No disrespect to the full-sized Fire TV that Amazon launched last April, but the Fire TV Stick is the media-streamer that the online giant should have released in the first place.
While the Fire TV is a solid video streamer for $99, it's overkill if you just want an easy way to stream Amazon Prime Instant Video to your television. The Fire TV Stick has nearly the same capabilities at a much lower price: just $39. Here's hoping that Amazon takes the time between now and January 15 (when it's able to start clearing backorders) to iron out a few kinks. More on this later.
Set-top box be gone!
Like other pocket-sized media streamers, such as the Roku Streaming Stick and Google's Chromecast, the Fire TV Stick is a roughly thumb-size device that plugs into any HDMI socket. There's a micro-USB port on the long side, which you must plug into either a wall outlet or a powered USB socket if your TV has one. (I got an "insufficient power" warning during setup on my Vizio E-Series television, but the device seemed to work fine on USB power after I dismissed the message.) Amazon thoughtfully provides an HDMI extension cable that lets the stick hang freely in case it gets in the way of your other HDMI connections.
Where the Fire TV has a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, the Fire TV Stick has a lesser dual-core processor and only 1GB of RAM. That rendered the Stick a wee bit prone to stuttering with some apps. Still, it's hard to tell much difference even when moving back and forth between devices. The additional processor power mainly comes into play for high-end games that don't run on the weaker Fire TV Stick (and you'd need the game controller — a $40 option — to enjoy most of them anyway).
Despite their sizes, the main difference between Amazon's two Fire devices is the remote control. The Fire TV Stick's remote doesn't have the same soft-touch plastic as its larger sibling, and its buttons feel slightly less snappy. More importantly, it lacks a microphone for voice search. Amazon offers a remote control app for Android, but it's not as convenient to use.
The Fire TV Stick also lacks the Ethernet port and optical audio output found on the $99 Fire TV. Nothing beats hard-wired Ethernet connections for reliability, and the TOSLink port lets you pass audio to an older AV receiver or sound bar that doesn't support HDMI's audio return channel (ARC).
As with the the full-sized Fire TV, the Stick comes with your Amazon credentials pre-loaded if you order it online through an existing account. Setup is almost a breeze, until you hit the four-minute video tutorial. Not only is it impossible to skip, it's loaded with painfully obvious tips such as "The Home button takes you to the Home screen of your Fire TV Stick at any time." This might seem like nitpicking, but these condescending lectures are symptomatic of the Fire TV Stick's bloated interface.
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