Update: Amazon recently announced a new version of the Amazon Fire TV Stick that adds support for Alexa voice search, which is available for pre-order now. It also has faster hardware and a new and improved interface. The following review is of the 1st-gen Fire TV Stick. Watch the video below for an overview of the All-New Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote. We'll be publishing a full review of the new stick when it goes on sale.
The Fire TV Stick is Amazon's answer to the Google Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick. If you're familiar with the Amazon Fire TV box, you'll be right at home. The Fire TV Stick takes many of the same features and crams them into a HDMI dongle. That means you can stream Full HD content from services like Amazon Prime Instant Video, BBC iPlayer and Netflix. You can also stream music from Spotify and play a host mobile games from the Amazon App Store.
Amazon occasionally discounts the Amazon Fire TV Stick, but even when at the full £35 retail price, this is a little streamer is an absolute bargain.
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The Fire TV Stick setup is very similar to the Google Chromecast and Roku Streaming Stick. It's an HDMI dongle that plugs into your TV. There is a USB cable that you can plug into your TV, or into the bundled mains adaptor. Amazon also throws in a HDMI extender cable, which is handy if your spare HDMI port is a little tricky to get to. There's also a small remote, which doesn't have the voice-control feature of the Fire TV Box remote.
As with the Fire TV, you can sync with Amazon's Fire Game Controller (sold separately) or third-party gamepads for playing games. Annoyingly, you can't power the stick from a USB port on your TV, which does mean sacrificing a plug socket and having another wire trailing down the back of your TV.
The matte black dongle is roughly the same width as the Roku Streaming Stick and slightly taller, with a single Micro USB port for the power being the only thing breaking the simple design up. There’s no reset button like you get on the Roku Streaming Stick in case the software freezes, although that didn’t happen on any occasion during our testing.
So what are the big differences between the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick? Apart from the size, there are a few things that will alter the experience for some. The first thing you'll notice is that the Ethernet and optical-out ports are both sacrificed. In the processor department, Amazon has swapped a quad-core Snapdragon processor for a cheaper dual-core Broadcom one and dropped from 2GB to 1GB of RAM. It also uses an older Bluetooth 3.0 standard, but that shouldn't really impact how you use it.
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It does still have 8GB of internal storage, the same excellent dual-band Wi-Fi connectivity, and runs on the same Fire OS 3.0, based on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. In the grand scheme of things, you're missing out on the home theatre connectivity and losing some of the processing power as a result of the drop down in size.
The Fire TV Stick comes with its own remote, which is smaller and more compact than the one supplied with the Fire TV box. It’s still all in black with a cheaper, rougher-feeling plastic finish and a tricky-to-prise-away back where the two AAA batteries live. You get the same two rows of buttons and circular navigation pad, but the voice search button is notably absent. That doesn’t mean you miss out on the feature altogether, though. If you download the Amazon Fire TV app, you can use your phone’s mic to search instead. If you already have a Fire TV box remote control, you can sync this in the settings to use as well.
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Once you've hooked it up to the mains and connected to a Wi-Fi network, it takes less than 10 minutes to get going. If you're not setting up at home, Amazon has already thought about that very scenario by adding captive portal support. This basically means it's easier to sign into Wi-Fi networks where you require launching a web browser to access the internet. Hotel Wi-Fi would probably be a good example of where this can come in handy.
When you buy the TV Stick from Amazon, you'll also have the option to pre-register your account on the device to pull through supported content you’ve already purchased. If not, that's not a problem; you'll still have the option to create one during setup.
After sitting through a short intro video explaining how to navigate the system and use the smartphone remote control app, you can decide on whether to set up parental controls with Freetime support so you can control how much the service can be used by others.
The great thing about the Fire TV stick is that it really is plug-and-play. Once it's set up on one TV, you can move to another room, plug into another TV and it will boot up in no time. The same certainly can’t be said about the Chromecast and Roku Streaming Stick.
Unsurprisingly, the UI is no different from that on the Fire TV box. Down the left-hand side is your navigation bar, with Search located right at the top of the list and Settings at the bottom. Over on the right is where you’ll find the content feeds, which adjust as you scroll through different sections on the navigation bar. Even with a processor downgrade, it's still very slick to navigate the Android-based UI.
Searching content is restricted to text search, but you can add voice search with the phone app. Annoyingly, it's not universal search, which would make it so much easier to find content. Although we're not surprised that it's restricted to Amazon content. If the search doesn't find exactly what you're looking for, it'll push you to something it thinks you might be looking for. It's not always on the money, especially when hunting out apps from the Amazon App Store.
In the Settings menu, you can set up parental controls to restrict purchasing and content types. You can also pair Bluetooth devices such as controllers, and check your account details. Crucially, there's nothing too daunting here and it gives you just the right amount of information and control.
This is also where you can activate Chromecast-style screen mirroring via Miracast. It currently works with the Amazon Fire Phone, Fire HDX tablets and any Android tablets running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean or above. Unfortunately, it’s not very reliable. We tried with a range of supported devices and had mixed results. Sometimes it works with no issue and others times it's a little glitchy. Hopefully this is something Amazon is working on.
Content is key for any streaming device, of course, and the good news is that there's plenty here. Key players like Netflix, iPlayer and Spotify are there, along with Ministry of Sound Radio, BBC Sport and Sky News. The app experience for Netflix, BBC Sport and iPlayer is very similar to what you get using them on a console or a Roku. Apps load up quickly and there's no lag while navigating around the user interface.
If you’ve used a Kindle Fire tablet or Fire TV product before then you'll know that Amazon's cloud storage is a big part of how everything works. It means content such as music, games and films already purchased is pulled in automatically. Games will, of course, need to be installed if you want to store them on the 8GB of onboard storage.
Apps and mobile games are powered by the Amazon App Store. A quick glance shows that there's some high-profile titles missing – particularly Android games like the recent console ports of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and San Andreas. It's perhaps not that surprising, though, as the GPU and processing power are much better equipped for playing Crossy Road or something simple like Machinarium. If you're not happy with the app selection, there's some tinkering that can be done to sideload Android apps to improve matters.
If you manage to misplace the included remote and don’t want to fork out for another one, then you do have your phone as a backup. The Kindle Fire TV Remote app is a free download for Kindle, Android and iOS devices, giving you an alternative way to browse the Fire TV interface. For the Fire TV Stick, it also adds the voice search via your phone’s microphone.
It works over Wi-Fi and requires tapping in a four-digit code that should pop up on your TV to connect the two. First-time users will appreciate the small tutorial explaining how it works, but it's pretty self-explanatory. There are the same two rows of buttons that you get on the physical remote, with a keyboard shortcut for text searches in the top-right-hand corner.
The large square in the middle of the screen is where you can swipe your fingers to navigate the UI. It's definitely a little more fidgety to use, but it's a decent enough substitute. To activate voice search, you can swipe and hold down from the mic button, and call in your request. We tried it on an iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S6. Both offered snappy and accurate voice-recognition results.
If you want a streaming stick that's hassle-free and just works, then the Fire TV Stick is definitely worth considering. Amazon's approach is so much slicker than its rivals. Some may well grumble that you need to be signed up to Amazon Prime to make it worthwhile, but there's still plenty of content you can access without it.
Most will also be able to live without the features Amazon has stripped away for the sake of making it smaller. Despite the drop down in specs from the Fire TV box, the overall performance is still great. Casting is still not perfect from non-Amazon devices, but aside from that, we had no issues to complain about.
At £35, it's similarly priced to the Chromecast. While Google's streaming stick offers more flexibility with mirroring content, it lacks a UI to navigate and connectivity can still be flaky at times. Roku's stick offers more content, but it's a little more temperamental when moving it around to other TVs, and it doesn't really compete with Amazon's mobile gaming support.
It might not be the king of screen mirroring, but the Amazon Fire TV Stick is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to make your TV smarter.