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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.