoding is just not as good as the 4K one. Practically, the playback is smooth at all resolutions and 10-bit 4K 60 FPS HEVC content is a joy to watch, even at 1080p. As for the curious case of 4K H264 60FPS content, the figures are simply misleading as the playback stutters and flickers to remind you that it isn't supported for a reason. Unsurprisingly, all streaming 4K content is either in HEVC or VP9, so there is nothing to miss with the lack of 60 FPS support for 4K x264 content.

10 – The Conclusion

The Fire TV is in a Goldilocks zone as far as media streamers are concerned. It is better than any of the Chinese TV boxes, including the Android TV running Mi Box in terms of quality, content and support at its regular price of $70. At its often-discounted price of $50, it simply owns the low-price streamer market (not considering Roku for its lack of worldwide support). I had to pay twice that amount to import the product in India and still feel that it is worth its price. On the other hand, if you can justify the price and have a need for gaming, then either the Nvidia Shield or Apple TV would be a better choice depending on the choice of platform. It seems Google is prepping up to challenge of the Fire TV with identical specs and (most likely) price to the Gen 3 Fire TV, so the market should heat up a bit in the coming months. However, at present, the Gen 3 Fire TV offers bang for the buck.

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