Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick is a $ 39.99 streaming dongle aimed at people who have not yet made the upgrade to a 4K TV – and do not intend to do so at any time. It maximizes with 1080p video resolution, but offers support for modern tricks such as HDR and Dolby Atmos surround sound. It’s a weird zone to be in when competing products like Chromecast with Google TV go all-in on 4K for not much more money.
Even Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K, which works just fine with older TVs, is only $ 10 more for $ 49.99. So Fire TV Stick (and cheaper Fire TV Stick Lite) is really only recommended if you are sure that HDTV will not go anywhere for a few years to come.
If this is your situation, you will definitely get a more powerful streamer than before. Amazon says that the new Fire TV Stick is 50 percent faster than the previous version – but it looks identical on the outside. There is still a matte black stick that plugs into one of the TV’s HDMI ports. You plug a Micro USB cable into it for power, throw some batteries into Alexa voice control, and you’re off. This is the same full-fledged remote control that comes with Amazon’s more expensive streaming devices, so in addition to playback and navigation controls, you get some extra buttons (power and volume) to control your TV with it. Fire TV Stick Lite remote control does not include these.
The improved performance is noticeable. Amazon’s older Fire TV Stick can sometimes hang up or slow down when scrolling or opening apps, but I’ve rarely experienced anything like that with this new model. It feels on par with the more premium 4K-compatible Fire TV products in terms of speed. Voice search with the Alexa remote went similarly fast, whether I was looking for a specific show or asking about the weather.
Expect mixed results for HDR and Dolby Atmos support. In my tests, Prime Video and Disney Plus did a great job of getting the most out of Fire TV Stick’s video and audio specifications and regularly delivered both HDR and Atmos, but you will find that not all services will serve them with a 1080p stream . Both HDR10 and HDR10 + are supported by Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite, but Dolby Vision is not. Video frame rates of up to 60 frames per second are now supported, compared to 30 frames per second on previous hardware. It’s a great upgrade for sports and watching video game streams on Twitch.
Amazon’s app selection is excellent, though there is a remarkable omission: NBCUniversal’s Peacock service is still not made available on the platform. Everything else, including Apple TV Plus, HBO Max and other apps, can be easily downloaded. When setting up Fire TV Stick, Amazon suggests a number of streaming apps to be installed right outside the bat, although the list does not include all the popular favorites. (Everything is easy to download over time.) Getting the remote control configured with the TV’s volume and power controls is also a moment.
The new Fire TV experience
Perhaps more interesting than the new hardware is the overhauled software experience that first debuted on the Fire TV stick before arriving at the company’s other devices. Apart from cleaning up and simplifying the main menu navigation – there are now only four tabs to choose from, in addition to your favorite tabs – it also introduces profiles for more users. You can create up to six profiles, and it is possible to designate them as child profiles that are limited to age-specific streaming content. Each user gets their own personal viewer log, recommendations, watch list and live TV preferences. When it comes to apps, you can choose which six apps appear on the main menu and easily get to your others with one click.
The library is where you will find purchases, rentals and a watch list. The home is really the same as before, and gives great preference to all things Prime Video (and IMDb TV, which Amazon also owns). The order of the rows will be adjusted dynamically based on your viewing habit, but not to the point where it makes things confusing: “up next” and the latest apps keep you up close to the top. With the new Finn tab, you can dig deeper into dedicated areas for movies, TV, genres or other categories such as “free”, which highlight ad-sponsored streaming channels. (This section is also now where the app store is located.) The latest tab is for live TV, which integrates with services such as Hulu, Sling TV and YouTube TV to display a traditional channel guide on the screen where you can quickly access live programming.
But the biggest frustration with the new Fire TV software remains the same as it was before: there is an abundance of sponsored content. Within a few clicks on the home tab, I saw a full-width banner ad for Honda trucks and SUVs. And as you go down the carousel of content, it becomes clear that many of them are sponsored. Here are some of the ones I saw when I moved down to the Home tab:
- Pluto TV – free movies and TV series – sponsored
- Sponsored: Prime Video Cinema
- Sponsored: This week on Fire TV
- Sponsored: Apps and Games
This spon-con is woven with really useful lines like “movies we think you will like” and “top-rated TV shows”, so it’s not creepy or enough to ruin the overall experience. You could also argue that Amazon is just more transparent and obvious with its sponsored sections, against competitors who may confuse them with general algorithm recommendations. But it still gives you the feeling that there is a lot of advertising property for sale through the Fire TV experience.
The new Finn tab does a better job than the Home tab of collecting TV shows and movies from your various subscriptions – not unlike what Google is trying to achieve with the Google TV software. Amazon was one of the first to push the idea of prioritizing content over a more app-centric layout (like the one on a Roku or Apple TV), but in some ways, Google has already moved forward. On Fire TV, it is never clear which service you want to watch content before clicking on a title. Google does a better job of clarifying what comes from where right on the main menu. But to Amazon’s credit, there are helpful filters for things like “free for me” and “rent or buy” to help you narrow down your selection.
When you surf around, this new Fire TV experience feels very familiar. Amazon may have hit the home screen, but this is not a drastic makeover at all. I like how on the title page of any show or movie it is very quick and convenient to browse through other things that the cast has appeared in. And you still get the practical “more ways to look” to see where else you can stream something , with existing subscriptions and ad-sponsored services given preference over paid options.
However, some areas of the interface still need improvement. For example, I received an alert that said “some content is provided by Verizon” with a disclaimer that the company may collect display data – without any indication of which app the alert was actually for. I guess it was for one of the live news services, but there was no confirmation that it was.
The new Fire TV experience comes to other products in March. It is definitely an improvement over what was there before, and the profile options will prove useful for parents and people with shared living space. It’s first available on Fire TV Stick, but I do not think there’s enough reason to get Amazon’s $ 40 player.
I’m sure Amazon has all the data in the world to show that this product makes sense, but buying a 1080p streaming device in 2021 seems poorly recommended. This feels like something Amazon should just give away to Prime subscribers as a freebie. You will feel much better about future-proofing by using extra – not really much extra – for Fire TV Stick 4K if you continuously stream from Prime Video and want to use the Alexa functions of the remote control. If you are not big on the Amazon ecosystem, something like the new Chromecast or a Roku streamer would be a more sensible purchase. The latest Fire TV Stick is faster than before and comes with slimmer software, but it’s still not cut out for a 4K streaming world.
Photograph by Chris Welch / The Verge