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Amazon Fire TV Stick Review (2017)

Amazon Fire TV Stick Review (2017)
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The Fire TV Stick is a media streamer that lets you watch Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and UK catch-up TV. You can install more apps and games to get more content, just like the current Apple TV.

It can plug directly into an HDMI port on your TV so may be a better choice for anyone who doesn't want a series of black boxes below their TV. If you decide to buy one, check out our getting started with Fire TV guide. Just bear in mind that an on-going feud with Google means the YouTube app is currently blocked.


FIRE TV STICK 2017: PRICE AND AVAILABILITY

Amazon makes two versions of the Fire TV. There's the more expensive Fire TV set-top box, which costs £69.99 from Amazon and can handle 4K video, while the £39.99 Fire TV Stick is much smaller and - obviously - cheaper.

For Black Friday, Amazon is discounting the price to just £24.99 from 00.01 on 22 November. That's an insanely good deal for a high-quality media streamer.

There are other media streamers, of course, and we've compared the Fire TV, Chromecast and Roku separately.

The new Fire TV Stick has been available in the US since 20 October 2016 and went on sale in the UK in April 2017.

FIRE TV STICK 2017: WHAT'S NEW

Compared to the previous version of the Stick, the 2017 model now has Amazon Alexa built in and comes with the same Voice Remote as the £69.99 Fire TV so you can hold the microphone button and ask Alexa to do your bidding.

Alexa is now on many devices, including Amazon's Echo and plenty more gadgets made by other manufacturers. 

As you would expect at this low price, there's no support for 4K: that's exclusive to the more expensive Fire TV box. Here's a summary of the updated specifications compared to the old Stick:
  • Quad-core processor (30 percent faster)
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • HEVC support
  • Dimensions: 84.9 x 30 x 12.6mm

It still has 8GB of on-board storage, which isn't expandable, 1GB of RAM and Dolby 5.1 output with passthrough for 7.1. While it looks identical, the new Stick is fractionally larger than its predecessor.

Control via Amazon Echo

Although not exclusive to the 2017 Fire TV Stick, it's worth knowing you can now use Alexa on an Amazon Echo to control your Fire TV, completely hands-free.

If you have only one Fire TV, just ask Alexa something involving the Fire TV, such as “Alexa, find action movies on my Fire TV”. As long as they're connected to the same network, the two devices should pair automatically and you can begin to tell Alexa to play specific shows, play the next episode, fast-forward and more.

FEATURES & DESIGN

Unlike the slightly cheaper Chromecast 2, you get a remote control with the Fire TV Stick (and a proper menu system too - we'll get to that in a moment). The Stick might plug into your TV's HDMI port with no problems, but a short extension cable is included for situations where a direct connection isn't possible. On our Panasonic TV, other HDMI cables blocked access to the Stick's microUSB power input, and its rear end protruded from the TV's bezel.

A USB cable and power supply is included too - you'll probably have to use both since most TV USB ports won't provide enough power for the Fire TV Stick. You'll get a warning to tell you if that's the case as the Stick can boot up even from an under powered port.





The remote is just like the one bundled with big brother. It communicates via Bluetooth so you don't need line of sight to the Stick for it to work: handy since it will be tucked away behind your screen.

You can also install the free app on your Android or iPhone to navigate around the menu system or ask Alexa things. The app also lets you enter text via your phone's keyboard: vastly quicker and easier than trying to 'type' your Netflix login details via the remote control. As of yet, unlike the Apple TV, you cannot dictate passwords using the remote's microphone.

FIRE TV STICK 2017: FEATURES

Since we originally reviewed the Fire TV Stick, Amazon has completely revamped the interface. It's a big improvement, too.


No longer does it feel like a shopfront for Prime Video . It's an easy-to-use and intuitive menu system that appears to give everything equal priority.



Where the main menu was down the left-hand side, it's now across the top. But thanks to Alexa, you can avoid most of the button pressing and navigation and simply hold the microphone button and say "Hell on Wheels".

Alexa will then search all available content and bring up results from Amazon Prime, Netflix and other apps. There's no requirement to subscribe to Amazon Prime to use the Fire TV Stick (though it is great value for what you get), nor do you need an Echo to use Alexa.

Everything feels very responsive, and there's certainly enough power from the new hardware so you're never left waiting for a response from Alexa or when scrolling through TV episodes.

You can install apps including iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My 5, Netflix plus UK TV Play and plenty of others to give you access to masses of video. There's also Plex which might be a deal-maker if you have a large collection of your own videos on a NAS at home.

YouTube on Fire TV

Amazon’s ongoing spat with Google has seen each block content from the other’s hardware. This means there is no YouTube (Google-owned) app on the Fire TV anymore. It could return if the companies can come to an agreement, but don't bank on it.

This is extremely annoying, as it means you can't easily watch YouTube on your TV with the Stick. Amazon has directed owners to install a web browser and use YouTube.com, but this is a clunky workaround.

If you were to buy a Google Chromecast instead, you wouldn't be able to watch Amazon Prime Video, so you’ll have to pick sides here, which is a pain. (Amazingly, it's the Apple TV which now offers the best of all worlds with YouTube and Prime Video, and plenty of UK catch-up TV, but it does cost a hefty £149, and even more for the 4K version.)

Music & Apps

It's not just video, though. You can listen to music through Amazon Music as well as TuneIn and Spotify.

There are quite a few games to download too, including Crossy Road and Tetris. The remote (and processing power) limits the selection to casual games but if you want more, the Fire TV box offers an optional game controller so you can play more intensive games.

Bear in mind that the 8GB of storage is not expandable, so there's also a limit on how many apps and games you can have installed at the same time.


When you watch videos from Prime Video, you can bring up extra information including the actors in the current scene, plus trivia about the film or episode. Amazon calls this X-ray and it's one of the advantages the service holds over rivals such as Netflix.



If you own a compatible tablet (or a Fire Phone - remember those?) you can use it as a second screen while you watch Prime videos to get the X-ray information. And because the information is there, you can ask Alexa to find films with a certain actor or director.

Similar to Netflix, Prime remembers where you got to in each video so you can chop and change as much as you like without losing your place. Progress bars make it easy to see which episode you reached in a series.

Another benefit of Prime Video is that the software predicts (or tries to) what you're going to watch and starts buffering video in the background so playback is almost instantaneous.

Alexa

Obviously the addition of Alexa is one of the main draws of the new Fire TV Stick. However, don't be misled into thinking you have to replace your existing Fire TV with this new one: a software update will bring Alexa to existing owners soon.


And Alexa on Fire TV Isn't a cut-down assistant: it's the full-blown Alexa service you get on a £149.99 Amazon Echo.



So you can ask for a weather forecast, a news briefing or any other information that Alexa can supply. We've explained what this is more fully in our Amazon Echo review, and compiled a list of useful commands to get the most from Alexa.

Alexa will happily control all your compatible smart home gadgets including lights, thermostats and other things. You just need to enable those skills in the Alexa app.

And when you're watching a video, you can ask Alexa to "Skip to 10 minutes and 30 seconds" or "rewind 1 minute" or even "next episode".

The main difference compared to an Echo is that you don't say 'Alexa' before a command. Instead, you hold the microphone button on the remote and then say your piece.

This does affect convenience as unlike an Echo, Alexa isn't ready to spring into action when she hears her wake word. With the Stick your TV has to be on and you have to use the remote's mic button.

If you do happen to have another Alexa device, such as an Echo, you can't ask it to "play the Grand Tour" on your Fire TV Stick. Each device works independently.

Audio

The Fire TV Stick supports Dolby Digital Plus (and passthrough up to 7.1 channels) so if you have a suitably equipped surround-sound system, you'll get decent audio where the content has it. Just bear in mind that there are no other connectors on the Stick: if you want to route audio out of it, you'll either need a TV with the appropriate audio outputs for HDMI devices, or to plug it directly into an AV receiver which passes the video signal to your TV.

SPECS
  • Media streamer
  • Quadl-core processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 8GB storage
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO
  • Voice Remote included
  • HDMI extender included
  • Support for Dolby Digital Plus, 5.1 surround sound and passthrough for 7.1
  • Output: 720p or 1080p up to 60fps
  • 85.9 mm x 30.0 mm x 12.6 mm
  • One-year warranty

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