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The most innovative streaming device of 2023

Look, we’ll be completely honest here: There’s nothing particularly innovative about streaming devices these days. That’s actually a good thing. There’s nothing to blow up or reinvent from one year to the next, which points to a product category that mostly does what it does pretty well, allowing features along the edge to really differentiate.

That means when we do get new hardware, it mostly looks and acts like the hardware it’s replacing. To wit: A Roku is still a Roku. Chromecast with Google TV hasn’t been updated in a while. Apple TV plods along in that very Apple way with minor changes every couple of years.

And Amazon Fire TV? Well … there is a bit to talk about there.

Want to see the rest? Check out our full list of the most innovative tech products of 2023!

Winner: Amazon Fire TV 4K Max

The Amazon Fire TV Max 4K was the most innovative streaming device of 2023.
Digital Trends

OK, the same mostly could be said about Amazon Fire TV. It does, for the most part, look and act the same as it has the previous few years. Yes, it’s gotten some pretty sizable visual refreshes. Yes, the hardware has been updated on a pretty regular schedule. And, yes, it’s still a very affordable device in that Amazon way of making you ask “It’s only how much?”

But in announcing the 2023 Amazon Fire TV 4K Max at an event in September at HQ2 just outside Washington, D.C., Amazon announced some new features for this particular Fire TV Stick — it’s the best among them — that truly make it stand out among the other varieties in the Fire TV lineup.

We do have to caveat things a tad. Some of the features we’re about to mention are available now on the Fire TV Stick 4K Max. And some are still coming in 2024 in the form of a software update. While we generally like to address the tech that’s actually in front of us and not possibly (even probably) coming in the future, these are all things that Amazon showed us and said we’re getting. So we’re going to hold them to it.

The Ambient Experience

The Amazon Fire TV Ambient Experience with widgets.
The Amazon Fire TV Ambient Experience, with widgets. Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

Amazon has had what it calls its “Ambient Experience” for some time now. It’s basically a mostly excellent screensaver-type option that turns your TV into something you’ll want to leave on for everyone to see, with a number of widgets also available that take you even further into the Amazon ecosystem, like suggesting things to watch or listen to — or even cook for dinner — or helping you track your Amazon purchases.

That’s all very cool stuff, and previously it was only available on Amazon’s Omni QLED televisions, not a low-cost stick. So that’s a big deal.

AI is coming for Fire TV

There also are several AI-powered features coming at some point in 2024. While it’s true you can’t shake a stick without hitting something with the letters “AI” in it, Amazon had something tangible to show us. Better search results, for starters. That’s kind of the bread and butter for all this, but “We’ve completely reinvented the Fire TV search experience,” Fire TV vice president Daniel Rausch said at the September event. And, indeed, that early demo looked extremely promising. Better, more natural results, with better context.

Daniel Rausch, VP of Fire TV and Alexa for Amazon, in front of an AI-generated photo on Fire TV.
Daniel Rausch, VP of Fire TV and Alexa for Amazon, in front of an AI-generated photo on Fire TV. Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

Rausch also demoed a cool feature within Amazon Photos that leverages AI to take your basic phone-based images (let’s be honest, that’s what most of us are shooting, right?) and turn them into works of art that are more worthy of the largest screen in your home. Or, you can have it just conjure AI-generated images on the fly. That may not drastically change the way you use your Fire TV, but it’s something nobody else is doing yet.

And in a year in which we didn’t really see any other drastic changes in the streaming hardware, it’s more than enough to stand out.

Runner-up: Apple TV 4K

It’s a little weird to mentione Apple TV 4K in a context that doesn’t put it at the front of the pack. (It is, after all, still the streaming device we believe is the best for most people.) And Apple didn’t release any new hardware for it in 2023. The most recent version came out in November 2022, which is close enough for our purposes.

The Apple TV 4K (2022) and Siri remote on a table.
Caleb Denison / Digital Trends

Apple TV 4K is still a beast of a device. It’s got the hardware to last for years. And it has the software support behind it that’ll keep it feeling fresh for all those years. But Apple TV 4K is on the cusp of being an extremely powerful gaming platform that doesn’t require the capital (either mental or financial) that you’ll have to expend on one of the major gaming platforms like Xbox or PlayStation.

Again, this is a space we’re watching very closely — and look no further than Apple’s iPhone 15 announcement for just how serious it is about gaming in the middle part of this decade.

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