With the skyrocketing popularity of the Google Chromecast and to a lesser degree the Roku Streaming Stick, 2014 sure shaped up to be the year of the HDMI dongle. Read on as we put Amazon’s brand new entry into the market, the Fire TV Stick, through the paces.
What Is The Amazon Fire TV Stick?
The Amazon Fire TV Stick ($39), aside from having a very long product name, is also Amazon’s entry into the streaming video HDMI dongle market. It’s the Amazon answer to Google’s incredibly popular Chromecast streaming stick, Roku’s Streaming Stick, and the host of lesser known Android-based knockoffs flooding the still relatively-niche market.
The unit has a slim profile, scarcely longer than the Chromecast and about the same size as the Roku Streaming Stick. Like its competitors you plug it directly into your HDMI port and power it with a micro USB cable attached to a properly powered USB port on your media center or television (or the included power adapter if you want always on availability). It has no external switches or LED indicators.
Although the Fire TV Stick doesn’t have the same beefy specs as the larger Fire TV it’s no slouch in the hardware department. It sports 8GB of onboard flash storage (4 times more than the Chromecast and 32 times more than the Roku Stick), a dual-core processor (the Chromecast and Roku Stick have a single core), 1GB of RAM (twice the Chromecast and Roku Stick), and a dual band MIMO antenna (the Chromecast has a single band antenna but the Roku Stick also has a MIMO antenna).
The Fire TV Stick includes a remote which is slightly smaller than the remote that ships with the beefier Amazon Fire TV streaming box; the most noticeable difference is that the smaller Fire TV Stick remote does not have a microphone hole or voice search button at the top. The Chromecast, by contrast, does not have a remote, the Roku Stick does, but the Fire TV Stick is the only one of the three that is extensible via bluetooth gaming controller.
How Do I Set It Up?
Setting up the Amazon Fire TV Stick is identical to just about every other HDMI dongle on the market: plug it into an available HDMI port and then supply power to it via microUSB. On the software side of things the setup is nearly identical to the Fire TV. If you purchased the Stick with your Amazon account it comes preprogrammed with your login and the only setup requirement is plugging in your Wi-Fi credentials.
Unlike the Fire TV you’ll need to use the remote to navigate the onscreen keyboard, but Amazon thoughtfully made the remote buttons correspond to major functions like the delete key and the next key which makes for fairly speedy entry.
After picking your Wi-Fi network and keying in your credentials you’ll get treated to a video by the same cartoon guide, Steve, that appears on the first startup of the Fire TV.
User friendliness is definitely high on the Fire Stick TV (as it has been on the prior Fire TV and the Fire tablets). The video is brief but packs in the major features and what to do with the device in a minute or two.
Other than entering your account information and Wi-Fi credentials there’s no other setup to speak off (although we’ll highlight a helper app in a moment that you might want to check out).
The Amazon Fire TV Stick interface is identical to the Amazon Fire TV interface in nearly every way. The tiled “Home” dashboard highlights recently watched media, featured apps and games, and various recommendations just like on the Fire TV.
A trip down the side navigation list yields the same entries like Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Games, Apps, and Settings. Like the Fire TV, the interface is tightly tied into the Amazon ecosystem and all the prior links serve up Amazon content: free Prime videos, videos you’ve purchased, pictures and music from your Amazon cloud drive, apps you’ve purchased, and so on.
Overall the interface is pleasant to navigate if a bit, in some sections, cluttered with recommendations and Amazon’s urgings to purchase content. The setup menu especially, like the Fire TV, is well laid out and it’s easy to make adjustments to the device.
Hardware and Performance
Although the Fire TV Stick doesn’t have the same beefy quad-core processor that the Fire TV does (nor does it have the array of external ports) we were still pleasantly surprised at how powerful it is. We had no issues with menu lag, the videos played smoothly and promptly, and the device handled lightweight Android games without any problem.
In fact outside of running more resource intensive Android applications or games on the small stick, we’re hard pressed to think of a situation where the extra processing power of the Fire TV would become a necessity.
As far as menu speed, video loading, video playback, and light gaming is concerned the two devices are virtually indistinguishable. While we did notice very slight hesitation on some menu and thumbnail loading it was extremely slight and we’d hardly call it laggy or sluggish (it just wasn’t as absolutely silky smooth as it would be on the much more powerful Fire TV unit).
Even though the Fire TV Stick has a smaller process it has the same amount of onboard storage (8GB) and uses Amazon’s ASAP predictive video caching which means you still get the almost-instant video playback like you do on the Fire TV.
Like the Fire TV there are a handful of specialty features that help the Fire TV Stick stand out from the crowd. As you’d imagine, however, the feature set and the reach of those features are fairly diminished on the Fire TV Stick compared to the more expensive Fire TV.
Voice Search (With a Catch)
Both the Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick feature voice search and that voice search works quite well. There’s a big catch with the Fire TV Stick, however. The included remote doesn’t have a microphone or a voice search button (but Amazon will happily sell you an upgraded remote for $30). Conversely, you can download the currently-Android-only Fire TV helper app which adds in voice search and a convenient mobile-keyboard. The voice search app works just fine but, rather curiously, isn’t available for the actual Fire TV which means you’ll need to get used to two different remotes if you want to use the free software solution instead of picking up an upgraded remote for your Fire unit.
We had really mixed opinions on the Fire Stick TV’s gaming abilities. On the one hand, as we noted in our Fire TV review, we have a dim view of mobile-gaming-on-the-TV in general. But on the other hand, the Fire TV Stick offers more gaming options than pretty much every other HDMI dongle combined. So while we have high expectations for a device like the Fire TV that costs $99 and touts itself has a legitimate gaming device, we have such low expectations for a device like an HDMI dongle that we were actually pleasantly surprised with the fact that it could actually play lightweight Android games and even supported Bluetooth controller pairing.
While we don’t see mobile gaming via HDMI-dongle really taking off any time soon (and the gaming options on the Fire TV Stick are even more limited than on the Fire TV), very simple Android games and pass-and-play party games definitely have a place in the living room if you’re interested in low-stakes gaming without a lot of emphasis on depth or graphics.
Limited Parental Controls
Our biggest complaint about the Fire TV Stick is the parental controls. The Fire TV features both parental controls to lock the device from making purchases and the fantastic Amazon FreeTime system. The Fire TV Stick, however, only has the basic PIN-based parental controls to lock the device. For the unfamiliar, Amazon FreeTime is a really great system that created a well-curated walled garden for children that is packed with kid-safe media, an easy to navigate menu, controls for screen time (and even bed times) and is, by far, the best family feature on both the Amazon Fire TV and the Amazon Fire tablets.
Excluding FreeTime is an enormous oversight as far as we’re concerned. If Amazon is hoping to win over consumers and capitalize on both their primary television and secondary sets to become a whole-house media presence then it makes zero sense to exclude the FreeTime feature from the Fire TV Stick. After all what is the most likely purchase outcome in most households? People will likely buy the $99 Amazon Fire TV for their main room (like the living or media room) and then purchase $39 Fire TV Sticks for the secondary screens (like those in a playroom, child’s bedroom, or the like).
In that regard its downright silly to not put the great kid-friendly features on the device most likely to be put on a secondary screen where kids would use it. We’re disappointed that Amazon held the FreeTime feature essentially hostage, expecting consumers to spend $60 to make the jump to the more powerful Fire TV to get it.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
- At only $5 more than the Chromecast, the $39 Fire TV Stick is a great deal for people looking to get Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime videos all from the same device.
- Videos load very quickly and play smoothly; unit featured the same ASAP caching found on the larger Fire TV.
- Solid hardware makes the Fire TV Stick the best in streaming-HDMI-dongle class.
- Bluetooth remote doesn’t require line of sight.
- Remote is kid-friendly, no need to give them an expensive phone or tablet to control the device (like with the Chromecast).
- The Fire TV Stick supports the Amazon and third-party Bluetooth controllers.
- The remote doesn’t support voice search (and the Android-only software remote can’t be used to control the Fire TV if you end up buying one).
- Difficult to easily locate free-for-Prime-members content; feels like the menu is designed to push purchased on you.
- The search function heavily prioritizes Amazon content.
- Gaming is fairly limited but compared to other HDMI dongles is pretty sophisticated.
- No support for Amazon’s fantastic kid-friendly FreeTime system.
As of this review the Amazon Fire TV Stick is the beefiest and fastest streaming HDMI dongle on the market. It sports a faster processor, more memory, and more on-board storage than any of its competitors. Further it’s the only major streaming HDMI dongle around that supports Bluetooth controller syncing for those of you looking for a light gaming experience and a little more value out of your streaming stick purchase.
If you’re a consumer already invested in the Amazon ecosystem and/or you’re looking for a one-stop shop to get your Amazon video, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube without switching between devices, the Fire TV Stick is a solid pick over the Chromecast simply for the native Amazon video support. The Roku Streaming Stick supports Amazon video but it’s $10 more as of this review and not as firmly enmeshed in the Amazon ecosystem (you can’t stream your saved photos, music, or the like on the Roku).
If you’re really interested in the very-functional voice search feature and you have kids, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to get the Fire TV Stick only to spend $30 more to get the voice remote (bringing your total purchase price to $69) and then miss out on the truly excellent Amazon FreeTime system. For consumers committed to the Amazon ecosystem it makes a lot of sense to upgrade to the Fire TV and skip the Fire TV Stick altogether.
Although we’re pleased with the speed and the trifecta of Amazon/Netflix/Hulu content on the Fire TV Stick, we’re not as pleased with the device as we were with the Amazon Fire TV and if we were looking to purchase a device to serve as an all-in-one solution with a heavy emphasis on Amazon ecosystem content, we’d upgrade to the Fire TV.
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