Amazon Fire TV Stick Review
What is the Amazon Fire TV Stick?This is the latest in an increasingly long line of media streaming devices to hit the market, falling in to the sub-category of HDMI streaming dongles populated by the likes of the Roku Streaming Stick and Google Chromecast. Despite its diminutive proportions the Fire TV Stick still almost completely matches the feature-set of the larger, and more costly, Amazon Fire TV Box, however, its entry price of just £35 (April 2015) looks very enticing on paper. Let’s see if the Amazon Fire TV Stick can light a fire – not literally, of course - around the back of our TV…
SpecsThe Fire TV Stick features a dual-core Broadcom central processor and VideoCore IV GPU/VPU, which are both somewhat less powerful than those in the Fire TV Box. Still, that does give it superior horsepower to that of the Chromecast and Roku Stick and should be ample for the tasks at hand. You also get 1GB of RAM and 8GB of built-in storage, with around 5.9GB available out of the box after system files and software take up their allotted amounts. There’s also dual-band 802.11 b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth Version 3.0 support built in to the tiny proportions.
What’s in the Box?Amazon’s classy packaging contains everything you’ll need to get started, bar a TV. Obviously you get the Fire TV Stick, itself, and in addition there’s a mini USB to USB cable to supply the power; a USB plug, which requires assembly and a HDMI extension lead if you can’t squeeze it in to the port of your TV directly. Additionally, there’s a (very) quick start brochure inside which requires only a cursory look. Oh, and you also get a pair of AAA batteries (Amazon Basics range) for the remote.
Remote ControlOne of the big selling points of the Fire TV Stick, over the Chromecast in particular, is the inclusion of a proper remote, rather than having to rely on your phone or tablet for control. That makes it a far more user-friendly device for the less tech-savvy and the basic set of controls also sing ease of use. The fact that the controller interacts with the Stick via Bluetooth is also a plus, meaning you don’t need line of sight for it to work. The remote has an all-purpose input button represented by a circle, at the top, on the outside of which are directional keys for navigation. Below those, in rows of three, are ‘Back,’ Home and Context Menu buttons and under that are the playback controls – RW/FFW and Play/Pause.
Anyone familiar with the Fire TV control will notice the absence of the Voice Input button (and accompanying microphone) but the Stick is capable of voice search if you upgrade the remote for around £25. It’s worth noting that there’s a mobile app available for iOS, Android and Fire OS devices that gives you voice search for free. One thing we did like, over the Fire TV Box controller, is the fact the buttons don’t make as ‘clicky’ noise when pressed, although the lack of an indent on the rear makes it less comfortable to handle. Still, all things considered – especially the price – we’re not complaining really.
Fire TV Stick SetupIf you buy the Stick direct from Amazon, it should come pre-registered meaning once you have it inserted in to your display and powered up, it’s just a case of connecting to your home network, running through any software updates and then sitting through an introductory video before you’re good to go. Note, you can fast forward through the video, should you wish.
Fire TV Stick USB PowerWe can’t give you any definitive advice here but it is recommended by Amazon that you power the stick from the mains using the supplied USB plug. However, it is possible to power the device using an available USB port on your HDTV, if it supplies enough voltage. That’s going to be a tidier solution for most but if you experience lag or problems during operation, it could be that your television isn’t supplying sufficient power. The only real way to find out is to experiment but we’d say you’re fairly safe if your TV is from one of the major manufacturers and it’s newer than 5 years old. In most cases it will mean you’ll have to wait for the Stick to boot up every time you power up the TV, although a select few do supply power over USB when in standby – as far as we know that only applies to 3D TVs that have rechargeable active shutter eyewear but check the specs to be sure.
The UI is Amazon content heavy but then it would be!
Home ScreenAs you would expect, the Fire TV homescreen is dominated by Amazon Instant Video content with separate tabs for various categories and genres. You also get submenus for Games, Music, Photos, Apps and Settings, in addition to the Search and Home menu tabs at the top. The prominence of the Home Menu is welcome as it means your most recently used apps are very easily accessible, without having to wade through all the Amazon stuff. We certainly can’t blame Amazon for pushing their services so heavily and if you’re a Prime subscriber, who uses the included video streaming service regularly, it’s not going to grate but if you don’t use Instant Video, you may well see it as a disadvantage.
A recent software update to the OS has taken away some of the potential navigational frustrations, however; by pressing and holding in the Home button, you are presented with an option to directly access the Settings, which are positioned right at the bottom of the homescreen and, therefore, used to take too long to access.
FeaturesWe can’t fault Amazon for their willingness to update the Fire TV OS and since we reviewed the original box, they’ve added some nice usability features to their devices. Probably our favourite is X-Ray which provides information on actors and characters within a given a scene, while you’re watching the content on the Fire TV. The information comes from IMDb so it’s pretty comprehensive and the way the software ‘knows’ who is on screen is almost uncanny. Not all movies and shows are supported but all of the latest content we tried had the info.
Amazon has also just added support for ‘Captive Portal Access,’ which is a big bonus for those that want to stream whilst on their travels. Anyone who has stayed in a hotel will know that getting access to the WiFi can mean going through entry screens that often require text input or the click of mouse on an "I agree’ icon, which is obviously not possible with most TV based devices due to the controller. With Captive Portal support, the Fire TV Stick lets you enter text and click the icons and thus allay those frustrations.
Fire TV Stick Vs Fire TVIn addition to the hardware advantages of the Fire TV over the Stick, it does also have a couple of features not available to the junior model. There is no support for USB storage on the stick, where there is on the Fire TV, which is useful for off-loading app data and even local media playback using the right software. The Fire TV also boasts support for Bluetooth audio devices, where the stick doesn’t so if you had plans to pair up some headphones, your soundbar or even some speakers the box is the better bet.
X-Ray is X-Cellent
AppsSix months, or so, on from the Fire TV launch and the platform is still lacking some major UK streaming and on-demand services. You do get Netflix, BBC iPlayer and YouTube, in addition to the pervasive Instant Video content but it’s lacking the likes of Sky NOW TV, Wuaki, All 4 (4OD) and the ITV Player when you size it against some of the competition. The apps that are there are very slick, however, with both iPlayer and Netflix operating their very latest iterations but playback of both has a slight stutter, dependent on the settings you have under ‘Display & Sounds.’ Ironically, in the case of the Fire TV version of iPlayer, you get smoother (not perfect) playback with the Stick set to output a 60Hz screen refresh.
It’s more pot luck with Netflix, however, as they just deliver the content as it was encoded, so if your display settings marry with the 50/60Hz setting, it should be smooth, else you’ll get some jitteriness. That means almost all movies on Netflix will display some micro-stutter, given that they will have been encoded at 24 frames per second and output with a non-matching refresh rate. There’s a good chance many won’t notice but we could always spot it and it’s made all the more galling by the fact that Amazon content, which is delivered in the same way as Netflix, is handled much better with some obvious provision made in the video processing to compensate. It should be easy enough to apply to the Netflix app and we hope they do.
We don’t want to sound down on the Fire TV Stick in terms of the apps, in case it was reading that way and there are plenty of good ones available. You can compensate for the lack of ITV Player with the S(Scottish)TV app and you can also view a range of live UK TV broadcasts through IP streams, via the TV Catchup app, which operates at very passable quality . We also like the fact that you can stream Spotify Connect and PLEX support is always welcomed but we still feel the platform slightly lacking in terms of ‘must haves.’ There is always the option of sideloading, however, more on which below..
Sideloaded Fire TV appsThe Fire TV operating system is essentially Android, with a couple of tweaks here and there, and so is capable of running many apps designed to run on Android phones and tablets. Those requiring a touchscreen operation will mean you’ll need to download something like the Wukong remote app to your phone or tablet, which mimics that interface but others do work natively with the bundled remote. There are various means of sideloading apps to the Fire TV stick, including PC and mobile apps and you can even FTP, if you have ES File Explorer installed on the stick. Some of our most used ones include Sky GO, Aptoide, Chrome and MX Player but there are plenty more besides.
Fire TV Stick – KODI & XBMCThere’s no doubt that Amazon is notching plenty of sales on the back of the Fire TV’s ability to run KODI/XBMC and the hardware of both the box and the Stick is more than capable of doing it very well. It used to be the case that you had to jump through relative hoops in order to get it on your Recent Apps on the homescreen but it can be done with relative ease now, since the KODI app is available for download on the Amazon App store.
The process does require the initial sideloading of KODI, then you 'buy' (it's free) Kodi from the Amazon Store using your tablet, phone, PC or whatever, ignoring the AFTV incompatibility warning. Then go to the Fire TV (stick) and in to Settings>Account and then Sync your content. If it doesn't appear, de-register and then re-register the Stick/box and then sync content again and it should be there in your recent apps, at the top of the homepage.
In terms of running KODI, we can’t really fault the Fire TV Stick performance. We ported the exact same build from our Fire TV using the Amber skin and operationally, the experience was near identical. Navigation of the menus was a little bit less responsive on the Stick and it also took a little longer to load but the little device is more than capable of streaming HD video and provided you haven’t lots of other things running simultaneously, the 1GB of RAM is sufficient.
GamesSince we have an Amazon Fire Game Controller, it would have been a shame not to have used it and this is one the area where the hardware disadvantages of the stick was easiest to see. We’re not saying the gaming experience wasn’t pleasurable, just that the Fire TV Stick isn’t capable of delivering quite as smooth as an experience as the Box. With the more complicated games we tried, e.g. BB Racing, Table Top Racing and Minecraft, there were more pronounced jagged edges and the tendency to lower the framerate when lots of objects were on-screen.
The port of retro classic GTA: Vice City also showed more pop-in but the more simple games, designed for everyday tablets and phones run just fine and we also got a couple of Android Emulators running very well. We don’t suppose many will base their purchase decision on the gaming capabilities of these devices, and the Fire TV Stick, is more than adequate for a spot of casual gaming, but if you do take this element seriously you’ll need to spend a little more money.
- Outstanding value for money
- Strong selection of native apps
- Sideloading capability
- Good for games
- Runs KODI very well
- Stuttering playback with Netflix
- More sluggish than some players
Amazon Fire TV Stick Review
Should I buy the Amazon Fire TV Stick?This little gizmo is such incredible value that it would almost be rude not to part with the money. Certainly, if you’re an Amazon Instant Video customer and you can live with the fact it’s not quite as snappy as the Fire TV, then this is a no-brainer. The same almost also applies to those looking for a cheap, yet highly capable, XBMC/KODI device. The Fire TV stick also has other major streaming services, including Netflix, iPlayer, Spotify Connect and YouTube but the playback performance of the first two of those can be a little jerky.
The Fire TV isn’t limited to the apps on the Amazon store, however, and there are a number of Android apps that will work very well with it, including SkyGo and the Chrome browser. There’s also entertainment in the form of videogames, and while the Fire TV Stick lacks the horsepower to run some of them optimally, it does a fine enough job for us casual gaming types. The Stick is also probably the ultimate streaming device for travellers, with its captive portal support and, all in all, we can’t really think of a better way to treat yourself for just £35. Best Buy
What else could I buyIn terms of a like for like device, the Roku Streaming Stick makes a pretty compelling case for itself. It has a wider selection of native apps, including all the major UK catch-up services, but then it lacks the gaming capability and flexibility of Android. For a more full-on Android experience, something like the Minix X8-H Plus is well worth a look but it’s far less user friendly than the Fire TV and is more geared toward a tech-savvy audience. If all the features of the Fire TV Stick sound right up your street then, of course, the only other real viable alternative if the Fire TV Box but you’ll need to consider whether a USB port, Bluetooth Audio Support and slightly better performance are worth the added outlay.
Buy the Amazon Fire TV Stick here
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £35.00
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality8
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money10
Our Review Ethos
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