It doesn’t take much time with Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite to understand what they’re all about.
The $40 third-generation Fire TV Stick is an overdue upgrade to Amazon’s best-selling streaming player, replacing its four-year-old processor with one that’s much faster. The $30 Fire TV Stick Lite, meanwhile, is a naked attempt to achieve price parity with Roku’s budget Express streamer, with the same performance as the standard Stick but a major compromise to its remote control: There are no TV volume or power buttons onboard.
Of the two, the Fire TV Stick is much easier to recommend than the Lite version. I’ve said it before, but having TV controls built into the remote really is worth the extra $10.
Whether the new Fire TV Sticks are worth buying over other budget streamers is harder to say, because Amazon is preparing a major software overhaul for later this year. We’ll update this review after said software arrives. For now, those who enjoy the Fire TV experience can expect more of the same—just without as many speed bumps along the way.
Held next to one another, the new Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite look identical. Both plug directly into your TV’s HDMI port (a short extension cable is included if you need more clearance around the TV), and both have a quad-core 1.7GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, and dual-band Wi-Fi 5 support. While the two sticks have no extra ports beyond micro-USB for power, a cheap USB-OTG cable would allow for thumb drives and other USB accessories.
Performance-wise, they’re a big improvement over the previous Fire TV Stick (which first launched in 2016), with much shorter loading times and less herky-jerky scrolling through menus, and they bring speed roughly up to par with other budget streamers. Roku devices tend to feel a little faster—if only because they’re better at showing partial menus or loading icons instead of just momentarily freezing up—but in terms of loading times, it’s pretty much a wash.
Both Fire TV Sticks can also supply 1080p video and support high dynamic range in the HDR10, HDR10+, or HLG formats, though neither support 4K video or Dolby Vision HDR. (You’ll need to step up to Amazon’s $50 Fire TV Stick 4K for those features.)
The only other difference on the spec sheet is on the audio front: Where the Fire TV Stick supports decode for Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital/Digital+, and DTS, the Fire TV Stick Lite only supports passthrough for those formats.
That said, the Lite’s lack of Dolby decoding won’t matter in most cases. I was able to hear Atmos’ object-based audio while watching Netflix’s Our Planet on both devices; and if you’re springing for an Atmos soundbar, chances are you also have a 4K TV to go with it. In that case the Fire TV Stick 4K is a better option anyway.
The bigger distinction between the 2020 Fire TV Stick and the Fire TV Stick Lite is in their remote controls. While the third-generation Fire TV Stick has TV volume and power controls on its remote, the Lite model does not.
Amazon takes great pride in those TV controls, which support a wide range of televisions, soundbars, and A/V receivers via infrared commands. If you have a sound system with its own IR receiver, you can set up the Fire TV to control the volume independently of the TV, and you can also use HDMI-CEC to control everything in unison.
Once more, with feeling: It’s really nice having those controls on a single remote. On the Fire TV Stick Lite, I kept reaching for volume buttons that weren’t there, and needing to reach for a separate TV remote was a rude awakening.
The Lite model does have its own unique remote control button that launches the Fire TV Channel Guide, which displays a grid guide for supported services such as AT&T TV Now, Philo, Sling TV, YouTube TV, and Amazon’s Fire TV Recast DVR. But for most people, that’s not a worthy trade-off, especially because you can always use the remote’s Alexa voice control button to open the guide or tune directly to specific channels.
Same software (for now)
This is the part of the review where things get a little squishy. Back when Amazon announced its new Fire TV Sticks, it showed off a new menu system that’s more streamlined than the current one.
But that’s not the menu Amazon is shipping today. Instead, it’s the same old chaos that’s defined the Fire TV experience since late 2016. Beneath the top-level menu and featured content, you’ll get a row for recent apps and recently-viewed Prime content, a sortable row of favorite apps, and then a sprawling list of recommendations with a heavy emphasis on Amazon’s Prime Video and IMDb TV services.
Now, I’m on record for having liked this interface in the past. At the very least, it’s more interesting than Roku’s approach, which makes no attempts to recommend anything other than free, ad-supported video.
But as I wrote in my Roku Ultra review, devices like the new Chromecast with Google TV, TiVo Stream 4K, and Apple TV 4K are all better at dealing with too many streaming services. Like Amazon, they all try to provide a single menu for content instead of making you jump into lots of different apps, but they’re more organized, more customizable, and less biased toward certain sources of content.
Here’s a basic example of where Fire TV falls short: On my home screen, there’s a row called “Science Fiction,” with films like Moon, Arrival, Ready Player One, and Blade, but the home screen shows no information about where those films are available. For that, you need to click on each entry, which shows that Moon requires a Showtime subscription (which Amazon sells), Arrival is a rental (also sold by Amazon), and Blade is on Hulu. What seems like an attempt to make sense of streaming is really just a way to upsell you. By contrast, the new Chromecast and TiVo Stream 4K let you customize which services appear on the home screen, so you don’t get recommendations from services you’re not already paying for.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s Alexa search function continues to return irrelevant results for genre searches such as “new comedies” or “classic sci-fi,” so you can’t really sift through streaming options that way. Given everything else Alexa can do on Fire TV devices—from launching music and video content to controlling smart home devices—search is an unusual weak point, especially compared to Siri on Apple TV and Google Assistant on the new Chromecast.
Whether any of this will change with the new interface is unclear, because Amazon hasn’t yet shown enough of it. We can only hope it’s not just a fresh coat of paint over longstanding flaws.
Other missing pieces
The other big issue with Fire TV devices right now is that none of them support HBO Max or Peacock due to Amazon’s ongoing carriage disputes with AT&T’s WarnerMedia and Comcast’s NBCUniversal respectively. While you can still watch HBO on the Fire TV Sticks through other methods—with an Amazon Channels subscription, via live TV services like YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV, or with standalone subscriptions through the HBO app—you won’t get the expanded Max catalog, and Peacock isn’t available on the platform at all. It is possible to sideload HBO Max and Peacock on Fire TV devices, but users shouldn’t have to jump through those hoops.
While I’m ranting: It’s time to stop giving Amazon a pass for not supporting private headphone listening. Apple TV and the new Chromecast both support Bluetooth headphones or earbuds, and Roku’s mobile app supports Bluetooth or wired headphones. Some Roku players even have headphone jacks built into their remotes. While Fire TV devices can technically connect to Bluetooth headphones, they provide no way to adjust the volume without elaborate workarounds.
A solid budget streamer with issues
The new Fire TV Stick still has its upsides. Only Roku offers streaming players at comparable prices, and Amazon’s frequent sale pricing often makes the Fire TV Stick even cheaper. Alexa opens up some voice-control possibilities that don’t exist on cheap Roku streamers, such as launching live TV channels or controlling smart home devices. It’s also a nice way to access certain over-the-air DVR solutions, including Channels DVR and Amazon’s Fire TV Recast, neither of which Roku supports.
But it also feels like a streaming device trapped in limbo, with neither the app-centric simplicity of Roku players or the elegant unified streaming guide of the new Chromecast with Google TV. We’ll have to wait and see whether this year’s big interface upgrade will push the Fire TV in a clearer direction.
Either way, though, think long and hard before cheaping out on the Fire TV Stick Lite and its inferior remote. That’s something no software update can fix.