When you’re in the market for a streaming device that doesn’t cost the earth but can deliver all your favourite video streaming services to your TV without any hassles, there’s long been a king of the hill — the Google Chromecast, the $59 dongle that does it all. But now it’s got a battle on its hands — and Amazon’s $69 Fire TV Stick gives Google’s offering a run for its money!
There’s some level of irony in comparing streaming devices from Google and Amazon — because the two gigantic companies have become increasingly competitive with one another, to the point where Google actually disabled the YouTube app on Amazon’s devices… because they could, we suppose. And now here’s Amazon entering the Australian streaming-device market with a product that’s based on Google’s Android operating system — but a variation on it that Google’s not too thrilled about.
Just like Amazon’s legendary cold war with Apple, the antics of rich CEOs is all a lot less interesting than the devices their companies make. What we’re looking at here is the entry-level streaming market — devices for those with a TV that runs up to 1080p HD, but doesn’t have any built-in “smart” streaming apps. Both the Chromecast and the Fire TV hit the right spot price-wise as an affordable and easy upgrade to an older TV, so what has each device got to offer? And which one’s the better fit for you?
In the Blue Corner — Amazon Fire TV Stick (Basic Edition)
A hugely popular device around the globe, the so-called “Basic Edition” of the Amazon Fire TV Stick is almost identical to the, err, not Basic edition sold in the US and UK. The difference is mainly the lack of Alexa voice control on the remote — an omission few will worry about. Nobody wants to be yelling voice commands at their streaming device just to watch some TV, after all.
The Fire TV Stick retails for $69 (though it’s frequently discounted to $59 or less) and is, as the name suggests, a stick-shaped device — a little bit bigger than a pack of chewing gum, with all the smarts and the HDMI connection in the one compact little device. You can plug it directly into a spare HDMI port on your TV or AV receiver — but you’ll probably find its sheer width to be a problem if anything’s plugged into the HDMI inputs next to it. To solve that problem, a short HDMI extender cable is supplied in the box so you can dangle the stick away from the TV (which also has the side benefit of improving Wi-Fi reception).
Because it’s an HDMI device, not USB, it’s not self-powered — you need to plug in the supplied power adapter before you can power up the stick. With that done, though, tap on the simple but well-built remote control and you’ve got yourself a streaming device.
The on-screen menu might look familiar if you’ve used Amazon Prime Video before — it’s basically a hybrid of that mixed with a range of apps for other services. But it’s the Prime Video app and apps for other Amazon services that are, unsurprisingly, installed by default and front and centre in the initial menu (along with the sad-looking shortcut to the YouTube website, a hasty substitute for the now-defunct app).
Fire TV is a very popular platform and as such, apps for just about everything are available for it — from Netflix to Spotify, from Twitch to TED and a huge range of stuff in between. Shortcuts to the popular ones are pre-installed, but you’ll soon go exploring in the Amazon app store (the main menu directly integrates with it) to find apps both essential and interesting.
Australian apps don’t fare quite as well. Stan still doesn’t have a Fire TV app — they say one is almost ready for release — and neither do any of the Australian TV network catch-up services, not even iView. The Fire TV platform is very similar to the Android platform and free to develop for, so hopefully the lack of Aussie-based apps will change as more people pick up Fire TV devices, but in the meantime, be aware you might have a wait if free-to-air catch-up’s what you’re after.
This Fire TV device tops out at 1080p HD, so it’s ideal for anyone with a standard HD television. Amazon has not yet released the 4K-capable versions of the Fire TV series in Australia.