While it has been available in the US since the end of last year, the Amazon Fire TV Stick finally makes its way across the pond for release in the UK and, thanks to a combination of attractive price point and rich feature set, could end up being a more popular choice than even the Fire TV.
Amazon's streaming set-top-box has been a success story for the retailer, becoming the best-selling branded device it has ever released – beating its Kindles and tablets. But with rivals Roku and Google offering alternative and more discreet options in the Streaming Stick and Chromecast respectively, it makes sense that the company should be attracted to that option too.
Hence the Fire TV Stick, an HDMI dongle device that plugs into a port on the rear of your TV and hides from view. It offers nigh-on everything as its slightly older, larger sibling – even adding a cool, new feature (more on that later) – but drops the specification a tad to keep the price down. So is the Amazon Fire TV Stick the one to go for?
The Fire TV Stick is small but perfectly formed, not as sleek in design as Roku's or Google's options, but as you'll never see it hidden behind your set, who's to care?
Like Google Chromecast, it comes with a short HDMI extension lead too that enables you to place it elsewhere, and is bendy to stop the device poking out of the back if your TV's HDMI ports are placed on the rear rather than the side.
Unfortunately it is not completely wireless as it requires the included power adapter to be attached at all times. And while the power cable is of the Micro-USB-to-USB variety, a USB port on a TV is not enough to carry enough current for operation. If you wall-mount your TV, then that's another cable to hide.
Fight Fire With Fire
Rivals on the market do offer direct TV-to-device USB power but that's essentially because they are considerably trumped by the Fire TV Stick's internal specifications. Amazon's offering has the best processor of the bunch, featuring a dual-core processor coupled with 1GB of RAM - although that's half the conventional Fire TV, it's double its closest competitors.
It's worth mentioning at this stage that Roku plans to increase the performance speed of its Streaming Stick with a software update for current versions and, even, a rumoured replacement model in future, but we can only go on what we have in front of us now, and it is slower and more clunky to use than the Fire TV Stick in its present form.
That's because, bar the occasional brief lag or judder, the Fire TV Stick operates almost as quickly as the excellent Fire TV set-top-box interface. That beefier processing power is put to good use, ensuring the device feels intuitive and responsive. Flipping through cover art for videos or music, or accessing app menus is suitably swift.
It is also almost as quick as its stablemate to play content, whether that be starting a movie, TV show or loading a game. And you can download plenty of the latter alongside entertainment apps as it comes with 8GB of storage.
Other notable specifications include dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi to ensure a more stable connection to your wireless router and at a greater distance than the single-band Chromecast, say. The device is also able to output 1080p and 7.1 surround sound, being Dolby Digital Plus certified. Whether the content you play through it has that audio option is another matter, but at least it is capable.
In software terms, it runs a version of Amazon's Fire OS adapted for the big screen, which is based on Android. That means that while it is compatible with apps developed for the retailer's Fire tablets (and the Fire Phone) not all of them have come across.
In fact, although there are plenty more options for download than when the original Fire TV set-top-box was released, it still has plenty of holes in its library, especially when it comes to UK streaming video services. There is currently no ITV Player or All 4 (Channel 4's rebranded 4oD service), nor Now TV or Sky Go. And you will find few other movie streaming rivals to Amazon's own Prime Instant and Instant Video services, bar Netflix.
But it does have apps for BBC iPlayer, Demand 5 and Netflix that work as well as they do on any other device. It also has the WWE Network, which makes us happy but hardly likely to be a deal breaker outside Pocket-lint Towers. And there is a fully-featured version of Plex for streaming home content.
Perhaps the absentees are more down to the structure of the box rather than the development demands. Amazon is not shy in coming forward with its own streaming services and they are at the very forefront of the entire Fire TV experience. While rival services are hidden under "apps" in the menu system, Prime Instant Video and the retailer's digital rental and purchasing option, Instant Video, get their own content rich sections at the very top.
Of course, if you are an Amazon Prime member – and let's face it, the yearly deal is attractive in comparison to a Netflix subscription, for example, thanks to the free photo storage, delivery costs and other benefits – you will absolutely get the most from the Fire TV Stick. If not, you won't.
Learning The Game
That's not to say that Amazon doesn't offer plenty of other features for users, Prime or not. The Fire TV Stick can double as a casual games console for starters, with a healthy and rapidly growing games library, including titles that are free or paid for.
Almost all of such games can be played with the included, basic remote control. Alternatively, you might fancy purchasing one of Amazon's own game controllers for an additional £35, which the Stick is compatible with.
Not all games that are available for the main Fire TV are on the Fire TV Stick though. That's one of the only differences between them operationally. The quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM of the Fire TV is required for some titles, such as the recently released conversion of RPG classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. But as there are still plenty of others available, including the highly addictive Frogger clone Crossy Road, it's not a huge disappointment.
Another of the sacrifices to keep the price down comes in the form of the included remote control. Unlike the Fire TV, the truncated version that comes with the Fire TV Stick has no microphone, so you can't use the voice-controlled search that Amazon is so proud of – at least, with that particular accessory.
Amazon Fire TV control (left; sold separately), Amazon Fire TV Stick control (right; included)
However, you can use your iPhone, Android device or Fire Phone with a dedicated app as the remote instead, and that includes voice search. Or you can buy the same remote that comes with the Fire TV separately, for around £25.
On My Hotel TV
The Fire TV Stick does have additional benefits too. Like the set-top-box option, it can display photos stored on your Amazon Cloud Drive (an unlimited service as part of a Prime subscription) or even pulled from Facebook. And there is the ability to access your entire Amazon Music collection, also stored on the cloud (so it doesn't hamper your internal drive's capacity). But in terms of new features there's a nifty one waiting in the settings.
One of the criticisms of streaming devices in the past is that they are either tricky to setup when travelling or, in most cases, impossible to get working in places such as hotels. The Fire TV Stick combats this with captive portal internet access, giving you a log in screen when you try to wirelessly connect it to a service that requires additional details.
For example, most hotels require a name and a room number, even a payment, before giving full access to their internet services. With other boxes, such as Apple TV, there is no way to enter those details, thereby blocking access completely. The Fire TV Stick has a pop-up browser page when it encounters such a system and you can log on there.
The conventional Fire TV box will also get that option through a software update soon, but the Fire TV Stick has a better form factor for travelling anyway.
Amazon has made its intentions clear with the Fire TV Stick. It has priced it aggressively (a touch more expensive than the Chromecast, quite a bit cheaper than the Roku) but offers a lot more for the money – certainly in terms of internal tech.
However, whether that is of great value to you depends mostly on whether you are an advocate of Amazon's ecosystem. Both the Roku and Chromecast are essentially dumb portals, giving access to your content from a wide variety of services, and while the Fire TV service also has many entertainment and useful applications, its raison d'être is to help you consume the movies, TV shows, music and games subscribed to or bought from the retailer itself. Even your photo library is best served when it is stored on Amazon Cloud Drive.
It's an excellent piece of kit given its size and cost – but given the lack of some services such as All 4, ITV Player and Now TV, you do need to consider spending the extra £79 a year for a Prime membership to get the very best from it.