It’s an interesting comparison, putting these two excellent streaming devices next to each other. One clearly owes a debt to the other, and the similarities can be striking — yet they’re different in almost every way, including price. Apple’s much-loved Apple TV 4 has been around for a good long while now, finding its way into millions of homes, while the Amazon Fire TV Stick has only just arrived in Australia after finding a large fan base in over 100 countries around the world.
The rivalry that seems to be default behaviour for giant companies these days has come into play with Apple and Amazon as well. Famously, Amazon announced in 2015 that it would stop selling Apple TV products — along with Google’s Chromecast — because they didn’t have support for Amazon Prime Video. And yet Apple was repeatedly saying that the reason the Apple TV didn’t have a Prime Video app was because Amazon wouldn’t make one. Confused customers made up their own minds until the dispute was settled at the end of 2017, and a Prime Video app duly arrived on the Apple TV.
But up until that point, arguably the best way to watch Prime Video in Australia was via Amazon’s own devices — and based on what we’ve seen of the Fire TV Stick, it still is. So how do these two immensely popular streaming devices shape up against each other overall?
For the purposes of this comparison, we’re focusing on the original Apple TV 4 — still available despite the later arrival of a 4K model. The standard Apple TV tops out at 1080p HD, which is where our Fire TV Stick reaches its limit as well (Amazon does make 4K-capable Fire TV devices, but none of them have been released in Australia as yet).
So, both of these are great options for anyone looking to pair a streaming device with their TV — but there’s a substantial difference in price. The Apple TV 4 will set you back $209, while Amazon’s offering clocks in at a far less eye-watering $69.
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There’s no denying it — at the moment, the Apple TV wins hands down in the apps department. The reason for that is simple — it’s been in the Australian market for far longer, and as a result there’s an app for just about everything under the hot Australian sun. All the TV catch-up services are present and accounted for (including a special version of ABC iView with enhanced picture quality) and all the big streaming services as well, with some of those apps being superior on the Apple TV to anywhere else (Stan and, ironically, Amazon Prime are among those).
The Fire TV Stick, meanwhile, has extensive app support — you just have to browse the integrated app store to realise that there’s a plethora of utilities and games in addition to the usual streaming apps. Stan has an app on the way for the Fire TV, and we presume the free-to-air networks will get onto it soon enough — but in the meantime you’ll have to settle for Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, and whatever else you can find in the corners of the app store.
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Features and Usage
Both of these devices use on-screen interfaces to communicate with the user and let you manage your apps, and both work surprisingly similarly, despite having very different heritages (Apple TV is based on iOS, while Fire TV is based on a version of Android). It’s a bit of a game of “who influenced who” at times, especially when you notice Amazon’s screen saver, which looks like a less data-heavy version of Apple’s famed “Aerial” screen saver.
Each device comes with a small Bluetooth remote control — this is essential, since line-of-sight can’t be guaranteed with either device, but especially with the slender behind-the-TV design of the Fire TV Stick. Apple’s remote is controversial, and for good reason — its use of a glass touchpad makes it unique on one hand, yet strangely frustrating on the other. You get used to it (when you’re not trying to use it upside-down, which turns out to be most of the time) but it’s not to everyone’s taste. The Apple remote has its own lithium ion battery built in, charges via lightning cable, and a charge lasts for the best part of a year of usage. A distinctive feature is the twin microphones that let you communicate with a version of Siri to issue voice commands — it works well enough, but we rarely find a need to use it.
Amazon’s remote, meanwhile, is a basic Bluetooth remote that feels great to hold and solid to operate, and gets the job done with no fuss. The US version includes “Alexa” voice support, but that’s been removed for Australia — like Siri, we suspect it’s no great loss on a streaming device. It’s powered by a pair of AAA batteries that are easily swapped out but will likely see you through a year or more of use.
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Apple’s tvOS interface is adapted from iOS and is a thing of beauty by this stage — silky smooth in operation, versatile and unobtrusive, it even automatically switches to dark mode when the sun goes down if you want. The Fire TV interface, meanwhile, takes a similar “rows and tiles” approach but blends it with the interface you’ll see on Prime Video, actually integrating both Prime Video content and the Amazon App Store right into the main screen. That’s a lot more useful than you’d think, though you’d want to be a Prime Video subscriber to get proper value out of it (and at $59/year, and with this stick sent postage-free, why would you not be?)
Apple clearly has the more powerful hardware (and more memory to play with as well) but Amazon’s quad-core CPU is no slouch and it chomps through the well-designed user interface with a smoothness that belies the device’s teensy size. It feels reliably solid to operate throughout your time with it, not least because the remote is so much more tactile.
Paid Content and Search
This one’s not a fair fight because Apple’s sold and rented movies and TV shows in HD (and now 4K) in Australia for years, while Amazon having just launched in Australia fairly recently — still hasn’t set up a similar service as part of Prime here (in the US, Prime Video mixes included and paid content together so you don’t need to look around different apps). We’re sure it’ll arrive here soon enough.
When it comes to searching for stuff to watch, Amazon’s device will only search Prime Video of Australia — for the above reason. It’s a search designed to drill down into both free and paid content, and in markets where Prime Video sells content the idea is that there’s no need to go anywhere else.
Apple’s search on the other hand is cross-app enabled (though individual apps need to code support in for it) and so you can search for “movies starring Will Smith” and see results come back for titles from Netflix, Stan and iTunes all on the one screen.
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Value for Money
You know, this category’s not really a fair fight either, for a couple of reasons. The Amazon Fire TV Stick is an incredible value for the low price it sells for (and it’s regularly discounted even lower). At a third of the price of the cheapest Apple TV, its temporary shortcomings (mainly missing apps) are far outweighed by the sheer value of what you get for your money.
Apple TV is a superb piece of kit with incredible app support but, like all things Apple, it’s pricey (and this is the cheap one!). If money’s no object, by all means splurge on the Apple TV. But for the rest of us, Amazon’s come up with one of the best value streaming media devices out there, with new apps and features sure to be added over time. Ultimately, it wins on price.