Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite review: Capable streamer, cheap price

8 Oct, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments


Roku is the biggest name in streaming hardware, with seven different streamers available right now, and even more TVs and soundbarsAmazon has been gunning for Roku’s slice of the pie ever since the first Fire TV appeared. But what Amazon hasn’t had is an ultracheap option, until now. The $30 Amazon Fire TV Lite is the company’s latest attempt to compete with Roku’s cheapest player, the Roku Express. If you wanted an ultracheap Amazon streamer for the price of a DVD, it’s finally here.

Like

  • Dirt-cheap
  • Includes Alexa voice remote
  • Wide range of streaming apps
  • Integrates well with Echo speakers

Don’t Like

  • Voice commands don’t work with every app
  • More complex menus than Roku
  • HDR without 4K is kinda pointless

Amazon released not one but two new streamers at the same time — the other was the updated $40 Fire Stick — but I would argue that the Fire Stick TV Lite is the better deal. The main difference is that the more expensive Stick has a different remote with power, volume and mute buttons to control your TV. If you’re only using this streamer on a cheap TV anyway, it’s worth saving the money, unless you really want TV control.

So is the $30 Fire TV Lite better than the $30 Roku Express? They mostly have the same selection of apps, with the exception of Peacock — NBC’s new service that isn’t yet on Fire TV. The two biggest differences are in menu systems and voice support. The Lite’s built-in access to Alexa is a big advantage if you like speaking instead of typing when you search for shows and launch apps. In the end, I liked the Fire TV platform a bit better, although Roku is still an excellent choice too. If your TV has an HDMI port, the Fire TV Stick Lite is a great way to equip it with a wealth of streaming for not much money.

What is it?

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Fire TV Lite is a USB stick-sized device which plugs into a spare HDMI port on your TV. For 30 bucks it offers a lot of features, including that dedicated voice remote that allows integration with the Alexa voice assistant. There’s also dozens of supported streaming services among its thousands of available apps.

The remote hasn’t physically changed much since the first Fire TV and I didn’t like the feel as much as the Roku remote or the new Google TV remote. Amazon’s clicker also lacks the shortcuts to Netflix or other often-used services, but it does include a new live TV button. 

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The Lite remote should look familiar to Fire TV users.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Pressing that new bottom button brings up a grid-style live TV guide populated by default with “channels” of free shows from Pluto TV and Starz. Strangely Amazon’s own IMDb TV is not part of the live TV grid, even though it has its own program grid once you open the app. If you happen to subscribe to YouTube TV, you’ll also see shows and channels from that service in the guide, although it didn’t work with Sling TV (subscribers will have to use the Sling app as usual).

The stick itself comes with a power adapter. While you could use the USB ports on your device to power it I suggest you use the adapter instead, or the unit could behave strangely. For example, Dolby Atmos content wouldn’t work at all when plugged into a TV USB port, despite the device declaring “Dolby” — the sound came out as 5.1.

One feature on the Lite’s feature list seems a little out of place: HDR compatibility. This is the first device we’ve seen to offer HDR but not 4K resolution, and it raises the question of what kind of TV it’s designed for. There are hundreds of 4K HDR TVs out there but, based on a search of the Best Buy site, there are only four 1080p TVs that can do HDR. For most people with 4K HDR TVs, we’d recommend getting a streamer that can actually do 4K instead of a 1080p streamer like the Lite.

Lots of streaming apps (but no Peacock or HBO Max)

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The Fire TV Lite supports a wide range of apps.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Like other streaming devices the number of services that Amazon Fire TV supports is improving all the time. It can access almost all of the major streaming apps, including Amazon Prime Video ($9 at Amazon), Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, Crackle, Pluto TV, Tubi TV, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify and many, many more. With so many services supported it’s almost easier to list the services the adapter doesn’t have: namely NBC’s Peacock and HBO Max ($15 at HBO Max) (though it does have a vanilla HBO app). Roku and Chromecast with Google TV both offer Peacock and the latter also includes HBO Max. 


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Voice support is nice but it didn’t work with every app I tried, including Netflix. Asking for “Umbrella Academy” failed and I just got a “check your skills” message (there is no official Netflix skill in the Alexa app). YouTube TV doesn’t seem to allow voice search yet either; I asked for “Battle Bots” and all I got were YouTube and Amazon “buy” links. Amazon Prime video worked well with Alexa voice, however, and I appreciated being able to use either the remote or an Alexa speaker.

In contrast, Roku may not have the same robust voice capabilities, but text searches via the Roku remote are generally more targeted toward free or included programs rather than simply “buy now” links.  

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The new Live button on the remote summons a grid-style program guide.


Ty Pendlebury/CNET

What it’s like to use

The healthy complement of features, tightly integrated voice commands and its relative speed makes for a winning combination. In general opening apps was speedy, and only navigating the home page tiles could give a very occasional slow-down, but nothing that spoiled the experience. 

Using the Fire TV Stick Lite remote is easy, and Alexa searches with the microphone button were more responsive and relevant than using the Echo as a go-between. Only once in a while did I wish for a mute button, and that was usually during the autoplay videos that accompany the tiles on the home page.

Picture and sound quality were also very good, but the lack of an audio format control beyond “Best Available” could lead to some odd problems. For example, The Legend of Korra on Netflix using the Lite only gave me stereo sound (though it should be capable of 5.1), whereas the new Fire Stick did give me the expected 5.1. Other programs, including Jack Ryan on Amazon, were played in Atmos on the Lite so it wasn’t likely a hardware capability issue. More likely a Netflix one, but I have reached out to Amazon for clarification. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

There are two different schools of thought when it comes to how streaming devices organize their content. App-centric menus like Roku and Apple TV just show you a grid of apps, so you can’t actually browse for something to watch without clicking through to each app. Amazon Fire TV and Google TV take a more content-focused approach, surfacing lots of titles on the home page itself. 

If you like to graze for content, the Fire TV might be more appealing, although the “live tiles” autoplay video can be jarring. If you know what you want already, or at least what app you want to watch, Roku is probably a better choice, in part because Amazon’s search results skews heavily toward its own (often user-pays-extra) content. 

Amazon has promised an interface update later in 2020, which will come first to both the Lite and the 2020 Fire TV. It offers a redesigned main menu and improved browsing, plus a new section called Alexa Explore with new recipes, stock reports and more.

Should you buy it?

If you want an ultracheap, capable streamer and are embedded with Alexa and the Amazon universe, this product makes a lot of sense. You may or may not miss the TV control functions but the Live TV Guide button is a real bonus for cord-cutters in particular. At $30 it’s a worthy streamer and a great stocking filler.

If, on the other hand, you have the 2019 Fire Stick, there’s absolutely no reason for you to buy either of the 2020 versions. Dolby Atmos and/or Dolby Vision are weird add-ons for 1080p devices, and if you have a decent 4K TV then you should get a real 4K streamer — it’s just another $20. 



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