Amazon's £39.99 (inc. VAT) Fire TV Stick now comes with a remote control that allows you to issue voice commands to your TV.
The Stick itself has also had an upgrade (Amazon claims it's now 30 percent faster than before), and it's also easy to set up. The 85.9mm by 30mm by 12.6mm stick plugs into the HDMI port on your TV, and if it's already registered to your Amazon account, there's little to do other than switch it on and connect it to your Wi-Fi router. It supports 720p and 1080p resolution at up to 60 frames per second (fps) -- if you want 4K, you'll have to go for the £79.99 Amazon Fire TV instead.
The Fire TV Stick is an interesting example of the effect of turning dumb machines into smarter ones: the TV on which I tested the Fire Stick is at least seven years old, and wasn't top-of-the-range even then.
New technology often kicks off an upgrade cycle -- you buy a Blu-ray player and then decide you need a better TV to watch films on, for example. But to me the idea behind something like the Fire Stick is different in that it potentially redirects spending away from new hardware (TVs) and into buying content, by encouraging users to sign up for something like Amazon Prime. So you might not buy a new TV, but end up spending the money on streaming services instead -- a smart business model for Amazon.
While the Fire Stick can't do much about the quality of the display, it does make my old TV smart enough to prolong its life by a year or two, perhaps even longer, by allowing it to access video streaming services like Amazon's Prime Video and other services like Netflix and Spotify.
The Fire Stick is still interesting even if you don't sign up for a streaming service: in the UK you get the BBC's iPlayer and the ITV and Channel 5 online services (although not the range of TV that you'd get with something like a Freeview box). But it's really designed for those marathon streamed box-set binge-watching sessions. The home page leads with an advert for Amazon's own video services, but it's not too intrusive.
Alexa skills on the Amazon Fire TV
The Alexa remote control is the most interesting new feature of the Fire TV Stick, allowing you to control the streaming device using voice commands.
The Fire version of the Alexa service is launched by holding down the microphone button on the remote control and making a request.
Questions don't need to be prefaced with 'Alexa' as they do with the Echo version of the service, but it doesn't seem to mind if you say it anyway.
Even when I accidentally said 'Alexa' at the start of a request, that didn't trigger the Echo smart speaker that was also in the room, which was a bonus. You can search for shows, play and skip through videos and also launch Alexa mini-apps which Amazon calls 'skills', of which there are now around 7,000.
If you've got an Amazon Echo you'll find the Alexa skills you've already enabled are in place, which means you can order from Just Eat or control compatible devices in your house.
Asking the Alexa service to find 'sci-fi movies' or a particular show certainly has novelty value, as does checking the weather or getting it to open Netflix.
And because the TV -- unlike the Echo, at least for now -- has a screen, you'll get more information, or at least a bit of text, with your weather forecast and other skills.
And yet, even with the on-screen information I found the Alexa skills less compelling on a TV than on the Echo.
Perhaps that's because the skills are designed mostly as nuggets of information that can be absorbed quickly while doing something else -- checking the weather while making dinner, for example.
Using voice for that absolutely makes sense: using voice and a screen to deliver small pieces of information ends up as overkill.
As such, the Alexa remote shows the limits of voice control when you have other ways of interacting with a device. I found that after a few days my use of the voice control (apart from the 'wow' factor when showing off to visitors) declined quite rapidly, and I just used the remote control the traditional way.
It's simply easier to use the remote control to skip through lists of shows rather than search by voice. That may change, and I can imagine getting more use out of Alexa skills that are optimized for TV rather than voice only. Still, the Fire TV Stick remains solidly built and efficient, and a smart way of updating an old TV.
For those who already use steaming video services, the voice control is a fun addition with plenty of potential. However, this aspect isn't flawless: it doesn't work across all apps, and didn't always understand what I was trying to say.
Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa remote control specs
85.9 mm x 30.0 mm x 12.6 mm
MediaTek Quad-Core ARM 1.3GHz
Dual-band, dual-antenna wi-fi (2x2 MIMO 802.11a/b/g/n/ac); Bluetooth 4.1
HDMI output, Micro-USB for power only
720p and 1080p up to 60fps
Read more on the Amazon Echo
- Amazon Echo: The four hard problems Amazon had to solve to make it work
- Amazon Echo voice-controlled smart speaker comes to UK and Germany
- Amazon's Fire TV Stick adds remote control with Alexa
- Amazon Echo review: Alexa is the first digital assistant that is actually helpful
- Now Amazon's Alexa is hitching a ride in your Ford