Amazon enters the compact streaming race—and sticks the landing.
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As more and more people cut the cord, more companies are entering the fray in an effort to serve content to your television. Recently, Amazon tossed its hat into the ring with the Fire TV Stick (MSRP $39), a Chromecast-like dongle that gives users simple, no-nonsense access to a number of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
There are dozens of excellent streaming devices out there, with all sorts of functionality. But what if you want something smaller? Something that can just plug into a vacant HDMI port and give a dumb TV an IQ boost? The Fire TV Stick is designed for precisely these kinds of situations, hoping to supplant the Google Chromecast and Roku Stick in the process.
Since these devices are all fundamentally similar, the choice inevitably comes down to the details. Here's what you need to know if you're torn between TV sticks.
If you're familiar with Roku or Chromecast, the Amazon Fire TV Stick won't be throwing any curve balls at you. The dongle itself slots directly into one of your TV's HDMI ports and draws power via USB. The stick also comes with an extender cable, should you find the layout of your TV's panel to be restrictive. Plug it into your HDMI port, give it some power, and you're done—simple as you like.
After a brief introductory video, the Fire TV Stick prompts you to connect to your home WiFi network. Once you're up and running, you’re free to surf at will. The stick features the usual suspects–Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, Crackle–but the emphasis here is (unsurprisingly) on Amazon's own Prime Instant Video. Amazon Prime subscribers will feel right at home here, since the stick is linked directly to the user's Amazon Prime account, giving you access to movies you've already purchased through that service.
Despite a responsive, simple-looking user interface, navigating the platform takes some getting used to. There's not a lot of visual clutter, but there are a number of similar-sounding submenus ("Movies," "Watchlist," "Video Library") that are easy to get lost in if you're not used to the layout. That said, the experience itself is mostly streamlined, and after a few minutes of familiarization nearly anyone will be able to figure it out.
When it comes to controlling your Fire TV Stick, you've got a few options. Every Fire TV Stick ships with a small remote control that handles basic commands, but Amazon is offering a Fire TV Remote App for mobile devices that makes interfacing with the platform even easier. With the app, users can use their voice to search for content within the stick's main menu. As of now, the app is only available for Android devices, but according to Amazon, it will be available for iOS soon.
If you're more of the hands-on type, here is where the competition gets a little clearer. Google's Chromecast app doesn't come with a hardware remote. Chromecast functionality is baked into most apps like Youtube, Netflix, and HBO Go, making it useless without a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
Roku's Streaming Stick and the Fire TV Stick both have remotes, with basic functionality. Though the Roku remote lacks the headphone jack found on the latest full-fledged Roku boxes, it does have dedicated Netflix/Amazon buttons letting anyone easily access those services—no tech savviness required. The Fire TV Stick apparently can use the voice search that Gary Busey found so enjoyable, but only if you have the remote from the full-size Fire TV—the stick's included remote can't do voice searches.
By and large, the Fire TV Stick offers the same collection of apps we've come to expect from a streaming stick, with one notable absence: HBO Go. According to Amazon, HBO Go will be arriving on the Fire TV Stick in spring of 2015, but that's still a bummer if you want to get caught up on The Wire.
Like all streaming platforms, your experience is only as strong as your WiFi signal. Once we connected to our lab's wireless network, we didn't notice any hiccups with the service that could be attributed to the hardware. If you're planning on using this with a TV across the house from your router, however, you may have to deal with some considerable headaches.
This is again something that all three streaming sticks—and any WiFi-dependent device—have to contend with. In our experience, the best way to see if the Fire TV Stick will work with your particular setup is to stand next to your TV and try and stream a video. If it works on an existing smart device, it'll work just fine with any streaming stick.
Once you're up and running? You should be good to go to stream whatever you like. The one hangup with all these sticks is that none will presently stream 4K video—they simply lack the processing power to decode it. Most 4K TVs do have this functionality, however, so it shouldn't be much of an issue.
If you want to simply add some smart functionality to an existing TV, streaming sticks are a fantastic option. But deciding which streaming stick is right for you will depend on a number of factors—none moreso than what streaming services you already use.
Amazon Prime members will undoubtedly get the most out of the Fire TV Stick, especially if they plan on using the Fire TV Remote App in conjunction with the stick. If you don't have a Prime membership, the Fire TV Stick is still a fantastic option if you have the WiFi network strength to stream to it. At $39 it's a superb value, adding smart functionality that would cost significantly more if it were baked into your TV natively.
Of course, both the $35 Chromecast and the $50 Roku Streaming sticks provide similar functionality at a similar price. And in truth, they're all basically the same. The Chromecast is better integrated into your existing smartphone/tablet apps like Youtube, Netflix, and HBO Go, but it lacks a remote and a traditional on-screen interface. The Roku and Fire TV stick both have remotes, but they also cost a little more. I prefer the Fire TV's user interface to Roku's, but to each their own.
No matter which way you go, you're getting plenty of bang for your buck. For less than 40 bucks, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is a great option for people who appreciate the price of a Chromecast but enjoy the idea of having a physical remote control included in the package. And if you're specifically looking to take advantage of Amazon's Prime streaming service, the Fire TV Stick is an almost impossible bargain.
Note: Since receiving our Fire TV Stick, Amazon has released an iOS version of the Fire TV Stick Remote App. It doesn't appear to add any new functionality, but we'll update this page further once we've had a chance to evaluate it in greater depth.