This year has been a big year for streaming devices. Not only have they continually sold well throughout the year, but this year also saw the arrival of many second generation streaming devices. This is always an important time for any device, as the second generation never rings with the excitement of the first device, but instead, brings with it the criticisms. What will it be like? What has changed? What has been improved?
Back at the start of October, we got to see what is essentially the big hitter of the streaming world in the form of the 2015 version of the Chromecast and so far, the verdict seems to be a positive one. Shortly after the release of the Chromecast though, Amazon came along and announced the launch of their second generation alternative in the form of the 2015 Fire TV Stick. Here is a closer look.
In the box
In terms of what you get for your money, you do get quite a lot. In the box and as well as the actual Fire TV Stick unit, there is also a dedicated remote control. This is along with a USB cable, wall adapter and a handy HDMI extender cable (for when you cannot fit the Fire TV Stick directly into one of your TV's HDMI ports. Completing the package is a quick start guide and two AAA batteries (Amazon Basics brand) for the remote control.
This is only a HDMI dongle streaming device and as a result is not expected to come with seriously blazing or high-profile specs. That said, you just may be surprised at what Amazon has managed to cram inside this tiny stick. The big aspect is the storage and the Fire TV Stick 2015 comes loaded with 8GB internal storage, which is enough to store a decent amount of apps. For games, it is a little more limiting, although, this is not designed to be a fully fledged gaming device. That said, due to the nature of the Fire TV Stick and the Amazon ecosystem, much of the content does remain cloud-based and therefore, not a drain on your 8GB storage. Powering the Fire TV Stick is a dual-core Broadcom Capri 28155 processor (clocking at 1 GHz), along with 1GB RAM. Wi-Fi is the main route of connectivity on offer, although the Fire TV Stick does also support Bluetooth 3.0. Wi-Fi is optimized through a dual-band dual-antenna 802.11n Wi-Fi connection. Video playback is possible in both 720p and 1080p with refresh rates up to 60 Hz. In terms of dimensions, the Fire TV stick measures 3.3-inches in height (or length) by 1.0-inch in width by 0.5-inches in depth.
Design & Hardware
One of the major first impressions of the 2015 Chromecast was how vastly different it looked compared to the predecessor. While you may wonder how different a plug-in streaming stick could change in one year, Google made it clear that it can change and a lot at that. The Chromecast came with a massively redesigned look which sports much brighter colors and a whole new form factor. When it comes to the Fire TV stick, unfortunately, the same level of change is not on offer.
In fact, you would be rather hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two, if they were both laid out on the table in front of you. The 2015 Fire TV stick does indeed look virtually identical to its predecessor. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will completely depend on your viewpoint of the original. If you like the small box look of the first generation device, then you will certainly like the small box look of the second generation device.
As such, what we have on offer with the Fire TV Stick 2015 is a small black rectangular box which is extremely nondescript for the most part. Of course, on one side of the stick you will find the HDMI plug, which allows you to directly plug the stick into your TV. On the front of the stick, you will find the Amazon logo although even this is rather discrete and could quite easily be missed when glancing passed. Completing the only noticeable aspects is the small microUSB port which is posted on the underside of the Fire TV Stick and this is where you will connect the USB lead and wall adapter to provide power to the stick. In fact, this is one of the areas where the first noticeable issue is with the Fire Stick TV. This is a device which does require external power. Of course, you can try plugging the unit back into a TV USB port (essentially looping), but the power does not seem to be enough to offer a really sufficient level of power. In fact, even when plugged into the main wall socket, it was also noted that unless the USB is completely pushed in, the Fire TV Stick has issues recognizing the power source.
That said, the stick is only half the package this time round, as different to last year's model (and to the Chromecast 2015), the latest version of the Fire TV Stick does come equipped with its own remote control. In fact, not just any remote control, but pretty much the same remote control you get with the bigger and more powerful Fire TV streaming device.
While the remote control is nothing too special on its own merit, as it comes bundled in with the Fire TV Stick, it is a useful addition and does add a number of useful features that you would not otherwise have on such a device. In terms of the general design, like the actual stick, the remote control adopts a minimalist look with a black overall color, minimal branding and a very generic look. The configuration of the remote consists of six primary buttons which include a back button, home button, menu button, rewind, play/pause and fast forward. The buttons come with a large circular encased button which is essentially your 'enter' button and allows you to activate any particular feature. The circular encasing is actually a directional wheel and will allow you to move through the categories and so on. Last up, at the very top of the remote sites the voice activation button which obviously activate the voice activation feature - another aspect which is different from last year's model.
A point to note about the remote control though, the Fire TV Stick is available in two different versions. One which costs $10 more than the other. The main difference being that one comes with a more advanced remote control. That is, one with a slightly better build and the voice activation feature. So which remote control you get will depend on which price-point you decide to go for. The remote shown in the image above is the higher priced voice activation option.
Software & Performance
Software is one of biggest differentials for streaming devices sand is certainly where the Fire TV Stick excels over the Chromecast. Of course, it could be argued that the Chromecast offers greater versatility with its software, but the point being made here is that the Fire TV Stick offers significant standalone performance and does not require an app to run. This makes the Fire TV stick an extremely appealing device. Moving away from the comparisons and in terms of the actual software, the Fire TV Stick comes running on Amazon's own Fire OS. In fact, the operating system in play, is in all respects the same software which comes running on the Fire TV. As such, virtually all of the functionality is identical (with the exception of the likes of 4K recommendations). Which in itself was very similar to last year's Fire TV and Stick software.
For those unfamiliar with Fire OS, the general layout of the software is one which adopts a much darker theme than you might expect and the whole interface acts somewhat like an app. Once up and running, instead of a home screen full of apps to choose from, the interface is broken down into the various categories (vertically positioned). From the on, each category is broken down into the category's sub contents (horizontally positioned). Therefore, the UI feels very much like a single page with all of the content on show. Of course, you can horizontally and vertically scroll for additional options but the layout remains the same. Much like Android TV.
Without dwelling on this point too much, the Fire TV Stick (like the Fire TV) is designed to be used with the Amazon ecosystem. Therefore, if you are not a Prime member, the usability of the system is vastly reduced. It is not completely reduced and you can still use the system and you can download a number of apps to use as a non-Prime customer, including virtually all of the big content apps like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and even YouTube (albeit a very poor version of the app). It is just the case that for a non-Prime user, the product on offer is a much inferior product. If you are a Prime member, then the Fire TV stick does offer a very comprehensive experience.
Categories are broken down into easy to navigate aspects like Home, Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Free Time, Games, Apps, among others. And it does sort of feel like the list is designed with priority to the categories that you are most likely to use. So if buying a Fire TV Stick and a Prime customer, then Prime Video is likely to be the first category you hit up and most often. So there does seem to be an element of simplicity with the way the system is set up. That said, regardless of the layout of categories, Home is where you will most often find yourself, as this is where your main feed of content will be. So any apps you download like Netflix, or any recent activity is displayed in your home category which makes it relatively easy to navigate to quickly.
If you are a Prime member, then you do of course gain access to all Prime Instant video has to offer including a full section of movies and TV Shows. In addition, the Fire TV Stick offers access to your Prime Music as well as your Photos and when all invested, does offer a surprisingly large degree of content for such a small stick.
In terms of the general performance, in truth, it is hard to criticize the Fire TV Stick. After all, this is only a streaming stick and what it is capable of, is surprisingly powerful. As such, there were very few issues noted when using the stick and overall, the interface, fluidly and performance was good. If you want to draw on a criticism, then it is not as responsive and a slightly bit slower than the bigger Fire TV unit, although, with a lesser processor, this is probably to be expected and not really a big enough issue to outright slate the Fire TV Stick for. It was only slow if comparing. On its own, the response and performance is very good.
It is also briefly worth pointing out that Amazon do have a Fire TV app available which also does work with the Fire TV Stick. The app is not exactly the most feature-heavy app and after using, it is rather reminiscent of the Remote control app for Android TV. The Fire TV app is essentially an app remote control which once connected, allows you to navigate the Fire TV Stick interface without the need for the physical remote control. You can add the remote to multiple units (if you have multiple Fire TV devices) and quickly change between them, as well as directly search for content and also make use of voice search. As a result, the app does pretty much do everything the main remote control does and worked extremely well when tested. The app is unlikely to win any major design awards and the voice functionality is a bit awkward (you have to hold down on the screen so it knows you are still talking), but it does get the job done when you can't find the remote or run out of batteries. In fact, in some instances, it proved quicker and more responsive to use the remote app instead of the actual remote control.
There is an irony here with the Fire TV Stick and that is, that the product is a little too good. When reviewing the Fire TV, the conclusion came to, was that if you are a Prime member then the product is worth picking up, although it lacks in comparison to Google's array of Android TV products. When it comes to the Fire TV Stick though, the outcome is much different. As the software is the same software as the Fire TV Stick, you do largely get the same experience. Making the Fire TV Stick a far more attractive proposition when compared to the Fire TV. Not to mention, it is priced far more aggressively and for that price, offers users a very well polished and inclusive experience.
There are issues with the Fire TV Stick, as it is not the best solution for gaming as all the processing happens inside and the power consumption needed is a little disappointing. However, it is hard to argue against the value on offer here. For less than $50 you are not only getting a fully interactive piece of kit, but one which is remote controlled, offer voice features, Alexa functionality and a really intuitive experience. While the Chromecast 2015 might look the part, the Fire TV Stick is what really offers an abundance of features wrapped within a tiny dongle. So much so, that it is easy to see this being an extremely big seller for Amazon going forward.
Should you buy the Fire TV Stick 2015?
If you are a Prime member, then this really is an excellent product to pick up. The compatibility of the likes of Amazon Instant Video has always been an issue for Android device owners and especially for Android TV device owners. However, at this price, regardless of whether you own an android TV device or a Chromecast, it make sense to pick up a Fire TV Stick as well. The value is there if you a Prime member. However, where Amazon really changed the game this year, is by introducing the remote control and this suddenly changes the essence of the unit and even for those who are not Prime members. If you are not a Prime member but do want to make use of apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO and the occasional light gaming, then this is still worth picking up for the cost.