Review: Element, Westinghouse Fire TVs Offer Solid Challenge To Roku Models
At CES 2017 last January, Amazon and China-based TV maker Tongfang Global made big news by unveiling the first of what is to become a new class of 4K Ultra HD smart TVs powered by Amazon’s popular Fire TV operating system.
Tongfang, which is better known in the United States by its TV brand Westinghouse and as the manufacturer of Element TVs, this summer is offering four 4K Ultra HD Fire TV model screen sizes under each trademark. The models for each line are virtually identical except for the brand logo on the front and the retail accounts where you will find them for sale.
Element models went on sale this week, and the Westinghouse models will soon hit floors of select retail accounts.
All of these models provide clear, color-accurate Rec. 709 4K UHD pictures and lower-resolution content upscaled to 4K, but do not present high dynamic range (HDR) or a wide (90 percent-plus DCI-P3) color gamut.
What sets these TV apart from the rest of the field of mid-range 4K Ultra HDTVs is a very well-integrated Fire TV operating system which helps users intuitively navigate viewing options quickly and painlessly, while providing access to large libraries of streaming services and their content. They also have been designed to integrate over-the-air broadcast television stations into an on-screen program grid that is part of the overall smart TV experience. Users need only live within range of a broadcast signal, attach an appropriate TV antenna for their area and the TV’s tuner will pick up HD stations and integrate channel programming data into the interactive on-screen grid.
For our first review of a dedicated Fire TV, Tongfang shipped us the Westinghouse 55-inch model.
Models in the Westinghouse and Element Fire TV lines include the following model screen sizes: 43- ($449 suggested retail), 50- ($549) , 55- ($649) and 65-inches ($899). All are identical in look, features, performance and price to the forthcoming Westinghouse Fire TV models.
These first 4K Ultra HD LED-LCD Fire TVs are a step-above-entry 4K Ultra HDTVs. From the perspective of picture and sound performance, they don’t offer anything particularly special, compared to today’s high-end HDR and wide gamut displays. They are Fire TVs. However, the picture is colorful and sharp. They are also significantly less expensive than top HDR performers, although they will be a bit pricier than some entry 4K Ultra HDTV models and even comparable Roku TV models.
That’s not to say the picture quality is sub-standard. For a plain vanilla Rec. 709 4K Ultra HD direct-lit LED LCD TV, these televions have accurate colorful SDR images. Resolution is sharp and clear. They also offer a value compared to expensive OLED or QLED TVs, but without the image quality splash of those trend-setting technologies.
Nevertheless, we were happily surprised at how good the overall picture quality looks from a center seating position. Colors are very accurate although not particularly bright. Black levels were not as deep as in full-array LED backlit 4K Ultra HDTVs, measuring at a pedestrian 0.2203 nits. But they also didn’t overly crush a lot of shadow detail.
If you are buying one of these 4K Fire TVs, it’s for the Amazon smart TV platform, which prominently features the Amazon Prime Instant Video service and the integrated Alexa artifical intelligence voice control system. We found this very enjoyable to use.
Read more of our review of the Westinghouse 55-inch 4K Ultra HD LED-LCD Fire TV after the jump:
The new built-in Amazon Fire TV operating system offers most of the same benefits as Amazon’s Fire TV set-top boxes and streaming sticks, in a slicker fully integrated fashion. The Fire TV platform takes advantage of powerful on-board processors in the TVs to deliver snappier access, in addition to integrating an on-screen program guide for free over-the-air broadcast TV stations received by the televisions’ built-in tuners.
All purchasers need is to add on a TV antenna suitable to receive over-the-air (OTA) stations in the market area, and they can begin watching popular national TV networks in crystal clear 720p and 1080i HD, upscaled competently by the set to 4K Ultra HD. This is a true cord-cutter’s television.
For those who aren’t ready to say goodbye to their cable or satellite subscription TV services, the television presents HDMI source input icons right up front on the home screen for quick access. From there, the viewer will need to use the cable box’s remote control to find and tune channels for that service. A press on the diminutive remote control’s “home” icon button brings up the home screen where viewers can scroll through the favorite over-the-top (OTT) streaming app services or go to the App store to find additional ones.
The Fire TV can be used to select more than 250,000 TV episodes and movies available through the TVs’ video apps, including Amazon Video, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube, Pandora, SiriusXM, Showtime Anytime, and others. It also provides access to Live OTT streaming TV services PlayStation Vue and Sling TV, which provide access to a lot of the cable channels on lower-priced service tiers. Also, Amazon provided a healthy selection of popular streaming apps, with some noteworthy exceptions.
Users will not find an app for Walmart’s Vudu or the Fandago streaming service that both support the UltraViolet digital copy system for Blu-ray Discs. Amazon is not an UltraViolet participant. Also missing are the Google Play apps, as the Google and Amazon competitive rivalry continues.
Where They Fit
Amazon told us that it wasn’t concerned about launching its first dedicated Fire TV at what amounts to the step- above the entry-price-point in the 4K Ultra HD market because it was interested in providing a premium smart TV viewing experience at a value, appealing to the widest possible audience along the way. Because Amazon is a huge e-commerce dealer itself, it was also looking for in-store retail distribution partners to demonstrate the smart TV features and cord-cutting friendly nature afforded by the Fire TV OS.
Both Tongfang and Amazon said they expect to offer more advanced Fire TV sets in future model lines, including HDR models. In time, we will probably see them under different manufacturers’ brands, as well.
Pricing for each model from the two brands will also be similar, but may vary depending upon the retailer making the sale. The Westinghouse and Element brands will have separate retail distribution channels. Element is the most broadly distributed line, with arrangements through Amazon, Target and Meijer so far. Westinghouse models will be appearing at retail accounts later in the year, but the brand has been featured at Best Buy in the past.
Perhaps the biggest rival to the new Fire TVs are very popular Roku TVs, which are currently manufactured for sale in the United States by such brands as TCL, Hisense, Hitachi and Insignia. Both smart TV systems are similar in function but not form. Amazon’s Fire TVs offer a far more powerful and graphically appealing layout, although it is more cluttered than Roku’s. But the included Alexa voice command technology makes it a breeze to speak commands into the remote (with the mic button depressed) to have the set tune to a desired program.
Amazon’s Fire TVs also present content from the Amazon Prime Instant Video service prominently on the home screen. In addition, the integrated Fire TV now features apps and content from third party services more prominently than early Fire TV sticks and adapters.
Roku TVs, on the other hand, offer many more overall app services, including Amazon Instant Video, and hence more overall movie, television shows and song selections. They also present the content selections differently, relying on a more app-centric layout and operation.
Using Roku, users select favorite apps from the home screen and to dig deeper into the service’s available titles. Like Fire TV, Roku also features a search engine which can cull titles from all of the activated apps on the home screen. Users can also search for programs by stars, directors, topics etc. throughout the Roku platform. But Roku’s voice search feature is more rudimentary and less satisfying to use.
The overall performance of the Westinghouse 55-inch Fire TV can be best described as enjoyable and highly functional for a value-priced 4K smart TV. These models will particularly appeal to heavy users of streaming content services who want to supplement their viewing with live over-the-air broadcasts. Through the TV’s Alexa Voice Remote, users can launch apps and switch among sources, including over-the-air TV channels that Fire TV organizes in an elaborate on-screen grid guide. On TV, Alexa doesn’t have an always-on mic. Users must press and hold a mic button on the remote when speaking commands, but they don’t have to speak the name “Alexa” before issuing a command as is required by the Echo and Echo Dot devices. By connecting a simple over-the-air antenna, broadcast TV signals are automatically integrated into the operating system with no need to switch between sources.
The set is also enjoyable for watching cable and satellite TV services, but the experience isn’t as smoothly integrated with the operating system, requiring users to essentially go outside the Fire TV interface to use that guide offered by the cable company’s decoder box.
Alexa is clearly the most compelling element of the system, as anyone with an Echo or Echo Dot speaker can attest. We found the TV’s Alexa system picked up our commands reliably for most basic tasks and search entries. Simply holding down the mic-icon button on the remote and saying, “Alexa, reduce the volume to 10” resulted in the faithful execution of our order without a hiccup after about a 5-second delayed. Alternately, the Fire TV smart phone app for iOS and Android mobile devices also offers similarly snappy command execution, although the touch-screen buttons for input source selections can be tricky to activate.
Fire TV with voice remote powered by Alexa supports control of a wide range of smart home devices from multiple brands, including Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Wink, Insteon, Samsung SmartThings, Nest, TP-Link, Ecobee and more. This functionality extends to a range of smart control devices including smart thermostats, smart light bulbs, smart door locks, etc.
The television is also able to control a wide variety of smart home control devices compatible with the Alexa control. We tested the system on a Philips Hue smart lighting system, and found setup and integration with the TV to be confusing and difficult, at first. But we got the system to turn on and off the lights, and adjust color “scene” lighting upon command. This is a very cool enhancement, and we can imagine it would be very Jetsons-eque controlling a compatible smart-home thermostat or operating a security system with a simple spoken command.
As mentioned, for most of the television’s entertainment-oriented tasks, we found Alexa voice control to be enjoyable and effective to use. The Alexa system performed very well with most basic spoken TV commands. When clearly spoken, our voice commands were accurately understood. Where we usually quickly tire of voice interaction systems on TVs, we could see using Alexa much more frequently.
Also, although Echo and Echo Dot users might love the always on mic system of those input speakers, in these days of electronic eavesdropping we were glad to have to press and hold a mic button before speaking commands.
Smart TV Performance
In search mode, the voice remote lets users search across apps for TV shows, movies, actors and genres. Fire TVs present Amazon Prime subscribers with a stack of scrolling ribbons of recently viewed programs, favorite apps and channels, recommended content, available 4K content, and so on, above and below additional scrolling ribbons of alternative third-party apps and services, such as Netflix, Hulu etc.
Overall, the system is relatively easy to figure out and use, but the appearance is busier and a little more overwhelming than smart TV systems like LG’s webOS 3.0, that uses only one continuous scrolling ribbon of selections and inputs at the button of the screen.
Although the Fire TV system is pretty responsive after the set has been running for awhile, we found it a bit slow to boot up. It took nearly 2 mins. from a cold start to load all of the content ribbons with icon graphics and settle in for operation.
Compared with Roku TVs, the Fire TV offers a more graphically compelling appearance, with full audio/visual promotions. But when you know basically what you want to watch, the Roku TVs are quicker to load and easier to get right to desired content.
As with the Fire TV media adapters, selections through the Amazon Prime service are prominently featured and promoted on the home screen. Third-party apps are also more accessible for easy access, but they still take a back seat to Amazon’s offerings, as we would expect.
The top of the home screen offers selections for “Home,” “Your Videos,” “Movies,” “TV Shows,” “Apps,” and “Settings”
The Your Videos selection is new and aggregates all the videos recently viewed along with similar program recommendations.
In addition, a feature “rotator” has been added showing promos for Amazon Video programming as well as key shows from Fire TV app partners to highlight new content using short video clips and additional information. These short promo clips run in the background, behind overlaid ribbons of movie app channels and content options.
Setup was quick and painless. On-screen prompts guide users through the handshake process which is made all the easier if you have an Amazon Prime account before you begin the process. The TV includes built-in 802.11/ac Wi-Fi connectivity for speedy in-home networking. It also offers Bluetooth connectivity.
The Element and Westinghouse Fire TVs offers a pretty standard thin-bezel look with grphite-gray trimp and two feet positioned at the left-and right ends of the screen to serve as a releatively stable tabletop stand.
In an L-shaped cutout on the right half of the back panel facing out toward the right side of the display, Westinghouse includes 4 HDMI 2.0 inputs with HDCP 2.2 support to accept 4K and lower resolution signals, two USB inputs, and an SD card slot. On the bottom of the L-cutout facing down, the company offers composite/component video inputs, an antenna/cable threaded input, an ethernet port, optical digital output and RCA stereo audio inputs. Inputs are easy to get to, and the but it the system will not engage HDR metadata
On-board audio is provides pretty basic flat-panel TV sound. Dialog is understandable, but the bass is not very deep and channel separation is not very dispersed, making the effect somewhat boxy. This is a good candidate for a soundbar or add-on home theater sound system, especially if you want to take advantage of the many music streaming app services offered through the Fire TV platform. That said, access to the SiriusXM app through the set, with sports channels and talk radio standards like Howard Stern’s 100 and 101 sound bigger and fuller than many typical small in-home satellite radios attached to small speakers.
The Fire TV remote control is virtually identical to the diminutive remotes included with new Amazon Fire TV sticks and adapters. The Fire TV versions position three fast-access buttons for Amazon Video; Netflix and Amazon Music at the bottom of the remote’s button layout. The remote presents 10 buttons and a central directional arrow wheel that lets users easily navigate on-screen apps and hot buttons to find and select programming options. A mic pinhole is presented at the top to accept spoken commands when the mic icon button is pressed and held down.
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We found the Westinghouse 55-inch 4K Ultra HD LED-LCD Fire TV to offer very sharp 4K picture, with a very accurate Rec. 709 color gamut coverage and standard dynamic range (SDR). Fed 4K signal sources, the television output a respectable (for SDR) 354 nits of peak brightness without HDR specular highlights and with a color space measuring below 85 percent of the DCI-P3 color space.
Where the Westinghouse 55-inch Fire TV had issues was in delivering deep black levels that appeared more gray than black, narrow off-axis viewing angles from the VA LCD panel, visible dirty screen effect uniformity, a 60 Hz native refresh rate panel and a motion processing system that produced noticeable soap opera effect even at medium settings.
The soap opera effect is a condition where film-based 24p (24 frames per second) content is processed for the higher TV video frame rates (30 and 60 fps) by inserting additional frames between image frames. This typically inserts solid black fields that make motion look smoother but can produce overly sharp looking picture that appear to the eye to look more like live video images than film. Some like this effect but many others prefer the look of film. Some even get dizzy looking at it.
As mentioned, the Fire TVs use Vertically Aligned (VA) LCD panels, which offer generally better contrast performance but significantly weaker off-axis picture quality than In-Plane Switching (IPS) panels. Seated eight feet away and positioned dead center in front of the screen, pictures are colorful, detailed and pleasing overall, but moving 20 degrees and farther to the left or right (or below or above) center screen results in pictures losing contrast, black level and color saturation. This will be a problem to some viewers if the television is watched by multiple people at one time with some seated at wider angles from the screen.
Unfortunately, the Westinghouse Fire TV has some screen uniformity issues, resulting in so-called dirty screen effect that can be seen in camera pans across solid or bright colored backgrounds. Against all gray or white color 100 percent window test patterns the slightly darkened areas are visible across the top of the screen, with faint jail bar patterns running down the top center half. This condition gets more pronounced at wider angles from the screen, particularly looking down on a tabletop placed screen from a standing position.
The Westinghouse Fire TV’s picture settings are rather spartan. Tongfang has chosen to pre-set the television’s color management and white balance settings without providing options beyond general tint and saturation controls for custom adjustments. Users can also change picture modes to adjust for overly bright of dark rooms. The custom picture mode brings up additional controls for brightness, contrast, color temperature and to some degree, color space (auto and native are the only selections).
Picture modes provide a selection of Dynamic, Movie, PC/Game, Standard and Custom. The custom mode is necessary if you want to get into more advanced settings for: brightness, contrast, saturation, tint and sharpness. The other picture modes offer control only over back light, which is set a 100 (maximum) out of the box. Other advanced picture options provide control for: zoom modes; color temperature; noise reduction, motion smoothing, color (space) mode and EDID mode adjustment.
Fortunately, our measurements of out-of-the-box 2-point white balance and Rec. 709 color space were very accurate at the settings baked into the TV. We measured the set with settings in: “custom” picture mode, “warm” color temperature and “native” color space. Back light was pinned at 100 (we couldn’t adjust it any higher), brightness was set at 52, contrast at 46 and saturation, tint and sharpness were all left at the default 50 (midpoint) settings.
We found the overall color performance to be very pleasing and natural with nearly perfect 100 percent coverage of the standard Rec. 709 color space. The average Delta E levels measured at an excellent 0.9, where error levels below 3 are imperceptible.
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Just for grins we checked for the more advanced Digital Cinema Initiative P3 color space (which applies primarily to HDR-capable displays) and found the Westinghouse Fire TV covered 84.9 percent – well below the 90 percent required of “Ultra HD Premium” certified television by Ultra HD Alliance guidelines. But this isn’t an HDR or wide color gamut display, so the results are to be expected.
Measuring for Rec. 709/SDR we found the peak brightness level to be 81 nits/23.6 foot lamberts, which is low for a 2.2 gamma level preferred for dimly lit room conditions. As stated earlier, the back light control was also set at maximum brightness out of the box. Nevertheless real world pictures were acceptably bright and didn’t appear to be overly dark.
If anything, the screen was too gray, lacking the rich black levels we see in more advanced OLED screens or full-array LED back lighting systems with local dimming. This set uses LED back lighting, with minimal LED zone coverage and limited dimming capability in local areas of the screen, making it difficult to achieve true black. We measured black level using and HDR-triggered test pattern at 0.2203 nits. This together with a 354 nit peak luminance level (measured with a special 4k/HDR test pattern disc developed by calibration expert Florian Friedrich) produced a measured contrast ratio was 1:1557.
First and foremost, among the things we like about these first Element and Westinghouse Fire TVs is the integrated Fire TV interface. Reinvented for integration into a TV instead of added on to it, the innovative solution presents viewers immediately with a screen full of program thumb nail graphics for apps and programs that might be of interest to the viewers. These are laid out in stacked rows of scrolling ribbons that are intuitively easy to understand and master.
In the background, the system runs a large still shot from a highlighted program, which after time transforms into a full motion clip with sound. This is similar to how the Amazon Video service screen is laid out keeping continuity between the service and television interface.
Searching for shows and selecting them to play can now be executed with simple oral commands into the mic on the Fire TV remote, where Alexa is engaged to perform the desired task. This isn’t anything new, but it works better than most other spoken-command TV platforms, and will logically get better with time and future firmware updates.
Sadly, Tongfang and Amazon opted to showcase the sophisticated smart TV interface on a rather basic 4K Ultra HDTV. We would love to see a model or two with 4K Ultra HD resolution, nice bright HDR and a wider color gamut to keep pace with the latest and greatest sets in the market.
But the picture quality on the Fire TVs is nothing to sneeze at in their price class. These sets will hold their own against most non-HDR 4K Roku TVs from TCL, Hisense and others. But 4K Ultra HD Roku TVs can be found selling for $200 less in the 55-inch screen size, which will make it hard for some to justify the price step. The real customer here will be a died in the wool Amazon services user.
Seated center screen, these TVs look like good mid-range 4K Ultra televisions. The built-in upscaling does a respectable job of presenting lower-resolution HD and Full HD content in 3840×2160 pixels.
Unfortunately, as a gaming display, the Fire TV could be better. The display comes with a host of mainly mobile app-like on-line streaming games and gaming services, but as a console gaming display the set offers a not-great 120.2 ms lag time in game mode receiving a 1080/60p signal sources through the HDMI inputs.
We recommend this TV to anyone who is a regular user of the hugely popular Amazon Instant Video service and knows the value of having a Prime subscription. The picture quality is nice for the price, and the integration of a robust program grid for over-the-air broadcast television content is a very nice enhancement. This package also makes an attractive solution for anyone who’s been looking to ditch a high-priced cable service, but waiting for the right cord-cutting hardware package to come along.
The Westinghouse 55-inch 4K Ultra HD LED LCD Fire TV used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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