Amazon Fire TV Stick With Alexa Voice Remote review: Smart talk is cheap with Alexa streaming TV stick

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.

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The Stick works with numerous Bluetooth game controllers, including Amazon's with Alexa ($50).

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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.

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Stick fight: Roku vs. Amazon

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.

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Talk to the stick, it talks back

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.

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Sarah Tew


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.

A great value for Amazon and voice

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.