Video streaming dongles have been successful over the last few years partly because they provide a cheap and cheerful way to turn a dumb TV into a smart one.
The Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick and original Amazon Fire TV Stick are often adopted because they are easy, mostly invisible options to add apps and online services to televisions that didn't have the capability themselves.
However, almost every TV sold these days is equally capable of accessing Netflix, Amazon Video, BBC iPlayer and the many other streaming platforms, without the need for an external device. So, for any media streamer to be attractive today, let alone a lower-spec'ed dongle, it needs a differentiator: a feature that stands it apart. Something like, say, Alexa support.
That's exactly what you get with the new version of the Amazon Fire TV Stick. It's a media streaming device with the benefits of Alexa voice recognition and interactivity included for good measure. It is, in essence, an Amazon Echo for your telly. But is it any good?
Amazon Fire TV Stick (2017) review: All about voice control
- Built-in Alexa voice-control
- Connects via HDMI
- 86 x 30 x 12.6mm; 32g
Amazon's virtual assistant has been taking over the world this year, with many third-party products supporting Alexa either directly, offering similar voice control, or indirectly, to turn on the lights or perform other smart home functions. It stands to reason, therefore, that Amazon would also look to expand its reach beyond Echo speakers.
And considering that the first Fire TV Stick was the biggest selling Amazon-branded product of all time, of course it would be next to get Alexa. Better still, the new version gets an enhanced experience, able to do things even an Echo cannot.
Not only can you bark commands at the virtual assistant, to which she responds verbally, you also get "Visual Skills" – cards that pop-up on screen that supply corroborative content to an answer or action. For example, ask Alexa what the last Liverpool score was and she'll tell you the result while showing extra details from the match on the screen. Ask for the weather and in addition to the current temperature and climate, and you will also see the rest of the week's outlook.
This is something Nvidia has been promising for its Shield TV set-top-box since the start of 2017, due to a tie-in with Google Assistant. But Amazon got there first.
Amazon Fire TV Stick (2017) review: What's in the box?
- Alexa Voice Remote included
- Micro-USB port for power; HDMI extender if necessary
- Voice control independent to Amazon Echo (both products not required)
To enable the Fire TV Stick's new powers, Amazon includes a voice-enabled controller in the box – the eponymous "Alexa Voice Remote". You also get the second-generation Stick, naturally, plus a power adapter, USB cable and even HDMI extender in case you have to dangle your dongle rather than plug it into a spare HDMI socket.
Thankfully, our TV has HDMI ports on the side so it tucks in nicely, but some have them ranged on the rear and if you wall-mount you can't exactly have the Stick poking out the back. In that case, you'll need the extender.
On some sets, you'll be able to power it through the USB cable attached to a TV's USB port, but even with a 2016 LG telly we couldn't get enough juice to power it correctly, so you'll likely find you need to plug it in with the supplier charger.
The remote is not line-of-sight, as you wouldn't be able to have the Stick out of view behind the TV otherwise. It also comes with batteries included, which is a reasonably rare treat.
Amazon Fire TV Stick (2017) review: Beefed-up spec, but no 4K
- 1080p maximum resolution, no 4K
- Dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi 2x2 MIMO 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
- CPU: MediaTek Quad-Core ARM 1.3GHz
- GPU: Mali450 MP4; RAM: 1GB
- 8GB internal storage
- Bluetooth 4.1
As a streaming device, the 2017 Stick is similar to the 2016 model - albeit a touch more powerful. It has a quad-core processor, which keeps things moving quickly when scrolling through menus and starting content. It also has dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11ac) for stable, strong wireless connectivity.
There's no wired internet here, which is likely to be one of the reasons the Fire TV Stick continues to lack 4K video support. Video streams at 4K resolutions require more bandwidth than most home Wi-Fi setups are capable, so you really need an Ethernet connection to play Ultra HD content. Instead, this device maxes at 1080p, as before.
One upside is that you aren't tied to having to place the Stick near a router, powerline converter or multi-port Ethernet switch. And if you really do want 4K, you've always got the option of the larger Fire TV set-top-box. In all other respects, the Stick does the same job.
Amazon Fire TV Stick (2017) review: What's it like to use?
The 2017 Stick sports the same, recently-redesigned user interface as its bigger brother. That means content is integrated into the experience, with big, graphical embellishments pushing shows and films front and centre.
It also brings your most recently accessed content to the top of the menu system, under a "recent" banner, and lumps apps and games together in a single, scrollable bar. Tags along the top provide quick and easy access to your own shows, movies and TV shows in general.
Perhaps the best feature of the latest UI though is search. Not only are you able to search for content from Amazon, such as films and shows available as part of a Prime subscription, you will also be able to find Netflix programming if you are a subscriber to that. This works with text or voice search and makes video discovery more simple than ever before. Amazon claims it will add other services in time, maybe even BBC iPlayer, so you only ever need to say "Danny Dyer", for example, and you'll get movies and TV shows he's appeared in from numerous different sources.
It's all remarkably simple to use and much better presented than the Amazon apps on other TVs and platforms, as they stand. You probably won't get as much out of the entire experience if you don't have a Prime membership, and therefore the entire gamut of TV series and movies Amazon offers as part of the subscription, but it does mean that you can still use the device for Netflix browsing alone. Or access all of the terrestrial catch-up services: iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5 and UKTV Player.
You wouldn't want to limit it to those, however. Alexa alone is enough to lift the Stick above much of the competition. It does have one or two gaps in its usability in comparison with an Echo – it doesn't currently work with Spotify, for instance – but something tells us this will improve over time.
We're also impressed with the picture quality and speed of video playback, even with the lack of 4K and HDR (high dynamic range). A show starts almost the second you tap the play button. That in itself might get you to forsake the slower native video streaming apps on your TV for the Fire TV Stick instead.
There's no doubt that there are better, more powerful media streamers in set-top-box form out there – Amazon's own 4K Fire TV for starters, plus the 4K Nvidia Shield TV – but the simplicity of the Fire TV Stick makes it a great option for a second TV or those with a Full HD main set. It's also considerably cheaper than many alternatives on the market.
It has an excellent user interface and Alexa support for voice-control is a welcome addition, especially with its visual cue cards adding to the experience. And you don't need an Echo for it to all work, nor a Prime subscription - although we suspect you'll want the latter for the best experience.
For a penny shy of £40, you really can't go wrong with the 2017 Amazon Fire TV Stick. Alexa looks like she's on cue to rule the world.
The alternatives to consider...
Google Chromecast Ultra
If you're after a 4K dongle then Google's Chromecast is a great option to sling content wirelessly onto your TV from phone, laptop or other smart device. However, Google doesn't support casting Amazon content, so don't think of it as an alternative for your Amazon content - rather a way to present your 4K content and purchases on the big screen.
Read the full article: Google Chromecast Ultra review
Roku Streaming Stick
The Roku functions much like Amazon's 2017 Stick - it can even source Amazon Video and Prime content - with a slightly wider reach across multiple platforms. There's no 4K in this device either, however, so if that's your play then you'll need to fork out for a capable set-top-box instead.
Read the full article: Roku Streaming Stick review