Proving the e-tailer still has a few surprises up its sleeve, Amazon announced the Fire TV Stick on Monday, a ridiculously affordable version of the set-top hardware that appears to have left little behind on its way to the shrink-ray.
Of course, stick-sized media streamers are somewhat old hat by now, with that path already well traveled by Google’s Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick – and given that Fire TV Stick won’t arrive until just before Black Friday, we don’t know for sure if it’s as amazing as Amazon says it is.
In the meantime, we’ve got technical specifications and other product details to go by, which is enough to pore over and see how Fire TV Stick stacks up against the competition.
Sticking out like a sore thumb
Let’s face it: There’s only so much engineers can do with a device not much bigger than a stick of gum, so buyers shouldn’t expect too many design miracles from Amazon, Roku or Google.
The trailblazing Chromecast is easily the most shapely of the bunch, adopting a more rounded look toward the rear of its 72 x 35 x 12 mm frame, while the Roku Streaming Stick makes up for its otherwise squarish 79 x 28 x 13 mm (3.1 x 1.1 x 0.5 inch) looks by adopting the same purple hue as the company’s logo.
For being the new kid on the block, the Fire TV Stick is pretty utilitarian when it comes to design – it’s simply a 84.9 x 25 x 11.5 mm (3.3 x 1.0 x 0.5 inch) black rectangle with the Amazon logo emblazoned on one side, a standard male HDMI Type A connector at one end, and a micro-USB (for power only) on the opposite side.
Looks may be one thing, but any of these devices are likely to be unplugged and tossed into a bag or purse for taking entertainment on the road; thankfully, they’re all quite light and portable, with the Chromecast packing on the most weight at 34 grams (just shy of 1.2 ozs.), followed by Fire TV Stick at 25.1 grams (0.9 oz.) and the Roku Streaming Stick at 18.1 grams (0.64 oz.).
When all is said and done, we still prefer the Chromecast for a more unique design, although points could be awarded to Amazon for its ability to make the otherwise generic-looking Fire TV Stick pretty much disappear onto the back of most HDTV sets, which is more than we can say for Roku’s device, which sticks out like a sore thumb.
When Chromecast was released more than a year ago, Google was quick to point out that no remote control would be required – after all, the required smartphone, tablet or Chrome browser on a desktop computer essentially already offer complete control over playback.
Roku and Amazon have other ideas about this concept, given their respective Streaming Stick and Fire TV Stick devices actually pull content from the internet only upon the command of a remote control or mobile app.
That makes the Roku Streaming Stick or Fire TV Stick a better choice for viewers who prefer to hold a traditional remote in their hands, which are powered by a pair of AA batteries.
Roku’s RF-based remote resembles the one that comes bundled with its current-generation set-top boxes, complete with shortcut buttons for favored nation channels M-GO, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and Blockbuster On Demand; unfortunately, Roku skimped on the headphone jack featured on its more expensive hardware.
Amazon likewise cheaped out on the remote for its Fire TV Stick, which offers only basic navigation and playback buttons and none of the voice search or game controller functionality full-sized Fire TV owners enjoy.
However, Amazon is separately offering both the $29.99 Fire TV Voice Remote as well as the $39.99 Fire Game Controller, each of which also happens to be fully compatible with Fire TV Stick right out of the box.
For those looking to toss hardware remotes in a desk drawer and forget about them, the news is even better: All three devices can be controlled from mobile apps on iOS or Android, although at this writing Amazon’s free Fire TV Remote app is a no-show on Apple’s App Store.
Amazon still has work to do
Although Google has made great strides over the last year or so in securing the support of content providers for Chromecast, Roku continues to dominate with more than 1,000 channels, ranging from movies to TV shows, sports, news and music.
Aside from iTunes Store content – which none of these stick-based devices are capable of playing – any of these sticks are capable of streaming the most popular services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube, although there is one noticeable exclusion on Chromecast, which lacks Amazon Instant Video support.
While Roku may cater to more eclectic tastes thanks to a diverse channel catalog, all three devices are also capable of streaming from the likes of Plex, software frequently used by home theater junkies to view content stored on their own computer or network-attached storage (NAS).
That just leaves us with fringe services such as Walmart-owned VUDU, which is available on Roku and compatible with Chromecast, but has thus far chosen to sit on the sidelines for Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Fire TV and now Fire TV Stick.
We’re giving the apps nod to Roku here for sheer quantity and diversity of choices, but we wouldn’t count Chromecast or Fire TV Stick out for the future, as Google and Amazon continue to line up support from other content providers.