I don’t envy Amazon and their recent entry into streaming set-top submarket of media sticks. It’s a brimming category where the Fire TV Stick was an unequivocal latecomer back in 2014, trying to take on the likes of the Roku Streaming Stick and Google’s venerable Chromecast. It’s not perfect, but The world’s largest internet retailer has put some thought into it.
Media sticks must be portable, and tiny able to be hidden away. Unsurprisingly, Amazon doesn’t break the mold for the Fire TV Stick. It fits the criteria of being a little longer than a USB thumb drive and comes in a featureless matte black body, with a HDMI port up front and powered micro-USB on the side to give it life. Think of first-gen Chromecast without the unnecessary bulge or rounded edges and purple coloring of the Roku, not much more for this also-ran.
But you do get compliant internals such as a potent Broadcom dual-core ARM processor clocked at 1GHz, VideoCore4 GPU, and 1GB of memory. It’s neatly crammed in a dongle as long as your index finger but still manages to offer a relatively sizable 8GB of storage, and dual-antenna 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. They were even considerate enough to add Dolby Digital Plus 5.1/7.1 PCM to complement your AV receiver build, so no complaints on that front.
Our model came with the Voice Remote whose omission plagued early Fire TV Stick owners; a nice icing on the cake proving that patience is a virtue among these sub $50 media devices. Even though the TV Stick was capable of complying with voice search, Amazon kept it out of people’s hands — though you could buy it separately. Fortunately, this omission is mostly rectified for $10 dollars more but the functionality is the same as its little rectangular mute brother. To those who still feel slighted you can always get the Fire TV Remote App for Android or iOS which comes with the same amount of control.
Bluetooth is accounted for and you can connect peripherals (keyboards, mice, headphones) without too much of a fuss, however, your results may vary for game controllers. We didn’t have issues until we tried playing games on the thing. We used a Bluetooth controller, a SteelSeries Free Controller, which was discovered and paired within a minute, but trying to actually play games became hit or miss. It’s apparent that opting for an Amazon Fire Game Controller would solve our issues since it’s the recommended choice, otherwise anticipate a lot of guesswork, or simply skip out on the gaming entirely (which I’ll explain later).
The Fire TV Stick’s UI is an extremely modified (and nearly exised) version of Android TV that’s large and basic, with tiles and tiles of apps and media lined up in categorized rows. You’ll get the usual Netflix, YouTube, Twitch, Hulu, very desirable HBO Now to name just a few of the dozens of available choices. It’s a carryover from its larger sibling and the immediate experience is geared towards Amazon’s own suite of movies, TV, music, and even games. The platform makes sense for those entrenched in that Amazon Prime life, the subscription service where 2-day shipping is “free” and weekly deals are plentiful.
Amazon Instant Video is another included perk that offers its own unique variety of content. A lot of doors open up for the TV Stick when you have a annual Prime membership, not just for watching things. You get unlimited photo storage and immediate access to Prime Music, which lets you create playlists from over a million songs and listen for free. Admittedly, Amazon Prime still has some catching-up to do in sheer entertainment volume but steadily growing for credible binge viewing.
Gaming is possible, albeit the promises are misleading on which titles will work and how fluid they’ll feel. Roughly half of the gaming library is available as many of the better picks are optimized for the regular Fire TV while the Stick is left with ports of 16-bit games and uninspired mobile titles. We weren’t surprised since sacrifices have to be made for a device this small, that said it’s just not smooth enough except to the most apologetic casual player.
This also served as a precursor in what the performance would be, proving that the less powerful and cheaper device will generally be… less powerful and cheaper. That’s the reality of the Fire TV Stick; you have Amazon Instant Video which is incredibly quick to navigate because the ecosystem is directly integrated. It’s a no-brainer conclusion as everything including the voice remote microphone will only go out of its way to search for Amazon Instant stuff.
For third-party apps, however, the TV Stick needs more time to compute. On average it took between four seconds longer to start YouTube with considerably more pronounced buffer walls when rewinding or fast-forwarding on Netflix. I can tolerate the lengthened load times but the Fire TV Stick lacks secondary background functionality, meaning that jumping back into the main menu requires closing apps entirely. It’s tiresome because the wait might be inconsistently long if your accidentally hit the wrong thing; I encountered a combined loading time of 21 seconds (13sec. entering/8sec. closing) as I mistakenly entered Crackle.
Many of shortcomings of the Amazon Fire TV Stick aren’t necessarily based on bad design, but rather attempting to squeeze everything possible in something no bigger than a thumb drive. It certainly isn’t as sprightly as a normal Fire TV media streamer but it’s still good fun for movie watchers, and if you’re an Amazon Prime member it is practically the only sensible pick at this price. Just keep the gaming to an absolute minimum and you should have a very good time here.