Even though there haven’t been any leaks, like there were around this time last year, it’s fairly likely there will be a new Amazon Fire TV and/or Fire TV Stick released within the next few months. If Amazon repeats last year’s product roadmap, which they often do, new Fire TV devices will be announced in September and released in October. My theory that new Fire TV devices will be announced in time for the upcoming release of Prime Video in India has caused several of you to wonder what can we expect from a new generation of Amazon’s streaming devices. While there aren’t any leaks to go off of, here’s a breakdown of potential improvements and new features we might see in a Fire TV 3 or Fire TV Stick 2.
Before speculating on possible improvements to next generation Fire TV devices, it’s important to realize that there’s a good chance Amazon may decide to focus on improving the device’s value instead of simply improving its performance. It’s common for tech companies to bump up specs like CPU clock speed, RAM, storage, and memory with each new product generation, but that hasn’t been Amazon’s approach lately. There’s a chance we’ll see specs remain unchanged, or even decrease, in order to reduce a new Fire TV’s price. This is the approach Amazon has taken with their current line of Fire tablets, and it has proven to be a very successful strategy. Instead of improving the specs of the old Fire HD 7 tablet for example, the new Fire 7″ tablet that replaced the Fire HD 7 has inferior specs but costs nearly one-third the price. The result has been Amazon’s best selling product ever.
This article isn’t a prediction of what improvements and features the next Fire TV and Fire TV Stick will have in stow. Instead, it’s a look at how specs and functionality can improve if Amazon does decides to upgrade individual aspects of the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. In all likelihood, there will probably be a mixture of specs that get upgraded to improve performance and specs that remain the same to maintain or improve value.
If the Fire TV remains $99.99 and the Fire TV Stick remains $39.99, you can probably expect each device’s CPU to receive a spec bump. The Fire TV went from a quad-core 1.7Ghz CPU to a quad-core 2Ghz CPU when it was updated. Apart from gaming, the CPU isn’t that important in a streaming device since most of the heavy lifting is done by a dedicated hardware video decoder (more on that below), so I wouldn’t expect to see something like an octa-core CPU in the next Fire TV. A quad-core 2.5Ghz CPU is around what I’d expect if we see a Fire TV 3 released this year. The Fire TV Stick is where we might see a more significant CPU upgrade. The current Fire TV Stick has a dual core 1.2Ghz cpu that is under clocked to 1Ghz. It was the most powerful streaming stick when it was released, but has since been dethroned by the new Roku Stick which is about 30% more powerful. If a new Fire TV Stick 2 is released this year with a focus on performance, which again may not be the case, I expect it will have around a 1.4Ghz quad-core CPU.
Even more so than with the CPU, the GPU in the Fire TV is really only important when it comes to gaming. Since gaming on the Fire TV has been more of a secondary selling point, I don’t expect Amazon to crank up the GPU horsepower to try and take on something like the NVIDIA Shield TV, which pushes gaming as a major selling point. A significant, but conserviative, bump in GPU specs, similar to the one we saw when comparing the Fire TV 1 to the Fire TV 2, is most likely what we’ll see in the Fire TV 3. A new Fire TV Stick however, which has never been marketed as or consider to be big on gaming, has the potential to move into a new role if Amazon decides to give it a dedicated GPU, which it currently doesn’t have. About a third of the games in the Fire TV appstore, which encompuses most of the best games, are not available on the Fire TV Stick due to it not having a dedicated GPU. A new Stick with the ability to play top games, like Minecraft or Terraria, would be a big selling point.
The capabilities of the dedicated hardware video decoder in the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick is arguably more important than the CPU and GPU specs. The decoder allows theses devices to smoothly play high quality video streams with little effort from the main processor. It, nearly on its own, dictates what resolution (1080p vs. 4K), framerate (30fps vs. 60fps), and color range (standard vs. HDR) the device supports. The Fire TV 2 has a video decoder that added support for the newer h.265/HEVC codec, used for 4K streams, but there’s room for improvement. It’s only capable of decoding 30fps h.265/HEVC video, which is sufficient for movies and TV shows, but I expect a Fire TV 3 to be capable of 60fps 4K h.265/HEVC decoding. Additionally, the Fire TV 2 decoder can only handle a bit depth of 8-bits per sample. Without going into too much detail on what that means, the industry is favoring a bit depth of 10-bits per sample, so I would expect that to come with an improved decoder. A move from 8 to 10-bits means the device could handle video with over 1 billion colors, versus the 16 million colors the 8-bit decoder in the Fire TV 2 can currently handle. This would improve image quality and provide support for high dynamic range (HDR) video. The current Fire TV Stick does not have a h.265/HEVC decoder, but its h.264 decoder is more than sufficient for 1080p video. While I don’t expect a new Fire TV Stick to support 4K video, which requires a h.265/HEVC decoder, that doesn’t mean a h.265/HEVC decoder is unlikely. There are still big advantages to h.265/HEVC video, like lower bandwidth costs for Amazon when serving 1080p video.
The amount of memory in the next Fire TV and Fire TV Stick is one of the categories that is likely not to change in order to maintain (or improve) the device’s value. The Fire TV 2 has 2GB of RAM and, unless the Fire TV 3 plans to dethrone the NVIDIA Shield as the best Android-based gaming box, 2GB is plenty of memory. The Fire TV Stick currently has 1GB of RAM. If the next generation doesn’t have a dedicated GPU, it will likely retain that amount of memory, especially since its two biggest competitors, the Roku Stick and Chromecast, both have only 512MB of RAM, despite both being newer devices. If the Fire TV Stick 2 does try to expand its gaming footprint with a dedicated GPU, there’s more of a reason to bump the RAM to 1.5GB or 2GB because the CPU and GPU must share the memory.
All Fire TV devices to date have had 8GB of internal storage, of which only about 5GB is free to use. Increasing the internal storage is an obvious improvement, but it’s hard to say if it will happen, given Amazon’s focus on cloud storage. If new devices are released with a version of Fire OS that is based on Android 6 (more on that below), then I wouldn’t be surprised if a Fire TV 3 has the same 8GB of internal storage. This is because Android 6 fixes the limitation found in Android 5 and Fire OS 5 that only allows parts of an app to be moved to external storage. With an Android 6 based operating system, external storage can be configured to completely replace the internal storage, making the amount of internal storage nearly irrelevant for power users. That said, I still expect the Fire TV 3 to come with at least 16GB of internal storage. Since games are the main app types that fill up internal storage, and the Fire TV Stick is not pushed as a gaming device, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Fire TV Stick 2 still has only 8GB of internal storage, in order to keep the price as low as possible.
The Fire TV 2 and Fire TV Stick have HDMI 1.4 ports. If the Fire TV 3 supports 4K@60fps and HDR, which I expect will happen, it will need to have a HDMI 2.0 port. Additionally, 4K@60fps and HDMI 2.0 means the main GUI can output at 4K instead of 1080p, assuming the CPU/GPU can handle the rendering. One of the main reasons why Amazon limits the GUI to 1080p is because the current 30fps limitation of the Fire TV 2’s 4K output would make interface animations feel laggy. All of the same applies for the Fire TV Stick, although I don’t expect it to gain 4K, so it doesn’t need HDMI 2.0. Wider support for HDMI-CEC, which allows the Fire TV and television to communicate over the HDMI cable, is also a possibility. While the Fire TV can turn on a TV via HDMI-CEC, it’d be nice if it could turn it off when the Fire TV goes to sleep.
WiFi & Ethernet
The Fire TV 2 supports 802.11ac, but the Fire TV Stick is only capable of 802.11n, so the addition of 802.11ac support is a pretty safe bet for a new Stick. I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Fire TV 3 doesn’t have an ethernet port. The Fire TV Stick outsells the Fire TV, so it shows most people are fine with a WiFi only device. Since Amazon seems to like packing in as much bang for your buck with the flagship Fire TV box, I can see them cutting out the ethernet port in exchange for a bit more internal storage or processing power. If ethernet does get cut, it’s likely an external adapter will still work.
A new version of Fire OS, that is based on Android 6, would be great in the next round of new Fire TV devices, but I don’t expect it will happen this year. Hardware manufacturers tend to release products on what is referred to as a “tick-tock” cycle. A “tick” release usually involves major hardware changes, while a “tock” release usually involves polishing the previous generation’s hardware and concentrates primarily on software improvements. The Fire TV 1 can be considered a “tick” product, since it’s all new hardware, and the Fire TV 2 can be considered a “tock” products, since it jumped to Fire OS 5 and came with Alexa. In the same manner, the original Fire TV Stick is the new hardware “tick” product, and the Fire TV Stick w/ Voice Remote bundle is the new software “tock” product. This means both devices would now be on their “tick” cycle, where the focus will be on new hardware and not new software. Considering how many problems Fire OS had when it moved to Android 5, I doubt Amazon wants to rush into another new version of Android so soon. That doesn’t mean there won’t be new and possibly major GUI changes. I just certainly don’t expect a major update to the core of Fire OS, like we saw when it went from Fire OS 3 (based on Android 4.2.2) to Fire OS 5 (based on Android 5.1), when the Fire TV 2 was released.
Updates to the Fire TV interface are difficult to guess because there are so many possibilities. One thing the Fire TV needs, that should be high on Amazon’s list, is customization. I don’t mean things like wallpapers and themes, although that would be nice. I mean customizations that let users get to their videos, apps, and games quicker. Amazon has certainly made improvements, through additions like favorites, shortcuts, and the new grid app launcher, but there is so much more that can be done. The ability to create folders, like can be done with the Apple TV, or the ability to manually arrange apps, like can be done on Android TV, would be a great place to start. Even the ability to select a different sort order would go a long way. I know Amazon employees visit the site, so sound off in the comments on what GUI changes you’d like to see.
One sure fire way to differentiate a new generation of Fire TVs and Fire TV Sticks is to update the remote control. The Fire TV was one of the first streaming boxes to add a microphone to the remote, but the remote has remained virtually the same since the Fire TV 1 was released over 2 years ago. A headphone jack on the remote is practically a no brainer. The Fire TV Game Controller already has one, so the software support is already present. Motion capabilities, for gaming or UI interaction, is another possibility. The current remote and game controller actually already have the hardware built in. It’s just only being used to wake the peripheral, so that it’s ready to be used when picked up, even before a button is pressed. A touchpad, like on the Apple TV remote, could be introduced on a new Fire TV remote. Speaking of the Apple TV remote, I’d love to see its IR capabilities come to the Fire TV remote so that you can have basic control of your TV’s power, source, and volume. We could even see a blacklight added or a remote locator button, like on the Roku 4, on the next generation Fire TV remote. There’s definitely plenty of room for innovation and improvements when it comes to the remote.
One more thing…
Everything mentioned above so far is very plausible. If Amazon simply chooses a subset of the above improvements, and maintains the same price, they’ll have a nice upgrade to the current Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. However, being a “tick” cycle product, I expect there to be something new that stands out from what we expect a next generation device to have.
I’ve always said that I’d love the Fire TV to have a tiny speaker built-in with always listening microphones for hands free Alexa capabilities, like the Echo Dot. While I don’t think that’s likely, a small speaker on the remote, like the one on a Wiimote, could give access to Alexa even when the TV is turned off. It would essentially turn the Fire TV remote into an Amazon Tap. The remote speaker would only activate when the Fire TV detects that your TV is off, which is something the current generation can already do. Combined with HDMI-CEC and Alexa’s new ability to start apps and videos, you can pick up the Fire TV remote with your TV off, ask for a video or app, and Alexa would respond through the remote speaker while it turns on your TV, changes inputs, and starts your selection.
Another big new feature could be the addition of a built in TV tuner with Fire OS integration. There are already indications in the latest software update of this being worked on. If done right, having free over-the-air local channels seamlessly integrated alongside apps and on-demand content, with Alexa control, would certainly be a killer new feature.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of what we can expect in a new Fire TV and/or Fire TV Stick. I’d love to hear, in the comments below, which features mentioned above would be most important to you personally, or if there are features I haven’t mentioned that you’d like to see.