REVIEW: Amazon Fire TV Stick
This £35 media-streaming dongle from Amazon is a rival to Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick
The Fire TV Stick media-streaming dongle is a cheaper alternative to the Fire TV set-top box for those who can make do without the microphone built into the remote control and can plug directly into an HDMI port on their TV, so it may be a better choice for anyone who doesn’t want a
Unlike the slightly cheaper Chromecast, you get a
plug into your TV’s HDMI port with no problems, but a short extension cable is included for situations where a direct connection isn’t possible. On our Panasonic TV, other HDMI cables blocked access to the Stick’s microUSB power input, and its rear end protruded from the TV’s bezel.
A USB cable and power supply is included too – you’ll probably have to use both since most TV USB ports won’t provide enough power for the Fire TV Stick. You’ll get a warning to tell you if that’s the case as the Stick can boot up even from an underpowered port.
The remote is similar to the one bundled with its big brother, but has no microphone. It communicates via Bluetooth, so you don’t need line of sight to the Stick for it to work: handy since it will be tucked away behind your screen.
You can buy the Voice Remote separately if you want to (it’s £25), or install the free app on your phone. As well as enabling voice search, the app lets you enter search terms via your phone’s keyboard: much quicker and easier than faffing around with the directional pad on the remote control.
It will come as no surprise that Amazon’s own Prime Instant Video takes centre stage, which is fair enough. But the Stick gives you access to a variety of other services as well, including main rival Netflix.
There’s also YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 (apps which are free to download and install to the 8GB of internal storage). Beyond this, though, there’s not much of interest unless you have a big collection of your own videos that you want to stream using the Plex app. Some might appreciate Vimeo, Vevo, Dailymotion and STV Player, but it’s a shame there’s not yet All 4 or ITV Player apps.
If, for some reason, you feel the need to listen to music on your TV, you can get Spotify, Amazon Music, Ministry of Sound Radio, Muzu.TV and Musixmatch apps.
If you didn’t know, it would be impossible to tell whether you were controlling a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick since their interfaces are basically identical. Down the left-hand side is the main menu, and the
content you see on the right-hand side relates to the section currently selected in the main menu.
At the top of the list – below Search and Home – is Prime Video. Your recent list is prominently displayed along with ‘recently added’ shows and movies, plus featured shows.
Our biggest complaint concerns not the content itself, but the fact you can’t filter out payper-view shows. This means you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for the little ‘Prime’ logo on a video’s thumbnail to see if it’s included in your subscription. A fair chunk is, but some movies and TV programmes have to be bought or rented. When you do pay for something like this, it appears in its own Video Library section.
Considering that you can filter out paid-for content in the Prime Instant Video iOS app, it’s maddening you can’t on Amazon’s own hardware.
The good news is that the beefy hardware inside the Fire TV Stick – a dual-core CPU, 1GB RAM and dual-band 802.11n MIMO Wi-Fi – means it’s very responsive and can always keep up with even the most fervent of button pushers. On top of this, the software predicts (or tries to) what you’re going to watch so playback is almost instantaneous.
The Stick also supports Dolby Digital Plus (and passthrough up to 7.1 channels) so if you have a suitably equipped surround-sound system, you’ll get decent audio where the content has it. Just bear in
mind that there are no other connectors on the Stick: if you want to route audio out of it, you’ll either need a TV with the appropriate audio outputs for HDMI devices, or to plug it directly into an AV receiver which passes the video signal to your television.
If you own a compatible tablet (or a Fire Phone) you can use it as a second screen while you watch Prime videos to get ‘X-ray’ information such as which actors are in a particular scene, other films or TV shows they’ve been in and more.
Like the Apple TV, the Fire TV Stick will provide an eye-catching slideshow of your personal photos: Amazon offers 5GB of free storage and an app to automatically back up your phone’s camera roll, so photos will appear on your TV without you lifting a finger. It’s a nice touch, and certainly worth having the extra app if you do buy a Fire TV.
TV and movies aren’t enough for media streamers these days, and the Fire TV Stick lets you play casual games just like its big brother, the Fire TV. You can play most with the remote control, and it also works with Amazon’s £35 Bluetooth Gamepad if you want more of a console experience.
The games available aren’t blockbusters, but the ability to download Hill Climb Racing, Tetris and Sonic certainly add an extra dimension.
Thanks to its internals and nice interface, the Fire TV Stick is a great gadget for watching Prime Instant Video, Netflix, iPlayer and Demand 5.