Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Smart TV Review: Better TV Tech, Much Smarter

IMG_3200By Avi Greengart, portions reprinted with permission from Techsponential

Amazon introduced the Fire TV set top box back in 2014 as a way to ensure that its Prime Video content would get pride of place in the user interface, unlike competing devices from Roku and Apple. Over time, Amazon shrunk down the form factor to sticks, Borgified them into cubes, and eventually chose to build the Fire TV interface directly into televisions in 2021. Amazon’s initial Fire TV lineup was clearly aiming for volume sales, and targeted entry level sizes and display technology. In late 2022, Amazon moved a bit farther upmarket with the Fire TV Omni QLED. The new series added quantum dots for better color, up to 96 zones of full array local dimming for better contrast and black levels, Dolby Vision IQ, and a larger 75” option. While the display technology was improved, the real differentiation was Amazon’s ambience mode and smart display functionality. 

Ambient modes on TVs are nothing new. At CES 2017, Samsung introduced a line of lifestyle televisions designed to blend better with the décor. The Frame cost hundreds of dollars more than a typical Samsung TV but it had a matte finish, a motion sensor, and a library of fine art and photographs so that it appeared to be a picture frame when not in active use as a television. The Frame was an immediate hit, and future versions added additional sizes and a light sensor, while retaining their premium pricing.

When Amazon introduced its own TV with an ambient display mode last year, you could be forgiven for considering it a poor person's Samsung Frame. The Fire TV Omni QLED lacks the matte finish and light sensor that make The Frame physically appear to be framed artwork on the wall, but it costs a fraction of the Samsung’s price. When the Fire TV Omni QLED launched late last year at pricing including $799 for 65” or $1099 for 75”, Amazon dramatically undercut Samsung but not equivalent QLED televisions from TCL or HiSense. On sale for the 2023 holidays, Amazon is much more competitively priced: $589 for 65”, $879 for 75”. The best value is the 55” set, at $439.

Amazon is leveraging the MediaTek MT9020 chip in the Fire TV Omni QLED to provide a series of smart experiences beyond just displaying artwork, photos, and videos when the TV is 'off.' In fact, the Fire TV Omni QLED is actually more of a gigantic Amazon Echo Show than a Samsung Frame clone. The Fire TV Omni QLED has always-listening Alexa voice control, a series of widgets, and all the smart home integration of a 10” Echo Show without a touchscreen. If an Amazon package is on its way, a notification can pop up on your TV. Ask Alexa for the weather, and you’ll get a 7 day forecast that takes over the bottom third of your screen. When someone rings your Ring doorbell, their image can automatically show up on screen and you can use the TV’s microphone to tell them not to interrupt your TV time.

MediaTek MT9020 is also used in Fire TVs from Xiaomi and HiSense that don’t have ambient mode, and similar MediaTek chips power the majority of 4K TVs on the market. MediaTek offers so much computing capability on today’s smart TVs that the only thing holding back most TVs from offering more capabilities is software. Proving the point, Amazon recently added its ambient experience to the Fire TV Stick 4K Max – a $60 streaming media stick. The Fire TV Stick 4K Max uses an even less-capable MediaTek processor, the MT8696T, as it is only needs to handle the computing and streaming needs, and not also control the TV display and audio hardware directly.

I have been testing a 65” Fire TV Omni QLED for several months. The initial setup prompts for an Amazon account, which shouldn’t be a surprise; you probably shouldn't be buying a Fire TV if you aren't going to use Amazon services. If you have other Fire TV devices you can restore settings from them and skip a few steps. You can opt into leaving the mic on even when the TV screen is off – this is essentially a very large, very flat Echo speaker. This is opt in, and Amazon not only flags this during setup, but makes it clear where the mic mute switch is for privacy. You can also use Alexa to navigate on-screen menus and choose content; this is never 100% foolproof, but I found the implementation on the latest Fire TV Cube better. Alexa correctly understood commands and wording more often on the Cube; I suspect that it simply has more microphones in its array.

There is an introduction to the Ambient Experience during setup, but it defaults to being off, and you’ll need to figure out how to turn it on later. Actually using the widgets and Ambient Experience ranges can be underwhelming or even frustrating. There are only a handful of widgets, and they aren’t terribly sophisticated. There are a lot of backgrounds to choose from at no charge, but I had to search Google to find out how to select them. You can adjust overall Ambient Experience settings in the main Settings>Display menu, but actually choosing what to display requires knowing a magic sequence of button presses: enter Ambient Experience by pressing the power button on the remote, and then pressing the menu button (the hamburger button/three horizontal lines). Once there, Amazon provides plenty of choices, including your own photos saved on still graphics, motion art and videos, fine art, regional collections, and even key frames from movies. The motion sensor in the Fire TV Omni QLED works well, putting the set into picture frame mode when you enter the room.

Like all Fire TV products, Amazon’s interface supports most streaming apps, and Amazon’s own Prime Video is given prime positioning in the menu structure.

Image quality on the Fire TV Omni QLED is a big step up from most other Fire TVs. I did notice some banding and digital noise in the opening sequence from LA LA Land, but the colors were rich and saturated in Movie Dark mode. It is not the brightest TV, but the set’s dozens of local dimming zones and Dolby Vision IQ ensured that high dynamic range content pops. The Batman streamed from Amazon Prime Video is a great test for black levels and shadow detail, as the cinematography and muted color grading match the depressing tone the director was after. The Fire TV Omni QLED did not do well here; in some scenes the levels of gray merged together making it hard to tell what was going on. For better high dynamic range and contrast, a mini-LED or OLED set is required – but that will generally cost a lot more. This is a good budget TV but it is still just a budget TV.

Like most TVs at almost any budget level, audio quality from the built-in speakers is not impressive, and a soundbar is recommended. Another option is to connect your Amazon speakers! During setup, the Fire TV Omni QLED noticed that I have a bunch of Echo speakers on my account and offered to connect them and use them for the TV’s audio instead. Smart.

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