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Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series review: Super-smart, but not super-bright

Amazon makes TVs now, or at least brands them, and as budget models go, they're all pretty good. With the new Omni QLED Series, Amazon is aiming at the mid-range, in this case by adding Quantum Dot technology to the mix. Verdict: another pretty good TV, almost a really good one. But forget tech for a minute. What's the user experience like? Does Amazon make this thing easy to set up? Easy to operate? Do all these baked-in "smarts" really improve your life? This review focuses less on picture quality (though I'll touch on that, obviously) and more on usability. As it happens, the Omni QLED Series has some issues in that department.

Amazon

Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series 4K UHD Smart TV

$800
Currently on sale for $200 off, Amazon's newest TV adds some worthwhile new tricks to the smart-mix. But while the picture is sharp and colorful, it's not always bright enough.
$800 at Amazon

The Omni QLED Series is available in 65- and 75-inch sizes; I reviewed the former. It's a handsome screen, with a barely-there silver bezel and tiniest of status-LED bars protruding from the bottom edge. That's where you'll see a visual indicator that Alexa has heard a command and find a button to manually disable the microphones if you're not keen on having a full-time, hands-free listener.

Setup is admirably simple, especially if you already have one or more Alexa-powered devices in your home and the Alexa app on your phone. Either way, the TV will walk you step-by-step through the setup process, which includes getting connected to Wi-Fi, configuring voice options and so on. There's a helpful, large-print setup guide that novices will appreciate, and the included QR code (which you can scan with your phone) takes you directly to a relevant help page, and not just Amazon's main support page.

However, you won't find printed instructions for various notable features, like widgets and Ambient Experience. It's not immediately obvious how to set up either one, and the Fire TV interface doesn't make it especially easy, either (see below). Before we dive into that, though, let's talk picture.

Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series: Image and audio quality

Everything's relative. If this TV is replacing one that's more than a couple years old, I suspect you'll be delighted by the image quality. It's HDR-enhanced 4K, of course, with the added visual benefits of Dolby Vision IQ and the aforementioned Quantum Dot. I won't bore you with the technical details; suffice it to say, all this fancy tech combines to produce razor-sharp images and some gloriously vibrant colors.

A promotional image of Amazon's new QLED TV.
Amazon's latest TV features QLED technology, a fancy word for "extra colorful," plus plenty of Alexa smarts. However, it's not always the brightest or easiest to use. (Photo: Amazon)

However, I noticed that some content looked a little dark and muted, starting with Amazon's own A League of Their Own. Many scenes set in indoor locations seemed unusually dim. But in All Quiet on the Western Front, the opening nighttime battle sequence was better balanced. Depending on what you watch, you may find yourself fiddling with brightness and other picture settings more than you'd prefer.

That said, most TVs require some tweaking to get everything right, and this one is no different. You'll especially want to disable motion smoothing, which creates the dreaded soap-opera effect. Here that setting is labeled Natural Cinema, and you'll need to turn it on.

The Fire TV's built-in speakers are decent, but lacking in breadth and especially bass. You're doing yourself a disservice if you don't bring a soundbar into the mix; a great, affordable option is the Vizio V-Series 2.1-channel, which is on sale right now for $142.

Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series: Notable features

A TV is just a TV, right? Not when it's also a family hub, digital photo frame or full-time art gallery. Amazon's new Ambient Experience (aka art mode), currently available only for the QLED series, provides numerous options for what you can do with the screen in between actually watching it.

First up: widgets. As with Amazon's Echo Show 15 smart display, you can choose from a smattering of information tiles that appear when the TV goes into screensaver mode: reminders, sticky notes, news, weather and so on. I honestly don't find them all that useful, but thankfully they're optional. And you can configure them to occupy the bulk of the screen or retreat to a smaller row near the bottom, the better to see your chosen slideshow.

Speaking of which, Amazon gives you a choice between personal photos (those stored in your Amazon Photos library) and a modest selection of curated art and images — everything from impressionism to movie stills to abstracts. This is Amazon's attempt to emulate Samsung's widely loved Frame TVs, and for the most part it works. You can choose the transition time between images, add a border, include clock and weather badges and so on.

Wait, doesn't Ambient Experience waste a lot of electricity? It would if not for the built-in motion sensor, which turns off the screen until it detects movement in the room, at which point it blinks back to life. I like this a lot, in part because it saves me having to grab the remote and turn the TV on every time I plunk onto the couch. It's already on and waiting.

The real secret sauce, of course, is Alexa. You can ask her to do all sorts of TV-specific things, like turn off the power, adjust the volume, play a particular movie and so on. But the ecosystem extends well beyond the TV: If you have other Alexa-compatible devices in your home, you can control them as well. Turn on lights, adjust the thermostat, even see a feed from your video doorbell or baby monitor.

person holding remote
Though comfortable and fairly well organized, Amazon's remote suffers from a few confusingly labeled icons. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

As noted above, all this will happen hands-free unless you deactivate the TV's four microphones. In that case, you can instead opt to press the Alexa button on the remote, then speak your command. The remote itself is nicely designed, though I do find a couple of the buttons less-than-intuitive. Read on to learn more about that.

One more nice perk: If you connect a compatible webcam, you can use the TV as a giant screen for Zoom calls.

Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series: Needs a UI overhaul

Certain aspects of the Fire TV user interface are just a mess, starting with the cluttered, unintuitive home screen. On Roku, all my installed streaming apps are right there, a simple collection of oversize tiles. On the Fire TV, I can't find a damn thing. Where's Disney Plus, for example? I know it's installed, but at first glance it's nowhere to be found. Even after scrolling down through countless rows of content, I don't see an icon for it.

Indeed, if an app isn't in the "favorites" collection (which is confusing to modify) or the abbreviated row marked "recently used," good luck. You have to painstakingly navigate to a rather non-descript icon all the way at the right of the "main" (I guess?) toolbar, then scroll down from there to "my apps" and click that. Oh, and there are ads in the mix as well. Ugh.

Photo of the busy, cluttered Fire TV user interface.
The Fire TV user interface is busy, unintuitive and populated with occasional ads. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

Apparently Amazon wants you to lean into the voice controls, which I'll admit work very well ("Alexa, open Disney Plus"). Still, I want a user interface that's logically designed. This one isn't. Adding to the confusion: Amazon's own Prime Video app leads you to an interface that's completely different (and, it should be noted, a lot better).

Meanwhile, the remote has both "hamburger" and "gear" menu buttons — both ostensibly used to access settings. But pressing the hamburger while watching a show provides access to only a few options. Pressing the gear brings up a larger menu. How are you supposed to remember which does what? Furthermore, neither of these affords access to actual TV settings, like Alexa, screensaver, remote and the like. How do you locate that menu?

There's only one way: Navigate to the settings icon on the home screen — the one that looks exactly like the gear on the remote. So the onscreen gear does one thing, the remote gear something completely different. Um....

There are other quirks as well. For example, one of my test movies, Despicable Me, displays a little "4K" badge on its tile, indicating to me that it'll stream in, well, 4K. As it turns out, this is a movie I purchased; it's part of my library. And it's the HD (i.e. 1080p) version. That's fine... but then why am I seeing the 4K badge?

These things aren't dealbreakers, they're just frustrations. Anyone coming from, say, a Roku or Google interface or accustomed to using a cable box may find the learning curve here a little steep.

Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series: What's the verdict?

I like this TV a lot, though more so at $600 (the current sale price) than at $800. That puts it more in line with the latest budget QLED models from Hisense and Insignia. The difference here is you get a more robust Alexa implementation, with extras like Ambient Experience and support for Zoom calls.

Although image brightness isn't always the best (it seems to depend in part on what you're viewing), overall the Omni QLED Series brings dazzling color and clarity to your living room. And if you want a TV that's also a pretty effective home hub, with some nifty art tricks to boot, I think you'll like this one.

Amazon

Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series 4K UHD Smart TV

$800
Currently on sale for $200 off, Amazon's newest TV adds some worthwhile new tricks to the smart-mix. But while the picture is sharp and colorful, it's not always bright enough.
$800 at Amazon

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