Amazon Fire TV Stick
Update: The Amazon Fire TV Stick has recently seen a major revamp and will now include a voice search-enabled remote at no additional cost.
Original review below…
The set-top box landscape has changed. It used to be a full-size battle royale where three titans – the Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV – duked it out for control of your television. Then, in July of last year, Google released Chromecast, a set-top box built into a thumb drive form factor and fits entirely behind a TV.
In many ways the Amazon Fire TV Stick, the successor to the full-size Fire TV, looks similar to Google’s impulse buy offering from last year. But whatever it may look like, its arrival onto the set-top scene can only mean one thing: The time of the titans is over, and a new age of streaming sticks is here.
The Fire TV Stick is petite and powerful, currently available in the US, as well as the UK. It fits flush with most TV’s HDMI ports and, unlike its main competitor Chromecast, comes with a fairly decent remote. In terms of content, you’ll find just about everything here. Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Showtime Anytime, HBO Go and more have already joined the party, while Amazon’s Prime Instant Video basically sits at the head of the proverbial table.
Almost everything feels right about the Amazon Fire TV Stick, but most of all is its $40/£35 price tag. It’s $10/£5 more than Chromecast, but $10/£10 less than the Roku Streaming Stick; it feels like a supremely good value for what you get in the box.
Where Amazon Fire TV Stick stumbles, however, is its deep-rooted attachment to its mother service, Amazon Prime. Without Prime, the set-top stick feels devoid of personality.
Yes, you can still get those great aforementioned apps, yes you’ll zip around from one section of the interface to the next thanks to its powerful components, and yes you’ll even get a 30-day trial for free just for buying the streaming stick – but, after the trial runs out or you choose not to commit to Amazon’s service, the whole experience feels sterile without Prime.
Design, setup and performance
At this point in the game, a streaming stick is nothing new. It’s a plastic, thumb drive-sized device that plugs into any HDMI port (not just MHL-equipped ports) and draws power from a USB port on the TV or from a wall outlet via the included converter. The exterior itself isn’t all that exciting – it’s 3.3 x 1.0 x 0.5 inches (84.9 x 25.0 x 11.5 mm) and has the Amazon logo on one side – but it’s the lack of any distinct features that help the Fire TV Stick blend into the back of any TV. It even comes with an HDMI extender cable in case you’ve got a wall-mounted setup and no additional space to spare in the back.
While these extras are something the $30 Chromecast comes standard with, the more expensive, $50 Roku Streaming Stick does not. Sometimes, it’s the simple things in life that really count, and Amazon scores major points for putting the consumer first.
After you’ve got the stick firmly seated in an HDMI port you’ve got to provide a power solution. You’ll need to connect the micro-USB powered stick to either a USB port on the TV or, attach the adapter and plug it into the wall. If you choose the former, you’ll get a warning when you boot the system up for the first time. It’ll tell you that it can’t draw enough power from the USB port to provide the ideal experience.
The TV I used for testing, a TCL Roku TV (ironic, I know), had more than enough power for the job and never once did the streaming stick fail due to lack of juice. If you’re in a similar situation, just ignore the warning and move on.But, besides the one micro-USB port on the exterior, you won’t find any other ports on the sides of the Fire TV Jr., which means there’s no way to hardwire the device to your router.
In practice, this lead to a few hiccups here and there, but because it’s equipped with dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi (MIMO) and supports 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi networks, the Stick can handle some the diciest of connections with ease, though, without a hard-line in this is certainly a YMMV situation.
It’s impressive that the Amazon Fire TV Stick requires so little energy, especially once you find out what the Fire TV Stick has going on inside the box – namely, a Broadcom dual-core processor, 1GB of memory and 8GB of storage. Comparing that to the Chromecast, which sports a single-core processor, 512MB of memory and 2GB of memory, Amazon’s miniature stick comes out the clear winner.
Apps and games
Where the full-size set-top boxes like the Nexus Player and Apple TV struggle with too little content to choose from on their platforms, Amazon Fire TV has an abundance of apps at your disposal. All of the primary suspects are here and accounted for: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant, Showtime, NFL Network, Pandora, Spotify, Crackle, Rdio and more.
While the Roku 3 sports over 1,000 channels (read: apps), the Fire TV Stick has a number closer to several hundred with multi-function apps and games mixed in with the entertainment channels.
Perusing the store, I discovered some new interesting apps like TripSmart – a travel channel that provides videos on exotic locales – and an old favorite, 2048, optimized for the big screen. Like Roku, there’s a lot of shovelware mixed in with the good stuff, which means you’ll have to root around the mud to find the two or three real gems in a given list.
Games are also present and accounted for on Amazon’s smaller system, and for the most part the less-intensive titles play incredibly well. Disappointingly though, you won’t find many graphically demanding games here like The Walking Dead Season 1 or 2.
Nor are you likely to spot Grand Theft Auto here anytime soon. That doesn’t seem to be due to any fault of the hardware – the system boasts the right specs for those higher-end games – the content simply isn’t there.
The lack of games doesn’t necessarily hurt the system, however. If you want to have a streaming system that’s jam-packed with gaming goodness, consider the full-size Amazon Fire TV or Nexus Player. Both have a dedicated gamepad sold separately and have a great selection of titles.
Speaking of separate controllers, the full-size Amazon Fire controller can also be paired with the Fire TV Stick. But many of the 200-plus games available on the console don’t necessarily need – or work better – with a controller instead of the standard remote. Home entertainment enthusiasts, on the other hand, will be glad to see Plex here, as it has been MIA on a few of the other systems I’ve tested recently. PlayStation TV: I’m looking at you.
The launch line-up of apps is as strong as it’s going to be outside of a Roku product, and though I wish it were a little more AAA game-oriented and much more platform-agnostic (searches only return Amazon content. Also, a shared Google Play library would more than make up for any shortcomings in selection). That said, this is still a fairly balanced ecosystem.
One of the biggest advantages of buying the Amazon Fire TV Stick over the other guys is the remote. It weighs next to nothing and errs on the cheap side, but on it you’ll find a few sparse, but powerful, buttons: back, home, menu, rewind, play/pause and fast forward. At the top you’ll find a circular directional pad and a central button that does just about everything else.
If you’re a Fire TV owner you’ll notice that this remote doesn’t come with the built-in mic and voice-search button. The functionality still exists if you use the accompanying Fire TV app, but it doesn’t exist on the pack-in peripheral. If you really need it, though, Amazon sells the full-size remote separately for $40 or allows you to sync your old Fire TV remote to the Stick without much of a problem.
The remote also works over Bluetooth, which means it won’t need direct line of sight to the Stick itself – a handy feature considering 95% of users will want to keep the Fire TV out of sight behind the television. It may not win the award for “most durable remote,” but the remote is exactly like the Stick: simple and efficient.
Interface and navigation
The interface is a direct replica of the full-size Amazon Fire TV’s menu. It’s crowded and content-rich, making it a bustling, ever-evolving free-for-all for something to watch. It’s may not be as clean-cut or aesthetically pleasing as some of the other menus we’ve seen on rival boxes, but Amazon chose to leave well enough alone and it’s hard to argue against that reasoning.
The users who’ll see the most benefit here are compulsive Amazon media shoppers. Anytime you buy or rent a show or movie from Amazon, it will populate automatically in the “video library” sub-menu on the home screen. By doing this, Amazon builds a positive reinforcement cycle of buying new content on its storefront then showcasing everything you own in one centralized location.
And, thankfully, zipping around from one section of the interface to the next takes no time at all. The hardware delivers responsive results in tenths of a second and, when you finally decide on what to watch, Amazon’s predictive technology takes things one step further by pre-loading the first few seconds of the Amazon Instant movies you are most likely to watch.
Chromecast is still the all-around winner when it comes to streaming sticks. It’s not as fast as Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, nor is it as feature-packed as the Roku Streaming Stick, but it’s reliable, plays nicely with Android devices (as does the Fire Stick) and costs less than a night on the town.
The Roku Streaming Stick is the agnostic brother to the other two. If you can’t decide which e-tailer to give your money to, and would rather give it to the services themselves, this is the streamer for you. It also has the most content than any other platform. However just be prepared to wait a bit longer for it to load, speed really isn’t Roku’s strong suit.
Regarding the contender at hand, the Fire TV Stick is best suited for those people who have really sunk their teeth into the Amazon ecosphere. When you strip everything else away, it feels like a device specifically engineered for Amazon Prime subscribers and generally compulsive Amazon shoppers.
If you’re using Amazon’s Cloud Drive to store photos, you’ll be able to display them with two clicks on the remote. And if your watchlists get longer than your shopping list, you’ll have a great time going through the store and finally catching that 2006 Martin Scorsese film with Leo Dicaprio. (It’s called The Departed and it’s fantastic.)
The Amazon Fire Stick is dead simple to setup and, once it’s going, you’ll be impressed with just how much there is to see and do with the system. Menu screens populate in a fraction of a second and some smart on-board technology gets videos started faster than the competition.
If you’ve bought into Amazon’s tablet and media ecosystem, you’ll almost definitely want the low-cost addition to add to your collection. It’ll sync up seamlessly with these devices but, unlike Chromecast, doesn’t require them in lieu of a remote.
If you haven’t already ponied up the $99 a year for Prime you’ll find less here than on other systems but, at worst, you’ll still have access to services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Showtime Anytime and a few other key players.
You also won’t find the same kind of niche content on Amazon’s storefront as you would on the Roku 3 or Roku Streaming Stick. There may not be a major clamor for that one Korean channel you’ve never heard of, but someone, somewhere will be slightly broken-hearted when they can’t find it here.
Content, as a whole, is also largely dependent on the Amazon Store. It makes sense why search results only display Amazon Video links, but there’s nothing worse than paying $3.99 for a movie only to find out it was available on Netflix for free.
Lastly, there just isn’t a great selection of triple-A games. There’s enough casual games for a lifetime, but if you’re looking to play the highest-end games that Android has to offer, you’ll need to upgrade to a full-size box.
It’s easy to dismiss the Fire TV Stick as a cash-in on the streaming stick fad, but doing so would be a real disservice to the work and innovation Amazon packed into its pint-sized product. It’s a step forward for streaming sticks and sets a new standard of what is and is not acceptable from here on out. Namely, it provides a remote, a good interface and 99% of the key services for a very reasonable price tag.
The only real faux-pas here is intentional, and that’s the stick’s almost unreasonable dependence on Amazon Prime to function in full. It’s by far the least impartial of the three major streaming sticks – the other two being Chromecast and Roku – and around every corner is trying to sell you on a movie, game or TV show you didn’t necessarily know you wanted until right then.
It’s not the best game console hybrid either. Though that’s to be forgiven as its full-size sibling, the Amazon Fire TV and optional accompanying controller, are there to pick up the slack.
The Fire TV Stick is a present from the ecommerce giant to media lovers everywhere. While it has its flaws, by and large the final product is one any TV or movie enthusiast will be happy with – as long as they have an Amazon Prime account.