Earlier this year, Amazon entered the crowded field of streaming set-top boxes. But while the Fire TV sounded like a real winner on paper, in practice it was more of a mixed bag. For round two, the internet retail giant scaled back its ambitions and the price. The Fire TV Stick is a streaming dongle similar to the Chromecast or Roku Streaming Stick that's focused mainly on serving up video and less on gaming. Plus, the $39 price tag dramatically lowers the bar for entry. But, even at less than half the price, the Fire TV Stick would be a hard pill to swallow if Amazon didn't iron out some of the kinks from its first-generation device. So has a few more months of polish addressed our concerns about Fire OS on the big screen? Without giving too much away, the answer is mostly yes.
What is there to say about the hardware on the Fire TV Stick? It's a tiny, matte black device, barely larger than a thumb drive. It's unassuming to an extreme. It lacks the distinctive bulb shape of the Chromecast or the garish purple paint job of the Roku Streaming Stick. Really, it's what's under the hood that matters. Amazon managed to cram a dual-core CPU and VideoCore4 GPU inside this little dongle, not to mention 8GB of storage and a host of wireless radios. This isn't the same beastly hardware found inside the full-sized Fire TV, but it's definitely a step up from devices like the Roku Streaming Stick or the Chromecast. It's capable of not just pumping out HD video, but also powering some basic games... with an emphasis on "basic." That means marathon sessions of Sev Zero at 60 frames per second are a no-go, but Badlands shouldn't be an issue.
The Fire TV Stick is unassuming to an extreme.
The Fire TV Stick also borrows the rather minimal remote design from its big brother. It also is mostly matte black, with a directional ring, three "Android" buttons and three keys for media control. Though it skews toward the smaller side, and loses some nice features in the process. The one easily forgivable, though unfortunate, trade-off is the loss of the groove on the underside. On the full-size Fire TV remote, there's a depression where you finger naturally rests, which makes for some lovely ergonomics. The version included here has a uniform, trapezoidal silhouette with rounded edges that still feels nice in the hand; just not quite as nice as its big brother.
More importantly, though, the Fire TV Stick's remote lacks the built-in microphone for voice search. That means if you want to enjoy the fruits of Amazon's powerful search tool, you'll have to install the Fire TV Remote app, which is currently available on Android only. (On the bright side, it should be coming soon to iOS.) Your other option is to buy the separate Voice Remote for an additional $30. Still, at that point you might as well just buy the original Fire TV, which comes packaged with it.
My one complaint is the placement of the micro-USB power port. Rather than being on the end, like it is on the Fire TV Stick's competitors, it's on the side. This means you might have to rearrange the HDMI cables on your TV if you've got a few things plugged in. Hardly a dealbreaker, but it did mean retraining myself to remember that my Xbox is now HDMI 4 instead of 1.
Ultimately, the undoing of the Fire TV was its rather unpolished software experience. The carousel UI that worked so well on tablets didn't translate so nicely to the television. Plus, there were some truly questionable design decisions, like the A-Z, carousel-style onscreen keyboard. Things have gotten a bit better since April. There are still some kinks to be worked out, for sure, but what barely felt beta-quality just a few months ago now seems like a reasonably polished platform.
You might think that a new onscreen keyboard would be a minor tweak, but here it's a huge deal
For one, the carousel keyboard has been banished. You might think that a new onscreen keyboard would be a minor tweak, but here it's a huge deal, especially since Amazon has shifted away somewhat from voice search. The previous onscreen keyboard made non-voice searches so painful that we simply couldn't recommend it to anyone with a speech impediment or heavy accent. It's still not perfect -- in some areas the keyboard has a QWERTY layout; in some places it's ABC -- but it's definitely light-years better than what shipped with the Fire TV.
There's also finally a section that lets you browse only the videos available for free through Amazon Prime. Previously, movies and TV shows that required you to pay for them were mixed in with the ones available as part of your Prime subscription and there was no way to quickly identify which was which, without clicking through to the media's main page. Thankfully, this glaring oversight has been fixed and the Prime Video section gives you quick access to all the media that your Prime subscription pays for -- if you have a Prime subscription, that is. (And honestly, if you don't, why do you even want a Fire TV Stick?)
There's finally a section that lets you browse only the videos available for free through Prime.
Most of the other software tweaks are under the hood. ASAP, the name of Amazon's intelligent pre-caching tech, is still hit and miss. Occasionally movies and TV shows start immediately, without even a hint of a loading screen. But more often than not, you'll still be greeted with a brief buffering page. Still, the UI seems smoother than it was a few months ago and apps crash much less often. Even so, it's still not quite as responsive as the Roku Streaming Stick (which is no speed demon to be clear). I largely chalk that up to the more complex software running on it. Amazon's forked version of Android is likely more resource-intensive than the stripped-down, Linux-based software running on the Roku.
Visually, Fire OS on the TV still looks like Fire OS on the TV. There are rows of rectangular icons on the right and categories stacked vertically on the left. It's clean, if not always efficient, and more often than not, intuitive enough for even your great-grandmother to navigate (we know you got grandma on the Roku bandwagon years ago). It still gives priority to content hosted on Amazon, which is to be expected. Searching for content pulls it up first from Amazon's repository, even if you have to pay for it. While select additional options, such as Hulu Plus, are buried in the "More Ways to Watch" menu.
Most importantly for the platform, though, is that Amazon's put a serious dent in its app and content gap. Plenty of games have been added to its lineup and new streaming music and video services are joining the Fire TV party all the time, like PBS. The one glaring omission remains HBO Go, which is supposedly coming next year, though no specific time frame has been given.
One of the many things that the Fire TV Stick does not lack is competitors. The two most obvious are the Roku Streaming Stick and the Chromecast. If your primary concern is having the most sources of content at your disposal, then Roku is the clear winner. It's the only one of the three with access to both Google Play's library of video and Amazon's. And that's in addition to other major players, like Hulu, Netflix, Watch ESPN, HBO Go and Spotify, plus the countless independent niche channels like horror film-specific Screambox or the aptly named Kung-Fu Theater. The only serious mark against it is price, which, at $50, is notably more expensive than either the Chromecast or Fire TV Stick.
Google's offering is certainly the simplest of the three. And, whether that's a benefit or a hindrance depends on your perspective. There's no remote and no menu to navigate. Instead, you have to send content directly from your phone to your TV. The other devices support this to varying degrees, but it's the heart and soul of the Chromecast. This feature isn't limited to your Netflix or Hulu app, however. It also supports simple games, even multiplayer ones, like Wheel of Fortune and Big Web Quiz. Also, you can mirror the screen on your Android phone or tablet, or even a tab from the Chrome browser. Plus, at $35, it's the cheapest of the bunch.
With the Fire TV Stick, Amazon seems to have a winner on its hands. It does everything you expect a media streamer to do with little fuss and a reasonable price tag. Whereas the Fire TV toyed a little too much with the idea of being a game console and demanded top dollar, its little sibling focuses solely on delivering content. If you're already invested in the Amazon ecosystem, there's no reason not to give the Fire TV Stick serious consideration when shopping for a media streamer. It's got you covered when it comes to most of your major video services and it's still capable of some casual gaming. You can even connect a Bluetooth gamepad if you want to get a little more serious.
With the Fire TV Stick, Amazon seems to have a winner on its hands.
That being said, it's not the clear king of the hill. For $10 more, you can get the Roku with its seemingly bottomless pit of content, or you can save $5 and get the Chromecast, which can turn your TV into a giant external monitor for your phone. The price difference among these competitors, however, is not really enough to sway me one way or the other. It's mostly about whether you've bought into an ecosystem already. If you're married to iTunes, then clearly the Apple TV is for you. If you've built up a library on Google Play, then pick the Chromecast. If you've already got a home filled with Fire tablets, then obviously the Fire TV Stick is the route to go. And if you prefer to remain as agnostic as possible, then buy a Roku.