By Dan Moren
November 21, 2014 2:44 PM PT
Amazon Fire TV Stick review
It’s come to my attention that I may have a problem. And that problem is: not enough HDMI ports.
Right now, connected to my TV are an Apple TV, an Xbox 360, a Mac mini, and an Amazon Fire TV. If you’re wondering, the answer is yes: I do find myself saying a little prayer every time I plug something else into the power strip back there.
I also had a Chromecast up until I left it in a hotel room last month. My new TV, purchased in August, has all those handy smart TV features. And yet, for some inconceivable reason, I still ordered an Amazon Fire TV Stick when they were announced a few weeks back. (It didn’t hurt that it was on sale for $20 for Amazon Prime members like myself.)
Basically, I buy video-streaming devices with slightly less devotion than Scott McNulty buys Kindles.
The original Fire TV wasn’t quite enough to sway me from the Apple TV—AirPlay can be a powerful convincer—but I liked several things about it. For one, it supports Plex, the media server app that I run on my Mac mini. For another, its ability to search for titles via voice, half-baked though it was, had potential. And it also allows access to Amazon’s collection of free movies for Prime subscribers without having to AirPlay them from an iOS device.
So what does the Fire TV Stick and its cumbersome moniker buy me that the Fire TV doesn’t? In a word: portability. In fact, that’s pretty much all the Stick has going for it. Because it’s a dongle that connects directly to an HDMI port, you can throw it in a bag, and it won’t take up too much space. Otherwise it’s pretty similar to the Fire TV, supporting all the apps and most of the features that the Fire TV does, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Plex, YouTube, and so on. And, in a nice touch, it remembered which apps I’d downloaded onto my Fire TV, so I could quickly add them to the Stick, too.
The Stick does lack both optical audio out and an Ethernet port, for obvious space reasons, though it does support Dolby Digital Plus and will pass through up to 7.1 channel audio.
Cache and carry
I used to carry around my Chromecast when I was traveling, but the number of times I was actually able to get it working in a hotel were slim. That’s because most hotels lock down the HDMI ports on their TVs—so you have to rent movies through their expensive pay-per-view services—or they use captive Internet portals that the Chromecast can’t yet navigate. (Though the Fire TV Stick doesn’t currently support those either, Amazon’s product page claims that it will; I’m looking forward to putting it to the test.)
Alas, though it’s small—about the size of a large flash drive—the Fire TV Stick also isn’t quite as portable as I want it to be. Like the Chromecast, it requires power in the form of a micro-USB cable. (Unfortunately, HDMI doesn’t yet provide enough power to drive a video-streaming stick on its own.)
Which raises the question: How does it compare to a Chromecast? The key difference between the Chromecast and the Fire TV Stick is one of autonomy. Google’s product relies on you using your smartphone to select content from an app, like YouTube; when you “cast” that content to the Chromecast, it doesn’t stream from your phone or tablet—the Chromecast itself goes to the web and starts retrieving that content. The Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, by comparison, don’t need you to have a phone or tablet; like the Apple TV or Roku, they have onboard apps that you navigate via a remote.
Of course, that also means you need to bring your remote—or download Amazon’s Fire TV Remote App…which isn’t available for iOS yet. That remote also replaces the single best feature of the Fire TV, which is otherwise absent on the Stick: the voice search. The Fire TV Remote App can also provide the voice search functionality—which is something that Apple should have done with its Remote app long ago—or you can pair the Stick with a Fire TV remote, either bought separately or erm, stolen from your Fire TV.
Speaking of remotes, the Stick’s is slightly smaller than the Fire TV’s (and hilariously bigger than the Stick itself). Both use Bluetooth rather than infrared: on the one hand, that’s nice, because it means they don’t require line of sight. On the other, it also means that those folks—like myself—who’ve invested in a nice universal remote still need to have another remote lying around, or rely solely on their smartphone, which can be cumbersome. (Have you ever tried to pause playback using your phone as a remote because your phone is ringing? Yeah.)
Stick to your knitting
So besides the Stick itself, the package also contains a micro-USB cable, a power adapter, the remote, and a short HDMI extender cable, which Amazon claims gives the Stick better Wi-Fi reception. (I can’t vouch for that, but I’m glad Amazon included it anyway, because when the Stick was plugged directly into my TV, I actually couldn’t get to the micro-USB port. Points to the Chromecast here, which puts the port on the end of the stick rather than, weirdly, in the middle of one side).
And despite having powered the Stick by plugging into the USB port on my TV—because what else am I going to use that port for—Amazon really really really wants you to use the included 5W USB power adapter. It suggests this course of action on the Fire TV Stick’s plastic packaging, when you start it up for the first time, and when the included tutorial video runs. Look, I get it already.
In every case the proviso issued is that the power adapter provides “the best experience,” though I haven’t noticed a huge difference. The one downside I have noticed is that plugging it into a power source that’s not always on (such as a USB port on a TV) means that it has to start up again when you turn the TV on; that slows the wake-up time, which is one place that the Fire TV has always performed well.
As for performance, the Stick’s video quality is perfectly adequate and watchable, if not stellar. It’s certainly more pixelated than the Fire TV (see below); it also often seemed to take longer than its big sibling to display the highest quality video available. Navigating menus seemed slower as well. (They have different CPUs and GPUs, and the Stick has less RAM.) I haven’t really played games on either Fire TV—that’s what my iOS devices and Xbox are for—so I can’t speak to the performance there.
Don’t cross the streams!
It’s telling to me that Amazon lines the Fire Stick TV against the Google Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick; likewise, the Fire TV is compared to the Apple TV, Roku 3, and once again the Chromecast. But never are the Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick put side by side, which makes it tricky to make a buying decision. No doubt Amazon hopes you’ll pick up both: one for home, one for the road.
The Fire TV Stick is certainly not the non plus ultra of video-streaming sticks—largely because there still isn’t one. This market’s in the middle of a street fight and if you want to have access to both Amazon video and iTunes video on your TV, the only single device that solves that problem is a Mac (or PC).
Ultimately, the Fire TV Stick isn’t a bad option if you’re looking for a video-streaming dongle to carry with you: it’s cheap, it’s capable, and it’s pretty portable. If Amazon delivers on its promise of compatibility with hotel Internet, that’d be a big tick in its favor. If all your video streaming is done at home, though, you’ll probably want to stick—see what I did there?—with a Fire TV or Apple TV or Roku. For now, anyway. This fight’s still far from over, especially when there hasn’t been a major Apple TV revision in ages.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.