Fire TV Stick 4K Max is a stellar streaming stick you can live without

Technology 13-10-2021 Mashable 32

Amazon has made a killing over the years by offering decent products for cheaper prices than its competitors, like the Echo Buds 2. But for better or for worse, the new Fire TV Stick 4K Max takes a slightly different approach.

The latest $54.99 streaming stick from the Bezos empire prides itself on, among other things, being the cheapest WiFi 6-compatible streamer on the market (WiFi 6 being a newer and faster version of WiFi that every new device will support eventually). The competition in this narrow category isn't especially fierce, as the $179.99 Apple TV 4K refresh from earlier this year is basically the only other option right now.

But while the Fire TV Stick 4K Max is a value on the WiFi 6 front, there are actually some pretty great, recent 4K streamers from the likes of Roku and Google that cost less than what Amazon is offering here. This isn't an Echo Buds 2 situation either, where a handful of technical compromises are forgivable because it's just so much cheaper than the competition. The new Fire TV Stick 4K Max is as good as it gets from the company's streaming stick line, but unless you live and die by Amazon's product ecosystem, it's not a necessary upgrade.

Speedy and responsive

The updated Fire TV interface from 2020 shines on the new Fire TV Stick 4K Max.
The updated Fire TV interface from 2020 shines on the new Fire TV Stick 4K Max. Credit: amazon

The latest Fire TV Stick is truly iterative, with next to nothing in the way of mind-blowing new features. Instead, Amazon is touting more powerful tech guts (namely a quad-core processor and 2GB RAM) that supposedly make it 40 percent faster than the previous 4K model. I didn't have one of those on hand for side-by-side testing, but regardless, this thing hums along beautifully in a way last year's 1080p model simply could not.

I was largely positive on the revamped Fire TV interface Amazon launched last year, but I've never felt better about it than I did while using the 4K Max. Scrolling horizontally through its various app and content rows is smooth as can be, while said apps and content also load quickly enough. Bouncing back to the home menu is similarly slick. The 2020 Fire Stick had noteworthy UI lag and that's nowhere to be found here, as far as I can tell.

As for WiFi 6, the benefits are less clear at this point in time. It's a faster and better version of WiFi, but you won't get much out of it without a compatible router. Those are getting more affordable by the day, but we're still in the early adopter phase of the WiFi 6 rollout. Chances are the router your ISP gave you doesn't support it.

Now, I do have a WiFi 6 router in my home, but I didn't sense an appreciable difference in streaming with the 4K Max compared to what I get out of a Roku or Chromecast. I spent an entire Sunday watching live football via Sling, and that experience was more or less identical to how it is on other devices. The same goes for watching 4K movies via apps like Prime Video. It's fast and the quality is great, but that's true on other streaming boxes, too.

That said, streaming video isn't that intense as far as network operations go. Streaming video games is a different story, and I was mostly impressed with how the Fire TV Stick 4K Max handled that.

Doubles as a gaming stick

Luna works well on  Fire TV Stick 4K Max.
Luna works well on  Fire TV Stick 4K Max. Credit: mashable composite

Amazon's Luna cloud gaming service hasn't been a headline-grabbing hype-machine-slash-debacle like Google Stadia, so you're forgiven if you forgot it exists at all. That said, Amazon upgraded the 4K Max with a 750MHz GPU to make it something of a gaming machine on top of a video streamer, and provided me with a Luna subscription for testing purposes.

My verdict: It could be worse!

Luna's library is loaded with reflexive, precise games that should play horribly on a streaming service thanks to the latency that's inherent to the whole concept of game streaming. I spent chunks of time with demanding games like Control, Sonic Mania, Mega Man 11, the original Castlevania for NES, and the high-speed futuristic racer Redout. In terms of pure playability, all of them were reasonable facsimiles of playing locally on real gaming hardware. I couldn't sense much (if any) lag between my inputs and the action on screen.

Whether this is a direct benefit of the better WiFi hardware in the 4K Max, favorable network conditions in my home, high-quality servers on Amazon's end, or some combination of all three factors is tough to pin down. What I do know is that the games felt impressively responsive.

My biggest gripe is that visual fidelity isn't always great. Streaming artifacting was visible in the solid blue skies of Sonic Mania's first level and all over the picture in the opening bits of Ys VIII.

I'm a stickler for frame rates in a way that most normal people probably aren't, but it was hard for me not to notice a slight, inescapable stutter while playing each and every game I tried on Luna. In general, each game strived to hit 60 frames per second but didn't quite succeed at that. None of it crossed over into being unacceptably choppy, mind you, but it felt a little like playing a poorly optimized console game.

To be fair, I have ready access to modern gaming hardware, so it's hard for me to play Luna without making what will always be an unfair comparison in my head. If I didn't, this would be an acceptable alternative...if I were willing to pay $5.99 per month and $69.99 for the Luna controller. Hidden costs are real, folks.

Stiff competition

Chromecast with Google TV is my personal favorite streaming device right now.
Chromecast with Google TV is my personal favorite streaming device right now. Credit: google

As thoroughly well-made as the 4K Max is, it's still hard for me to recommend without reservations to anyone who's looking to get a 4K streamer. For one, it is just a tad more expensive than the Roku Express 4K+ ($39.99) and Chromecast with Google TV ($49.99), both of which are just as good at everyday video streaming. Another crucial difference is that the Fire TV Stick's home screen is chock full of ads for Amazon content, which isn't the case with the competition.

To build on that point, you need to be really invested in Amazon products to get the most out of the 4K Max. The home screen recommendations are very Prime Video-centric, and obviously Luna isn't much of a draw unless you pay for it. One feature I didn't get to try is live picture-in-picture support for smart cameras like the Ring doorbell, another device owned by Amazon. You couldn't pay me to put an Amazon camera anywhere near my home. If you feel differently, though, you can take advantage of that.

Similarly priced streaming devices from Roku and Google are more agnostic in this regard, even if every big tech company is difficult to trust in one way or another. Plus, all three have similarly effective voice search functions, so it's not like Alexa is a unique selling point, either.

If you're still on the fence about upgrading, keep in mind that you can get really good 4K streaming devices for dirt cheap. Whether you want to saddle up with Amazon or go with another brand, you'll get something that plays your shows and movies effectively and without many issues. Just remember that, in one way or another, buying a Fire TV Stick might help furnish more wasteful trips to space for Jeff Bezos.


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