The latest Fire TV Stick burns rubber, but Roku and Google TV still win where it counts.
Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick Max is the company’s highest-priced and most powerful streaming stick yet. A step up from the $40 Streaming Stick 4K, the new Max runs $55 and packs a faster processor, support for Wi-Fi 6 and nearly all the latest playback standards from 4K, HDR10 and Dolby Vision to HDR10+ plus Dolby Atmos for audio.
Spoiler: The Max is fast. For those who simply want the quickest way to stream Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, YouTube TV and the rest, this streamer is (literally) tough to beat. That speed makes the Max worth the higher price compared to the original Fire TV Stick 4K.
As for those debating between the Max and Google’s $50 Chromecast with Google TV or Roku’s upcoming $50 Streaming Stick 4K? That’s a little more complicated. Google’s voice assistant and search work better than Alexa, and Roku’s simple menu system is still my favorite of the three. Amazon’s menu system is fine, but there are too many ads and the search often turned up unexpected results. The Fire TV Stick 4K Max is my favorite Fire TV yet, but unless you’re heavily invested in the e-Commerce giant’s world of devices like Alexa speakers or Ring cameras, Roku’s and Google’s streamers are better options.
- Fast performance
- Supports all major streaming apps
- Smart home control through Alexa
- Ads are prevalent on the home screen and screensaver
- No Chromecast or AirPlay support
- Search results are wonky
- Luna lacks compelling games
A speed boost
Amazon touts the processor speed upgrade as one of the big reasons why this streaming stick warrants the “Max” name. And in using the device over the past few days, I can report that it is, indeed, really fast.
Opening and switching between apps were among the quickest I’ve ever encountered on a streaming stick. It’s not always instantaneous, particularly if you haven’t opened an app in a few hours, but for the most part, everything from Netflix and Prime Video to Disney Plus, HBO Max and YouTube TV opened quickly.
There were a few instances where the screen would go black for longer than I expected, however. And using Alexa to bounce back into YouTube TV sometimes required grabbing the remote and restarting the stream.
On Amazon’s menus? Too many Amazon ads
Amazon’s interface runs the show, and I appreciate quick access to the “Recently Watched” tab. I don’t, however, like that right under that is a giant “sponsored” tab on the home screen, though I largely have grown to ignore all the various recommendations Amazon shoves from streaming services under that recently watched bar.
It would be great if Amazon added a tab to quickly see all your apps and channels. You can preset six to appear on the main page, but having faster access to that full list would be more valuable to me than the tabs for “find” and “live.”
I also don’t appreciate the TV becoming a giant rotating billboard for content or ads when in screensaver mode. It’s one thing to throw in a little ad here or there like Roku; it’s another to turn my entire 65-inch TV into a billboard for iFit or Nancy Grace’s Fox Nation show.
Maximum 4K HDR format, Wi-Fi support
The Max works with just about every major audio and video format out there. TV shows and movies available in 4K and/or Dolby Vision played back with no issues on my TCL 6-Series TV. Since that TV lacks HDR10+ support, and my Sonos Beam soundbar similarly does not include Dolby Atmos, I was unable to test either of those features. As we’ve written in the past, while it’s nice that Amazon supports all of these formats we don’t consider Dolby Vision or HDR10+ a must-have, in part because it’s not a major image quality upgrade over standard HDR.
Annoyingly, Amazon sticks a 4K icon on seemingly anything that is available in 4K, even if you have to pay for it. For example, scrolling through the home screen I saw a 4K icon next to Despicable Me 2. The animated film is available in the higher resolution, but only if you are willing to rent it or buy it from Amazon. Streaming for free through Amazon’s IMDb TV will be in HD.
For those in a more crowded household, Wi-Fi 6 support could be nice if you have already upgraded or are planning to update your Wi-Fi router in the near future. The limited space in my New York apartment did not provide a great venue for testing the bandwidth improvements, but I experienced no problems streaming from an older Eero router in the same room.
As with most streaming sticks, you can power the device using either the included wall adapter or (if your TV supports it) plugging the USB power cable directly into your television. Whereas some devices, including the Fire TV Stick 4K, flash warnings when using USB power, I had no issues running the device from the USB port on my TV.
New blue remote button and shortcut keys
Amazon’s updated remote gives the Alexa voice assistant a prominent blue button at the top — you’ll need to press and hold it to issue voice commands — as well as dedicated keys for Prime Video, Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu. While some people may not want logos cluttering up the design of the all-black controller, I found those keys convenient. Like other Fire TV remotes, the Max also allows you to control volume and power on your TV or other devices.
Fire TV supports nearly all the major streaming services you can think of. It does, however, lack AirPlay support (which Roku and the Apple TV offer) or the ability to Chromecast from Android devices (a feature offered by Google’s Chromecast with Google TV).
Ever-present but not always helpful Alexa
To make the most of the Fire TV Stick 4K Max you’ll want other Amazon devices in your household. Alexa remains a key piece of the device, functioning as not only a search helper for opening apps, movies or shows by voice but also controlling your smart home.
If you have a Ring doorbell you can ask to “show me the front door” and get a real-time look at what is happening outside. New with the 4K Max is the ability to minimize Ring to a “picture-in-picture” box, allowing you to keep an eye on the door while you watch something else. Alexa commands into the remote are also capable of controlling smart lights or other appliances, and there’s an Alexa Home Theater audio feature that lets you pair Fire TV with Echo speakers.
Unfortunately, Alexa on Fire TV wasn’t as good at providing relevant search results for actual TV shows and movies. Asking to “play Pixar movies” displayed results like Luca, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. in a “from your subscriptions” row (recognizing that I had logged into Disney Plus) as well as non-Pixar animated fare like “Cocomelon Halloween Songs.” For some reason, it also put Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special The Closer on the same row, sandwiched in between Ratatouille and Onward.
Asking to see Marvel movies also brought up the likes of Titanic and Disney’s Muppets Haunted Mansion alongside expected results like Black Panther and the Avengers films.
Amazon largely does a nice job integrating Alexa with other apps. Saying “play the baseball game” on a Friday afternoon opened up YouTube TV and the White Sox-Astros game airing on MLB Network. Like with search, this isn’t always working as you’d expect.
Saying “play the news” wouldn’t bring up YouTube TV, but instead opened Amazon’s dedicated News app that pulls in content from ABC News Live, CBS News and local news stations among others.
Luna lags, lacks games
With the Stick 4K Max and its new 750MHz graphics processor, Amazon is also making a fresh effort to give its $6-per-month Luna gaming service a home. When I played a handful of games I could see the potential for a solid cloud gaming experience, although at times Amazon’s service felt more like an Xbox 360 rather than an Xbox One or Xbox Series X.
I’ve experienced lag, where the game doesn’t respond quickly, on all cloud gaming services including Google’s Stadia or Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming, and Luna was no exception. I had no problems playing Team Sonic Racing but playing Control and DiRT Rally 2.0 was increasingly difficult. I got lag on Luna despite my Stick 4K Max being located right near my router with fast Internet — my Spectrum connection showed download speeds above 350 Mbps (with upload speeds of around 20 Mbps and a ping of 20 ms).
My biggest issue with Luna, however, isn’t the device or even necessarily Amazon’s infrastructure but the games themselves. Even a year in, the platform still severely lacks in games.
A handful of publishers like Ubisoft, Capcom and 505 Games have titles for the platform but bigger publishers like Activision, Electronic Arts, Epic Games and 2K still aren’t here, so don’t expect to play Call of Duty, FIFA, Fortnite or NBA 2K. (The fact that, at the time this was published, Amazon apparently lists Capcom as “Campcom” on its website raises questions to me on how serious the company is taking this endeavor.)
Getting the most out of Luna will cost you. Ubisoft’s titles, like Far Cry 6 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, are locked behind a subscription to Ubisoft Plus, which runs $18 per month. Other titles like a SpongeBob game from THQ Nordic and a Garfield Kart racing game from Microids required an additional subscription to Luna’s Family Channel, which is another $3 per month. A Luna controller is $70, though you can use an Xbox One controller or PlayStation 4 DualShock if you have either laying around.
If Amazon builds out its games platform or opens up the Stick 4K Max to other platforms (particularly Xbox Cloud Gaming) this device could be worthwhile as an affordable way to get games on your TV without a console. For now, however, Google Stadia on the Chromecast with Google TV is a better bet, with more developer support and the ability to game in 4K HDR.
The best Fire TV Stick you can get
If you can get by Amazon’s bugs and interface quirks and are looking for a fast and powerful media streamer, the new Fire TV Stick 4K Max checks nearly all the boxes. It has robust app support, opens said apps really quickly and can control your smart home.
Those who live in an Apple or Google world and don’t rely on Alexa may be better off with a Roku or a streamer from either of those companies. And gamers? Well, Luna should not be a reason to buy any device in 2021.
Credits: Eli Blumenthal