Tag Archives: media streamer

Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote Review



Amazon Fire TVWhen it comes to media streaming via hardware, it’s a four way fight for your eyeballs between Roku, Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast. The most recent entrant, Amazon and the Fire TV, came to the UK in October 2014 and I reviewed one of the boxes back in January 2015. Over eighteen months later, Amazon’s Instant Video and Fire TV are more well known, with a large element of this courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson and the ex-Top Gear crew. To see what’s changed since then, Amazon kindly sent me a the updated Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote. Let’s take a look.

Fire TV Stick Box  Fire TV Stick in Box

The Fire TV stick comes in the usual flip open box used by Amazon for its electronics. Inside the box, there’s the Fire TV stick itself, the Voice Remote with batteries, USB power supply with cable, an HDMI gender changer and some slim instructions. As it’s generally expected that the Fire TV will connect straight into an HDMI socket, there’s no HDMI cable. There’s an unboxing video below if you’re interested.

Before getting started, my tip of the day would be to plug the microUSB end of the power cable into the Fire TV stick BEFORE you push the Fire TV into a spare HDMI socket. This saves too much faffing around the back (or side) of the TV and alerts you early to a potential problem. As the power connector is on the side of the stick and the cable comes out at right angles, it’s possible that this will foul against an adjacent HDMI connector. On my TV it was apparent that the Fire TV was always going to sit in the topmost socket. Alternatively, I could have used an HDMI cable along with the gender changer to locate the stick away from the sockets and avoid interference. YMMV, as they say.

The other end of the USB cable goes into the power supply and once all connected and powered up, it’s simply a case of switching to the right HDMI input and following the prompts. The setup begins with pairing the remote to the stick and then connecting to wifi. As with all devices bought from Amazon, it comes pre-configured with your account details.

Fire TV Stick Fire TV Stick Wireless

To make life even easier, there’s a set of cartoons to take you through some of the features of the Fire TV stick.

Fire TV Stick Cartoon Fire TV Stick Cartoon

With that all done, you’re dropped into Amazon’s Fire interface. It’s largely unchanged since I first reviewed the Fire TV but that’s not a bad thing given that it’s big, bright and intuitive. Click up and down with the remote to move between the media areas….TV shows, Movies, Games, Apps, Music and so on. Click right and left to scroll through the chosen area. The Home area summarises recent activity so it’s easy to get back to something that you recently viewed. The interface is generally responsive but there can be a little lag when going into a new area, such as Photos, where it’s checking to see if there are any new media. I assume that the lag will be inversely proportional to your network connection speed.

Fire TV Menu

There’s no doubt that the Fire TV is best used with Amazon Prime and other Amazon services – much of the promoted material is for Prime shows – but other media services like Netflix and Spotify are present via apps, and there’s a full range of catch-up services for UK’s terrestrial services (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5). When I first reviewed the Fire TV a few of these were missing from the lineup so it’s good to see the extras. In addition to film and TV, the interface presents music purchased through Amazon as CDs and Amazon Music. If you use Amazon’s storage for photos, they’ll appear in a section too.

Amazon Fire TV StickVideo playback on the Fire TV can’t be faulted. I watched a number of shows through a variety of services, including Netflix, and the picture quality was unfailingly good. Programmes started quickly and got into HD picture quality within a few seconds. No problems here.

The Fire TV Stick supports apps as well, and these mostly offer other media services, such as YouTube, or games, such as…..well, loads including Crossy Road! It’s actually good fun playing mobile games on the big screen, though some require the Fire Game Controller (GB£44.99) rather than just the remote. Some games are tricky enough with just the remote, so if you are gamer, expect to stump up for the game controller. There’s something for everyone, as they say, and I played a fair bit of Lego Star Wars – The Yoda Chronicles. Overall, I felt there was a much greater range of games than last time and more of the headline titles were available.

While having loads of media is a good thing, it’s even better when there’s a search function to quickly find what you want to see. This is the Voice Remote version of the TV Stick and as such, the remote has a button at the top with a microphone symbol. When pressed and held, you can simply say what TV or film you are interested in, and the Stick will work it out and show you the options. Owners without the Voice Remote will have to laboriously type in the name of the programme. The voice recognition is accurate and the subsequent search recommendations are valid. Press the mic button, say “The Fall”, and the first programme it offers is the BBC drama (the one I wanted) followed by other films or TV programmes with the word “fall” in their title, such as “Downfall”.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like search has moved on too much. It is good at finding stuff but it still seems to only reference Amazon-hosted material. Take the above mentioned “The Fall”, which is currently showing the third series on BBC and aired episodes can be viewed for free on iPlayer. However, search on the Fire TV Stick would have you pay £2.49 for the HD version of episode 1 without mentioning the freebie option at all. More on this in a moment….

Amazon Fire TV ContentsBack in January 2015, I said, “Overall the Amazon Fire TV compares well with the competition and if you are into Amazon’s ecosystem, then the Fire TV is a no-brainer buy at the current price of £64 giving easy access to familiar photos, music, movies and games. Even if you aren’t a fully paid-up member of the Amazon fan club, there’s still plenty to recommend with the current selection of apps and games which will undoubtedly grow over time as more broadcasters and app developers get on-board.” Here in October 2016, there’s not much to add except that it’s even better now than it was then; there are more broadcasters on-board, there are more games and the Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote is cheaper at £44.99. It drops to only £34.99 with the standard remote.

But….since starting the review of this Fire TV stick, a new version has been announced, at least in the US, which addresses some of the remaining deficiencies, namely cross-media search. Obviously it’s not clear right now when that will arrive in the UK or which apps will be searched in addition to Amazon media. Interestingly, the new Fire TV Stick comes with Alexa so the voice interaction won’t be limited to only search but other queries too. I’m looking forward to it already.

Thanks to Amazon UK for providing the Fire TV Stick for review.


Roku Revamps Range with Express, Premiere and Ultra



ROKU LogoRoku have announced an almost total revamp of their streaming player range with new products filling five of the six slots in their line-up. The new models are the Roku Express, Express+, Premiere, Premiere+ and Ultra, with only the recently updated (April) Roku Streaming Stick keeping its place.

Roku ExpressThe new entry level, the Roku Express, costs only US$29.99 while providing 1080p HD streaming to HDMI-equipped TVs. If you have an older TV and need composite jack and A/V connections, then an extra $10 gets the Roku Express+ (US$39.99) and is exclusively available from Walmart. As you’ll see from the pictures, the Express model has moved away from the square-ish box to a more rectangular style.

Roku Premiere+For hi-def junkies, the Roku Premiere ($79.99) and Premiere+ ($99.99) offer 4K at 60 Hz, with the Premiere+ also supporting HDR and the Premiere+ remote comes with a headphone jack if you want to enjoy your content in private. Obviously a 4K and HDR compatible TV is needed to enjoy all the features of the Premiere streamers.

Roku Ultra RearFinally, the Roku Ultra at $129.99 supports the Dolby Digital Plus decoder with optical out (yay!) voice search and lost remote finder. Uniquely in the range, the Roku Ultra has a USB port for local media playback, though it’s not entirely clear where it’s located on the box.

Only the Ultra and Premiere+ have RF wireless remotes, with the Express, Express+ and Premiere remotes working with IR only. In most respects the remotes seem unchanged from previous Rokus.

The new devices have been announced for USA, Canada and Mexico with availability from early October. Further news for other territories (UK, Ireland, France) is expected soon.


Roku 2 Media Streamer (2015) Review



Roku LogoMedia streamers are hugely in vogue at the moment with products from Roku, Apple, Google and Amazon, and good a few of these are going to appear under the Christmas tree in a few day’s time. Although hard numbers are difficult to come back, it’s generally thought that the market leader by a good way is Roku, with Google, Apple and Amazon following in roughly that order. Once the figures are in for the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales, this could all change. Regardless, on review here is the UK 2015 version of the Roku 2, which now sits in the middle of Roku’s British line-up, between the Streaming Stick and the Roku 3. Let’s take a look.

Roku 2 in Box

In the box, you get the Roku 2, remote control (with batteries) and power supply with four plug adaptors, including UK, US and continental. There’s no HDMI cable.

Roku 2 inside box

As with the previous Roku 2 models, it’s in the “hockey puck” style, though it’s a little bit more rounded than the earlier Roku 2 models. The remote is the usual candy bar, but this model uses IR signal transmission rather than the WiFi and Bluetooth of predecessors. This may be of interest if your Roku normally lives round the back of the TV as you’ll need to bring it into view.

Roku 2 Front

Looking round the 2, there’s the trademark fabric tab on one side, with a USB port on the other. At the back you’ll find HDMI, network and DC power sockets, along with a microSD card slot. In addition to the Ethernet, the Roku 2 has dual band wireless.

Getting started is straightforward. Plug everything into the Roku 2, put the batteries in the remote and sit back on the sofa with the remote. The Roku 2 steps through the setup in a straightforward fashion, though putting in long passwords or WiFi keys can be a bit laborious. Regardless, you can be up and running within minutes.

Roku offers over 1,500 streaming entertainment channels which are great for followers of niche programming, whether travel, sport, kids, health & fitness or faith/religion. However, the vast majority of UK buyers will be interested in the offerings from the main terrestrial broadcasters plus the well known video-on-demand services. Naturally, Roku has them all. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, Sky Now, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play Movies and YouTube. For audio fans, there’s Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, TuneIn and Vevo. Newshounds will like the BBC News and Sky News channels. I could keep going but in summary there’s lots there and no-one will ever be able to say, “There’s nothing on the TV”.

Roku 2 RearOn the other hand if you have your own media, the Roku Media Player will play from USB storage and DLNA servers, and a Plex client can be installed too. I streamed ripped movies from a Buffalo Linkstation and while picture quality can be subject to network speeds, I had no problems at all and enjoyed HD footage without glitches from all the services that offered HD streaming. The Roku 2 has a HD optimised processor and I think it shows. The microSD slot can’t be used for media storage but can be used to boost the internal memory of the Roku 2 for extra channels.

If you’re a real film buff, you’ll be interested in Roku Search and Roku Feed. The former searches through top channels by title, actor or director to find your favourite programming and the Roku Feed automatically updates you when new films become available for streaming (or if the price changes).

The Roku 2’s main user interface is a simple menu driven affair and it’s not nearly as sophisticated as Amazon’s Fire, which combines media from multiple sources. Part of this is because the Roku doesn’t have the integrated cloud-based ecosystem behind it in the style of Amazon or Google, but part is to keep things straightforward and easy to use, much like an ordinary TV. The channels such as Netflix then have their own interface. Frankly, I prefer the channel approach as you know what you are getting, e.g. BBC programming, Netflix’s catalogue, YouTube video. Channel or app sophistication varies hugely. Most are good, especially from the big names like BBC or Netflix, though Spotify’s channel is a bit disappointing.

Roku RemoteThe remote is easy to use with a directional pad falling easily under the thumb. Other buttons function as home, back and menu controls. There are four shortcut buttons for Netflix, YouTube, Rdio and Google Movies, which is great if you use those services, but a waste of space if you don’t. It’s a pity they aren’t more generically labelled, e.g. Films, Music, News, Sport, with a configuration option for each button. Even better would be to print and label your own buttons!

To play media from smartphones and tablets, Roku offers a complementary app (Android, iOS and Windows) which can be used to not only manage and control the Roku 2, but also cast media from the mobile device to the screen. It’s great to show the photos you’ve just taken on the TV.

There’s no doubt there’s strong competition out there for the spot below your TV but the Roku 2 performed well and without issue. Pricewise, the Roku 2 has an RRP of £69.99 but can be found on-line for £10 less which is good value especially at the lower price. Of course, if you don’t need to play from local storage, consider the Roku Streaming Stick which is £20 cheaper (RRP £49.99). Overall, I think the Roku is a good choice if your intention is to “watch TV” without being distracted by unnecessary features. Go on, get one for Christmas.

Thanks to Roku for providing the Roku 2 for review.