Amazon's Alexa rules the home voice-tech world while rivals Google, Apple and Microsoft race to keep up. The giant retailer doesn't make phones (anymore), but it's building the talking digital assistant into devices beyond its blockbuster Echo and Dot line of always-on, always-listening home speakers.
The cheapest, the Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote, costs just $40 (or £40 in the UK from 6 April 2017). It's always on but not always listening. Instead, it requires your TV to be powered up and you to talk into the remote while you hold down, er, Tap, the mic button.
Once you do that, the Stick behaves just like any other Alexa device. Her sorta-robotic female voice replies to questions like "What's the weather?" or "How much does the sun weigh?" via your TV's speakers (unlike Siri on Apple TV, who remains silent for now) and an on-screen message. She can turn on the lights, set the thermostat or otherwise interact with any other Alexa-compatible device in your home.
That's not why you're buying one, however. For most people, Alexa on the Fire TV Stick will be an afterthought. The Stick's main schtick is streaming video, just like its predecessor, which cost the same and also worked with Alexa, but didn't include that voice remote.
The new Stick is faster and remains an excellent value with plenty of content. UK viewers can enjoy online services including Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5 and Curzon Home Cinema. And Amazon Video has a healthy slate of original programmes such as "The Man in the High Castle", "Transparent" and "The Grand Tour". It's a no-brainer buy for heavy Amazon video watchers and people who prefer talking rather than pressing buttons. But compared to rival Roku, whose $50 streaming stick is our favorite such device, the new Amazon stick currently falls a bit short.
The main reason is the on-screen user interface, which still relentlessly pushes you toward Amazon's TV shows and videos rather than provide the equal playing field for all apps (like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, WatchESPN, Sling TV and countless others) that Roku does. The new Amazon Stick is just as quick as Roku's stick, and its voice capabilities run circles around Roku's, but for now it's not as good unless you already get most of your video from Amazon anyway.
Why do I say "currently" and "for now"? Amazon will soon give all of its Fire TV devices a completely overhauled menu system and user interface (above). It will roll out first to this product by the end of the year, then make its way to older Fire TV models like the 4K-capable Fire TV box (which remains on sale at the new price of $90). For that reason I'm not going to say much about the current menu system (detailed here) in this review.
I will update this review when the new system becomes available and I can test it. In the meantime, here's my take today.
In my book smaller is better for pretty much any tech device (that doesn't have a screen). The stick form factor slims streaming down to the bare minimum, allowing the device to hide discreetly behind the TV. The only real downside compared to boxes like the Fire TV, Apple TV or Roku's boxes is lack of ports like Ethernet (although Google's Chromecast has a clever solution), MicroSD, USB and optical audio.
Unlike many of streaming boxes the new Fire TV Stick has 1080p resolution, not 4K. The only mainstream 4K stick-like streamer is the $70 Chromecast Ultra. Like the 4K-capable Fire TV box the new Stick does have HEVC decoding, so it can take advantage of that superior compression format to use less bandwidth for similar picture quality, even with 1080p streams. Amazon has re-encoded its entire video library to HEVC.
The newer version of the Fire TV stick is a bit chunkier than the original but still plenty small. If the back of your TV is too cramped to accommodate it, you can use the included "port saver," a short female-to-male HDMI adapter included in the box (Roku's stick doesn't include one).
Compared to the original, the new Fire TV Stick improves the Wi-Fi capability from 802.11n to 802.11ac, and adds the ability to connect a set of Bluetooth wireless headphones for private listening. I had no issues connecting to either 2.4GHz or 5GHz networks, and both of the headsets I tried (a Polk Hinge and a Motorola SF520) connected easily and showed good-enough lip sync. Lip sync issues can vary on different Bluetooth headphones, however.
Like other sticks Amazon's power can come from a standard AC wall socket via the included adapter and cable, or from a USB port (typically on the TV). I recommend using the wall socket since it allows the stick to remain in standby, ready to go immediately. Using USB power from a TV means you'll have to wait around 40 seconds for it to boot up each time. At least that beats the original stick, which took 110 seconds to boot up.
Amazon claims a 30 percent boost in speed compared to the original Fire TV Stick thanks to a new quad-core processor, and comparing the two directly the new version is certainly faster in many ways. That said, the improvement isn't so stark that current Stick owners should feel compelled to upgrade.
The most popular apps provide the biggest differences. Netflix launched twice to three times faster, while YouTube launched about twice as fast. Browsing Netflix was about the same on both devices, although while YouTube's browse was a bit pokier on the old one.
I was also curious about PlayStation Vue, an app that I've found quite sluggish on the old Stick. On the new one it's definitely faster, taking about half as long to load completely. Navigation of the complex menu is also quicker and more responsive, without the frustrating lag of the old Stick (which has improved since I last tested it, but the new one is still much better). Vue on the Fire TV box is still a bit snappier than on the new Stick, but the gap is much closer than before. Compared to the frustrations of the old stick, I think most people will be fine using the new one for everyday Vue-ing.
Sling TV also launched faster and responded more quickly on the new Stick. Hulu was more of a wash, with a slight edge (and smoother browsing) on the new stick. HBO Now and Showtime, on the other hand, were about the same on both devices.
Games generally require better processing than streaming apps, and if you care about playing games on your Stick, the new one is worth the investment. Two of the three games I compared, Crossy Road evinced much better response time and frame rate on the new Stick but was barely playable on the old one. ImpulseGP was equally playable on both, but showed much better graphics on the new stick. PacMan256 was essentially the same.
Just like with every Fire TV device you can connect a Bluetooth gaming controller, although many games work using the included remote. Amazon says the new Stick has access to games previously unavailable on the old model.
OK, you say, it's faster than the old stick, but how does it compare to Roku? In my speed tests the two were basically identical, and equally satisfying. YouTube and HBO Now launched very slightly faster with Fire TV, while Netflix and Hulu launched just a tad faster with Roku. Browsing and launching videos, as well as navigating the main interface, happened quickly enough to be a wash between the two.
Roku has a crucial advantage in browsing apps, however, since you can place apps anywhere you want on the main menu. A similar feature will debut with Amazon's new interface, but for now you'll have to use the "Recent" or "Apps" sections, which you cannot customize, to get to non-Amazon apps.
Although many big apps like Netflix, YouTube and Hulu have the same (current) interface on both Roku and Fire TV, Amazon has better interface support for many other apps. Roku's apps for HBO Now, WatchESPN and PlayStation Vue, for example, follow its rudimentary boxy template rather than the sleeker version used by Amazon (and Apple TV). Sling TV is an exception; the Roku Stick has its current, superior "My TV" interface, whereas Amazon still has the older, less customizable version.
I like Amazon's remote better than Roku's. Both are dead simple to use with a similar button arrangement and functions, but Amazon's feels better to hold, with more weight and a more modern design. And of course the remote offers direct access to voice search and numerous other voice functions, including Alexa. The only way to use voice with Roku is via the phone app.
Amazon's big advantage over the Roku stick, of course, is voice. In addition to talking with Alexa, you can speak into the remote's mic to search TV shows and movies from more than 90 partners, including heavy hitters Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go Showtime Anytime, FX Now and NBC, as well as all of its Amazon Channels like Starz, Showtime and Machinima.
That's very competitive with Roku's search in terms of coverage, but of course Amazon doesn't allow competing a la carte video stores such as Vudu, Google Play Movies and TV, or CinemaNow or Fangango Now onto Fire TV. Roku has all of those, and you can compare results by price. If you want to rent or buy a movie or TV show (or season) on Fire TV, you have to buy it from Amazon.
In my tests the stick was very good at finding shows and movies by keyword and actor. Competitors offer voice search too, but in Roku's new lineup you'll have to buy the $130 Roku Ultra to get it via the remote, while Apple TV with Siri voice charges $150. If you want voice capabilities on your streamer, Amazon is clearly the best bargain.
In addition to Alexa, the company is aping Apple by expanding voice commands beyond mere search. You can say "Skip ahead two minutes" (or whatever) and the Stick will respond, although it only works with Amazon videos. It also worked as expected when I asked it to "Launch Netflix."
And as usual with voice, plenty of stuff didn't work. When I said "Play from the beginning" it stopped my video and starting playing some ELP song. It didn't understand when I asked to turn on captions. I asked "Show me comedy movies" and rather than the nice list of relevant choices surfaced by Siri on Apple TV, the Stick showed me just three, none especially relevant aside from the word "Comedy" in their titles. Voice recognition overall was very good, but apparently voice comprehension is a bigger fish to fry.
Of course, if you want to fully use Alexa in the home your best bet is a Dot or Echo since they're always on. If you have one of those devices within earshot of your Stick, it's worth noting that you don't need to say "Alexa" into the remote's mic (and thus risk activating the always-on speaker accidentally). You can just push and talk, no ESP required.
You might also want to use Alexa on Fire TV without having to find your main TV remote to turn it on. The Stick is designed to do just that -- turn on your TV and switch to the correct input using just the Fire TV remote -- via a protocol called HDMI-CEC. My mileage varied. A 2016 Samsung TV wouldn't turn on at all, but a Vizio did and even switched to the Fire TV input correctly. It didn't switch, however, when I had another CEC-compatible device (that Roku stick) connected. Your mileage will vary too, depending on your TV and connected devices.
For people who love Amazon and use it as their main source of video (and music, and smart home command) the new Fire TV is a great device at an affordable price. That also goes for fans of Kodi, a popular open-source app for streaming files and less-legal video content that's not available on Roku or Apple TV. When I asked about how the new interface would affect Kodi and similar sideloaded apps, Amazon's rep told me "There is no change planned for application/developer support on Fire TV."
For everyone else (including me), the question is whether the new interface is even-handed enough to beat Roku, which is reportedly also due for an interface overhaul of its own. Stay tuned.