Cordcutting.com exists to answer questions: how can you watch this without cable? What can watch if you choose that service instead? How can you watch live TV for free? We've answered more than a few of them over the years, but — to judge from the folks I encounter at library talks and in my email inbox — there's one question in particular that we have yet to address directly. What is a Fire Stick? The similar “What is a Fire TV” question gets asked, too, but people love to talk about “Fire Sticks,” and the terminology can be confusing.

Using the term “Fire Stick” can make the question trickier than it seems. The “correct” answer is that a Fire Stick isn't anything – Amazon makes a product called the Fire TV Stick, but it doesn't make one called the Fire Stick. But adding to the complexity here is the fact that some folks have something more specific in mind when they ask what a “Fire Stick” is. Many seem to be thinking specifically of “jailbroken” Fire TV Sticks (perhaps no surprise, then, that Google trends show that searches for jailbreaking tend to use the improper “Fire Stick” term instead of Fire TV Stick). Dropping the “TV” part of the name also makes a Fire Stick sound a little less related to the Fire TV, even though they're very similar devices indeed.

So let's take a step back and really tackle this question. What is a Fire Stick? If you're asking that, there's a few things you might be thinking of. We'll talk about them all below, one by one, and explain how they do (and don't) relate.

Fire TV: Amazon's Streaming Platform

The reason that so many folks are walking around saying “Fire Stick” is that some brand experts over at Amazon decided one day to use “Fire” as part of Amazon's device branding. As you probably know, Amazon has its own branded devices: they make tablets, smart speakers, and streaming devices, to name just a few. And some of those bear the “Fire” brand: there's the Fire Tablet, for instance, and – of course – the Fire TV.

The Fire TV is brand name for Amazon's streaming platform. The Fire TV operating system appears on a few devices, including one that is (somewhat confusingly) called “Fire TV” as well. All of these devices run the Fire TV operating system, though, which is a streaming platform. That begs the question: what is a streaming platform?

How Does Fire TV Work?

Fire TV is a streaming platform, but what does that mean?

Streaming platforms are essentially just operating systems with a specialized job: they want to make it easier for you to stream content from lots of different services.

What is a Fire Stick - Fire TV home screen
Here's a look at the Fire TV's home screen. Fire TV's operating system is not a streaming service, but rather a way to organize and access various streaming services.

That's an increasingly important job in a world full of streaming services. For instance, Hulu and Netflix are both great ways to stream video — but they're also competitors. They're not going to team up and work together to make a nice operating system for you. In fact, they're not even going to do that by themselves: they're services with programs and apps, so they need something to run on.

That something can be your computer, of course. But watching all your movies on a little computer screen is no fun, so you'll probably want to get some kind of streaming device for your TV (or a smart TV, which essentially is just a TV with a streaming device built into it). That streaming device will run — you guessed it — a streaming platform.

The distinction between a streaming platform and a streaming device might seem kind of geeky, but it's helpful to understand. A good way to think about it is to remember that a streaming platform is an operating system. In the same way that there are multiple different types of Apple computers all running the same Mac operating system, there are often different streaming device models running the same streaming platform. For instance, Roku offers a bunch of different devices at different price points. Some are more powerful than others, but they all run the Roku platform.

Fire TV OS is available on a few different devices, too. For more on that, you'll want to check out our Amazon devices page.

Jailbroken “Fire Sticks”: What You Need to Know About Sideloading

The simplest answer to the question in our title – “What is a Fire Stick?” – is that “Fire Stick” is just a slightly garbled term for a Fire TV Stick, or perhaps for the whole line of Fire TV devices. But some people who ask the question are sure they were thinking of something else. Fire TV devices don't provide content themselves (as explained earlier, they're the device and the platform you use to access content from other sources, via apps like Netflix, Hulu, etc.), but you may be sure that you heard a “Fire Stick” could give you free stuff: free movies, free TV shows, free live TV, and so on. And perhaps you heard something about “Kodi,” too.

It's time to talk about “jailbroken Fire Sticks.”

There are a lot of misconceptions about “jailbreaking,” “Fire Sticks,” and Kodi. Rather than address them each individually, let's instead start at the beginning and say what each of these things actually are.

Let's start with Kodi. Kodi is a media center application, which means that it's designed to make it easy for you to organize your movies, TV shows, and even music. It serves a similar purpose to Fire TV OS, actually, though it's a application instead of an operating system. Since its an app, Kodi can run on a bunch of different platforms: you can get it for Android, for instance, or run it on your Windows, Mac, or Linux computer.

Kodi is free. It's also open-source, which means that anyone can look at the program code. This means that developers can pretty easily make programs of their own that will play nice with Kodi. They've made a lot of them: a big part of Kodi's appeal is its huge library of “add-ons.” Not all of these add-ons are legal, though: some developers made add-ons that will give you (illegal) free TV. Kodi itself is perfectly legal and safe, and you have to go out of your way to get your hands on the illegal add-ons (especially now that Kodi's developers are fighting back). But they can be found and installed if you are so inclined – as some folks, unfortunately, are.

So that's Kodi. What is “jailbreaking?” The term originally appeared in descriptions of a hacking technique for iPhones that gave users new powers to download apps not approved by Apple. Jailbreaking an iPhone is a serious undertaking. When used in reference to a Fire TV Stick, though, jailbreaking isn't quite so wild. Since Fire TV OS is based on the Android operating system, it is possible to add Android apps to a Fire TV device though a relatively simple process called “sideloading.” Sideloading has come to be called “jailbreaking” in some circles, even though it's not nearly as involved or as risky as you might assume something using that term would be.

You won't find Kodi on your Fire TV Stick (or other Fire TV device), but you can add it using sideloading (or jailbreaking). A “jailbroken Fire Stick,” then, is just a Fire TV device that has something – usually Kodi – sideloaded.

Kodi is great, and you can certainly add it to to your Fire TV stick – we'll even show you how.

But adding Kodi to your Fire TV device won't give you free cable TV or anything like that. And if you encounter someone selling a “Jailbroken Fire Stick” that allegedly does just that, you might want to be careful.

Pre-Loaded “Fire Sticks”: Not a Great Idea

To recap, here's what we know now:

  • Fire TV Sticks (and other Fire TV devices) are sold without Kodi on them.
  • You can add Kodi through sideloading (“jailbreaking”), which is not a dangerous process.
  • Kodi will not give you free cable TV (to get that, you'd have to deliberately seek out illegal add-ons to download and install).

But perhaps you're sure that you know someone who bought a “Jailbroken Fire Stick” new. They got free TV and they didn't have to do anything themselves. Is that possible?

It is, but it's not a great idea.

It's easy enough to buy a Fire TV Stick and add Kodi to it. And, unfortunately, it's not too tough to add illegal add-ons and power Kodi up with illegal free streaming abilities. So there are folks out there that do just this on a large scale, and then sell those “Jailbroken Fire Sticks” to well-meaning people who think they're legit.

What is a Fire Stick - Jailbroken Fire Stick
An image from an Ebay listing for a “Jailbroken Fire Stick.” You should stick with legitimate options.

Given current enforcement techniques, you probably won't be prosecuted for using one of these things. But you technically could, and there are other dangers to consider, too. A Fire TV device sees a lot of your passwords and payment information. Are you sure you want to enter that on a device that's been in the hands of someone shady enough to add illegal apps and re-sell it? Who knows what other sorts of programs are lurking inside the device!

Play it safe: buy Fire TV devices only from authorized retailers. If you do that, you can simply get your apps from the app store and be 100% sure that everything you are using is legal.

Should You Get a Fire TV Stick?

So there you have it: “Fire Stick” is a term that is most closely related to the Fire TV Stick, but is also sometimes used reference Fire TV devices in general, or Fire TV devices that have been “jailbroken” to add Kodi.

We've established that you should steer clear of devices that come “pre-jailbroken,” but what about the Fire TV Stick and the rest of the Fire TV devices?

You'll find a Fire TV device useful if you want to watch streaming content on your TV. A Fire TV device will make it easy for you to access Netflix and other apps using a remote control (or, in some cases, voice commands). It makes it easy to rent or buy digital copies of movies and TV show episodes. You can play games on it, listen to music on it, and more. Downloading apps is easy, and free trials and even entirely free apps are available to keep things affordable (remember, you can trust the stuff in the app store, because we're talking about devices from reputable retailers).

So, yes, you should absolutely consider a Fire TV device if you use streaming services and want a convenient way to watch them on your TV! You can also consider one of the device's many competitors, like Roku and Chromecast. For more on streaming devices, check out our coverage right here at Cordcutting.com.

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