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.