Amazon Fire TV Stick: First Impressions

I have a bit of a fascination with streaming video gadgets. That’s partly due to me being a geek, but more practically related to the fact that we cut the cable/satellite cord in our household in April of 2011. We never watched much current television anyway, and most of what we did watch amounted to DIY/HGTV reality TV garbage, and one day it hit me that we were paying $92 per month to DirevTV for the ability to watch and record The Daily Show and a geek staples, and nothing else. I had owned a Roku HD for about 6 months, having picked one up on Woot, So I discussed it with my wife, told her I thought we could survive on Netflix streaming, OTA HD, and iTunes Season Passes for the shows we couldn’t wait for on DVD or Netflix. We committed to giving it 6 months, and I had my doubts as to whether we’d make it. Here we are, 3.5 years later, and I can’t imagine paying $100/mo for the cable or satellite TV again.

My Other Streaming Devices

Since 2011, I’ve acquired a few more streaming devices. I’ve owned an Apple TV 2nd generation, and still own and use an Apple TV 3rd generation, a Roku 2, two Roku 3’s, and I even used a Mac Mini as a Plex client for a while. I ran my 2nd generation Apple TV jailbroken for a while so I could run XBMC, but ended up selling it on eBay for more than the cost of its replacement 3rd gen Apple TV. Today I have the Roku 2 at my office, a Roku 3 on our tiny living room TV (bought purely so any potential babysitter could watch TV there), and the Apple TV and Roku 3 connected to our primary TV in our bedroom. I also have a Tivo HD with lifetime subscription connected to that TV but powered off most of the year, and I just disconnected a Playstation 3 that I intend to trade in for credit towards an Xbox One. I’m using the HDMI port from the PS3 on the back of my soundbar/sub combo (don’t hate me) for a new device – the Amazon Fire TV Stick.

amazon-firetv

Amazon Fire TV – a Cheap Alternative

Amazon announced the Fire TV Stick a month or so ago, with pre-orders set to begin arriving around mid November. my wife and I managed to order a couple during the day they were announced, and as Amazon Prime members, we got ours for $19 each instead of the regular retail price of $39. My wife’s should arrive sometime in December, but mine got bumped up to Black Friday, so I redirected it to my parents’ home in middle Tennessee. I’d considered getting my parents either a Roku 3 or Apple TV for a while now, but wasn’t sure if they’d really use it. I figured if the Fire TV Stick works out, one of ours could make a good starter streaming device for them, and potentially be all they’d need.

Out of Box Experience & A Software Update

On Black Friday, we returned home after taking our son and his cousin to a local kids play area called “Bounce Palace”, and I found the Fire TV Stick waiting in the mailbox. Amazon continues to do a good job with the out of box experience – clearly borrowing a page from Apple’s playbook. The Fire TV Stick comes in a box about the size of the one that both the Roku 3 and Apple TV come in, which may seem a bit large for something the size of a USB flash drive, but it also contains several other components to connect it to a TV and power it. Inside the box are the stick, the remote, a small USB power adapter, a long USB to Micro USB cable, and an HDMI extender adapter, presumably for TV’s with too little room to accommodate the stick in between other connected HDMI cables.

I tried to use the Fire TV Stick by connecting its USB cable to the USB port on my parents’ TV, but the stick complained when it booted up, saying I’d get a better experience using the included adapter, so I did. Once booted up, the first thing the Fire TV Stick needs is to be connected to a WiFi network, which went smoothly enough. The next thing it asked me to do was download a software update, which I did. I have no idea how long that took, because we went to dinner after about 20 minutes of watching the progress bar barely move. I worried that the slow download might mean we were in store for a poor experience over my parents’ fairly slow U-Verse connection, but some of my Twitter pals confirmed the download was slow for them over their very fast connections. When we returned from dinner, we found the Fire TV Stick updated and asking if I wanted to use the Amazon account which had been used to order it. This is one thing that Amazon does really well – every Kindle or Fire device arrives ready to use and already associated with your account.

Showing the Fire TV Stick to My Dad

Once I confirmed I wanted to use my account, the Fire TV Stick played a welcome cartoon video that gave a brief overview of the stick and the uses to which it could be put. We mostly ignored this because it’s hard to focus on much of anything besides getting a two year old and five year old into the house and settled into playing, but I was pleased to see that video and more were available for replay later.

After explaining to my dad that this was a device for watching online video, his first question was, “So you can use it to watch YouTube on the TV instead of the computer?” Check. His next was, “Can I get rid of cable if I have this?” I told him that was a much harder and more complicated question to answer, but in my case, yes, I had, although given his love of sports and many other types of TV shows, I kinda doubted it.

I showed him YouTube, which worked quite well, even over their fairly slow (4Mbps or so) internet connection. I signed into my Netflix account, and it also worked quite well. I added an “NFL Now” app and that experience was terrible – near constant buffering and the audio never successfully synced up with the video. There wasn’t that much left to show him, which was good, because at that point my son ran into the room demanding to see something they had recorded on their U-Verse DVR. Ironically, once we switched back to the DVR, we discovered my dad had deleted the show, a Curious George Christmas special, but they settled for Frosty the Snowman. We could have watched both via the Fire TV Stick and Netflix, of course, but my goal wasn’t to take over my dad’s TV that night.

Putting the Fire TV Stick to a Real Test

After we returned to Knoxville, I disconnected my PS3 and connected the Fire TV Stick in its place. After dancing with the stick and the required network switch, I browsed the popular apps and downloaded and installed Plex. This would have cost me something, maybe $1.99, but for some reason I had 500 Amazon Coins, and I was able to use them to pay for the app. Once Plex was installed, I signed in with my Plex credentials and it recognized that I was a Plex Pass subscriber. I fiddled with the settings in the Plex client in an attempt to make it look as clean and sparse as I have it on my Roku and iOS devices, mostly to no avail. I guess this is the way Plex looks on Android, and if so, I’m not a fan. Still, I managed to turn off the most annoying thing – theme music, and started testing. I didn’t adjust any quality settings, either in the Plex client or in the Fire TV Stick, so it ran at whatever the default is.

I was quite pleased with the performance over my 802.11N network, especially given my Airport Extreme is sitting two floors below our bedroom. It does remind me I need to pay someone to finally run Cat6 up to the top floor and place an AP up here to improve things overall. Using Plex, I streamed both 1080p and 720p MP4 rips of my own blu-rays (honest), and they looked fine. They might look a bit better on the Roku 3, but I wasn’t in the mood to do an A/B frame-by-frame comparison. Suffice to say, I’d be satisfied with the quality, but with a 40 inch TV and a soundbar for audio, I’m not an AV nerd. I also tested it with some other random MKV files (no idea where they came from) and they looked quite good as well.

After trying it with Plex for a while, I tried several videos from both Amazon and Netflix, and the experience was exactly what I would expect – very good. I noticed a slight bump in quality and a near elimination of buffering when I recently upgraded our U-Verse internet service from 12Mbps to 24Mbps. If I thought the quality would get better by moving to 45Mbps, I’d do that, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t.

As far as video quality goes, I’m really impressed with the Fire TV Stick – especially for $19.

User Experience

ftv-tutorialI’m going to show a picture I snapped of my TV screen here. It looks kinda crummy, but I want the visual. I was a little surprised but very impressed that Amazon includes not just a single overview tutorial video, but a series of 10 of them, covering such topics as troubleshooting and remotes and controllers. I certainly don’t need these videos, but they’re not meant for me; they’re meant for people like my dad or my family and friends who don’t eat, breathe, and sleep streaming video gadgetry like I do. I think both Roku and Apple would do well to include something like this in their devices as well.

Aside from very good streaming video performance, I found maneuvering around the Fire TV Stick to be a little cumbersome, although to be fair, I’d bet most people will get their major services activated and only use them in the Recent menu after that. Browsing for apps and games was a bit frustrating, especially the additional network or cable TV apps. Most, if not all, require some sort of sign in proving you have a paid cable subscription, which is fine, but I’d rather just turn all that crap off like I have on my Apple TV. As it was, I tried a few, discovered they all required sign ins, then removed them from Recent and will have to remember to go back and uninstall them. All the games I saw cost money or coins, and while I have a couple hundred Amazon coins left after paying for Plex, I had no desire to use them to demo what may be terrible Android games.

The Remote Problem

ftv-remotesI’ve saved my biggest potential beef with the Fire TV Stick for last. See that picture? That’s a selection of remotes – some of which I don’t use, along with the main remote I do use for everything in my AV setup – the Logitech Harmony 600. The 600 isn’t the fanciest Harmony Logitech makes, but I’m done paying $200 for a remote that will inevitably die. The 600 controls more devices than I need it to, and it lets me program one-touch activities for my wife and son, and at $50 or so, that’s all I care about. I have one in the bedroom, one in the living room, and an Xbox-branded version of it in the basement, waiting for a TV to replace the giant RPTV I gave away recently. Next to the Harmony is the Roku 3 remote – which I never used until very recently, when I discovered its ability to let me listen to sound via its included headphone jack meant I could walk on the treadmill in our bedroom without worrying about keeping our son from falling asleep. Counting from the right is a Fitbit One, included purely for size, and an old school Apple remote. I’ve never even used the remote that came with my Apple TV, as I programed my Harmony to work with it as soon as I unpacked it.

In the middle is the Fire TV Stick remote. And like it or not, I will be using the Fire TV Stick remote, because it operates via Bluetooth and not infrared. I guess it makes sense, given the likely location of the stick, but it also means I can’t use my Harmony remote with it. I have a USB infrared adapter for my PS3 that enables me to use my Harmony, but I doubt there will be anything like that for a $39 streaming stick. So until or unless I can find a Harmony remote that does IR and Bluetooth, I would be stuck using a separate dedicated remote for the Fire TV stick. That’s a no-go for regular home use for me, which is fine, because my Roku 3 does everything the Fire TV Stick does. For travel use, however, a dedicated remote is fine, and I can see myself keeping one of these sticks in my backpack, with all its parts in a ziplock bag, for use on the road. I’m not sure how having a separate remote will impact my parents when I give them the other stick, but we’ll see.

That’s all for now. If you have any questions you’d like me to answer about the Fire TV Stick, hit me up on Twitter at mikestanley.

This is post 29 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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