Technology

Amazon Fire TV Stick

Amazon Fire TV Stick

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Pros

  • Easy to navigate
  • Alexa integrated well
  • Fast interface
  • 4K Picture

Cons

  • Content search has blind spots
  • Remote app a missed opportunity
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Since the first Fire TV Stick launched, its internals have been beefed up and it’s now equipped with Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa. However, the new Amazon Fire TV Stick fails to take the budget streaming crown. Its new voice search functionality is great across the apps it supports, but it doesn’t cover enough of the content on the device.

Features

But if there’s not much to discuss where design or build is concerned, the list of features goes on somewhat. First off, the Stick is a gateway to pretty much all the film and television services currently available.

Amazon Prime Video is there, naturally enough, and it’s alongside Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, UKTV Play, DisneyLife, and literally thousands of other TV channels and video streaming services. And from the services that provide it, the Stick can handle 4K HDR content (in all its HLG, Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HDR10+ guises) at up to 60fps, as well as top-of-the-shop Dolby Atmos audio.

This is joined by access to the wider web, with dedicated apps for Facebook, Reddit, YouTube (although only via Amazon’s Silk browser, because Amazon vs Google is still an ongoing hindrance to end users of both services) and all the rest. Audio is yours from the Spotify and Prime Music apps.

Because the Fire TV Stick 4K can be controlled by Alexa, it can also join in with your wider smart-home ecosystem. Connected products from Hive, Ring, Samsung Smart Things, Hue and more can all join in – so your TV can easily display images from your smart baby monitor, smart doorbell or whatever.

Design

If you’ve used an Amazon Fire TV Stick in the past, then design-wise this latest version will be very familiar.

The stick measures 85.9 x 30.0 x 12.6mm, and it’s designed to plug straight into an HDMI port on the back of your TV.

You might find that Amazon’s hardware is a little wider than your standard HDMI cable. But luckily, in the likely event that it’s too bulky to plug directly into the HDMI port, Amazon also includes a short male-to-female HDMI cable to help it fit.

On the side of the stick is a micro USB port for powering the device. If you’ve got a newer TV, then there’s a good chance it’ll have a USB port on the back for powering gadgets. But again, if not Amazon also handily includes a power adaptor in the box, and the supplied USB cable should be more than long enough to reach a power supply.

But although on the outside things feel very much the same, internally the device has seen a bit of an upgrade over the previous generation of Fire TV Stick. Firstly, its Wi-Fi has been upgraded from 802.11n to the faster 802.11ac standard, which should allow content to buffer as quickly as possible. Its CPU has jumped from a dual-core to a quad-core, Dolby support has jumped to 5.1, and the Bluetooth version has gone up from 3.0 to 4.1.

Unfortunately the one spec you’re likely to care the most about, resolution, has seen no change between the previous generation of the Fire TV Stick and this one. It’s still a 1080p, non-HDR streaming stick, despite Google’s Chromecast Ultra proving that the dongle form factor is able to handle 4K just fine. If you want a streamer that’s able to handle 4K with the Amazon name on it, then you’ll need to spend more on the premium Amazon Fire TV dongle or something similar.

Driving all this is a powerfully responsive quad-core processor. The Stick 4K features dual-band Wi-Fi, and a redesigned internal antennae to cope with that torrent of Ultra HD information.

Interface

Along with the Stick, a USB cable to power it and the HDMI input extender, the box contains a slim little remote control (and, thank goodness, batteries for it). At the top of the remote is a mic and a button to activate it – and this is how the majority of your interaction with the Fire TV Stick 4K will take place, languidly issuing orders that Alexa rushes to carry out.

In this implementation Alexa is responsive in the extreme, able to conjure a big selection of 4K HDR movies in the length of time it takes to say “Alexa, show 4K HDR movies”. Naturally, Amazon offerings are front and centre – but they’re all there, from all providers, in an instant, for you to choose from. And as long as you don’t slur your words and keep your instructions reasonably concise, Alexa is able to do your bidding every time: “show smart camera”, “stream that song from before”, “show films by Christopher Nolan” and all the other things you realise are pretty compelling now you don’t have to do the leg-work yourself.

Of course, there are other physical buttons on the remote. In some ways it’s able to replace some of your existing handsets, as it has the ability to control volume, power and mute on/off of many compatible TVs, soundbars and multichannel receivers.

Performance

Get your Stick powered up, get it online and away you go. Start with a superior bit of film-making in the superior 4K HDR format (Denis Villenueve’s exceptional Arrival, which is sadly and ironically departing Amazon Prime soon) and there’s no arguing with the quality of the images and sound the Stick 4K delivers.

The HDR colour gamut is extremely wide, images are crisply detailed and stable even with difficult motion, and contrasts are high. Compared to the Amazon Prime Video apps installed on the Panasonic 4K HDR LED TV and Samsung 4K HDR Blu-ray player used in the test, the Stick TV performs well – it’s a match for the Panasonic’s implementation and, where colour palette and variation is concerned at least, has the better of the Samsung player.

Ask Alexa to open YouTube and the 4K content available there continues to impress. That’s true with Netflix’s best-quality offerings, too – especially the HDR content.

The Stick takes a little longer to get on top of an iPlayer stream than some alternative implementations, mind you – catching up with the weekend’s Match of the Day finds the Amazon hunting between high-def and standard-def images for a minute or two before finally settling down. Once it’s done so, though, it’s as enjoyably composed and vibrant as iPlayer has ever looked.

All this is true no matter the streaming or catch-up service you demand Alexa shows you. The better the standard of the content in the first place – so Sky News rather than My5, for example – the better the quality of image the Fire TV Stick 4K delivers.

Equally, give the Stick the tools to work with and it’s capable of deeply impressive sound quality. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack to Okja on Netflix is wide, tall and very well organised, with ample detail available and a decent impression of height to the presentation. But even if you slum it with some ancient footage of The Crystals lip-syncing to Da Doo Ron Ron on YouTube, the sound the Stick streams is distinct and believable.

All of which serves to put the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K in the driving seat. It has the specification and performance to see off its nominal rivals, and is more affordable than almost all of them. The Google Chromecast Ultra, the Roku Streaming Stick+ and the wildly optimistically priced Apple TV 4K all are giving away features and/or cost to the Amazon. So it’s currently the media streaming stick to go for.

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