This review originally ran on Oct. 8, 2015.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The streaming set-top box wars are in full force. And even though Amazon's (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report latest Fire TV has some massive improvements over the first generation model, it's too soon to call a winner here.
Amazon was kind enough to give me a review unit and after opening and setting it up, it's easy enough to see the improvements over the first-generation model. The most obvious is the inclusion of Alexa, which Amazon is seemingly positioning as the heart and brains of its ecosystem.
Much like Apple's (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report Siri, Alexa, first introduced on the Amazon Echo, is a voice-controlled assistant. On the Fire TV, Alexa allows you to ask for weather, sports scores, traffic and music.
I did not have issues with the picture cutting out on my television, but I recognize that others have, with it being more than just a few. This is something Amazon can't get wrong, especially if it's going to stop selling the new Apple TV and Google (GOOG) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class C Report (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report Chromecast 2 on its website. If your product doesn't work, providing alternatives while you fix the problem is a sign you care about your customers. Otherwise, it just comes across as bewildering.
The sound quality is pretty decent, as it is with most Amazon hardware, with the new Fire TV offering Dolby Digital surround sound. However, when you watch something on Netflix or another non-Amazon service, the sound quality gets worse. Amazon has publicly said it's working to correct the problem. Yet again, it feels like Amazon may have rushed the product to market, while fixing the problems as they arrive.
I, unlike other reviewers, did not have an extremely hard time putting the batteries into the remote, though it was a little more difficult than I would've liked. Luckily, you don't have to do this too often.
Unlike Siri on the new Apple TV, Alexa can't quite search for content using actors' names or genres, though Amazon has said that feature is coming next year. It's an awesome feature to have and given the fact that this is being positioned as a content consumption device, it probably should have been included at the release. Otherwise, it feels like Amazon rushed getting the Fire TV out before it was complete.
The $100 set-top box also offers support for 4K video, which is being hailed as the next big thing in screen technology. Most people probably don't have 4K televisions just yet (including this reviewer), but the new Fire TV still offers 1080p HD quality picture, allowing you to enjoy what you're watching with a crisp, clear view. As 4K TVs become more prevalent, having a set-top box with this feature will become increasingly important, so it's Amazon's way of looking ahead.
On a technical level, the new Fire TV is certainly an improvement over the older version, with more processing power, better graphics and more internal memory. However, given the fact that you're probably going to have a lot of apps on here (Amazon says over 3,000 in total are available), it'd be nice to have a little more than 8 GB in internal memory. Apple's new Apple TV will come in 32GB and 64GB models and while the Fire TV can expand, you still have to go buy an external memory card, which adds to the price.
When it comes to these boxes, content is the most important part and that's where Amazon continues to keep up with the competition. You get access to Netflix (NFLX) - Get Netflix, Inc. Report , Hulu, HBO Go and HBO Now, Twitch and a ton of others, with Amazon claiming it has the "most of any streaming media player." Like Apple's new Apple TV, you can search for content across multiple channels, but the obvious difference is Amazon Prime is featured first. This is where the voice navigation would come in handy and is something Amazon sorely needs.
It looks almost exactly like the original version of the Fire TV, as both are little black boxes with non-descript remotes that say Amazon on them. You don't need much more than that and given the cost, Amazon probably didn't care that much about making this beautiful and elegant and just wanted to focus on function, which is more than fine for me and most people.
Like with most Amazon hardware, the purpose of it is to get you to buy more things from Amazon, and the Fire TV does a good job of that. Renting or buying TV shows and movies comes first when you search, as it should be. If you're a Prime member, as I am, it's helpful to keep things in one ecosystem.
Amazon has two versions of the new Fire TV -- this one and the $140 version, which is geared towards gaming, which comes with a Bluetooth headset and gamepad. If you're entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem, then it certainly makes sense to go out and get one of the new Fire TV units if you're in the market for one.
Final Grade: 8.5/10