When Amazon first launched the Fire TV Stick in late 2014, it almost seemed too good to be true.
The thumb-sized device promised more power than the latest Roku box and a better app selection than Apple TV at less than half the price of either. It was only a little pricier than Google’s Chromecast dongle, yet it managed to include a proper remote control and on-screen interface. Despite some early launch bugs and quirks, it was a great way to make your TV smarter on the cheap.
Meanwhile, time hasn’t been kind to the Fire TV Stick ($40, or $50 with voice remote. Available on Amazon and elsewhere). While many of its initial headaches have cleared up, it no longer seems well-equipped to handle modern streaming services. At best, it’s a cheap path to Amazon Prime video on your TV, but it desperately needs a hardware refresh.
Above all else, the Fire TV Stick feels optimized for watching Amazon Prime videos. Unlike other media streamers, Fire TV devices don’t have a dedicated Amazon app. Instead, Amazon videos are directly embedded on the home screen and are typically among the top results in search. Because of this—ahem—prime placement, you’ll probably get sucked into watching lots of Amazon content.
Compared to the Fire TV set-top box, the Fire TV Stick intensifies this effect. Jumping into Amazon content feels fast and easy, but accessing other apps feels tiresome because the processor is slower. Click down to the Apps section, for instance, and you’ll likely have to wait a few seconds before everything loads.
Using those third-party apps can be even more frustrating. Processor-intensive apps such as Sling TV and PlayStation Vue can take more than 10 seconds to load, during which time the Fire TV Stick may treat you to a blank screen. In these moments, you might wonder if the device has crashed. Interaction within apps can be sluggish as well, with bits of stutter and lag that add up to frustration over time. (Tubi.TV is a particularly egregious example, as its attempts to load cover art along with each film makes the Fire TV Stick freeze up with every click of the directional pad.)
One other performance problem: The Fire TV Stick only handles video at 30 frames per second, which means you don’t get smooth motion in sports programming from PlayStation Vue and MLB.TV. Google’s Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick have no problem supporting 60-frames-per-second video.
Searching for app support
Since last fall, Amazon has bundled a voice remote with the Fire TV Stick for $10 more than the standard package. It’s an option worth taking, if only because the voice remote’s contoured design is sturdier and more comfortable than the standard remote. Voice search is also useful for navigating Amazon’s massive catalog of movies, videos, and music.
As with the main interface, however, the usefulness of voice search quickly tapers off when you’re not consuming Amazon content. Amazon’s product page for the Fire TV Stick lists Hulu, Vevo, HBO Now, HGTV, and Showtime as working with voice search; I’ve also had luck with HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Crackle. Still, there’s no support from Netflix, the vast majority of TV Everywhere apps, or lesser-known apps like SnagFilms. Other devices such as Roku and Apple TV have jumped ahead in getting third-parties on board.
Even when voice search does support a third-party app, this fact is often hidden behind a “More Ways to Watch” button, while rental and purchase options are advertised up-front. It seems Amazon is more interested in peddling its own on-demand sales and subscriptions than informing users about potentially free alternatives.
Speaking of Amazon services, the Fire TV Stick’s voice remote does have one noteworthy trick: You can use it to summon Alexa, the same virtual assistant that lives inside Amazon’s Echo speakers. Through Alexa, you can ask questions, control your smart-home devices, play music from streaming sources like Pandora, and order stuff from Amazon. It doesn’t feel quite as magical as the Echo without the hands-free element, but it’s nice being able to confirm a Prime order and see the full box score of a baseball game on the big screen.
Taking stock of the sticks
Should anyone buy the Fire TV Stick? Maybe, if you’re looking to spend as little as possible for the best experience with Amazon Prime Video. Just keep in mind that the Fire TV set-top box is a much faster and more capable device. It’ll cost more up-front, but won’t be screaming for replacement any time soon.
On the cheaper side, the new Roku Streaming Stick (model 3600R) is a better all-around choice. Not all of its apps are as pretty as their Fire TV counterparts, but they’re less prone to performance hang-ups. Google’s Chromecast is a fine alternative as well, provided you’re happy to use your phone, tablet, or laptop as the remote control. Because all the app navigation happens on a secondary screen, performance is likely be a non-issue, and it only gets better as you upgrade to newer and faster phones.
Amazon will likely release a new version of the Fire TV Stick later this year. The current product is approaching two years old—the same age at which Amazon refreshed its $100 Fire TV set-top box last year. The Fire TV Stick was an admirable product in 2014, but now it seems ill-equipped for the increasingly sophisticated state of streaming video.