Amazon Fire TV Stick review: Cheap Amazon-centric streamer a step behind competitors
A year and a half after launch, Amazon's Fire TV stick is starting to show some gray hairs. It's slower than competitors, so unless you're really into Amazon's content and on a very tight budget, you should go with a newer device.
Along with Roku, Apple and Google, Amazon is a major player in streaming TV devices, and the Fire TV Stick is the most popular Amazon streamer. It's small, cheap and capable, and people seem to like it. In fact it's the most-reviewed product in Amazon history, with more than 100,000 user reviews on the shopping site, averaging four out of five stars.
Count this as one review that's less enthusiastic. After a year and a half on the market, the Fire TV stick is showing its age. It's not the the Fire Stick is a bad device; it's not. It's just that its similarly-priced rivals are so good. All of the Fire TV Stick's competitors have shipped newer streamers since it debuted, and the two closest in price -- Roku Streaming Stick and Google Chromecast -- are both better right now.
Roku's new-for-2016 stick costs a bit more, but it's worth it for the extra apps, speedier response times and more open, customer-friendly interface. The slightly cheaper Chromecast is more appealing for phone-centric users who don't mind the lack of a remote (though, notably, it lacks the Amazon Prime video app).
Amazon's Stick is good enough, but struggles to stand out against the tough competition. The Alexa voice assistant is easily accessible if you buy the more expensive version ($50 versus $40) with the voice remote, but since you have to have your TV on, it's hardly a viable Echo or Dot substitute. Amazon has done a good job adding must-have apps, but they get buried by menus designed -- more than any other device I've ever used -- to make you browse, search for and buy video from just one source: Amazon itself.
And if you're a hardcore "Amazon person," the Fire TV box might be worth the extra money compared to the Stick. The box has better connectivity, 4K capability, and is smoother and faster to use every day. The Stick is still better value at less than half the price, however.
I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon replaces the current Stick with a faster version later this year. Until then there are better devices to choose as your main streamer, and better values.
Editors' note: This review was completely updated May 27, 2016, to account for changes since the last update in 2015, including the introduction of new devices. The ratings were reduced to account for the changes in the competitive landscape mentioned above.
Sticking to the Amazon basics
If you're not familiar with streamers in general and sticks in particular, here's a quick primer. Numerous devices available today let you stream TV shows, movies and other video content, as well as music, via the Internet.
Sticks like Amazon's are the smallest and cheapest. They plug into your TV's HDMI port and use your home Wi-Fi network. They get power either from an included wall adapter or a USB port on your TV, although I recommend using the adapter to avoid the stick needing to boot up every time you turn your TV on.
Almost all streamers can access major apps like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO Now and Watch ESPN. The major exception is Amazon video. Apple TV, Chromecast and Google Android TV devices like the Nvidia Shield can't access any Amazon content directly. They lack an Amazon video app, so you have to use an inconvenient workaround like AirPlay or screen mirroring from a phone, tablet or computer.
Fire TV devices and Roku both allow direct access to Amazon video, and that's a big deal for many viewers. As of April 2016 Amazon Prime Video was the most popular subscription video service in the U.S. after Netflix, beating Hulu and everyone else. Amazon has a healthy slate of original programming like "The Man in the High Castle", "Transparent" and "The Grand Tour". There are add-on subscriptions like Showtime, Starz, Acorn TV and Comedy Central Stand-up Plus, and of course a massive library of individual shows and movies to rent or buy.
Speed stick? Not so fast
With any content that isn't from Amazon, the Stick is relatively slow. It took me 11 to 17 seconds to launch apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube, HBO Now and Plex. Roku's 2016 streaming stick was significantly faster launching all of them, particularly Netflix, which was ready to go in 4 seconds.
The Stick is also slower than the Amazon Fire TV box with most apps I tried. The most egregious difference occurred with the PlayStation Vue app (which isn't available on any other stick streamer). It takes almost a minute for the interface to become fully responsive, and navigating Vue's image-heavy menus is more tedious than on the box.
On the other hand, if you use Amazon for most of your streaming, the Stick is great. Amazon videos launch quickly, the menus are responsive, and your most recent stuff is presented front and center.
Plenty of apps and features, but even more jungle
Putting Amazon front and center is more curse than blessing if you use a lot of different apps. Unlike Roku and Apple TV, there's no way to customize Amazon's interface and put the apps you like best at the top. Instead there's just a "recent" row that shows the last few apps you've launched. Almost all of the items on the main navigation column -- Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, FreeTime, Music and Photos -- lead to Amazon's own services.
Once you find them, the selection of other apps on the Stick is very good. Competing a la carte video stores like Vudu and Google Play Movies and TV are shut out, and some apps TV everywhere apps like Nick and CNN Go are still MIA, but overall most of the major apps are covered. There's also a healthy selection of games, if you're into that, and you can even connect an optional controller.
Search works well, and can even find apps, but you'll have to navigate past the Amazon results -- which are presented first -- to get to results from other services like Hulu or HBO Go. And unlike Apple TV and Roku, search on Amazon still doesn't return any results from Netflix.
To search by voice you'll have to get the more expensive Fire TV stick with the voice remote, or use the Fire TV remote app for iTunes or Android. Doing so also lets you talk with Alexa, Amazon's voice assistant, to do things like check the weather, add stuff to a shopping list, launch apps and begin playing certain shows and movies by title. Which ones? Why, ones from Amazon or its add-on subscription services, of course!
For more on Amazon's interface, voice, search and apps, as well as features like Hotel Wi-Fi and parental controls, check out the full Fire TV box review. The main differences between the two devices are operational speed, 4K capability (only available on the box) and connectivity.