Amazon is getting serious about TV. Its drama series Transparent, starring Arrested Development's Jeffrey Tambor, is wowing critics and now the etail giant is going stick-to-stick against Google and Roku with a cut-down, cut-price Fire TV streamer.
But is it too late to stick it to the competition? Chromecast and Roku's Streaming Stick have been poking out of tellies for months already, and the Fire TV Stick lacks its boxy brother's grown-up features such as voice search and quad-core gaming.
Can free telly, casual games and a bargain basement price earn Amazon a place on your telly? Certainly sounds like a tasty recipe so far...
READ MORE: Amazon Fire TV review
Design and setup
Aesthetically speaking, the Fire TV Stick is about as exciting as the inside of an Amazon cardboard box. Without the fun air pillows to pop. Remarkably, it's probably less interesting to look at than an actual stick, which at least might be a bit knobbly or have an interesting insect crawling along it.
But that doesn't really matter, as the Fire TV Stick is destined to be stuck, hopefully unseen, in an HDMI port at the back of your telly. One word of advice for future stick engineers - putting the micro-USB power socket on a thin edge of the stick means you can't put another HDMI in an adjoining port. Sticking it on the end or one of the thick faces would be more practical. Amazon does include an HDMI extender, gratis, but we can't help thinking it would be unnecessary if the Stick was designed a bit more thoughtfully in the first place.
Set-up is unbelievably easy. The Fire TV Stick automatically finds and pairs with its Bluetooth remote, then you tap in your Wi-Fi details, including 5GHz networks (unlike Chromecast) for more reliable low-range streaming. A perky video tutorial then talks you through its navigation and operation.
Interface and features
It's a shame that Amazon doesn't ship the Fire TV Stick with the same voice control remote as the Fire TV. Being able to simply hold down the microphone button and say what you want - in almost any accent and even in a noisy room - makes the rest of the Fire TV's interface virtually irrelevant. You can buy one separately, currently for £25, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
At least the home screen operation is fast and intuitive. Categories and menu items are on a vertical column on the left, populating out with recent and recommended items to the right. The Fire TV Stick feels just as fast as its big brother for browsing but maybe a couple of seconds slower to start playing videos. That sluggishness is even more noticeable when it comes to games, which can take five or ten seconds extra to load.
That's hardly a surprise. The Fire TV Stick has a dual-core ARM chip and 1GB of memory, compared to the Fire TV's quad-core silicon with 2GB of RAM. Both gadgets have 8GB of storage, which is enough for a handful of apps and games. The Fire TV Stick works as a seamless second screen with Fire tablets (and the Fire Phone, if either of you out there with one are reading this), and you can fling other services such as YouTube and Spotify from iOS or Android phones.
All the most popular apps are present and correct. Amazon Instant Video is the easiest and quickest to use of course, but Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and WatchESPN work OK. HBO GO is promised for next year (at least in the US), just in time for its promised unbundling from cable subscriptions (both Roku and Chromecast already offer the app Stateside).
Video output: 1080p or 720p at up to 60fps
Processor: Broadcom Capri 28155, dual-core 2xARM A9
Connectivity: Dual-band MIMO Wi-Fi, HDMI; Bluetooth 3 for remote
Dimensions: 85 x 25 x 11.5mm
Video, games and sound
The great news is that video (up to 1080p, 60fps) looks every bit as good on the Fire TV Stick as it does on the Fire TV. Colours are great, detail is crisp and there are no nasty artefacts. It doesn't handle navigating through video quite as well, though. Tap the fast forward or rewind button for a 10-second shift and the screen hiccups slightly, unlike the Fire TV's silky smooth transitions. Scrubbing at high speed forward or back also feels laggy.
One thing worth noting is Amazon's smart handling of Wi-Fi interruptions and general internet slowdowns. The video signal degrades very gracefully, pixellating the image without interrupting the stream until the last possible moment. If your connection is prone to problems, this is one of the best systems we've seen to cope with it.
The Stick can't play H.263 or MPEG videos (unlike the Fire TV) although it does offer Flac and Vorbis audio playback that its older sibling does not. Home cinema fans will be pleased to hear that Dolby Digital Plus and 7.1 channel passthrough are on board. There's no optical audio out (again, unlike the Fire TV).
As long as you're not expecting the Fire TV Stick to replace a real console for games, you won't be disappointed. Casual games are slower to load than on the Fire TV but play without glitches, including the latest 3D puzzlers such as Disney's Smash It! Amazon gives you some coins to buy a few games without actually spending any money - you might even find them enough to keep you busy between Netflix binges.
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Amazon Fire TV Stick verdict
Amazon did the right thing in releasing a super-portable streaming stick. The Fire TV Stick is small enough to take on holiday with you or to lend to a mate, and looks very respectable when stacked up against Google's Chromecast or Roku's Streaming Stick. While it doesn't offer quite as many apps, it's got all the basic, popular streaming services stacked up, with the bonus of a selection of high quality casual games to dip into.
The problem really comes with the Fire TV Stick's core audience - people who already pay for Amazon Prime and want to get the most from it. Given that you're paying £79 or $99 a year for the service, saving a little on a cut-down streaming device doesn't add up. The standard Fire TV box comes with a revolutionary voice control remote, beautifully smooth video and pretty fast gaming - the Fire TV Stick really only has its price and size going for it.
The Fire TV Stick is a solid performer at a very cheap price, then, but if you're a streaming veteran there's probably not enough reason to up sticks and switch to this.