Few devices present the same price-to-value ratio that the Amazon Fire TV Stick does. It used to be that if you wanted a smart TV, you would have to pay out good money. Now, for a few less than the cost of a few Blu-rays, anyone can have a smart TV. All they need is a spare HDMI and a device no bigger than a USB stick.
This is because the set-top box landscape is changing. Full-size goliaths such as the Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV used to duke it out for control of your television. But then came Google’s Chromecast, it’s David – a set-top box built into a thumb drive form factor and fits entirely behind a TV. The Fire Stick is Amazon’s answer to Google’s device and what an answer it is.
The Fire TV Stick is petite and powerful. 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, YouTube and Spotify, while Amazon’s Prime Instant Video basically sits at the head of the proverbial table.
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Almost everything feels right about the Amazon Fire TV Stick, but most of all is its £35/$40 price tag. It’s £5/$5 more than Chromecast, but £15/$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 slightly 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 84.9 x 25.0 x 11.5mm 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 Chromecast comes standard with, the more expensive 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. I opted for the power via a wall socket.
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, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Instant, Sky News, Spotify and more. It actually feels rather strange loading up Netflix on an Amazon device – if you take Now TV as an example of a device that has its own interests at heart, you will find neither Netflix or Amazon on board. In my view, the more open the better.
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
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 (until recently, searches only return Amazon content, though now contain results from Netflix and HBO Now. Also, a shared Google Play library would more than make up for any shortcomings in selection).
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 or allows you to sync your old Fire TV remote to the Stick without much of a problem. It just goes to show how much this functionality costs – but we didn’t think it detracted too much from the viewing experience.
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. In my testing, it was in the back of my television so having Bluetooth was essential. It may not win the award for “most durable remote”, but the remote is exactly like the Stick: simple and efficient.
Interface, navigation and X-Ray
The interface is a direct replica of the full-size Amazon Fire TV’s menu – this is certainly no bad thing. 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 centralised 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.
Another feature, which was added with an update, is Amazon X-Ray. This is something that makes good use of IMDB, part of the Amazon family, and is trivia heaven. Every time you pause a TV show or movie, the option to get cast list information and certain bits of trivia is offered up. You can also do this by pressing the upper part of the circular button on the remote. It’s not perfect – I kept fast-forwarding the show when I tried to scroll through the cast list – but it is something that is only going to improve and could well be the USP Amazon needs to differentiate it from Netflix.
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.
I do wish it was a little easier to differentiate premium content with free – a few times I nearly played a movie that would have cost cold-hard cash – but Amazon does do a fantastic job of making all of the content available seamless, much like its shopping website.
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 bought into Prime you’ll find less here than on other systems but, at worst, you’ll still have access to services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Sky News and a few other key players.
The remote isn’t as good as the one you get with the Amazon Fire TV but it works just as well.
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. Nine times out of 10, that’s where searches take you and while it makes sense why Amazon wants to keep you piped into their service, there’s nothing worse than paying 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.