I finally bought an Amazon Fire Stick and found out a lot of things no one bothers to tell you

David Bentley's hand holding the Amazon Fire Stick remote control to begin searching for streaming content to watch
-Credit: (Image: David Bentley/BirminghamLive)


From online shopping to streaming music, movies and TV shows, Amazon seems to have seized a sizeable chunk of the market in many ways. As my older Panasonic plasma TV in the living room is not smart (though the Sky box can be connected to the internet) and my newer but not bang up-to-date bedroom TV has limited streaming options (only Netflix is already built in, so the magic ends there), I've never made the most of having Amazon Prime or other streaming platforms like BBC iPlayer, ITVX, Disney+ and the rest.

Speedier and cheaper parcel deliveries via Prime seemed a great idea during lockdown when we were all shopping from home in our Covid-enforced confinement. But as that's no longer enough to justify the price of this service, and I was running out of viewing options on Netflix, I finally decided to get an Amazon Fire Stick and open up a much wider range of entertainment. You don't need a Prime subscription for a Fire Stick but the gadget does allow you to access all the TV series, music and movies that come as part of the Prime package.

If you're wondering 'why not just get a new TV with all the bells and whistles?', there's nothing actually wrong with the televisions I already have. They were at the top of their game when purchased, cost a pretty penny in times when TVs were far more expensive and I feel reluctant to splash out hundreds on the most current model until they are heading for their final flicker.

Thankfully, devices like the Amazon Fire Stick let you give your existing telly an upgrade at a fraction of the cost of a brand new one. I bought my stick when Amazon was offering one of its sales events and, in order to future-proof myself, I went for the 4K option. It was billed as smaller and faster than previous versions and had a remote with the Alexa voice assistant, so it seemed the best way to go.

However, it hasn't all been plain sailing (or should that be streaming) and it could be the ultimate test of your patience to get it all set up. If you were expecting a 'plug and play' simplicity, then you've been misinformed so please fasten your seatbelts before getting on the streaming rollercoaster.

Setting up the Amazon Fire Stick

First to mention is that the prices of the Fire Stick are really good and far beat the outlay on a decent modern TV. At present, there are limited deals on the Amazon Fire Stick (with Alexa voice remote) at just £34.99 and the even cheaper Amazon Fire Stick Lite (with Alex voice remote) for just £29.99, which are both brilliantly affordable.

I already have a 4K Blu-ray player so, in keeping with that and to get the best possible picture, I opted for the Amazon Fire Stick 4K, currently reduced to £39.99. It also comes in a 4K Max version at £49.99. Even that top price is less than what I had recently paid for mine so the discounts are really good at the moment. It looks like now is a great time to grab one.

What a Fire Stick does is turn your older TV model into a smart TV so that all the streaming services are suddenly available to choose from. The stick connects to your home internet and accesses everything via that. But there's a lot that no one tells you.

Once the Fire Stick is plugged into an HDMI port on the back of the TV, a whole new screen of possibilities appears - provided you have selected that particular HDMI input as the one to be displayed and have successfully put your wifi password in (more on that below).

I was a current member of Amazon Prime and already signed up to BBC iPlayer and ITVX on a work laptop so I needed to log in to those again on the screen to gain access. But getting everything up and running isn't a fuss-free process, unfortunately, and I think less tech-savvy people might struggle or give up.

The first hurdle is inputting your wifi password within a specified number of seconds before the Fire Stick times out. Your password - usually printed on a label on the back of your internet router - is typically a jumble of letters and numbers. Easier to take a photo of that with your phone than try to write it all down. Inputting this password involves a lot of left, right, up and down scrolling to select the right combination on the on-screen keypad. It timed out several times and I had to start all over again. My patience was tested to the limit even before I had started to actually watch anything.

After that comes the procedure of signing in to streaming services. If you're new to them all, you need to register, and if already a subscriber, you have to re-input usernames and passwords, scan QR codes, and move between your smartphone and TV to complete the process.

The next barrier to jump was the picture juddering all over the place. The first series I chose to start was totally unwatchable due to the image and audio being broken up and out of sync. As a first step, I connected the Fire Stick to mains power to give it more stability, rather than putting the power lead into the USB port of the TV. This means using a plug with a USB input, which luckily I already had here. But the severe buffering problem persisted.

I then Googled for other advice on my phone, finding several 'how to' guides that were pretty useless. They suggested standard stuff like rebooting the Fire Stick, clearing its cache, and checking your internet was working at full strength. None of that was the issue.

Eventually, I found some tech tips buried somewhere deep in the internet that explained how to change the settings on the TV itself so that the picture and the sound kept up with the streaming signal - and it worked. I nearly did a victory lap of the entire street, never mind the bedroom.

The Amazon Fire Stick hanging down from an HDMI port at the back of the TV
The Amazon Fire Stick hanging down from an HDMI port at the back of the TV - with its USB power cable going to an electrical wall socket rather than into the TV's own USB port -Credit:David Bentley/BirminghamLive

What you get after the set-up process

Once it was working after this all-night set-up nightmare, it was good to go. I have occasionally found some streaming apps that are slow to load or refuse to open at all. Clearing the cache of that app or the entire Fire Stick never works and you end up deleting the specific streaming app altogether and reinstalling it.

Later models of the Fire Stick - and they seem to be appearing all the time - may have ironed out some of these start-up issues but I can only relate my own experience. The addition of Alexa on the remote control to ask Amazon's voice-activated assistant to find a specific movie, TV series or open a certain app is a real bonus.

There was one other big thing I also discovered. I wondered if I could use the Fire Stick in other TVs or even in my projector (a Prime Day cut-price purchase during lockdown that's perfect for watching sci-fi epics in spectacular cinematic style). Googling this question resulted in a big fat 'no' from disgruntled purchasers who have ended up with lots of problems and now have multiple Fire Sticks dangling out of every TV in their household. Wary of giving it a go in case I disrupted what had taken so long to set up, I rang up Amazon customer service and they said that yes, it was quite okay to move the stick between different devices in my home.

Only one way to truly find out, isn't there? So I decided to give it a go one weekend and plug it into the projector. I'm happy to report that it worked fine and it was great to see that I could get Netflix, ITVX and other platforms displayed on a huge 90-inch projector screen. But I decided it was a bit of a bother to move the Fire Stick around the house so I'd leave it permanently attached to the original TV upstairs, keeping the projector for Blu-ray movies.

Conclusions?

Fire Sticks are a great option for upgrading your existing TV. You can download all the streaming apps you want so that they show up in a row on your TV screen. But the initial set-up can be fiddly and you'll need to be technically competent and very patient. If there are picture issues but you have a good internet signal, it could well be the image refresh rate on your TV that's to blame.

The streaming services you choose are up to you - you can adjust according to taste and budget. BBC iPlayer is covered by your TV licence so there's no charge, while ITVX, Channel 4 and My5 are all free with tons to watch (but you can become a paying subscriber to avoid the advert breaks). Others like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+, and Apple TV all have a subscription fee. Prime also includes Amazon Music which I've found really good to put on while doing chores around the house.

So, yes, I'm glad I went through the multiple trials of setting it all up even if it felt like I was competing in the Hunger Games at times. Hopefully, now you're better versed in the potential pitfalls, your own attempts to try streaming won't leave you screaming like they nearly did with me.