Amazon’s alternative to Google’s Chromecast went on sale in the UK yesterday – so what’s the verdict?
The battle for the living room is currently underway, and over the last few years we’ve seen traditional under-the-tv players like Sky, Virgin Media, Playstation and Xbox forced to do battle with new sources of audio-visual entertainment in the form of devices like Apple TV, EE TV, Chromecast and countless others.
Into this mix comes Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, a slightly lower-spec version of its Fire TV box squashed down into a Chromecast-sized form factor. The Fire TV Stick is designed as a budget option – selling for only £35, so along with Google’s option, it is the perhaps the cheapest way to make your TV smarter.
But is it any good? Let’s find out.
Getting started is nice and easy. Simply plug the stick into a spare HDMI port, and then plug in the Micro USB power chord. Interestingly, the device warns against plugging into a USB port on another device (like your telly) – insisting instead on going directly into a wall socket, so it can draw enough power to function properly. Once you’ve plugged in, switched on and entered your wifi code there’s a short introduction video explaining all of the major features, which is a nice touch for the less technologically confident.
The big difference between the Stick and Google’s Chromecast is that the latter is very basic: It can only display content triggered from another device, the Fire TV Stick aims to be more all encompassing. Inside the small stick is a fully-functional version of Amazon’s variant of Android, and as a result, the stick is built to run full apps natively – and can be controlled with the included remote, companion app on your phone, or even a games controller that you can buy separately. This means that you don’t need a phone or tablet to hand to make your Fire TV play whatever it is you want to watch.
In terms of services, all of the big ones that you’d expect are there: BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, Netflix, Spotify and, of course, Amazon’s own Instant Video service. Like its Fire TV big brother, the Stick has a feature it called “ASAP”, which will pre-buffer Amazon videos that it thinks you might want to watch next. So if you’re binging a whole series, there won’t be any waiting around for buffering for the next episode.
The big differentiator though is perhaps in terms of apps and games. In addition to the likes of Netflix, you can install apps like you might find on Android – such as VideoLAN player for playing back videos from your home network. There’s also a recommended app for streaming live TV channels – albeit in fairly low quality. Especially with the third party apps, whilst some are pretty decent some have the slightly weird feeling of not being properly adapted for use on a TV with a remote – feeling very much like an oversized phone screen, which you can’t properly control without a touchscreen.
Games are a bit of a mixed bag too. Don’t expect Call of Duty or GTA5 here – what you’ll get is essentially games designed for phones, blown up to the big screen. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but you should probably adjust your expectations accordingly. Graphics-wise, things are very impressive for what the stick is (essentially a phone squashed into stick).
One other impressive feature was voice search. If you use the Amazon Fire TV app, you can ask the Fire TV questions like you would Siri – for example, asking for “Tom Cruise films” will bring up a selection of the actor’s work. It’d be nice to see this function work across apps rather than just on Instant Video though… perhaps Amazon could ask Netflix and iPlayer nicely, and tap into their databases too?
Unfortunately, with all of this functionality comes a price: the Fire TV Stick can be a little sluggish in operation. Booting up some apps, and quitting them can take an annoying extra few seconds to happen – which can lead to bashing the remote as you’re unsure whether the Stick “heard” the command.
Similarly, when streaming on Instant Video, there was a couple of instances when the picture froze and then ran fast to catch up with the sound – only over a couple of seconds, but it was certainly noticeable.
I do have one other reservation about the device, and it is slightly more fundamental. Though the Fire TV Stick is clearly an accomplished piece of kit, at an attractive price, I can’t help but think the Chromecast does something very right – and that’s in how the device was conceived.
Whereas Fire TV has a remote, and requires you to faff about on screen with directional buttons, Chromecast only works by sending content from other devices. For example, you use the Netflix app on your tablet to find the film you want, before ‘casting’ it to the TV. This means that in terms of interface, rather than rely on the TV you can use a nice, fully touchscreen display to find what you need. And this is a fundamentally brilliant way of solving the problem we’ve had since the Super Nintendo: How to enter text on the TV screen.
Similarly, whilst watching a YouTube video on the TV, I can be on my laptop queuing up what to watch next, and after that, whilst the video plays. Whilst the Fire TV Stick does support mirroring and similar functionality, it is clunky and when I tried it, it refused to cooperate for some reason.
But that said, if you pick up a Fire TV Stick and want an easy way to watch video and play casual games on your telly, you’re not going to be unhappy – and at £35, it is close to being a no-brainer. But a Chromecast is a good choice too.