Amazon FireTV Stick Review

So I know some of you have heard of my pending posts (yeah… I’m still working on them… sorta)…

But I just simply had to post this!

Intro

So the Amazon FireTV Stick came out.

I was one of the few hundreds of thousands (??) that were Prime members and were given the opportunity to buy this device for a mere $20. It now currently retails for $40.

I figured, “Hey… $20… It can suck, and I won’t be put out much.” How right I was!

As a Prime member, it came shipped to my door already configured with my Amazon account. That may not seem like much, but I’m rather impressed with the attention to detail.

Wait – let me back up a second. The very first thing that impressed me was the packaging. It’s clean, sleek, and some of my favorite colors (orange and black). It was packed nicely, and easy to access and understand what the device was all about. It also came with an HDMI extender (a few inches, but just enough to make tight areas easy to access with a dongle), and a sleek USB power adapter.

Setup

Ok, so back to the device. Setup was pretty easy, only one minor SNAFU. Simply put, I tried to cheat the system by powering the HDMI dongle via a USB port on my TV. Apparently this works for most typical operation, but certainly fails regularly on updates. My original test was plugging directly into my TV, and there’s only a single power outlet behind my TV – I figured cheating using an on-device USB would suffice. Alas, it does not. I think the bandwidth usage caused a higher power utilization, causing the device to fail updating. Having said that, this was not my final setup – I just wanted to test it. It now rests in my media cabinet plugged into an HDMI switch.

Now, once updated (which seemed to take nearly 20-25 minutes, RIDICULOUS Amazon!), it went right into the intro video. I had already seen YouTube videos of hands-on demonstrations, so I basically walked away and refilled my Rum & Coke. You’re not gonna tell a technologist anything they don’t already know. A skip feature would have been nice, because I was more than eager to use the device right out of the box.

Tinkering, and first impressions

My FIRST attempt at using the device was using the Wireless Display feature (aka, Miracast, Allcast, etc.). It was kinda flakey at first, but after a few attempts it managed to display the screen with fairly minimal lag. Maybe 150-300ms delay. In UX terms, 200-250ms is noticeable enough to cause frustration, however peering down at my device caused me to practically never notice a delay. My one and only successful attempt (at this point) did NOT play audio. Very disappointing. It could simply be a device/protocol mismatch, or a simple bug. I’ve read online that rebooting devices can sometimes fix it. I’ll try it later – I’m too busy acclimating to the ecosystem.

Next, was perusing the Amazon Prime features; specifically I was interested in Videos.

Flawless. 100% playback support. Immediate playback, and tons of videos available. Coming from both the 360 and the XBONE, I have been horribly disappointed in support. I have 4 open technical tickets with Amazon over the span of 6 months, and have yet to resolve a single one. Whether it’s playing phone-tag with “support specialists,” constantly uninstalling/reinstalling the application, or a combination of clearing device cache and having Amazon “kill the stream,” (whatever THAT means!?!? this intrigues me as to how the architecture works) I’ve yet to have a pleasant experience.

That’s COMPLETELY gone with the FireTV Stick. Again – flawless. Every video I’ve tried plays instantly, and beautifully.

“Hackery;” or, “How can I use this to its fullest”

I then went through and played with the settings. I didn’t do much, but did disable App usage stats (I don’t know why, but I wasn’t exactly excited to find out this was a default setting, but was happy to know I could disable it via the UI easily). I also enabled ADB and External sources for sideloading applications should I need to.

I found adbFire, which is a useful tool for Fire-* devices (and from my understanding a ton of other Android-based devices with a few features that aren’t supported [such as disabling updates, rooting, etc]). It’s available for every desktop OS, which was awesome being a heavy Linux user. Note that rooting options do not currently work at ALL for the FireTV Stick. Don’t try, it just doesn’t work… and you might bork something. What I was interested in the most was easily sideloading APKs, as well as importing/exporting settings for XBMC/Kodi. Worked great “out of the box.”

Immediately, I sideloaded TVMC (aka, a custom build of XBMC for Android). This quickly lead to a few customizations. Firstly, the FireOS (or whatever it’s called on the FireTV stick) doesn’t show applications sideloaded anywhere except the “Manage Applications” menu (akin to native Android’s application manager). What a frustration! Fortunately enough adbFire adds a few quick features to make this easier. It has the option to install Llama without any extra work, and it will set up an event to launch XBMC when another applicationis activated (currently Ikono TV, installed separately), and change said application’s icon to XBMC or Kodi, if desired (since applications are displayed as icons on a topological level). I did have to tell adbFire to use a different Android package name for XBMC/Kodi to do it’s detection (which ended up being ag.tvaddons.xbmc), but wow I’m impressed it even had that feature. Next up was launching Kodi, and setting sources to existing Samba shares. TVMC itself comes with a TON of plugins that are awesome for finding streaming sources. It worked as expected with the Android XBMC remote application (btw, at this point I ended up setting a static IP for the AFTV Stick to simplify connectivity) just like my existing HTPC setup had been running for years. Also to note, the native and software FireTV remote also works really well.

The Wife-Friendly Test (or other non-techie test)

My immediate approach was to have her install the FireTV remote on her Android device. She was able to get this up and running within seconds. It asked for a PIN to pair, and she was off and using it immediately. She also found the voice input option, and it was flawless. It literally picked up everything she wanted it to without any fault. Impressive if you’ve ever used various voice-input options in the past.

After all this, I let the wifey control it with the native remote, and she installed a few games and apps. The most impressive were Jackbox games (namely You Don’t Know Jack, and Fibbage). What impressed me the most were the custom remotes for multi-player functionality. YDKJ has an Android app which is notable in its own right, but Fibbage had a BROWSER based interaction that works on EVERY device that completely blew my mind. It had some kind of P2P action going on, allowing different users to select topics, allowing every user to enter “fibs,” and allow voting on treasured lies (it makes more sense once you play it). Ok – that was more of a review of those applications/games, but to me it speaks to the ecosystem. Tons of potential!

After hours of playing various games and perusing available applications we’ve managed to finally rest on a movie on Amazon Prime.

Well? What do you think?

My only regret/con? I wish I bought more than one at the $20 price-point. Still, at $40 retail I just might replace all my existing Android devices.

It’s FAST. Way faster than any Android HDMI device I’ve ever used. My HTPC isn’t bottom-line, but not top of the line either (it certainly won’t play any modern games). Having said that, every interaction I had was immediate. XBMC/Kodi was blazing fast, games loaded and played without hesitation, and video played at 1080p without stuttering.

10/10, would buy again!

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About killerspaz

I'm a developer that loves to tinker with cutting edge technology. I have recently been playing with the Flash Platform (AS3/Flex), Android (custom roms, replacement apps, scripting), and looking at opportunities in the mobile markets.

Posted on 11.29.2014, in HTPC, Rants, Tools and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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