The technology industry has certainly put a lot of hype behind descriptors like “max” over the last few years. So when Amazon announced the $ 54.99 Fire TV Stick 4K Max last month, I couldn’t help but crawl at the thought of a streaming device that picked up that kind of branding. What might max possibly mean in this context? It has nothing to do with the physical design; Fire TV Stick 4K Max is visually indistinguishable from the existing Fire TV Stick 4K. And the two products often go too far in their core video and audio streaming features, despite the fact that the older model is often reduced; At the time of this review, the regular Fire TV Stick 4K is on sale for $ 33.99.
In this case, “max” is actually about the smaller things. The new stick is 40 percent more powerful than the standard version, resulting in apps launching faster and navigation that feels noticeably more fluid and free of strains or delays. There is more RAM inside so you do not have to wait for apps to reload as often. Amazon has upgraded Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi 6 for better wireless streaming performance — provided you have a router that can take advantage of it. And you also get a newer Alexa remote control in the box with app shortcuts and a convenient shortcut to live TV programming.
As I mentioned earlier, the stick itself is indistinguishable from the standard Fire TV Stick 4K. Unfortunately, despite going “max”, Amazon apparently did not seem appropriate to upgrade to USB-C for the (required) plug-in power; this device retains Micro USB on the side. But it’s still easy to get started: Connect the Fire TV Stick 4K Max to a free HDMI port on your TV, find a socket for the USB power adapter, throw the included batteries in the remote control, and you’re off.
Amazon bundles the latest version of its Alexa voice remote with the new streaming stick. Apart from the usual play buttons, there are also dedicated TV controls for power and volume. And you’ll also find four shortcut keys for Prime Video, Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu. (These can be technically reprogrammed, but it’s quite a process.) You still have to press and hold the Alexa button for voice searches or smart home commands. Speaking of a new trick, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max wins over the regular model, is the ability to see a live, picture-in-picture view of your home cameras. Fire TV Cube can do this too, but not any of Amazon’s other streaming gadgets.
Another benefit of the newer remote control is the guide button, which can quickly take you to live TV from supported services integrated directly with Amazon’s channel guide. These include YouTube TV, Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, Pluto TV, Tubi and more. It’s not like the Live TV tab is hard to find on the Fire TV home screen, but I’m always here to save time.
When it comes to their visual capabilities, Fire TV Stick 4K Max and Fire TV Stick 4K are basically identical. They both offer Dolby Vision, HDR10 +, HDR10 and HLG. A silent upgrade Amazon made to the newer hardware is support for AV1 video decoding, which will be welcome news for YouTube; AV1 decoding was one of the points of contention in the company’s very public spit with Roku. Amazon, which uses the functionality, should rule out the possibility of a similar dispute.
Audio specifications between Amazon’s two 4K sticks (each supporting Dolby Atmos) are as well presumed to be the same, but this is an area where the newer stick is pulling out because of … Netflix. For some reason, as noted by AFTV news, the streaming giant does not support Atmos on the regular Fire TV Stick 4K because it runs an older version of the Fire OS software. As the newer Stick 4K Max comes with the current Fire OS 7, you get the full Atmos experience when you watch Netflix. If you have an Atmos soundbar or surround system, the more immersive sound may be enough for you to spend extra on Max.
Consistent with the rest of Amazon’s Fire TV series, Stick 4K Max runs the overhauled software experience that the company rolled out earlier this year with user profiles, a more personal home screen and a new “find” feature to choose the night’s entertainment. Thanks to its more powerful CPU, GPU and extra RAM (now 2 GB instead of 1.5 GB), the new stick bursts through navigating all the different corners of Fire TV OS. And apps were apparently loaded faster than on standard Stick 4K – and certainly faster compared to my Chromecast with Google TV.
That said, Amazon stays tough with banner ads on the home screen and is still a little too in the face of you when promoting its own content. It is possible to install another launcher or create Pi-hole to block some of the ads, but this is a step most consumers will never take. The reality is that this is just something you have to put up with if you want a very capable 4K streaming device for under $ 60. If the ads drive you crazy, the more expensive Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield would be wiser choices.
There is definitely a case that Fire TV Stick 4K Max just should have replaced the slower Fire TV Stick 4K. Amazon’s lineup now feels crowded between Fire TV Stick Lite, Fire TV Stick, Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Stick 4K Max and the second generation Fire TV Cube. Cube is well characterized as its own thing, but I can imagine that some people would be very confused when shopping between the others. And Amazon discounts these devices so often that you really do not look at a huge price difference between most of them.
So my advice is this: If you want Amazon’s best straightforward 4K streamer, use that little extra and go with the new Fire TV Stick 4K Max. The speed improvements really provide a more satisfying user experience. And even if your home network is not yet running on Wi-Fi 6, you have future-proofing in that regard. Fire TV Cube is still more powerful, but if you do not need hands-free Alexa voice control, it is overkill for the purpose of entertaining.
I still do not know if it’s worth the Max moniker, but it’s definitely the Amazon streaming player to buy now.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge