Update: The Amazon Fire TV Stick is even better in 2016, with a more powerful internal processor for faster streaming and less time buffering, and an upgraded 802.11a/b/g/n Dual-Band Wi-Fi antenna.
The Amazon 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, 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 price tag. It's $10 more than Chromecast, but $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.
What is a Fire TV Stick?
At this point in the game, a streaming stick is nothing new. It's a plastic, thumb drive-sized streaming video device that plugs into any HDMI port and plays videos from Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Instant Video. 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.
- Read: These are the best Amazon Prime Instant Video TV shows!
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.