Fire TV Stick 4K Max is a Stellar Streaming Stick You can Live without

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Over the years, Amazon has made a killing by delivering decent products at lower prices than its competitors, such as the Echo Buds 2. The new Fire TV Stick 4K Max, for better or worse, takes a somewhat different approach.

The latest $54.99 streaming stick from the Bezos empire boasts of being the cheapest WiFi 6-compatible streamer on the market, among other things (WiFi 6 being a newer and faster version of WiFi that every new device will support eventually). The $179.99 Apple TV 4K refresh from earlier this year is now the only other option in this small category, so competition isn’t very tough.

However, while the Fire TV Stick 4K Max is a good WiFi 6 deal, there are some recent 4K streamers from Roku and Google that are less expensive than what Amazon is selling today. This isn’t an Echo Buds 2 situation, where a few minor technical flaws can be overlooked because it’s so much less expensive than the competition. The new Fire TV Stick 4K Max is the best of the company’s streaming stick line, but it’s not a necessary upgrade unless you live and die by Amazon’s product ecosystem.

Quick and receptive

The latest Fire TV Stick is a true iterative device, with little in the way of revolutionary new features. Instead, Amazon is boasting more powerful tech guts (specifically, a quad-core processor and 2GB RAM) that are said to make it 40% faster than the previous 4K model. I didn’t have one on hand for comparison testing, but nevertheless, this machine runs smoothly in a manner that last year’s 1080p model couldn’t.

I was generally pleased with Amazon’s redesigned Fire TV interface, but I’ve never felt better about it than while using the 4K Max. Horizontal scrolling over its numerous app and content rows is as smooth as silk, and the programs and content load swiftly enough. Returning to the main menu is also a breeze. As far as I can tell, the 2020 Fire Stick had noticeable UI slowness, which isn’t present here.

In terms of WiFi 6, the advantages are less evident at this time. It’s a quicker and better version of WiFi, but without a suitable router, you won’t get much out of it. These are becoming more affordable by the day, but the WiFi 6 rollout is still in its early stages. It’s likely that the router your ISP provided you with doesn’t support it.

Now, I do have a WiFi 6 router at home, but there was no discernible difference in streaming quality between the 4K Max and a Roku or Chromecast. I spent a whole Sunday watching live football on Sling, and the experience was essentially the same as it is on other platforms. Watching 4K movies on applications like Prime Video is the same. It’s quick and the video quality is excellent, but that’s true of other streaming devices as well.

However, in terms of network operations, streaming video isn’t all that demanding. Streaming video games is a different situation, and the Fire TV Stick 4K Max performed admirably in this regard.

It can also be used as a gaming stick

You’d be forgiven if you forgot about Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, which hasn’t been a headline-grabbing hype machine/failure like Google Stadia. However, Amazon equipped the 4K Max with a 750MHz GPU to turn it into a gaming computer as well as a video streamer and offered me a Luna membership to test.

My conclusion: It might be a lot worse!

Luna’s library is chock-full of reflexive, precise games that, because of the latency inherent in game streaming, should perform poorly on a streaming service. Control, Sonic Mania, Mega Man 11, the original Castlevania for the NES, and the high-speed futuristic racer Redout took up a lot of my time. All of them were reasonable facsimiles of playing locally on real gaming hardware in terms of pure playability. There was little (if any) lag between my inputs and the action on the screen.

It’s difficult to say if this is due to the 4K Max’s improved WiFi hardware, my home’s good network settings, Amazon’s high-quality servers, or some combination of the three. What I can say is that the games were incredibly responsive.

The graphic fidelity isn’t always outstanding, which is my greatest complaint. Streaming artifacting was noticeable in Sonic Mania’s first level’s solid blue skies and throughout the first several minutes of Ys VIII.

I’m picky about frame rates in a manner that most people aren’t, yet it was difficult for me not to notice a minor, unavoidable stutter while playing every game I attempted on Luna. In general, each game attempted to achieve 60 frames per second but fell short. It didn’t get to the point of being excessively jerky, but it seemed like I was playing a badly optimized console game.

To be honest, I have easy access to modern gaming gear, so it’s difficult for me to play Luna without comparing it to something that will always be unfair. If I didn’t have one, this would be a good substitute…if I was ready to pay $5.99 every month and $69.99 for the Luna controller. Folks, hidden costs are real.

The competition is fierce

Despite how well-made the 4K Max is, I find it difficult to recommend it without reservation to anyone seeking a 4K streamer. For starters, it’s a smidgeon more expensive than the Roku Express 4K+ ($39.99) and Chromecast with Google TV ($49.99), all of which are as capable of ordinary video streaming. Another significant difference is that Fire TV Stick’s home screen is littered with advertisements for Amazon content, but the competition isn’t.

To expand on that point, getting the most out of the 4K Max requires a significant investment in Amazon products. The home screen recommendations are heavily biased toward Prime Video, and Luna isn’t that appealing until you pay for it. One feature I didn’t get to try was live picture-in-picture integration for smart cameras such as the Amazon-owned Ring doorbell. I wouldn’t place an Amazon camera anywhere near my house if you paid me. However, if you have a different opinion, you can take advantage of this.

Even if every big tech business is difficult to trust in some manner, similarly priced streaming devices from Roku and Google are more agnostic in this sense. Plus, none of the three have particularly strong voice search functions, so Alexa isn’t exactly a differentiator.

If you’re still on the fence about upgrading, bear in mind that incredibly decent 4K streaming devices are available for very little money. Whether you choose Amazon or another brand, you’ll get a device that plays your shows and movies efficiently and without causing any problems. Just keep in mind that purchasing a Fire TV Stick may help Jeff Bezos fund more needless journeys to space in some way.

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