- Excellent presentation
- Easy to set up
- Mobile apps and voice search work well
- Needs more UK streaming services
- No voice search on remote control
We review Amazon’s cigarette lighter-sized Fire TV Stick as it prepares to take a blowtorch to Chromecast.
Like Google’s wildly popular telly stick, the latest Fire TV device is an easy and inexpensive way to quickly get a whole host of catch-up and on-demand content on your TV.
Unlike Chromecast, the Fire TV Stick also lets you play music through your TV (provided they're Amazon MP3s) has some gaming credentials too - good if you’re not fussed about console gaming but wouldn’t mind playing Crossy Road on your TV in between episodes of Portlandia on Netflix.
Fire TV Stick: What’s in the box?
The Fire TV Stick itself is a tiny little thing. As we said above, it’s roughly the same size and dimensions of a regular disposable lighter. It tucks snugly into the back of your TV set, out of sight. Power is supplied via micro USB, so you’ve got the option of having it powered directly from the TV if you don’t have a free mains socket.
An HDMI adapter is included, if the rear of your TV is something of a serpent’s nest and you need a bit more reach.
You also get a mini remote control thrown in. This is virtually identical to the one that you get with the Fire TV box, except for the fact that this one doesn’t support voice commands.
Fire TV Stick remote control: Light and shiny
The control is super lightweight and features a stripped down interface. Compared to most TV remotes it’s positively spartan, but it’s not really a million miles away from what you get with the Apple TV, Roku and Now TV remotes.
The circular control isn’t a clickwheel despite it’s appearance - it’s actually a d-pad with an OK button in the centre. Back, Home and Menu buttons sit above three media controls. The Fire TV Stick responds quickly to your commands, meaning hunting through menus (and entering your WiFi credentials) isn’t an utter chore.
It’s got a nice matt finish to it which provides a measure of grip. The matt finish means that it’s not a complete fingerprint magnet either, so not only does it not feel grimy and sweaty in your palm, it won’t look like a total eyesore when its perched on your coffee table.
Fire TV Stick: Simple, streamlined set-up process
Amazon has taken great pains to make the set-up process as streamlined and easy as possible. Once you’ve plugged the Stick into a spare HDMI port and connected the power cable, it’ll automatically start searching for your remote. Click the OK button and once the Stick recognises the remote, you’ll be taken through the simple set-up process.
Once you’ve chosen your WiFi network and entered your password you’ll be treated to a short introductory animation, starring an anonymous Amazon bloke in an orange shirt. This basically tells you everything you need to know about how the Fire TV service, in a fun and friendly way.
Thankfully for folks who prefer to get to grips straight away, you can just tap the fast-forward button to skip through the 3-minute odd clip. Finally, you’ll be asked to set parental controls (if you want them) and offered to sign up for Amazon Prime (if you’ve not done so already).
Once that’s done, you’ll be greeted with the main Fire TV menu.
Fire TV Stick main menu: An on-demand advent calendar
Dominated by grids of colourful icons, the Fire TV Stick begs you to thumb through its many menus and sub-menus. An acrostic-style column of menu tabs trails down the left hand side of the screen. Thumbing right takes you deeper into each menu. Icons enlarge and expand when you hover over them in a slick manner. The Fire TV Stick experience is perhaps more premium than a £35 device has any right to be.
While Amazon wins top marks for presentation, what is it actually like to use? Finding your way around the many menus is a piece of cake. The Home menu gives you shortcuts to the latest popular TV shows, apps and games, as well as a shortcut to things you’ve recently opened.
The Stick is smart enough to remember which Amazon/Prime Instant Video shows you’ve just watched as well, so if you’ve got a weekend off and you want to power through an entire series of Vikings, Bosch or Outlander, you can do that.
Unfortunately, the Fire TV Stick only really does this for Amazon content - you don’t get a shortcut to specific shows on Netflix or BBC iPlayer, for example. Obviously, Amazon wants to prioritise its own content, and if you’re a Prime subscriber, you’ll probably love this.
Below this there’s separate menus for all Amazon content, movies, TV shows, your Watchlist, video library (where your Amazon Instant Video rentals appear), games, apps, music and photos.
Fire TV Stick apps: What’s included?
Aside from the many shortcuts to Amazon content, you also get BBC iPlayer, Demand 5 and Netflix pre-installed. 4oD and ITV Player aren’t available on the Fire TV Stick, but you can download TVPlayer which at least gives you live streams to ITV and Channel 4 channels. Other TV apps available include YouTube, Sky News, STV Player, Twitch and Pluto TV.
The one app you probably will want to download (on your phone) is the Fire TV companion app (iOS, Android). This lets you essentially ditch the remote control and use your phone instead, something we recommend doing because it brings one key feature to the table that’s otherwise missing: voice controls.
Fire TV Stick app: Ditch the remote for your phone
This is a really nice little app that maps all of the controls of the supplied remote to your phone and throws in voice controls to boot.
This way if you want to set yourself up for a Family Guy marathon, you can just speak ‘Seth McFarlane’ into the mic, and Fire TV will do its thing, pulling up not only Family Guy, but American Dad!, Ted, Robot Chicken, Johnny Bravo, A Million Ways to Die in the West - virtually everything McFarlane's been involved with.
Related: Prime Instant Video finally lands on non-Kindle Android tabletsThanks to Amazon’s IMDb-powered search tool, the Fire TV Stick is pretty good at beachcombing what’s available. Voice search isn’t just confined to video content. When we searched for 'Minecraft', the Fire TV Stick also returned results for South Park (S17E2 ,‘Informative Murder Porn’ features Minecraft, in case you were wondering) along with several Minecraft-alikes such as Terraria.
That should give you some idea of how thorough Amazon's search function is. The voice recognition software is pretty accurate too.
We tested it out in a noisy office with our Sonos Play:3 blasting this album and it was able to make our requests (mostly) all of the time. Bemusingly, when we said ‘Barbara Windsor’ it did once mishear us, returning two search results for ‘Marvel’ and ‘Porn’. We’re not quite sure how the Fire TV Stick arrived at that conclusion.
The app does a really good job of replicating the functions of the remote. Instead of being a facsimile of the remote, it replaces the directional pad with a large grey square, making good use of your phone’s touchscreen real estate.
Pressing and holding on the grey square for a second calls up a directional ring that lets you zip quickly through menus. Tapping once on the square confirms selections.
Fire TV Stick: Watching stuff
What’s the Fire TV Stick like for watching content then? If you’re after something that will bring Amazon content as well as Netflix and BBC iPlayer to your TV, then this will suit to you a tee.
We liked that when watching a Prime or Amazon Instant Video title, it’s easy to skip to a particular part in a show.
Holding down either of the skip buttons lets you crawl forwards or backwards in the stream. Keeping an eye on the counter at the bottom left means you can jump to specific scene, which is handy if you happen to know the exact moment you want to jump to in a movie.
Thanks to something Amazon calls Advanced Streaming and Prediction (short for ASAP - cute), the Stick will pre-buffer shows you’re likely to watch next. In the case of a series like Extant or Vikings, this means that it’ll have the next episode queued up for you.
Netflix on the Fire TV Stick works as well as it does on Chromecast, Roku and Apple TV; content loads quickly and you can assign profiles and apply parental control settings just as you would on other TV-optimised versions of Netflix.
The version of BBC iPlayer that comes included is the most up to date smart TV version of iPlayer out there, the same one you’d find on a Samsung or LG smart TV. This means you’ve got the option to search via channels, categories as well as manually.
Fire TV Stick gaming credentials: Casual, not so smart
There’s also a number of casual games on offer including the inexplicably popular Frogger-esque Crossy Road, last year’s patience-sapping smash Flappy Bird plus perennial favourite Tetris, all of which played well enough. We were disappointed to not be able to tunnel, chop and forge our way through Minecraft like you can on the bigger Fire TV, presumably due to hardware limitations.
There’s a distinct lack of high-end titles available for the Fire TV Stick, compared to the bigger Fire TV, which packs a faster processor and double the amount of memory.
To be honest, only gamers of a more casual disposition will be able to get their kicks between deciding what to watch with the Fire TV Stick. Even then, your phone is probably better suited to casual gaming than the Fire TV Stick. While gaming seems credible on the Fire TV box, on the Stick it feels like an afterthought.
Fire TV Stick tips and tricks: Check out your pictures and stream tunes
To be honest, Amazon ought to have called this the ‘Fire Media Stick’ because it’s not just about TV shows. If you buy music from Amazon and have a large collection of photos stored in your Amazon Cloud, you can play and access them from here.
It’s a nice way to show off your holiday snaps without having to stream anything directly to your TV. Similarly, if you’ve got a good enough soundbar, you could conceivably turn your TV into a party station. This would be better if you could get Spotify on the Fire TV to patch up any gaps in your MP3 collection, but alas, this isn't yet available on Fire TV.
Fire TV Stick: Verdict
The Fire TV Stick can perhaps be best described as an inexpensive key to Amazon’s content kingdom. If you’ve invested heavily into Amazon’s world - you’re a Prime customer, you’ve got a big Amazon MP3 library - then this is an essential, nay, mandatory purchase. For £35, you get access to so much all in one place.
Even if you’re not, the Fire TV Stick is a great value for money proposition if you’ve got an old, non-smart (but otherwise perfectly good) TV and you want to easily get some of the best on-demand and catch-up content out there on your big screen.
We were disappointed to see that things like ITV Player, All 4 and Now TV weren’t present and correct. In terms of choice of services, the Fire TV Stick doesn’t compare that well to Chromecast, Roku or the Now TV Box right now - hopefully more apps and services will come to the table in time.
Because it’s so cheap, you could easily pair this with one of the above mentioned services - if you didn’t mind having to sacrifice another HDMI port on your TV.
Gaming support feels like an afterthought here, but to be honest, if you were expecting a fully fledged gaming system for £35, you should probably expect to be disappointed.