What is the Amazon Fire Stick?
The Amazon Fire Stick (or Amazon Fire TV Stick) is the company’s second generation of its cheapest video streaming device.
You can stream from Amazon Video, as well as Netflix and the full roster of the UK’s catch-up services. There are plenty more apps besides, including Prime Music and Spotify, plus access to Amazon’s growing games library.
So, what’s new? For a start, the interface has had an overhaul to make it look a lot prettier and easier to use. This will filter down to older devices over time, though, as will the Alexa voice control, so the real benefits of the new Stick are its faster processor and improved Wi-Fi. The Amazon Fire Stick only goes up to Full HD 1080p resolution, and goes up against the aging (but still excellent) Chromecast, or the platform-agnostic Roku Express.
Amazon Fire Stick – Design and build
The Amazon Fire Stick looks a bit like a memory stick on steroids and is designed to plug straight into an HDMI port on your TV. It’s a neat all-in-one design housed in plastic. It will creak a little if squeezed, but feels tough enough for purpose.
At 9cm long and around 3cm deep, it will need a bit of room on your TV back panel, though, particularly when you consider making room for its Micro USB cable power supply. Thankfully, if this is too much of a squeeze, Amazon includes an HDMI extender in the box to free up some space.
The accompanying remote is the same one that you’ll find included with the pricier Amazon Fire TV box. It’s pretty simple, offering a D-pad for navigation, a handful of playback controls and the all-important voice input key. It’s nice that this is included now, although the iOS and Android app does an equally good job and can activate the same Alexa commands.
Amazon Fire Stick – Set up and interface
Setting up your Fire Stick is really simple. Just plug it into a spare HDMI slot on your TV, and its USB cable into a power source. Some on-screen instructions will get your Alexa remote paired and the Fire TV Stick hooked up to your home network. Once you’re signed into your Amazon account, you’re ready to go.
If you’re familiar with the previous Fire TV Stick, you’ll notice immediately that the interface has been redesigned. The main navigation menu has moved from the side to along the top, and a new picture-led carousel with suggested content dominates the top half of the screen. The idea is that the Fire TV Stick will learn your viewing habits over time and tailor this to you, with video teasers to draw you in. During a week’s testing, the selection it surfaced improved to include programmes and films I’d be more likely to choose, including content from other providers like Netflix.
Detail pages have been improved too, with a large picture backdrop and more in-depth programme information. Once you start to watch a show, clicking upwards on the remote will open up Amazon’s X-Ray IMDb feature, for finding about more about the cast.
Besides downloading apps, I found the homepage was the only place I needed to be. In a side-scrolling menu beneath the carousel, you’ll find your recent shows and apps for quick access. Beneath that, you can browse and organise your downloaded apps, scroll through several menus of Prime suggested content, and even one for Netflix (subscription dependent).
That’s what’s particularly refreshing about this version of the Amazon Fire Stick. While Amazon Prime content is still its bread and butter (and dominates its menus) it’s not as difficult to find content from other providers as it was before.
For example, Amazon Prime offers Breaking Bad as a paid-for box set, whereas it’s free to watch on Netflix. If you search for it, Fire TV will suggest you watch it on Netflix first, with the option to buy it in a “More Ways To Watch” menu. It feels more like it’s working for the user, and not for itself, which is how it should be.
It’s still very much a device aimed at Prime subscribers though, and I’d certainly recommend signing up for the service to get the most out of it. With its new monthly subscription option (£7.99/$8.99 per month), it’s much more accessible now too. If you’re not interested in Prime, you may well find you’re better serviced by a Chromecast or similar streaming stick.
Amazon Fire Stick – Features
Alongside its new interface, the Amazon Fire Stick has seen some hardware upgrades too, including a new quad-core processor and improved Wi-Fi.
The new chipset promises to be 30% quicker, while the 802.11ac Wi-Fi ensures more stable streaming, quicker downloads and faster buffering. You’ll really notice this improvement if your Fire TV Stick is a little further away from your router too, thanks to a better performance range.
There’s still 8GB of on-board storage for apps and games and the same 1GB RAM as its predecessor, which is enough.
Amazon Fire Stick – Performance
Scrolling through the menus, it’s clear that the new quad-core processor has given the Fire TV Stick a welcome boost of power. It certainly feels slicker to browse and faster to load, as you flick in and out of menus and search for content.
Voice commands work really well for this too. Rather than using the Alexa wake command as you would on the Amazon Echo, you press a button on the remote, hold it in and speak.
While I’ve seen voice remotes before, with the likes of the Fire TV Box, this is the first time that Alexa has been built into a Fire TV product. She’s a lot cleverer than your standard voice command system, so there’s now much more you can do.
The results are fast and for the most part accurate. You can search by actor, genre or film name, and during my tests, Alexa hasn’t misunderstood a single command.
Even better is the fact that Alexa functions much like it (she?) does on the Amazon Echo devices, so you can control elements of your smart home too. We’ve written extensively about Alexa’s full list of functions our handy Amazon Alexa Guide.
That said, some of the returned suggestions aren’t always as helpful as they could be. A search for Brad Pitt offers up five TV shows and movies that don’t feature the actor at all, before bringing up movies like Seven and Inglourious Basterds. Similarly, a search for Jeremy Clarkson suggests a number of unconnected films and shows before it surfaces Amazon’s own The Grand Tour series.
Specific movie or TV show searches fare much better though, and offer up similar titles as well direct matches. Searching for The Grand Tour this way brings up Top Gear as suggested watching, which makes much more sense.
Alexa’s talents don’t stop there though. You can also ask her about the weather, sports scores, check in on the news or get her to set a timer. New functionality also means you can ask her to fast forward or rewind during Amazon shows, which works seamlessly. The language you can use to control her is also pretty flexible. She’ll respond to “fast forward five minutes” in the same way she does “skip ahead five minutes”, which makes using it feel much more natural than previous voice control systems.
And, Alexa also lets you control all of your smart home devices, too, in much the same way that you’d use an Echo device.
When controlling smart home devices, there’s no need to have the TV turned on, either. Just grab the remote, hold the microphone down and make your request, such as to turn on the lights, and Alexa handles everything else. This can be a handy way of controlling your devices if you don’t happen to have an Amazon Echo speaker in the same room as your Fire TV.
What if you do have an Echo in the same room? Well, Amazon has another trick, as you can use the Alexa app to link your Echo to your Fire TV. This lets you activate the voice search on Fire TV Stick via your smart speaker. And, you get pause/play control as well, so you can just say, “Alexa, Pause” and the on-screen action stops. Admittedly, using the remote control is easier, but if you get a phone call and can’t find the remote, for example, being able to just use your voice is a handy trick.
No matter what you’re watching, playback is stable and buffering is fast – you’ll only have to make do with a fuzzy picture for a second or two before the full resolution kicks in and pictures look crisp. By comparison, Chromecast takes a little longer to even out its picture and isn’t quite as fast to load content.
Related: Amazon Alexa guide
Why buy the Amazon Fire Stick?
The new Amazon Fire Stick doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but it does make a good product even better. And at £40, it’s only £5 more than the original.
The Alexa voice commands are a great way to navigate, and the extra speed from the new processor and improved Wi-Fi makes using it a breeze.
With the new interface set to come to older devices later down the line, and Alexa support too, owners of the original Fire TV Stick might not find the upgrade immediately necessary. However, any Prime subscriber that hasn’t made the jump as yet may find themselves very tempted now.
They might be subtle improvements, but the new Amazon Fire Stick is all the better for having them.