The Amazon Fire TV Stick, the bargain version of Amazon's super-fast voice search-enabled Fire TV, launches in the UK on April 15 and starts taking pre-orders today. But we've been trialling it in the US since it launched there last autumn. We'll add some UK-centric thoughts here once the service is live in April, but for now here's the skinny.
While this HDMI version of Fire TV certainly sacrifices a lot of things that made the original great, is that bargain worth it? Absolutely. First of all, what is Fire TV and how is the Fire TV Stick different? Released back in September, Fire TV is Amazon's sleek streaming box. It has 2GB of memory and a quad-core processor that make it fast to search for things you want to watch within mundo Amazon or in other video apps like Netflix. It includes voice search that – gasp! – actually works reliably. The only downside? It costs £75.
Enter the Fire TV Stick, Amazon's stripped-down, £35 (providing you're not Primed up) answer to the higher-end streaming box. Like the Roku Stick or Chromecast, it pops into the HDMI port in the back of your TV and opens your boob tube to a whole new world of streaming content. It's just a little bit clunkier than its Fire predecessor. The remote loses its matte finish and just feels a little more plasticky. The HDMI port comes with a power cable, and an extender if you need it.
Where specs are concerned, it's basically half of a Fire TV box – it has a dual-core processor – with a cheaper remote that doesn't come with voice search. But that's not to say voice search doesn't work with the Fire. You can't use voice search with the stick, you just need the remote app, which exists for Android, iOS and Fire OS, of course, or you'll need to buy the spendier £25 voice remote that normally comes standard with the Fire TV box. Which, once you're spending all that, you might as well just bite the bullet and pay £40 more for the whole kit and kaboodle and two more cores worth of oomph.
In any case, if you're not used to Amazon's excellent voice search, you won't miss it. If you are, you will. I did. Fire TV is my default streaming box. I love it for the things I've mentioned above, and even though in my house, I have a few options from which to stream stuff (Roku Stick, Roku 3, Xbox and the horror show that is a default Samsung Smart TV interface), I always, always default to Fire TV. Besides what I've already discussed in terms of speed and search, Fire TV just offers up a really nice interface. Nice how? Nice to look at, nice to navigate, and simple to understand.
On the left-hand side you have your categories (apps, Prime video, music, photos, etc), and when you select one, you can search within that section. You have your pick of apps, which in the US includes almost everything you could want (Netflix, Spotify, Showtime, YouTube, Vimeo, and so forth), except for HBO Go. The UK selection is a little more sparing, with Netflix, BBC iPlayer, News, Sport, etc, and a smattering of others, so check if what you'd want is on it.
But the best reason to go with a Fire TV is if you want movies and shows from Amazon. Because Amazon Amazon Amazon. No, really, that's what we always argue about the Bezos Universe: it has content on its side. And Fire TV banks on that in a beautiful way. The system is connected with your Amazon account, so even if something isn't included on Prime Instant Video, you can just click and click and pay to watch Groundhog Day or what-have-you. It's comfortable and easy TV-watching. You don't have to think, and that's not a bad thing.
All of that stays the same with Fire TV Stick. It's just in a different package.
So the question a lot of people have is how does Fire TV Stick stack up to Chromecast? They're similar in terms of what they do (stream content), what they cost (£35 and £30 respectively), and what they are (HDMI sticks). Fire TV just does it a little bit better, thanks to a couple of convenience factors, one being a remote. Chromecast must rely on your phone, tablet or computer in order to cast stuff to your television, and that works just fine for some. But others? Others just want a bloody remote. That's what we've become used to since we started using TVs. "Where's the clicker?" Every dad asks in living rooms around the world on Sunday afternoons. We want it. We need it. It reassures us.
Seriously, though: Roku made the same argument in favour of a remote to me back when it trotted out the Roku Stick for the first time. It's just nice to have the option. Also, Chromecast just does not compute to some people. Think of your mum: could she figure it out easily? Maybe. But what about your aunt or your cousin or some luddite friend. Maybe not.
The other point of comparison is the aforementioned Roku Stick. It's £45 for a lot of the same as Amazon, but where it excels is search. Search on Roku is universal – you can look up Bill Murray, and it will bring up a short bio and everything in his repertoire you could watch and all your possible options of where to watch them on Roku, be it Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon, wherever. It's great! But Amazon only lets you search Amazon titles, even if you'd really rather watch something on Netflix. The only downside of the Roku Stick is that it's kind of slow. And I'd rather have speed and be stuck within Amazon's walled garden than be stuck in buffering purgatory.
Also, call me shallow, but Fire TV Stick is just better looking than its HDMI cronies. Roku is a big purple stick. Chromecast has a big butt and a Chrome logo tacked on. Fire TV stick is a subtle black HDMI stick. It blends in nicely.
The other thing we need to talk about with regards to the Fire TV Stick is gameplay. Yes, like the Fire TV, the Fire TV Stick plays games. And if you're a casual gamer, ok sure, you might enjoy toying around with a few of the free games Fire TV has to offer. But if you're a serious gamer, you almost certainly have a console in your home. In other words, you're not buying Fire TV as a console. You're buying it as a streaming system that happens to offer gameplay. And if you get a little more serious, you can buy the Amazon-branded gamepad.
Amazon's optional £35 Fire Game Controller, from our Fire TV review
But I'm not so sure you will, because then you'd be the Stick only has about half the games Fire TV has. No Asphalt 8: Airborne and no Dead Trigger 2. And the games that are there run a little slower. The dual-core processor doesn't have the oomph.
All told, the Fire TV stick is worth it. Essentially, all you're giving up is speed. Think of it this way: with Fire TV, you don't think of speed because it's so fast, you don't have time to think of it. With the Stick, you have noticeable seconds of load time – time enough for you to think about that little wheel up on your screen spinning. With the box, when you select something, say, a TV show, there's no wait. It's on your screen almost immediately. With Fire TV Stick, you'll have to be patient, but only for a second or two.
Flipping through the UI is also little bit laggier on the Stick. You notice it in the sense, once again, that it hangs the tiniest bit, whereas the box hangs not at all. So to reiterate, slower, yes. But not Roku Stick slow. At this price, a little bit of wait isn't unreasonable.
Long story short: For £35, or possibly a fair bit less if you're a Prime member, the Fire TV Stick makes tiny sacrifices for something that otherwise beats the competition to deliver something very, very good.