Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV do the same things. They run a full version of their respective company’s operating system. They run apps. They have access to their respective media libraries and can stream video and music and play games and control things via your voice.
So let us stipulate that Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV are very similar products.
They’re also wildly different in a number of ways.
Let’s take a look.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV: The basics
There’s no way we can’t compare these things side by side, right? And immediately — actually, before you even buy one of these things — there’s one huge discrepancy.
Apple TV 4K (which is the only one you should buy) starts at $179. (There’s a $199 with extra storage, too.) Amazon Fire TV — which also can handle 4K video just fine — is, on a bad day, $69. And you often can find it for as low as $49.
That’s as much as a $130 swing for a device that streams video and music and plays games and has apps and does smart stuff.
But it’s the little things where Apple TV really starts to stand out in the specs department.
|Category||Apple TV 4K||Fire TV|
|Form factor||Set-top box||HDMI dongle|
|Operating system||tvOS||Fire OS 6 (Android)|
|Resolution||Up to 4K||Up to 4K|
|Buy||See at Amazon||See at Amazon|
What really stands out here? First, the form factors. Apple TV is a set-top box. You’ll need some room for it somewhere. Fire TV is an HDMI dongle that dangles off the back of your TV or receiver.
Apple TV has better hardware. Fire TV has more affordable hardware.
Then there’s storage. While neither handles external hard drives, Apple TV starts with 32 gigabytes of on-board storage, with an option for double that for just $20 more. (We’d recommend springing the extra dough if you can.) Fire TV? A mere 8 gigabytes of storage. On paper, that’s a big deal. In actuality? It depends on how you used these things. If you’re not downloading movie after movie or loading up huge games and all you’re doing is streaming video or music, 8GB might well be enough.
But still — more storage is always better.
Comparing processor and RAM is sort of an Apples-an-oranges thing. Capitalization there was on purpose, though. Apple’s platform is simply more powerful. Period. And the matters in ways we’ll talk about in a second.
Video is the other big standout. Apple TV can do both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The former looks OK. It makes colors pop. The latter really makes colors look brighter and dark spots look darker. (That’s provided that you have a compatible television, of course.) If you have to pick between the two, you want something that can use Dolby Vision. Fire TV only does HDR10.
So, yeah. These are the same devices. Only not really.
WATCH ALL THE THINGS
Apple TV and Amazon TV: The libraries
I tend to think this one’s a wash these days. Mostly.
Yeah, iTunes was first and is huge. But Amazon’s really not all the far behind it. And given that so much of what we watch and listen to these days is available on just about any and every streaming service — save for exclusive content, of course — it’s mostly a push. Sure, you can find things Apple TV has that Amazon doesn’t. Or you could point out that to watch, say, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel you’ll have to load up the Amazon Prime Video app on Apple TV, when it’s already built in to Fire TV.
You’ll be hard pressed to find content that you can’t watch on either of these devices.
If you use iTunes Match and want to play that music over your TV or entertainment system, then Apple TV is the way to go. If you don’t care about local music in the slightest and just want to stream things? You can do that just fine on Fire TV.
All the major streaming services are available on both platforms. OK, sort of. You can’t get iTunes content on Fire TV. But you can get Amazon content on Apple TV. Google content is out. But apps like Movies Anywhere bridge that gap a bit.
Really, this one’s going to come down to the edge case. Do you already have a bunch of content purchased on one service? Then stick with their hardware, too. It’s just easier and more enjoyable in the long run.
OK, AND WORSE
Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV: The remotes
There’s a good chance you’re going to be spending a lot of time with the remote control in your hand. There’s good news and bad news here. The Fire TV remote is functional. It won’t win any awards for design, and it uses AAA batteries instead of having something internal and rechargeable. But it works, and it works well, and it also serves as a voice controller for Alexa.
The Apple TV remote is still bad.
Apple’s “Siri Remote” — yes, they gave the damned thing a name — is a bad remote control. It lacks any economics whatsoever. It likes to pretend the Menu button is a Back button, except for when the Menu button is a Home button. Or when it’s actually a Menu button. Or when you’ll want to use the swiping not-a-directional-pad to bring down what otherwise would be considered a menu.
And the Siri Remote charges over Lightning, so it uses the same cable as your iPhone or iPad. That’s fine if you’re the sort of person who has Apple devices laying around. It’s probably not fine if you bought an Apple TV because you prefer it but don’t own a lot of other Apple stuff.
No. Don’t use the Apple TV remote. At least put a rubber sleeve on it. But better yet is to just get a better remote control.
SIRI VS. ALEXA
Apple TV vs. Amazon Fire TV: The smarts
Everything has to be “smart” and “connected” these days. (It doesn’t actually have to be, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but that’s another thing for another time.)
So to that end, Apple TV has Siri baked in. You can do a lot of the things — but not quite all the things — that Siri can do on your phone or tablet. And Apple TV has the added bonus of being a HomeKit hub. Without getting too far into the weeds, that’s a good thing and sometimes can save you from needing a half-dozen other little hubs connected to a half-dozen other smart devices.
Siri is integrated across devices, Alexa is ubiquitous.
On the other hand, Amazon Fire TV has Alexa. And if you’ve used Alexa at all in the past year or two, you know that it mostly just works. And everything — damned near everything works with Alexa these days. With a quick voice command, I can tell the Fire TV on my back patio to show me my doorbell camera. It’s pretty cool.
So which one’s right for you? Again, it kind of depends on which ecosystem you’re in. Or are going to be in. If you’re committed to HomeKit, Apple TV is the way to go. (And AirPlay beats the socks off of the screen sharing built into the Fire TV.) If you don’t care? Fire TV is seriously economical.
Apple TV vs. Amazon Fire TV: Accessibility
If there’s a leader in the accessibility space, it’s Apple. That is, adding features that help the hard-of-hearing or visually impaired or some other physical thing — basically anyone who may need a little help to use a piece of tech.
And Apple TV has a wealth of accessibility options, from captions to VoiceOver (wherein it’s reading screen items) to audio balance and video contrast.
Fire TV has a few accessibility options as well. There are captions, of course, and also it’s own “VoiceView” screen reader, plus high contrast and a screen magnifier.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Apple TV vs. Amazon Fire TV: Which one should you get?
Generally speaking, you get what you pay for in tech. But Amazon also has the means to drastically undercut competitors.
Does that mean Amazon Fire TV is as good as Apple TV? No. It’s not. I use both devices (on different TVs) almost every day, and I think it breaks down to this: Apple TV is what I’d call an everyday sort of TV box. It’s fast. It’s more flexible. Applications run quicker on it.
But Fire TV is also plenty capable. In fact, it’ll work just fine for most folks, especially given how inexpensive it is. For me, it’s great on a secondary screen. If it was going to be the box I’d be using the most, I think it’d be worth ponying up the money for something a little more powerful.
So, yeah. Two streaming devices that mostly do the same things. One just does them better — the other does them far less expensively.