Amazon currently has the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick on sale for $29.99, that’s $10 off the normal price, and an unbeatable bargain. That’s wacky-arm-flailing-inflatable-tube-man pricing. I’ll risk recommending something that some people might hate, because at $30, it’s basically the cost of a bad dinner, and a drink, at a restaurant.
However, I did recommend someone buy a particular brand of saltine crackers once, and they’re still giving me crap about it, so I suppose anything’s possible when it comes to recommendations.
I bought the 2nd generation stick when it was first available for preorder in October, and have been very pleased with it’s performance over the 1st generation device. Since the previous model I had also came with a voice remote, there’s no difference in features, but if you had purchased the model without a voice remote it’s absolutely a different experience. (You could also use the Fire TV app on your iOS, Android, or Fire OS device and it would grant you a microphone, but it’s less convenient, and they did a weird thing with the swiping for navigation that irks me ever so much.) The new device is much snappier than the previous model and I consider it a worthy upgrade for that alone. Also, if you haven’t used a 1st generation model in a while, you might be surprised by some of the software features that have appeared, or have been improved.
I generally find that most people have a Fire TV Stick in a drawer somewhere because they didn’t find it useful at one point or another. However, Amazon slowly rolls out features over time, without any fanfare, and thus those drawer-stick owners aren’t up to date on software fiddly stuff. Amazon doesn’t do a particularly good job of synthesizing a complete sales-pitch for the device, or even a product page that makes a lot of sense.
The Home screen isn’t just Amazon Prime recommendations, it’s a mixture of recommendations based on which apps you have installed. They have to participate in the system, of course, but there are notable ones like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and others. This rolled out in September before the new model came out.
There are also improvements to Alexa’s voice search, and more services provide data for Alexa. This includes Netflix, which was absent from this search feature before. The search also includes buttons to launch the app and play it. (In my time with this feature on both models, I have noticed that sometimes it takes you to the Netflix user profile screen instead of playing the video, it seems like the app doesn’t like to play nicely if it wasn’t recently active.) In cases where the media is available on multiple services, you’ll see the options presented to you, like watching old Star Trek episodes on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Unfortunately, there are some wrinkles, since not all services participate, you can’t use Alexa to look up a PBS show in the PBS app. Similar drawbacks exist for Siri on the 4th generation Apple TV. I do find that Alexa’s results are more often in tune with my expectations than Siri’s results. If you search for “The Thing”, which is admittedly generic, you will get several Fantastic Four movies, and other properties with various names, but not 1982’s “The Thing” by John Carpenter. Alexa shows that as the first result, and no Fantastic Four movies in sight.
Alexa does get confused when there are conflicting names for things, one of those conflicts my friend Dan Sturm uncovered when he instructed Alexa to “Play The Grand Tour” which provides an error message that the Alexa Skill for “The Grand Tour” is not installed. This is an unfortunate marketing clash because their effort to get the word out about the show (the Alexa app is a weekly teaser with clues and B.S.) actually makes it more difficult to watch the show they are trying to promote on the Fire TV. I did have a funny moment where the Fire TV read off the instructions for how to install the Alexa Skill and the Echo Dot accepted that as a command and installed the Alexa Skill. I’m not sure that was intentional on Amazon’s part, but it was funny. Long story short: If you say “The Grand Tour” you get the search results you want, but “Play The Grand Tour” will clash with the Alexa Skill for “The Grand Tour”.
All this Alexa stuff also works for music through Amazon’s music options, which I’ll explain, but I should mention that the Music section of the app is different from telling Alexa to play something. They draw from the same Amazon sources, but an Alexa query shows you a dialog with the song title and album art, and there’s no way to navigate on screen while it’s playing, or to pull up the lyrics (which are available to with some songs inside the Music app). So if you had been annoyed by that in the past, it’s still there. I also worry about burn-in on my plasma TV so I don’t love leaving that search result screen up, and instead prefer to play music on my Echo Dot. (Curiously, Amazon has introduced a feature that displays what’s currently playing on any Fire tablet you own, but it’s similarly useless. The Alexa app itself offers actual media controls.)
Music’s available through the Prime library, any music you’ve purchased through Amazon’s MP3 store, if you pay a fee you can upload your own music, or you can subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for a large streaming library comparable to Apple Music. Spotify makes a TV app, but they also have the ability to use Spotify with Alexa as the default music source. Other skills are also available for other music services. This is different from Siri, which offers no audio integrations at all.
The new device features significantly improved performance over the previous model, but I still do not recommend anyone play a game on it. The first model stuttered with Crossy Road, and the new model plays it perfectly well, but it still stutters in Alto’s Adventure.
The new voice remote is, like I said, almost identical to the old one. That being said, It still has the same negatives as the previous iteration: Requires batteries, and there’s no IR or HDMI-CEC control for audio which means you need to keep at least two remotes near you. Because the stick has no IR, and has a microphone, you can’t replace it with a run-of-the-mill universal remote. This is pretty disappointing because audio can vary widely. Also hitting Home powers on the stick, the TV, and sets the input to the port the stick is in — but if you put the Fire TV to sleep the TV stays on, it doesn’t go into standby mode like when you put a 4th generation Apple TV to sleep. (Or at least this is my experience with my TV.) This is the same experience as the 1st generation Fire TV Stick with voice remote.
There’s also a new UI that’s on the way, but I don’t ever suggest that anyone get something because of unreleased software. I’ll leave reviewing unreleased hardware and software to real technology writers. I do expect it to be beneficial when it appears, but the current device is worth the $30 on sale, or even the $40 when it’s not on sale.
A lot of people get hung up on how aesthetically unappealing the current interface is, but I’ll take unappealing over pretty, but frustrating.
The Chromecast has always seemed incomplete, because it’s design moves all the control to other, disparate places. I’m also 5,000 years old, because I like to have a remote. I do understand the appeal if you spend most of your time on your phone or tablet and only want
Roku makes a streaming stick in this price point, and I picked it up last week for comparison’s sake. I would also say that it’s snappy, but I found it incredibly frustrating to use. People often complain about Amazon pushing Amazon content, but Roku pushes different apps and services for seemingly no particular reason, so I can only assume there’s money changing hands. In the setup process they want you to install a few apps to get started, and they pre-select a few services, to be helpful. Even after disabling them, and not signing up for any trials, or other offers, I got an email today again, encouraging me to sign up for trial periods of Hulu, CBS All Access, and Showtime. I find this creepy and weird since I literally unchecked these boxes and showed no interest in their offering at all. I also don’t enjoy the remote (which only paired with the stick after I restarted the stick by unplugging it). There’s no voice search offered for this model, and typing in a search produces a list of places where I can watch something, but there’s no indication of whether or not the app or service in the result requires a new subscription, a cable subscription, or a direct payment. This is unlike what Apple and Amazon do with their Universal search which indicate when something’s free to watch right away. I’m considering holding on to it for future testing, but I can’t imagine any circumstances under which I would recommend this product. Also, I loathe their version of the Netflix client, which is a big strike against it.
The Roku does offer Amazon Video though, but I find it to be pretty lackluster. I would compare it to the experience you get out of many integrated Amazon Video apps on various TVs. (Which is kind of funny because Roku is providing their Roku interface for TCL.)
Apple doesn’t offer anything remotely in this price range. The 3rd generation Apple TV was discounted to $70, and then discontinued this September without any replacement, leaving the $150 4th generation Apple TV as the least expensive streaming device Apple makes. It’s also not as portable as an HDMI stick device. They’ve never made anything in that form factor. Apple doesn’t compete on price though, they rely on a premium experience to sell products. Since they don’t offer a premium experience I can only talk about the price.
I’m fortunate (?) in that I can easily justify purchasing multiple streaming units to have around, and can switch between them as needed, but most people probably want to stick to one thing, and they probably want that one thing to do everything they find important. No one has made that product, so pick and choose based on what seems the most important to you. I certainly think that if you’ve been frustrated by trying to AirPlay Amazon Video that you should purchase this, because I don’t think hell is going to freeze over any time soon.
If someone isn’t an Amazon Prime member, or they want to exclusively use iTunes media, then this isn’t a good option. If you want HBO, Netflix, and Prime video with voice search at a relatively inexpensive price-point, then this is the best option, and I would encourage you to consider it before the sale ends.