In the race to produce the sharpest TV picture imaginable, screen definition standards flew past as each holiday system approached. I couldn't believe how sharp my first 32-inch flat screen TV was. At 720p, I could watch the Dodgers in what was then breathtaking resolution. A year later I watched them in true high definition –– 1080p. It couldn't possibly get any better than that. But by Super Bowl time, ads touted 65-inch monsters for a movie theater experience. Which brings us to 80-inch TVs with 4K resolution – that's four times as sharp as 1080. Never mind that in the first few years there wasn't much to watch in 4K. Now Netflix and Amazon are shooting pretty much all their original content in 4K.
The 4K picture quality is beyond wow. Faces and scenery pop out. There's almost no motion blurring with the more expensive TVs. While there are still super-ultra-high definition models that cost $3,000 and up, a decent 4K set can be had for less than $500. Look for that price to drop by Black Friday.
But what if you want to watch 4K programs on your old Roku? Can't be done. You have to spend $70 to $100 for a Roku device that's capable of streaming in 4K. I have the Ultra model, for which I paid $130 just a year ago. The 4K stream has been flawlessly beautiful with nary a hiccup.
Streaming devices use Wi-Fi to connect to Amazon, Netflix and a few other sites that offer 4K programming. They connect to an HDMI port on the side or back of a TV. Most TVs have at least two HDMI ports, so it's possible to connect both a Roku and a cable box.
Both Amazon and Netflix require monthly or annual fees. I have a Netflix account that costs $12 a month, and allows four different people to watch at the same time. My Amazon content is included in my annual, $99 Prime membership. Amazon also offers out-of-theater movies for about $5.
So, add it up: I have a 55-inch 4K TV that produces stunning pictures. I have a 4K streaming device to channel that content to my TV. Who could ask for anything more?
That would be me.
Amazon has just come out with a $70 Fire TV capable of streaming its growing number of 4K programs. I replaced a lesser model with the new Fire TV to compare it with the Roku. Note to the wise: If you have a 4K Roku, you do not need a 4K Fire TV. The Roku will handle all the popular channels such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. But for the sake of science, I shelled out the $70 for the Amazon device.
It's small –– about the size of a stick-it pad, and rather than providing a long HDMI cable, Amazon's is short, so that the device hangs off the HDMI port, pretty much out of sight. Amazon calls it a "pendant form factor." The remote has a feature no other device currently has: Alexa, the virtual, all-knowing assistant of Amazon's Echo devices. Press the Alexa button and say, "Find the latest Mr. Robot episode," and Alexa comes through. Of course, you need an Echo for this to work. A nice touch, but for me, no cigar.
Picture quality is the bottom line, and in that most important of categories, the new Fire TV disappoints. Way-too-often, images were pixelated, something that has never happened on my Roku. I have a super-high-speed wireless modem, which serves both my Roku and an old Apple TV very well. Yes, I now have a third streaming device. Apple is selling its 4K streaming player that starts at $179 (ouch), and. unlike the Fire TV, doesn't come with an HDMI cable. One of the Roku devices plugs directly into an HDMI port, so an extra cable isn't necessary, either.
One way to avoid the pixelation on the Fire TV is to hot-wire it from the modem-router to the device. But since my TV is a room away, that's not practical. Amazon recommends buying a $15 device for that kind of connection.
What to do? I'm not going to spring for $179 for the new Apple TV. I already have a great streaming device in the Roku 4K, so why do I need the Fire TV? If I asked myself that question –– why do I need this new gadget? –– I'd still be watching that 720p TV. But even I have my limits, which means I packed up the Fire TV and sent it back to Amazon. I'm not certain if I got a lemon, or if the device isn't ready for prime time. I have no patience for betas, and I think the new Fire TV just that.
Harold Glicken is a retired newspaper editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and a collection of his columns can be found at www.helpware-online.com.
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