Amazon Fire TV Stick First Impressions

Amazon Fire TV Stick First Impressions

Mostly solid, but hampered by availability problems

If there's a place where Amazon's experience understanding what typical consumers really need will resonate, it's the living room. And the new Amazon Fire TV Stick ticks all the boxes: It's inexpensive, it's easy to configure, set up and use, and unlike most of the competition, it comes with everything you need to get started. Time will tell if the Fire TV Stick holds up, but my first impressions are mostly positive.

If you're not intimately familiar with what's happening in the set-top box world, here's the short version: Google's release of the $35 Chromecast has, um, inspired a number of companies to ship similar looking "media dongles," devices that plug directly into an HDMI port on your HDTV and are usually hidden from view. But these newer devices typically improve on the Chromecast model in some ways. They include a remote control, for example, and don't actually require you to use a smart phone or tablet to control onscreen playback.

The Roku Streaming Stick was perhaps the first device to fall into this category, and it's an excellent option, offering access to a ton of content channels—Netflix, Hulu Plus, Google Play and so on—and an affordable (under $50) price tag. More recently, Microsoft has shipped the Wireless Display Adapter, a $99 Miracast dongle that really isn't in the same league, though it does let you mirror your PC, tablet or phone (Windows Phone or Android) screen on the HDTV.

The Amazon Fire TV Stick is much more like the Roku Streaming Stick than the Chromecast or Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, though it does provide some "casting" capabilities. That is, it's a standalone device, comes with its own remote, and gives you access to all the services—Netflix, Hulu Plus, many others, plus of course Amazon's-right out of the box. Naturally, it's Amazon-centric, and it uses the same UI as the Amazon Fire TV. It's attractive enough, but those other services are isolated apps for the most part, whereas Amazon's services are all out front and center.

When you unbox the Fire TV Stick, however, you see where Amazon really steps up for the typical consumer. The box includes everything you'll need, not just the dongle and the remote, but batteries for the remote, an HDMI extender in case the area around your HDTV's HDMI port is too tight, a long USB cable for powering the device, and even a Kindle Fire-style USB power plug in case your HDTV doesn't have a USB port. The only thing missing is an HDMI cable.

The initial setup has some of the standard baloney that accompanies digital devices these days—you need to download install updates before you can use it—some baloney that is unique to this device—after installing said updates, you actually have to re-find your wireless network and re-type the password—and some niceties that only Amazon seems to get: Because you purchased this item with your Amazon account, that account is preregistered on the device. (You can optionally type in different credentials if you want, of course.) Amazon makes it really easy to use Amazon.

After tooling around in the UI for a bit—yep, it's just like Fire TV, though of course the more advanced Android-type games are not available—I decided to quickly see whether the Miracast functionality worked. It doesn't, at least not with Microsoft devices. My Lumia 830 could see the Fire TV Stick correctly but would never connect, and Surface Pro 3 saw it as a "cell phone" and required a WPS PIN (which doesn't exist) and thus wouldn't connect either. This feature seems a bit hard to use, regardless: You actually need to find and display the Display Mirroring settings (Settings, Displays & Sounds, Enable Display Mirroring) before it will work, so you can't just connect to it at any time as you can with other devices. Weird.

I'll spend more time with it, and of course the Miracast stuff could/should be fixed at some point. But it's pretty clear up front that the Fire TV Stick is a nice and inexpensive solution for those invested in the Amazon ecosystem especially. Whether it's a better deal than the Roku Streaming Stick, which costs $10 more, remains to be seen.

Amazon Fire TV Stick is available now for $39.00 though it's on backorder, and I believe new orders won't ship until after the holidays. You can also order the optional Voice Remote for Amazon Fire TV Stick for $29.00, though I'd recommend you consider the full-blown Amazon Fire TV ($99.99) at that point, if only because it's a more powerful device and can optionally play more impressive games too.

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