Amazon's 4K Fire TV is more capable, but still unnecessary

So the Fire Phone was a flop -- so much so that it reportedly pushed Amazon out of the phone business entirely. But the Fire TV ($100) is still around, and judging from what we've seen from this year's entry, it's likely here to stay. The new model looks the same as the original, but it sports some powerful new hardware and 4K support. Amazon also brought over its virtual assistant Alexa from the Echo speaker, just in time to do battle with Siri on the new Apple TV. As far as upgrades go, the new Fire TV is a fairly minor leap from last year, but it shows Amazon still wants to be competitive in the set-top box arena. Unfortunately, it still hasn't proven why anyone would want to get the Fire TV over the competition.

When I say Amazon didn't change much about the Fire TV's design from last year, I really mean it. Side by side, it's practically impossible to tell the difference between the two. It's still a nondescript, square box, with (dangerously) sharp corners. Look on the back, though, and you'll notice one difference: a slot for a microSD card that adds up to 128GB more storage, on top of the Fire TV's 8GB internal storage. (The $140 "Gaming Edition" Fire TV comes with a 32GB microSD card.) It's a minor, but significant, change -- the original Fire TV forced you to deal with managing apps and games with only a paltry 8GB of space. (However, Amazon released an update that allowed USB storage earlier this year.) Under the hood, there are also some big changes: a new quad-core processor that Amazon claims is 75 percent faster and an improved graphics processor to go along with 2GB of RAM (the same as the original model).

Amazon also stuck with the same Fire TV remote, which is a good thing since it was one of the best elements from last year. While it's significantly bigger than the current Apple TV remote (I haven't yet tested the upcoming touchpad-equipped model), it curves nicely into your hand and sports a comfortable soft, plastic finish. There's a fairly accurate directional pad and the usual playback buttons, but the remote's most unique feature is the microphone button on top. Tap it, say what you'd like to watch and the Fire TV quickly brings up details about the program, and also points you to it in Amazon's video library.

While it worked pretty well last year, the new Fire TV's additional horsepower makes its voice search significantly faster. It's far more convenient than typing individual characters into an on-screen prompt. This time around, you can also ask Amazon's Alexa for things like the weather, your upcoming schedule and general questions. It's not nearly as capable as it is on the Echo though: At this point, Alexa on Fire TV doesn't control smart home devices, and it can't even read you the news. It'll likely improve over time, though, just like Amazon's speaker. And speaking of the Echo, expect to have some crosstalk with the Fire TV whenever you talk to Alexa. (Echo owners already know what it's like to suffer through Echo commercials that inadvertently activate Alexa.)

When it comes to simply "[insert your preferred streaming video service] and chilling," the Fire TV once again proves to be a capable device. Navigating through its interface is zippier than before, thanks to the better specs, and there's very little delay when it comes to streaming video on Amazon's video service, Hulu Plus and Netflix. As for the addition of 4K, it added a bit of clarity to shows when I watched content on a UHD monitor, but as I've mentioned plenty of times, it's not something you'll really notice unless you have a 60-inch television or above.

On another note, I was also pleased to find that the new Fire TV actually sent Dolby Digital audio streams to my receiver properly -- for some reason that never worked correctly with the original. And once again, I was impressed by the overall quality of Fire TV apps. They're far better designed and easier to navigate than the current Apple TV (although it looks like Apple improved that significantly with the upcoming model).

Unfortunately, Amazon didn't have its new gaming controller available for us to test, but I'll be sure to report on that later. That accessory was one of my biggest issues with the first Fire TV, so there's definitely room for improvement. While playing a few games with the standard Fire TV remote, I noticed they loaded a bit faster than before, and I was also able to hop back to the main menu more quickly. But, on top of the drastic need for a better controller, what Amazon really needs to make the Fire TV a gaming hit is better games, and we're not seeing much of that yet.

It's particularly hard to ignore the Fire TV's role as a mere Trojan horse for Amazon's ecosystem this time around. It's refusing to sell the Apple TV and Chromecast over the lack of adequate Prime Video support, a pretty bold move for a company that promised to be the "everything store." I suppose now, as Amazon delves more into consumer products of its own, it'll be more like the "everything except what conflicts with us" store.

While the new Fire TV proves to be a capable media streamer, once again, there really isn't a huge difference from last year's model. Current owners definitely don't need to upgrade. And while its nice to see Amazon add 4K support (something Roku also added to its next box, and which the new Apple TV won't support), that alone isn't enough to differentiate it from the more established alternatives. You can still have a pretty great Amazon video experience with the Roku 4, and have the benefit of plenty more apps to boot. The Apple TV, meanwhile, offers a much better experience for iOS users, and I wouldn't be surprised if an Amazon shows up eventually. Just like last year, the Fire TV is a decent device that doesn't have much of a reason to exist.