A couple years ago, or maybe even last year, you might have been wondering which streaming video box to buy yourself or stuff in a holiday stocking. Now, streaming video sticks — the tiny, plug-and-play counterparts to larger boxes — are emerging as a viable alternative. They’re being built with fast processors, they support voice control, and they even stream 4K video. According to one research firm, streaming video sticks accounted for half of streaming video player sales last year. There are really not a lot of reasons to get a box instead of a stick.
More importantly, these tiny gadgets are cheap. For $50 or less, you can now get a legitimately good, pocketable streaming device with virtually all of the same apps or “channels” that the larger streaming boxes offer. Of course, sometimes you do get what you pay for: they might have annoyingly short power cords, or not even have a dedicated remote. They still get the job done.
But there is one, $50-or-less streaming stick that stands out from the rest, and that’s Amazon’s Fire TV Stick.
The 2016 Fire TV Stick is actually Amazon’s second-generation Fire TV Stick, and it includes something that the others don’t: a voice-controlled remote. Last year’s Fire TV Stick technically worked with Alexa — Alexa being Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant — but the remote cost extra. Now, it’s bundled with the $40 Stick.
What does all that mean? Basically, you can hold down a physical button on the Fire TV Stick remote and use your voice to search for apps, programming, and games, without having to punch in a bunch of characters using arrow keys on the remote. The voice search results are fast and, for the most part, accurate. Amazon’s TV interface has always been a bit more convoluted than some of the other streaming media boxes out there, but it has gotten much better, especially with the most recent software update. And with the exception of iTunes, the Fire TV Stick has almost every big streaming channel you could think of: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Sling, DirecTV Now, HBO, NFL, NBA, Spotify, news channels, and more.
There are a few other things that set the Fire TV stick apart. First, it’s fast for such a tiny stick. Second, Amazon has its own Prime Video and Music services, so if you’re a paying Prime member ($99 annually), you have access to those services. Of course, you can also access those services through, say, the Amazon Prime Video app on Roku; but with the Fire TV Stick remote you can simply say, “Play Prime music” without even opening an app. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which appears on Kindle e-readers, is also pretty cool: when you pause a TV program that you’re watching, cast and character information appears along the lower third of the screen.
Really, the biggest downside to the Fire TV stick is that Amazon will sometimes prioritize its own video services over others.
Roku’s Streaming Stick, which came out this past spring, is a close second to the Amazon Fire TV stick. Roku is known for its absurd number of streaming media channels — more than 3,500 to be exact — and for its relatively agnostic approach to showing you streaming options, compared with Amazon or Apple, which both have their own video marketplaces. And the $50 Roku Streaming Stick, with its quad-core processor, actually seemed faster than the new $30 Roku Express, a tiny little box that replaces the original Roku 1 (see below for more info on that).
In my experience, though, the Roku Streaming Stick fell short in two areas: voice search and categorical searches. The Roku remote doesn’t have voice control like the Fire TV remote does; Roku’s solution, instead, is to offer voice search through the free Roku mobile app for iOS and Android. The app isn’t very intuitive — it requires you to wirelessly reconnect to your Roku stick or box every time you open the app — and unlike almost every other voice-controlled app I’ve used, you have to tap the microphone icon both before and after you’ve said your command. Then, after that, it usually requires a few swipes or taps to get whatever you’ve searched for to actually start playing on your TV.