Amazon was late to the smart TV party in Australia and only recently released their 4K Fire TV here. In the meantime, though Google’s Chromecast has shone brightly as an easy-and cheap solution to stream media to your big screen TV. So, can Amazon make inroads here in Australia with their Fire TV? We got hands-on with their two Fire TV Sticks to see what we thought.

The devices

Amazon sent us both the Fire TV Stick and the Fire TV Stick 4K and there is very little difference between the two. Same box contents, same set up, just a slight device capability.

Setting up the devices was super easy. I tried using the 4K version without the AC adapter and instead using a USB hub on my Samsung One box but unfortunately there was not enough power provided through this so I had to switch to the AC adapter before it would work properly. Another thing that would have been nice would have been an ethernet adapter — after all not everyone’s Wi-Fi network will support 4K streaming.

Connecting the device to my Amazon account was super easy — enter your code via the website on your phone while logged into your Amazon account and it logs into the TV. The Fire TV remote is then paired to function as a universal remote to control the volume buttons of the TV itself.

Initial setup asks you to install apps (or you can do it later) and now that it finally includes YouTube it is much more useful. One thing that is missing from the Amazon Fire TV app store is Foxtel-related apps. You will not find Binge or Kayo in their list of apps which is extremely disappointing, but we have no doubt that these will arrive sometime in the future — just no one knows how far in the future that will be.

The UI is obviously very Amazon Prime oriented

Unsurprisingly, Amazon put all of their content front and centre so if you don’t have Amazon Prime then Fire TV is not for you. Google’s Chromecast does not require you to have their subscriptions to make use of their hardware smart TV products. The front page of the Fire TV interface shows you 6 apps along with a button for your “app drawer”. You can choose which six apps are shown and you can rearrange them so it works for you.

The settings contain all the usual settings including choosing which sound output you prefer. An interesting setting is for Display Mirroring and is something that should have a shortcut on the home page because there is nothing standing out showing you the shortcut to get here. There is a shortcut to get here though and that is holding down the Home button on the Fire TV remote.

To mirror your smartphone/table they need to be within 10m of the TV, connected to the same Wi-Fi network and be an Android device running a version of Android newer than Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean). You need to have this open to be able to mirror your device to the display which is extremely annoying.

Content and performance

With 4K capabilities you would want 4K shows but unfortunately there are not *that* many 4K shows available. What there is though works extremely well. I did not have any issues at all with the 4K stream on either Netflix or Prime Video with the show loading quickly and playing without any buffering or pausing — not that I get any on any other platforms I have. The Fire TV does seem to load the movie faster than others though but it would only be a few seconds instead of 10-20 seconds so not a big deal either way.

The UI itself was quick to navigate with the device responding quickly to the remote control functions. Navigating through menu items in settings etc was fluid and quick as well — no longer does a TV interface have to be slow.

Another option is to pair your nearby Echo speaker with the Fire TV and you can use that speaker to control the TV — no need to press the button on the remote control. “Alexa, play [movie] on the TV”

Where the Fire TV is a LONG way behind the Google TV offerings is with its screen mirroring capabilities. Google has an easy Chromecast function where it shares the feed with the device on the TV and you can continue to operate your phone without interfering with the show you are Casting. Fire TV though has only a generic screen mirroring technology which shares the screen of your phone with the TV device.

The problem with this is that not all devices support this — Apple devices do not and not all Android devices will work. If you do get it to mirror your display then every notification and thing you do on your phone will simultaneously show up on the TV, interfering with the show you are watching. Amazon need to build Chromecast support into their Fire TV, simple as that.

Alexa, play a random comedy movie

Just as you do with Google TV, Amazon includes their smart assistant, Alexa. All you need to do is press the Alexa button on the remote and you can issue any of the normal commands that you have for Alexa. Personally, I use Alexa for most of my home automation control given its speed and functionality but find it lacks with everyday trivia and information which is where I prefer Google Assistant.

The good thing about Alexa on the Fire TV is that if there is one it will give visual information along with the usual verbal information. Eg. weather sports scores etc will be displayed on the TV.

The difference between the two Fire TV devices

4K. That’s it. They even look the same although the box is different. Both include the dongle (the Fire TV), a HDMI extender, a USB power cable, AC adapter, remote control and batteries. One is $77 and the other is $99. For future proofing I’d suggest you fork out the extra $22 to get the 4K version if you were tossing up between the two.

So just how useful are they and should you buy one?

By themselves the Fire TV devices are useful but unfortunately, they are not the only game in town and the similarly priced Chromecast with Google TV from Google offers more, much more. You can still get all of your Amazon content on it but you can also get so many more apps, including Binge and Kayo and most of all you get Chromecast capabilities.

If you were locked into the Amazon ecosystem and trying to avoid Google products, then the Fire TV devices will serve you just fine. I was perfectly happy with the Fire TV Sticks until I wanted to watch Kayo and they were no longer useful. If you have no interest in Chromecast nor in Kayo or Binge or other Foxtel-owned apps then you’ll be fine.

The Amazon Fire TV Stick is available for $77 with free delivery for Prime members from Amazon AU. The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K will set you back $99 making it a comparable price to the Chromecast with Google TV. If Alexa and Amazon are the garden you live in then the Fire Stick is for you. If not it’s a hard sell given the other options out there.