For many years the Fire TV Stick has been front and centre of Amazon's streaming ambitions. It's not as powerful as the Fire TV box, but it offers a no-frills experience that lets people smarten up their TVs for a reasonable price - all while offering enough apps and services to keep the majority of people happy.
The Fire TV Stick has gone through a number of iterations over the years, and earlier this year Amazon released their latest version. It's faster and more powerful than the stick that came before it, and it comes with an Alexa-powered remote that basically turns your television into an Echo of sorts. Adding Alexa to the TV Stick is an interesting, but hardly surprising development. But that's not enough to make this worth buying if you already have a Fire TV Stick, or some other streaming device.
The internal hardware is a step up from the original Fire TV Stick model, there's no doubt about that. It has more processing power with a 1.3GHz quad-core processor, a hefty step up from the 1.0GHz processor of its predecessor. Bluetooth has gone from 3.0 to 4.1, the Wi-Fi has been upgraded from 802.11n to a speedier 802.11ac, and Dolby support is now at version 5.1. The stick itself is also slightly larger to accommodate the extra components.
But that's about it. The new stick retains the 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of fixed storage space, with only a single micro USB port that you need to power it with. They both run the same version of Fire OS, so if you've used the old Fire TV Stick fairly recently then the UI is going to be exactly the same.
And it feels the same. All that extra processing power and wireless may sound great, but they don't change much. Everything will run faster, including the streams themselves (provided your internet speed is up to it), but you don't really get anything. There's no 4K or HDR, or any feature that makes it worth buying if you already have a device like this. Whether it's the old Fire TV stick, a Roku box, or something running Kodi that you set up yourself.
The only noteworthy change is that Amazon has added Alexa controls to the Fire TV stick, which can be accessed by holding down the microphone button. Alexa is a notable step up from previous voice controls on Fire TV devices, given how she can understand you more easily, and it does add some Echo features to your TV. Plus, because the button has to be toggled to use voice commands, it doesn't appear to be listening in on you all the time.
Having Alexa on your TV does make it easier to digest information, since she's able to use visuals to help you understand what's going on. She'll still talk to you as well, but you can see what she's talking about on screen. So asking about the weather will bring up a five day forecast while Alexa gives you all the relevant information. Ask about restaurants and she'll show you rating and information from Yelp, and so on. Amazon has a dedicated device for this sort of thing in the Echo Show, but since that isn't available in the UK at the moment this is the next best thing. Provided, of course, you're willing to keep your TV on all the time.
Alexa can also be used for navigating the Fire TV Stick's menus,searching for stuff, and controlling Amazon-owned apps. However if you're using an app that isn't made by Amazon, like Netflix, the most Alexa can do is open it. After that you'll have to use buttons like some sort of savage from 2007.
There are Echo features that are not included, for seemingly obvious reasons. Alarms was the one I ran into, plus anything you haven't already set up for the device on the Alexa app. Just because you have something on your Echo doesn't mean you'll automatically have it on your TV.
Alexa is useful to some people, and I can see the appeal of having it built into your TV. But is it a killer must-have feature? No. Particularly not since Amazon has just launched a feature that lets you control your Fire TV by connecting it to certain Alexa-enabled devices (mostly Echos). It's US-only for the time being (which is typical), but that should roll out elsewhere fairly soon.
Even if you don't have an Echo, and don't plan on getting one, the Alexa remote doesn't do much. Searching is made easier, since on-screen keyboards are the devil, but the Fire TV app can do that for you. The Fire TV's interface is pretty simple, and it's not difficult to navigate. You don't really save time using Alexa to open up apps or control playback.
Should You Buy It?
In summary, the Fire TV Stick with Alexa Remote isn't all that different from a Fire TV without Alexa - even if you have the slower 2014 model. If you have a Fire TV Stick already, and you're happy with it, don't bother. If you're not happy with it, this won't change your mind. Similarly, if you have any other streaming device that you're happy with, don't bother. You should only really buy this if you don't have some sort of competent streaming device for your TV already.
And if you fall into that group of people, there's not much to complain about with the Fire TV Stick. As I mentioned at the start of this review, it isn't as powerful as other streaming devices, but that shouldn't matter to most. It's a simple and effective way to add smart functions to your TV, with a huge array of apps and services at its disposal. All of which only costs £40.