If you’re looking for a cheap, easy way to get streaming video from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube and so on to your TV, you have two excellent choices: Roku and Amazon Fire TV.
Roku has long been my choice over Fire TV because, well, Amazon’s menus are annoying. Using a Fire TV stick means wading through a bunch of TV shows and movies, not necessarily the apps themselves. That would be fine if they were the TV shows and movies I’m in the middle of watching, or might actually want to watch — something Netflix’s menus do very well. But more often than not, I don’t care about the TV shows and movies on Fire TV’s screen. They just seem like stuff Amazon or its partners want me to watch.
Given the choice between using this $40 (£30, AU$69) Fire TV Stick every day and its direct competitor from Roku, the, I’m sticking with Roku. Even though it came out in 2017. Even with Amazon’s Fire TV discounts, which frequently bring its stick down to $30 or even less. Even though I use Alexa and Amazon Prime video all the time.
But what about you? Maybe you want to save that money. Or maybe you want the Amazon special sauce: Alexa. If you own an Alexa speaker like an Echo Dot and want to use it to control your TV by talking, hands-free, the cheapest option is to get a Fire TV Stick.Yes, speakers now, but it’s not as good.
Otherwise those two streamers are really similar. Both have access to approximately umpteen zillion apps. Both have remotes with TV volume and power buttons to control most TVs so you can ditch the remote that came with your TV. And both have 4K-compatible big brothers that are better choices if you have a 4K TV — and in true Amazon fashion, theis just another ten bucks.
What’s in a stick?
If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of device, here’s a quick rundown.
- It’s a tiny stick that plugs into the HDMI port on the back of your TV, out of sight. Amazon includes a mini cable in the box if space is tight back there.
- For power you can plug it into a USB port on your TV, but we (and Amazon) recommend plugging it directly into a power outlet via the included adapter.
- It requires a solid Wi-Fi connection to stream TV shows and movies.
- It can access almost all of the major streaming apps, including Amazon Prime Video (of course), Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now/Go, Sling TV, Sony Crackle, Pluto TV, Tubi TV, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify and many, many more. (Available services differ by country, obviously.)
- It also supports YouTube. There’s no official app, but the interface on the browser version looks and behaves basically the same as an app. It doesn’t support voice commands though.
- It doesn’t support YouTube TV, however, one of our favorite live TV streaming services, nor does it support Vudu or Google Play Movies and TV, two major sources of recent movies to buy or rent (that compete directly against Amazon video itself). Otherwise its app selection is basically as good as Roku’s.
Universal remote (lite)
Amazon’s official product name — “Fire TV Stick with all-new Alexa Voice Remote, streaming media player” — spells it out pretty clearly: the only difference between the 2019 version of this product and the earlier one, which came out two years ago, is the remote. The streaming sticks themselves are exactly the same.
The new remote has additional buttons, namely a volume up-down rocker, a mute button and a little power button at the top. They can control your TV, and they worked great in my tests.
On the TVs I tried from LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio the Fire TV detected my TV type and programmed the remote automatically, in seconds. All I had to do was confirm it worked. If detection doesn’t work for some reason the setup menus made it easy to correct the issue and program the clicker without having to enter any codes or other nonsense typically associated with universal remotes.
In addition to Mute, a button Roku’s clickers lack, the Fire TV goes one better with more control options. If you have a sound bar, you can set up the remote’s volume and mute keys to control it instead (the remote’s power button can control both the TV and the bar). It worked well with sound bars I tried from Vizio, Sonos and Yamaha. The same scheme works with AV receivers too — my Sony receiver responded to volume, mute and power from the Fire TV remote in my tests.
If for some odd reason you prefer to speak into the remote rather than press a button, know that when I said “turn up the volume” and “mute” into the Fire TV remote it worked as expected, controlling my receiver, sound bar and TV. It didn’t work for power, however. There’s also no way to control devices via voice hands-free — via a paired Echo Dot, for example — for that you’ll need a Fire TV Cube.
Stream with your voice
You can talk into the remote after pressing a button, and stuff happens. Normal TV stuff such as, “Launch Netflix,” “Show me sci-fi movies,” “Play” (which launches the Netflix app and starts an episode), and “Skip ahead 30 minutes” worked as I expected. Many popular apps, including Hulu, HBO Now and Movies Anywhere, support voice commands. YouTube doesn’t, however.