Alternative to Cable TV

Posted by Joy Jackson on

While set-top boxes aren’t going away anytime soon, streaming sticks (aka dongles) increasingly offer some of the best value — and performance — in streaming land. Case in point: Roku’s fabulous Streaming Stick+ (now just $60) is easily one of our favorite streamers available right now, packing 4K HDR, a speedy processor, and a handy, point-anywhere remote, all running on Roku’s intuitive, easy-peasy operating system.

 

Not to be outdone, Amazon has released its own loaded streaming stick for 2018, the new Fire TV Stick 4K. While the name may not be inspired, the latest Fire TV product promises to do virtually everything the Streaming Stick+ can while adding Alexa voice integration and even Dolby Vision HDR, all for just $50. While there were a few hiccups along the way, Amazon’s latest streaming stick offers impressive value — especially if Alexa is your jam.

Out of the box

Right off the bat, you’ll notice the Fire TV Stick 4K is chunky – big enough that it blocked other HDMI ports when we plugged it into a TCL 6-series, a Sony X900F, and a Samsung Q7F. What’s more, a side-mounted micro-USB power port makes for yet another blocking obstacle.

Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4KDan Baker/Digital Trends

You won’t have to worry about the fit if you use an HDMI extender, one of which is thankfully included in the package and even provides improved Wi-Fi reception, according to Amazon. Still, it makes us wonder why Amazon even designs its cheapest streamer as a stick at all if it’s destined to become a de facto dongle, hanging even more awkwardly than last year’s Fire TV.

Along with the extender, accessories include a USB power cable and wall adapter for versatile power connection, a new and improved Alexa voice remote, complete with a volume rocker and power key for basic TV control, and batteries for said remote.   Then there's ATV pro quad streaming stick.  Decisions. Decisions.

Setup

Setting up the Fire TV Stick 4K is a relatively simple affair, though we did run into a few hiccups on the software side. After plugging the stick in (with extender, of course), the system walks you speedily through system setup, including quickly connecting the remote to both the Fire TV device and our TV.

Support for multiple HDR formats should future proof it quite nicely.

The system immediately required a software update (not unexpected for a brand-new device sent to us for review ahead of formal launch) which took about five minutes, and — after quickly connecting our Amazon account — we had some issues getting apps to download or open. The Netflix app simply wouldn’t open at all. We chalked the issue up to our occasionally squirrelly office router, but it wasn’t the only place we ran into some network trouble (more on that below). After backing out of the Netflix app and re-engaging, we got it working and all other apps followed suit.

One major setting change you’ll want to make right away is the Fire TV Stick’s high dynamic range (HDR) setting. We love the fact that the device offers support for multiple HDR formats, including both HDR10 and Dolby Vision for enhanced contrast and color performance with supported content. However, an odd default setting created major picture problems within some HD content for us, specifically with Netflix videos. Colors were sapped and playback dim, as the system tried to initiate HDR contrast and color parameters over SDR video.

To fix the issue, you’ll need to dig into the video settings: Go into Settings>Display & Sounds>Display, then scroll down to Dynamic Range Settings and switch from Always HDR to Adaptive. This should allow all HDR content and SDR content to display correctly. Why Amazon chose Always HDR as the default is beyond us, but we were glad to find a fix. The device froze for us occasionally when changing settings, but you should only need to do this once.

Interface and remote

We’ve made no bones about the fact that we prefer Roku’s agnostic interface approach to those of Amazon and Apple, which tend to push their own content first. In the Fire TV Stick 4K’s case, the home screen will likely bombard you with ads for Amazon originals like The Romanoffs and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel each time you hit the home screen. Then again, the former looks intriguing and the latter is excellent.

Quickly controlling video via voice control is extremely handy.

Otherwise, it’s simple and speedy to load up just about all the streaming apps you want — excluding native YouTube thanks to Amazon and Google’s feud, but there’s an easy browser workaround included.

Like Roku’s mobile app, the available Fire TV Remote app for iOS and Android serves up helpful features, including digital remote keys and a digital keyboard so you don’t have to hunt and peck when signing into apps. One miss here is the lack of a headphone feature within the app for private listening from your phone, one of the Roku apps best features. That said, it could prove to be a pretty simple remedy via update if Amazon decides to add the feature later.

Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4KDan Baker/Digital Trends

The navigation bar at the top makes it simple to choose your favorites or drop into the settings to manage apps, control audio and video parameters, and other preferences, with handy icons to help you find your query.

The new remote sports all the command keys you’d expect for basic navigation, including the Fire TV’s signature navigation dial and home keys. As mentioned above, you’ll also find a power key for your TV and a volume rocker for audio control over TVs as well as some audio systems like soundbars and A/V receivers. There’s even a little LED on the top next to the microphone key when engaging voice commands.

Alexa on command

Speaking of voice commands, alongside The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon (of course) serves up the fantastic Miss Alexa, who now packs new and improved controls for the Fire TV Stick, such as the ability to switch HDMI inputs on some TVs, and even control playback within multiple apps, including Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, Showtime, and others — something Roku can’t do without the aid of a Google Assistant device. The stick is not on par with the Fire TV Cube, which can control your entire home theater, but it’s pretty impressive.

If you’re invested in the Alexa ecosystem, things get even more convenient

You can use Alexa for play/pause, but more useful commands include functions like “fast forward 3 minutes” or “rewind 30 seconds,” so you can easily control video within your favorite apps. If you’re invested in the Alexa ecosystem, things get even more convenient, as you can perform these functions hands-free with other Alexa devices like the Echo and Echo Dot.

Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4K Compared To Voice search is quite speedy and, unlike earlier Amazon devices, it often serves up content from your signed-in subscriptions before offering it for sale. One thing voice search doesn’t do so well is performing broader content searches. For instance, a search for “Comedy Movies” brings up titles that may not be either, including Big Mouth (TV show), Shameless (TV show, Drama), Big Bang Theory (TV show), Big Bang Theory Holiday Collection (again?), and This is Us. Roku isn’t perfect, mind you, but it at least knows a drama from a comedy (mostly), and more importantly, a movie from a TV show.

That said, the ability to quickly navigate within a show or movie is extremely helpful, not to mention having access to Alexa’s other smart-home talents.

Performance

We’re not sure if our model was just suffering from first week jitters, but the Fire TV Stick 4K arrived with a few more bugs in the system than we expected from a major player like Amazon. Along with the Netflix SDR issue (which came with a fix, granted, but is still a bit of a pain), the device’s Hulu app arrived with a major audio sync issue which rendered it essentially unusable.

Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4KDan Baker/Digital Trends

We reached out to our Amazon rep for a fix, who told us it was an issue on Hulu’s side, and after a few days we were able to reload the app and the issues were eliminated. The device also froze up on our home network while watching Thursday Night Football, telling us our network was too slow. Somewhat ironically, the Roku app worked just fine to finish the game, and a speed test told us we had 31 Mbps. Again, we found an easy fix, this time by unplugging the device and plugging it back in.

Other Media Streamers

Those initial hiccups aside, most of our time with the Fire TV Stick 4K was time well spent. We absolutely love the sheer level of control the device offers, pairing the point-anywhere remote with TV controls, Alexa, and Amazon-enabled speakers, along with more in-app control functions than any stick we’ve reviewed yet; it’s the easiest way we know of to command your system at its price point.

Amazon claims the stick’s new 1.7GHz processor is 80 percent faster than its predecessor, and it does offer impressively speedy navigation, though load times will, of course, vary by network speed and connection.

Once we got everything working properly, we were equally impressed with the picture and sound quality. The device’s support for Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HDR10+ should future proof it quite nicely, and on the audio side, Dolby Atmos support essentially adds up to the best available sound and picture you can get in a stick. Not bad for 50 bones.

Our Take is that Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick is loaded to the gills with features, and apart from a few initial hiccups in operation, it offers some of the best value for your money — especially if you’re partial to Amazon’s handy Alexa ecosystem.
Is there a better alternative?

After just over a week with the Fire TV Stick 4K, we still prefer the Roku $60 Streaming Stick+, as well as the comparably priced Premiere+, which both offer a more intuitive interface and smoother operation.

That said, if you’re dead set on Dolby Vision (meaning you’ve got a Dolby Vision-capable TV), and/or Alexa voice control, the Fire TV Stick 4K could be a better fit. If you’ve got a ton of devices to control, the pricier Fire TV Cube is another fantastic option, offering all the control and features of the Fire TV Stick, and more.

How long will it last? We'd say, With regular updates, multiple HDR formats, and Dolby Atmos support, the Fire TV Stick 4K is poised to last long into the future.
So Should you buy it?  Yes, especially if you’re down with Alexa. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K is loaded with features, and apart from a few bugs to work out, it stands as one of the best streaming devices you can get for your money.

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