A recent study shows that with more unavoidable at-home time at present, most of us have turned to video streaming for some diversion and distraction; indeed the average American is currently streaming eight hours of content every day.
If you have a computer, it is easy to stream direct from sources such as Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube. But if you want a “proper” big screen (and perhaps big sound, too) experience, you’re going to need to get the video you want to stream off the internet and onto your television monitor. Increasingly these days, televisions have built-in streaming capabilities, and will connect to your internet service either via Wi-Fi or wired ethernet.
But many of the built-in capabilities are rudimentary and limited, and not always easy to navigate or use. Plus it may be limited in the services you can subscribe to, restricting you only to those ones that paid to be listed in your set’s directory.
For a long time now Roku have been making excellent free-standing streaming boxes; and we’ve written positively about these devices on many occasions. They give you a very open approach to be able to stream just about any type of internet audio or video stream there is, and usually most streaming services update their Roku streaming capabilities first, so whenever new features come out, they appear on Roku boxes pretty much immediately and before most other streaming services.
We suspect the main reason that Roku’s prices have dropped is because there are competitive products increasingly available as alternatives. Google have a device they call the “Chromecast”; we’ve frankly found it confusing to use and ours now is gathering dust in a drawer rather than being used. Apple have a product too, and if you’re happily in the Apple world, you probably know about and might consider the “Apple TV”, even though it is ridiculously overpriced and with some feature limitations.
Our New Favorite – The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
For most of us though, the most exciting competitor to Roku is the Amazon Fire TV Stick. This is available as both a 4K version for $49.99 or a regular (1080P) version for $39.99. Don’t think twice – choose the $49.99 version, even if you don’t currently have any 4K televisions. It is a generally better unit in every respect, and for sure, whatever television you buy next is sure to be 4K. At a cost of $10, it is better to get more “future proofing” in your unit.
The TV Stick 4K not only adds 4K resolution capability, it also adds HDR capabilities – and for most of us, most of the time, it is the HDR that is the “secret sauce” of 4K, giving much more visible improvement in picture quality than the resolution increase. Best of all, the TV Stick 4K supports all three main standards currently – both HDR10 and the newer and much superior HDR10+, and also the competing Dolby Vision standard. It even has the HLG standard, too.
In comparison, the Roku Streaming Stick+ only has the HDR10 standard, none of the others.
There is also an Amazon Fire TV Cube, but this adds nothing necessary extra, while costing $120.
Installing and activating the unit is very simple. You simply plug it into an HDMI input on your television or your amplifier/receiver unit.
We have a separate external amplifier/receiver for two main reasons – giving us more versatile switching options between different inputs, and allowing us to drive decent external speakers rather than rely on the pitiful sound that comes out of all built-in speakers in all television sets, and so we plug the TV Stick into one of the receiver inputs.
The unit can plug straight into an input, but you may find the unit is too large for the standard spacing between inputs on a television or receiver, and so there’s an extension HDMI cable that gives you more flexibility as between plugging the cable into the back of the device and where the TV Stick itself is placed.
You also need a power supply to power the unit – a transformer and USB connecting cable is included. The Stick connects to the internet via Wi-Fi.
Using the Fire TV Stick 4K
Insert the provided two AAA batteries into the remote, turn everything on, connect to the internet, and probably update the firmware in the TV Stick, and you’re pretty much good to go. You have a chance to synchronize your TV Stick to your receiver and television, so its provided remote control can also control some features of those devices too.
With the Roku, I’m juggling three remotes – television, receiver, and Roku. But with the TV Stick, you simply press the Power button on its remote, and all three units turn on or off. The remote also has a volume control which allows you to control the volume rather than needing to use the receiver remote for that. One remote rather than three is a great saving, especially if you have guests who struggle to understand all your different remotes.
I really like the fast forwarding feature on the TV Stick, much better than on the Roku. It allows you to skip ten seconds per push (of the side of the circle for Netflix, of the fast forward button for Amazon Prime). It has always been a frustration that it can be very difficult to skip forwards or back on a stream when you want to repeat something, or skip past a boring bit.
A related wonderful feature is a way to skip the promo for some other video that Amazon seems to add as a “pre-roll” to all their videos these days. If there’s a way to quickly skip this with a Roku, we never found it, but for the Fire TV Stick, you simply press the Alexa command button and say “Skip” and the device quickly jumps ahead to the start of the main feature. An easy, simple, and quick solution.
Because this is an Amazon product, it is perhaps unsurprising they have built Alexa into the remote control as well. You can speak into the remote to do just about everything that you’d normally do with any other Alexa unit. (We have a great cheat sheet of Alexa commands and features, linked about halfway down this page.)
Another nice part of the Alexa integration is that if someone else in your house makes an announcement, the TV Stick will automatically pause whatever is playing while it plays (and shows on the television screen) the announcement.
There is one other thing we find better with the Amazon Fire TV Stick compared to the Roku unit. We have problems with the voice synch being different on Amazon Video and Netflix. We changed/updated both the receiver and the Roku unit and still had a problem that when we’d synched the sound and video for one streaming service (ie so the lips moved in time with the speech we were hearing) it would be wrong for the other service and vice versa.
But the problem isn’t nearly so noticeable with the TV Stick. We’re not sure if this is because we’ve finally found a perfect compromise point in the middle, or because the extra processing power of the TV Stick means it can more readily have both the audio and video parts of a stream keep up with each other. Whatever the explanation, we’re delighted to no longer have what was a very frustrating problem.
We still have our Roku device also connected to the television, but we’ve not used it, ever, since connecting the Fire TV Stick (I think we bought the TV Stick during the Amazon Prime Day specials last year).
We’ve seen reviews that continue to boost the Roku unit in preference to the Amazon unit, claiming the Roku unit supports more channels of streaming media. That is probably so, but it is a meaningless point and not a reason to choose Roku over Amazon.
For 99% of us, and for 99% of our time, we’ll be totally happy with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. If you go beyond that, you’re either starting to pay more and more monthly access fees, or you’re going to channels that bombard you with ads just the same as cable television stations. Even if you do go beyond that, all the other major services we can think of (such as Hulu, HBO, ESPN and Disney Plus) are available on the TV Stick.
We sometimes go to other channels just “for fun”, and there are more other channels on the Amazon TV Stick than we ever want/need.
If you already have a Roku unit, and are happy with it and have no problems, then there’s no pressing need to upgrade.
But if you don’t yet have an external streaming device, or it has come time to upgrade from whatever you had to a more modern unit (perhaps because you now have a 4K television), we unhesitatingly recommend Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K.
It is a great product, fully featured, includes Alexa capabilities, and for a penny less than $50, a great price.