Who it's for: Amazon Prime subscribers looking for an easy way to watch video.
The $40 Fire TV Stick is exactly what it sounds like: the Amazon Fire TV, available in convenient HDMI-stick form. Like the Fire TV, the Stick has a strong app selection, a sensible interface and a number of helpful voice features. And you now can even choose which remote control you want: a standard model or a slightly more expensive one with voice-search capabilities.
Consumers who are already invested in the Amazon ecosystem will find a lot to like in the Fire TV Stick, which offers a convenient and inexpensive way to access movies, TV and music from every part of the Amazon experience. However, an overwhelming focus on Amazon content makes it a questionable investment for those who prefer to get their movies and shows primarily from services like Netflix and Hulu.
The Fire TV Stick lacks both the Chromecast's rounded aesthetics and the Roku Stick's eye-catching, purple design. Otherwise, the three devices are about the same size and shape. At 3.3 x 1.0 x 0.5 inches, the Fire TV Stick is on the long side, which means it did not fit neatly into the HDMI port on the back of some of our test TVs. A flexible adapter that's included with the device sorted this out, but be aware that your Fire TV Stick may dangle.
The bigger problem is the Fire TV Stick's power consumption. Like most streaming sticks, the Fire TV Stick draws power from a USB cable. Unlike with competitors, such as the Roku Streaming Stick and Chromecast, the power from the USB port on our test TV (a standard, 48-inch Samsung LED) was insufficient to keep the stick running.
Since the Stick first debuted, I have tried it with a dozen or more TVs across all major brands, and have not yet found a single one that can keep it supplied with enough USB power. The device comes with a wall charger, which is an ugly and inconvenient necessity.
The Amazon Fire TV has a clean, responsive interface; the Fire TV Stick has exactly the same thing, albeit a bit slower. The home screen shows your recent activities, your selection of apps and games, your settings, and a search bar. Where the Fire TV Stick differs from competitors like Roku and Android TV is in its focus on Amazon products.
About half of the options on the Fire TV Stick are specific to Amazon media. When you select Movies or TV from the main menu, you'll see only movies or TV shows that Amazon hosts. Other main-menu options, like Video Library, contain only what you've bought or rented from Amazon Instant Video. Watchlist keeps track of videos you intend to view, provided they come from Amazon.
Whether the interface feels convenient will largely depend on how much time and money you've invested in Amazon videos and music. You can access Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify or any other major streaming app easily enough under Apps in the main menu, but the Fire TV Stick's overall interface downplays them.
If Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Music are your go-to sources for streaming content, and you have an Amazon Prime subscription ($99 per year), this setup is ideal. The Fire TV Stick highlights your favorite streaming service and gives you robust options to go with it. If you're not so Amazon-centric, you'll have to grapple with an overwhelming focus on a service you may not care about.
Still, there are some accommodations for those ambivalent about Amazon. A recent software update allows the Fire TV Stick to pull recommendations from other services, as well as regulate video quality in case your bandwidth is capped.
In the past, you could only buy the Fire TV Stick with a flimsy remote that lacked voice-search capabilities. Amazon now gives you two choices. Those who can live without voice search (or who prefer to use their mobile devices for the voice search) can still buy the $40 model, or you can dish out an extra $10 for a $50 package that includes a remote you can operate with your voice.
The remote control works pretty well, no matter which model you choose. Users can navigate with a clickable directional wheel and a confirm button in the middle, as well as a back button, home button, options button and three media-specific buttons. I found the media buttons especially useful. The ability to play, pause and skip music with the media buttons while I navigated other menus was an incredibly helpful feature.
Thanks to a software update, the Fire TV Stick also supports Bluetooth headphones, for those that don't want to run a wire all the way to their TVs for quiet viewing.
Text Search and Voice Search
The Fire TV Stick's search features are competent, but lacking when compared to the strides made by the device's competitors. Users can perform an extremely cumbersome text search, and while voice search is a better option, it's still not perfect.
For the text search, users have to scroll through a small alphabetic keyboard (there is no QWERTY option) that, while not slow, per se, is also in no particular hurry to move from letter to letter. The algorithms are pretty good at finding titles and actors, but entering the information takes some time, even more so if you get overeager and make a typo.
Voice search, at least, has come a long way since the Fire TV Stick first launched. I could search for actresses like Kate Mulgrew and shows like Star Trek: Voyager with ease.
Searches can also trawl multiple services (like Hulu and Crackle, in addition to Amazon Instant Video), and should include 20 services by the end of 2015. However, this is still not nearly as many as Android TV or Roku offer. (Roku already searches more than 20 services, while Android TV allows individual developers to add their content to search results. The Chromecast, however, has a similar number of search partners.)
Amazon added the Alexa voice assistant, previously stuck inside of the Amazon Echo smart speaker, to the Fire TV Stick. This simple AI works similarly to Apple TV's Siri or Android TV's Google Now. You can ask Alexa questions about the weather, traffic conditions, your shopping list and so forth, but you'll probably stick to asking it to play a certain episode of a show or a particular piece of music for you.
As discussed in the Fire TV (2015) review, Alexa is a competent program, but hardly a make-or-break feature. Compared to Siri's innovative understanding of follow-up questions and Roku's incredibly extensive search, Alexa still has room for improvement.
The Fire TV Stick features a dual-core processor and 8GB of internal storage space, but more than one-quarter of the storage space in the Fire Stick is used to store the operating system and other Amazon services.
Overall, navigation was smooth, although the Fire TV Stick lagged behind its set-top box counterpart by a noticeable degree. The cursor often took a split second to catch up with my selections, and apps took a good few seconds to open. The performance issues are not deal breakers, but the Fire TV Stick feels much less snappy than Google’s redesigned Chromecast and full-fledged set-top boxes.
Content loaded and buffered fairly quickly. While Amazon and Hulu Plus videos reached full 1080p resolution, it took Netflix much longer, 20 seconds or so. Amazon claims that, over time, the Fire TV Stick will learn your preferences and buffer your favorite videos faster, but I didn't notice any difference during the time I used it.
For video and music, the Fire TV Stick is perfectly competent, but its less powerful innards mean that its gaming capabilities take a hit compared to the full Fire TV. (More on that later.)
Content and Apps
If you have an Amazon Prime subscription, the Fire TV Stick is one of the best ways to get the most of it. You can stream Amazon Prime videos and Amazon Music to your heart's content for as long as your Prime subscription is active. You can also access any music you've purchased through Amazon (even if you bought it as a CD back in the caveman days, which is pretty cool).
Otherwise, most of the standard apps are present and accounted for, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, Sling TV and Spotify. There are more than 2,000 apps available, altogether.
The Fire TV Stick also supports screen mirroring via Miracast. This feature was unreliable during testing with both a Google Nexus 10 tablet and Motorola Moto X smartphone, but Miracast is a highly unreliable technology, and extremely dependent on a user's network setup and streaming device.
The Fire TV Stick has access to more than 200 games, and from what I could tell, about 20 of them are worth your time. There are some classics, such as Sonic the Hedgehog, and some newer mobile hits like Alphadia Genesis.
I tried both action/RPG SoulCraft and the platformer Wind-Up Knight 2, and they both ran perfectly and looked quite good. I used the optional Amazon Fire Game Controller ($40), but most games work well with the included remote control, too. You can buy a number of perfectly diverting games on the Fire TV Stick for only a few dollars apiece, and play them without any special peripherals.
Since the Fire TV Stick is much less powerful than the Fire TV, its selection is much more limited. If you want to play Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us or similar core games, you'll have to stick to the Fire TV box. The Fire TV Stick doesn't support the hybrid action/tower-defense game Sev Zero, either, the Fire TV's lone exclusive title.
The selection of games has grown slowly over the last few months, but there's no killer app for the Fire TV Stick, and one is unlikely to emerge. The system is not nearly as powerful as the Fire TV box, nor the game-centric Nvidia Shield TV, and the vast majority of titles are uninspired variations on board games like checkers, backgammon and Connect Four. You may find a few selections that are worth your time, but this is not the streaming device to buy if gaming is a must-have feature.
For Amazon Prime subscribers, the $40 Fire TV Stick is a good investment. The original Fire TV's strengths — its ability to be synced with Amazon Prime, its simple navigation, and its good selection of video and music apps — are still present. However, the search options are lackluster, and while gaming is a nice perk to have, it probably won't be a determining factor in your purchase.
The slightly cheaper Chromecast offers a simpler experience, while the slightly more expensive Roku Stick offers more channels and better search features. Overall, though, the Fire TV Stick is a competent streaming device, and if you're an Amazon aficionado on a budget, it will fit the bill quite nicely.