Available for preorder starting today is a new streaming media device officially called Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote. It costs the same $40 as its predecessor, the , and still streams the same TV apps including Netflix, Hulu, Watch ESPN and of course Amazon video. But now the price includes the same remote found on the more expensive , complete with a little mic button and voice control.
Equally important in my book is a boost in speed. Amazon upgraded the processor with a quad-core version that's supposedly 30 percent faster, addressing one of my major complaints with the original Stick. It also improved the Wi-Fi capability from 802.11n to 802.11ac, and added the ability to connect a set of Bluetooth wireless headphones for private listening.
Otherwise it's basically identical to the previous $50 version, which paired the original stick with a "voice remote." Addition of the word "Alexa" in the new Stick's name indicates how Amazon intends to differentiate itself from Roku. Amazon claimed "4,000 channels, apps, and games" on the original Sticks, and now that line reads "7,000 channels, apps and Alexa skills."
Alexa, the Amazon voice assistant that's been available for the last year on Fire TV, has grown more useful recently. It now augments search capabilities (which now cover 90 apps) with the ability to launch apps, play movies and TV shows by title or genre, control playback ("skip ahead 30 seconds") read back information on local movie showtimes, businesses and restaurants, create shopping lists, use any of the 3000 Alexa skills, and command all of the same smart home devices as Amazon's Echo and Dot.
The main downside of Alexa on Fire TV compared to Alexa on those devices, however, is that you'll need to turn on your TV and press a button on the remote to use it -- the Stick isn't "always on" and listening for your command.
Fire TV's primary function is streaming video, however, and my main beef is still with its interface, which relentlessly channels (no pun intended) users toward Amazon content. A recent minor facelift improved the situation a bit, allowing some apps like Netflix and HBO to surface content on the home screen, and Amazon promises a major "content-first" interface update later this year. We'll see.
Three days ago Roku introduced an onslaught of new streamers, including three with 4K capability, while Google is expected to unveil its 4K Chomecast next week. A couple year-old iterations of the Fire TV box remain Amazon's sole 4K streamers for now. The new Stick has 1080p resolution, not 4K.
Of course, the Fire TV Stick's primary rivals are the, the $30 Roku Express and the , my favorite streaming device overall. Amazon's counter-punch is to pair its new $40 Stick with a limited time promotion: "Eligible customers who purchase and activate their device by October 31 will also receive a free content package worth up to $65, including one month of Sling TV, two months of Hulu (Limited Commercials), and a $10 credit for Amazon Video to rent or purchase new releases or old favorites."
The Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote ships October 20. We'll have a full review as soon as possible.