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Amazon Fire TV or Amazon Fire TV Stick: Which Should You Buy?

·Technology Editor
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If you’re shopping for a TV streaming device, you’ve likely come across Amazon’s Fire TV and its new Fire TV Stick and wondered what the difference between the two is. Both stream the same type of media to your TV, both have access to Amazon’s Instant Video service, and both play content at 1080p.

So why is the Fire TV $99 and the Fire TV Stick $39? Here are the precise differences between the two, and why that will affect which one you should buy.

The basics
The Fire TV Stick, which was released in November, is a device that’s about twice the size of your average USB thumb drive and connects to the HDMI port on the back of your TV. In addition to the device itself, the Stick ships with an HDMI extender in case your TV’s HDMI port is too cramped or out of reach. 

There’s also a USB power cable and brick that provide the Stick with juice. You also get a remote for the Stick.

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Once you plug the Fire TV Stick into the back of your TV, it’s completely out of sight, which is very nice.

The Fire TV box, on the other hand, is a little bigger than an old-school portable CD player. It does, however, offer a sleek, all-black industrial design that would look great in almost any TV cabinet. And like the TV Stick, the Fire TV comes with a power cable and adapter that plugs into a wall outlet, as well as a remote.

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The Fire TV Stick has only an HDMI connector to hook it to the TV, and that micro-USB port for its power cable. The Fire TV box has an HDMI port, too, but it also has an Ethernet port for hardwired Internet connections (the Stick has to use Wi-Fi) and an optical audio port for connecting the box to an external stereo system.

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That makes the Fire TV box the better choice for someone who doesn’t have a reliable wireless Internet connection, or who wants to connect the Fire TV to a surround-sound speaker system.

The remotes
The Fire TV box has a cooler remote. The Fire TV remote is coated in a soft-touch material and has a slim design, and it has a voice search button that you press and hold to perform voice searches for content.

The Fire TV Stick comes with a chunkier, cheaper-looking remote that lacks the voice search button. Instead, Amazon offers a smartphone app that offers voice search.

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It seems like a minor omission, but in reality voice search is infinitely more convenient for hunting for your favorite movies and TV shows. Without it, you’re left to select each letter of a show’s title using the remote’s directional pad, or to dig your phone out of your pocket and fire up the app.

If you want the Fire TV Stick but also want the voice search remote, you can buy one à la carte, for $30.

Personally, I don’t search for content by title nearly as much as I simply browse for things to watch, so the voice search isn’t exactly a deal-breaker.

The content
OK, so they look different, have different connections, and come with different remotes, but what you really care about is whether the Fire TV box and Fire TV Stick can stream the same content. And the answer to that is yes … mostly.

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Both the Fire TV box and Fire TV Stick can stream the majority of today’s popular services, including Hulu Plus, Netflix, YouTube, Crackle, WatchESPN, and others, all available in glorious 1080p. HBO GO is also coming to both devices in the coming months.

What’s more, navigating the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick is nearly an identical experience. Skimming through apps, movies, TV shows, and games is incredibly smooth on both devices, though I did notice that the Fire Stick took a bit longer to start up when I first turned it on than the Fire TV box.

Where the Fire TV Stick falls short of the Fire TV is in the gaming department. The Fire TV can play games like The Walking Dead and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and while those aren’t exactly bleeding-edge titles, they do require a good bit of processing power to play.

Because the Fire TV Stick’s processor isn’t as powerful as the Fire TV box’s chip, it can’t run the same games. Sure, you can still play things like Sonic the Hedgehog, but anything more advanced overwhelms the Stick.

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Our advice is to use a computer, console, or smartphone for gaming, but if you do care about processing power, get the Fire TV box instead of the Stick.

The competition
The Fire TV’s biggest competitors are the $99 Apple TV, Google’s $99 Nexus Player, and Roku’s $99 Roku 3. The Fire TV Stick, meanwhile, competes with Google’s $35 Chromecast and Roku’s $49 Roku Streaming Stick.

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The same basic differences between the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick apply to the Roku 3 and the Roku Streaming Stick. The Roku 3 gets a better remote with a built-in headphone jack that lets you listen to content without disturbing anyone else, and an Ethernet port for those with unreliable Wi-Fi. The Roku Stick doesn’t offer either of those.

Still, the Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick both offer the same content. In fact, both Roku devices offer more streaming channels than either Amazon’s or Google’s options. What’s more, the Roku 3 and Roku Stick both get access to Amazon’s Instant Video and Google Play Movies & TV. Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire TV Stick don’t have access to Google Play Movies & TV, and Google’s Chromecast and Nexus Player can’t access Amazon’s Instant Video.

Speaking of Google’s options, the Chromecast is the only streaming option that doesn’t have a traditional user interface. Instead, you download apps to your smartphone, tablet, or get the Chromecast extension for your Chrome browser, and mirror content from your device to your television.

The Nexus Player, however, runs on Google’s Android for TV operating system and comes with a remote with voice search. The Nexus Player, though, can run its own specific apps, as well as any Chromecast apps. It’s basically the best of both worlds.

Which should you buy?
Between the Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick, I recommend the Stick for most people (and as a gift), as it’s more convenient, easier to install, and less expensive. It would be nice if it came with the Fire TV box’s voice search remote, but personally I wouldn’t spend the extra $30 on it.

For people without good Wi-Fi, or those who want their stereo systems to blast out every decibel of audio from whatever they’re streaming, I’d go for the Fire TV box.

Better yet: Get the Roku Streaming Stick. Not only is it relatively inexpensive compared with the Roku 3 box, but it also offers more content than any of its competitors. And in the world of streaming devices, content is king.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+ here.