The Amazon Fire TV Stick is a media streaming device is a stick that you can plug into the HDMI port on your TV to stream music, movies, and other content from the internet. You can also use it to play games, view your photo collection, and run a variety of third party apps.

It’s not the only device in this category: the Fire TV Stick has to compete with the Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Google Nexus Player, a range of Roku devices, and the software that comes preloaded on smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Vizio, and others.

So in an increasingly crowded space, what makes the Amazon Fire TV Stick interesting? There are at least a few things: Priced at $39, it’s cheaper than a Roku and although it’s a few bucks more expensive than a Chromecast it can do a lot of things that Google’s tiny media streamer cannot.

After spending a little time with the Fire TV Stick, I’m pretty impressed with just how much you can do with this $39 stick. It’ll be most useful for folks who subscribe to Amazon Prime or buy a lot of music, movies, and other digital content from Amazon: some of the best features are tightly tied to Amazon’s ecosystem.

But you can also use the Fire TV Stick to stream content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, PBS and many other sources. It also supports Plex for streaming you personal media collection from a Plex server, and you can run a number of games as well.

If you want to play serious games, you’ll need an optional Bluetooth gamepad like the $40 Amazon Fire Game Controller. But you can also play simple games such as Flappy Birds Family with just the simple remote control that comes with the Fire TV Stick.

ftv

Fire up the Fire TV Stick and you’ll see a home screen with recent apps, games, videos, or other content. This makes it easy to continue watching a series you’ve started or return to some of your favorite apps.

ftv home

Scroll down and there are tabs for Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Games, Apps, Music, Photos, and Settings. Honestly, some of these categories feel a bit redundant — Prime members can find TV and Movies that are free to stream with their subscription in the Prime Video section. But some of that content might also be available in Movies, TV, or Watchlist categories.

The Video Library is for any items you’ve already purchased or rented from Amazon. Games and Apps are where you’ll find, well, games and apps downloaded from the Amazon Appstore. And Music and Photos are where you’ll find content uploaded to your Amazon Cloud Drive accounts as well as any music you’ve added to your Amazon Prime Music library.

ftv music

If you scroll all the way up to the top of the screen there’s a search menu. You can search by using the remote control to tap out letters one at a time. Or you can download the Fire TV remote app for Android or a Fire phone or tablet. An iOS version is also on the way.

You can use the mobile app to search by using an on-screen keyboard or by pulling down from the top of the screen to search by voice.

ftv remote app

Unfortunately the search function only really works for Amazon content. I’ve been watching The Incredible Hulk on Netflix, and I have the Netflix app installed on my Fire TV Stick. But when I search for the TV show using Amazon’s search tools, I only find the option to buy individual episodes from Amazon Instant Video.

Fortunately I can always just open the Netflix app and stream the same videos without paying anything more than the price of a Netflix monthly subscription fee. But if you’re trying to decide whether to use Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or another app to watch a show, it’s a little annoying that there’s no universal search tool.

ftv netflix

Aside from the primary search tool not working with apps like Netflix, you may have to learn to navigate a different user interface for each app. The play/pause, fast forward and rewind buttons usually work the same in most audio or video apps, but Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and other apps all have different ways of arranging their content and menus.

This makes the Fire TV a little more complicated to use than something like a Google Chromecast.

While the Chromecast requires you to use your phone, tablet, or PC to select content, the upshot is that you don’t need to learn a new user interface: you basically locate content on your mobile device as if you were going to play it on your phone or laptop and then just tap a button to send the video to your TV instead.

ftv chromecast

The Fire TV Stick fits into a more old-school paradigm: sit on the couch and use a remote to navigate that big TV a few feet away without picking up any complicated gadgetry. At times it can be a bit tricky to remember exactly which button to press, but once you’re use to the way the remote works with each app, it’s easy to control your Fire TV Stick without unlocking your phone or running down its battery.

After spending the past year with a Chromecast, I’m a big fan of just how simple it is to use… for people who are already comfortable using phones or tablets to watch videos. The Fire TV Stick feels kind of complicated by comparison. But it’s also a lot more versatile.

In fact, many of the things you can do with a Chromecast, you can also do with a Fire TV Stick. Pair your phone with the Fire TV YouTube app, for instance, and you can fling videos from your mobile device to the Fire TV Stick. And if you start a video on a Fire phone or tablet you can also send it to your TV.

ftv xbmc_02

Since the Fire TV Stick runs a modified version of Google Android, you can also enable USB debugging and installation of apps from unkown sources if you want to try sideloading third-party apps. I’ve found that XBMC runs quite smoothly — although it doesn’t show up on the home screen, so you’ll have to dig into the settings to launch it.

ftv settings

Another thing that makes the Chromecast easier to use, though, is that it downloads software updates in the background while you’re using the device and installs them automatically (and pretty quickly) the next time you reboot the device. The Fire TV Stick, on the other hand, can take a very long time to download and install updates.

When I first took my Chromecast out of its box and plugged it in, it was online and streaming videos in a minute or two. It took me about 15-20 minutes to set up my Amazon Fire TV Stick because I first had to login to my WiFi network, wait as it downloaded a firmware update and rebooted, and then I had to login to my WiFi network again after the update was installed.

Now that the system is set up, it takes just a minute or so to rebot — and the device will sleep when it hasn’t been used in a while, so you don’t really need to turn it off at all if you don’t want to. But the initial setup process could have been simpler.

The Fire TV Stick is small enough to slide into a pocket, or hide behind your TV. If there’s not room for the stick behind your TV, Amazon also provides a small HDMI adapter cable that you can use to re-position the stick.

The only other thing that comes in the box is a a power adapter and a small, Bluetooth remote control and the two AAA batteries that it runs on.

ftv unboxed

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick is about the same size as a Chromecast, but has a more non-nonsense design. Both devices are much smaller than a larger TV box like the Google Nexus Player.

ftv compared_02

The Fire TV Stick has a Broadcomm Capir 28155 dual-core processor with VideoCore4 graphics, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage space, 802.11a/b/g/n dual-band WiFi, and Bluetooth 4.0.

There’s a microUSB port on one end which you can use to connect the microUSB cable that serves as the stick’s power supply. If you want to connect the device to a computer to sideload apps you’ll do that over a WiFi connection, not USB.

Amazon also offers a $99 box called the Fire TV. It’s bigger, has an Ethernet jack, USB port, twice as much RAM, and a faster processor than the Fire TV Stick. But while that model should be a little faster, it also costs more than twice as much and the Fire TV Stick doesn’t particularly feel slow.

ftv apps

All told, the Fire TV is most useful if you’re a Prime member, because the search and most of the media categories are aimed at Amazon users. But even if the only thing you want to do is stream videos from Netflix, at $39 the Fire TV Stick isn’t all that expensive and the Netflix app does work nicely.

Since I’ve primarily used my Chromecast to stream content from Netflix and YouTube over the past year, I plan to start using the Fire TV Stick to add Amazon Instant Video into that mix over the next few weeks and see if I miss the Chromecast at all.

 

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18 replies on “Amazon Fire TV Stick: overview of the $39 media streamer”

  1. I have yet to see anything about the fees or charges for access to content.

  2. Does this access photos and videos stored on Amazon Cloud Drive?

    Currently it seems the only way to share a video on Amazon Cloud Drive is through the URL link it gives you. I wonder if they will make it possible to set up sharing with other Amazon accounts so you can share with friends and family and not need to eMail them links to individual files.

    I can imagine having a photo album on Amazon Cloud Drive and setting up sharing with family members so they can access it from Fire TV.

  3. Is there an easy way to use this as a Miracast receiver? There are lots of android apps that will cast videos to any miracast device (smart TV or chromecast.) If I can do that, then the FireTV could fully replace my Chromecast, while adding more functionality. Based on what I’ve read, maybe Allcast will work.

    I’d also like to directly install Slingplayer- as the Chromecast implementation of Slingplayer has way too much buffering as opposed to the native android app. It sounds like if I do sideload slingplayer then I will need to use a bluetooth keyboard/touchpad.

    1. Theoretically it supports screen mirroring, but it doesn’t seem to work at the moment and it’s kinds of clunky. You have to go into the display settings and enable it every time you want to connect a device… But while my phone sees the Fire TV Stick it won’t actually connect unless I’m using the YouTube app which has its own connection tool.

      1. Thanks, that is disappointing. I read that FireTV is not DLNA capable out of the box. I hate the thought of needing 3 sticks connected to my TV to be able to utilize my connected devices. I need a chromecast, firetv and miracast/widi receiver and none them to do everything.

      2. My phone, a 1st gen moto x, could connect via miracast just fine. My computers, on the other hand, could see it, but never could connect.

        1. Interesting. Are you running Android 4.4? And you’re using a Fire TV Stick and not a $99 Fire TV?

          Either way, I’ve read other reports of people having Miracast issues so it sounds like the feature’s buggy at best right now… hopefully software updates could improve performance, but I wouldn’t recommend buying the Fire TV Stick for use as a Miracast device at this point.

          1. Yes, and Yes. Got it in the mail yesterday. I agree. I was really hoping to miracast my windows 8 tablet, but it wouldn’t work. It’s a shame.

          2. Interesting. I’ll have to try using an Android 4.4 device and see if that works with mine… although I primarily plan to use the Fire TV Srtick as a standalone device.

          3. My Galaxy S4 had initial connectivity problems, but eventually got going. Streaming CNN was OK, not great – some dropped frames and stuttering. My 2014 Asus Memo Pad could also eventually connect, but apps wouldn’t beam. So I’d say the Miracast is not ready for prime time. Also it’s quite annoying to manually enable it every time.

  4. The Hulu Plus app on Fire TV Stick is painfully clunky and slow. Anyone else experiencing that?

  5. If it had chromecast or miracast support I would buy. I don’t even use my apple TV anymore after getting chromecast. Well I also searched to android and my IPad broke so really don’t have devices I can use AirPlay with…

  6. I had log in to Wi-Fi twice also. That was frustrating. Like you said, within a couple minutes the Chromecast was ready to use. Oh, to have an Amazon Instant Video app on my tablet that casts…….

  7. I had log in to Wi-Fi twice also. That was frustrating. Like you said, within a couple minutes the Chromecast was ready to use. Oh, to have an Amazon Instant Video app on my tablet that casts…….

  8. I had log in to Wi-Fi twice also. That was frustrating. Like you said, within a couple minutes the Chromecast was ready to use. Oh, to have an Amazon Instant Video app on my tablet that casts…….

    1. Entirely the opposite experience. After two hours of tech support, the chromecast was unhappily on its way back to best buy. The fire stick was running in less than five minutes.

  9. The Fire TV is on sale every second week on Amazon for $84, For $40 more , just get that,

    1. I agree. Saw the fire TV for 74 the other day and it’s a beast! Install XBMC and you have the best of both worlds

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