Ryan's 'Jailbroken' Fire TV Guide

Recently, I've noticed a lot of my friends have tried to up their cord-cutting game by purchasing 'jailbroken' Amazon Fire TV Sticks from eBay. Some of these sticks are even being sold by resellers on Amazon. It seems as though a lot of my friends are getting ripped off. I wanted to put together a short guide on these Amazon devices with some warnings and best practices for their use.

First, a few definitions. The Amazon Fire TV Stick is a cool little device that hit the scene in late 2014. It is an Android-based device that plugs directly in to the HDMI ports on the back of your television. The Fire TV Stick has a built-in WiFi chip that allows you to stream content from streaming providers like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and so on. 'Jailbreaking' is a term for defeating the restrictions on an operating system to allow full access to the resources on a device. 

Breaking out

'Jailbreaking'  one's iPhone used to be all the rage. Personally, I don't use iOS devices because I don't care for how restrictive the iOS operating system is. With my Android phone I have much more control over the settings, resources, access to the file tree, and so forth. By 'jailbreaking' an iOS device, however, it is possible to access much more of the phone and to load apps that go beyond the capabilities of those in the App store. Because the Fire TV Stick is Android rather than iOS based, it is not correct to say that this device is 'jailbroken'. Android devices don't get 'jailbroken', they get 'rooted'. 'Rooting' your Android device accomplishes the same basic  idea. It's semantics, really, but annoying. 

It is not possible for most members of the general public to 'root' a Fire TV Stick. In order to accomplish this, one must very carefully short certain pins on the Stick's controller chip in order to access the built in memory files. This is a real pain, can very easily destroy your Fire TV Stick (turning it in to a Brick Stick? Stick Brick?), and is totally unnecessary. All of the 'jailbroken' Fire TV Sticks that are being sold on the market have been neither 'jailbroken' or 'rooted'. Amazon actually allows any user to 'side-load' Android apps on to the  Fire TV Stick. This is dead simple, takes just minutes to do, and requires virtually no technical expertise.

As a hardware note, you don't need a Fire TV stick to access any of the content that you get on these 'jailbroken' sticks. I'll talk a bit more about software in the next session, but I have a computer attached to my TV regularly anyway that runs the exact same software as the 'jailbroken' Fire TV Stick. If you must buy one (the form factor is very convenient and portable), please buy a regular one and 'jailbreak' it yourself!

The da Vinci Kodi 

All of the 'jailbroken' Fire TV Sticks that I have seen on the market so far have had the Kodi app side-loaded. Kodi is a free, open source Media Center app that first debuted for the Xbox back in 2002. Kodi allows you to collect all of your media files in one place, giving you access to your video streams, music, podcasts, stored DVDs, and more. Kodi is completely legal, easy to use, and can be installed on a computer with minimal hardware. Most often, Kodi is used to build a simple home theater type of interface. Although the Fire TV Stick has very little processing resources, Kodi still runs well. I use Kodi on Windows 7, 10, and Linux machines at home. It took all of 6 minutes to set up. The Amazon Fire TV Stick retails for about $40, but then the resellers spend 10 minutes adding free software and then mark them up to $70 or more. 

Kodi users can use Add-Ons to expand the content of your media library. Many of these are free an legitimate, streaming content from providers like YouTube, 9Gag, and more. These 'jailbroken' Fire TV Sticks usually include other Add-Ons as well like Exodus and Phoenix. These Add-Ons give access to first run TV episodes, movies that are still in the theater, and thousands and thousands of older titles. These services use pirated content and are totally illegal violations of copyright law.

Back in my college days, I was a big fan of illegally pirated music. I downloaded a lot of pirated music. Then, I got involved with the budding college radio station. In order to play my content on the air, I had to be able to prove that I owned it legitimately. In order to rectify this, i began the long and very expensive journey of legitimizing my music collection, purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of .mp3 files. Around the same time, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was cracking down on illegal downloads. They filed more than 7,000 lawsuits and forced people to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for their pirated content.

Private Eyes Aren't Watching You

For those of you who insist on using Add-Ons like Exodus or Phoenix to stream content for free, please note that your stolen content can open you up to civil and in many cases criminal penalties. Of course, that isn't going to deter many of you. Please be aware that your internet browsing activities can be monitored easily by law enforcement and your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Your ISP may even send you a cease-and-desist letter. Some of these pirating services use torrent downloads to play television and downloading a high volume of torrent files is usually a violation of your ISP's Terms of Service. This might give them the ability to shut down your account entirely.

Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) Server allows you to browse the web anonymously. When using a VPN, the local network cannot monitor your traffic. I recommend using a VPN any time you are on public WiFi, for example. It protects the websites you visit and information you send them from prying eyes. At home, using a VPN can obscure your traffic, even from your ISP. As you are shopping for a VPN, look for one that doesn't store records of your activity. Unlimited bandwidth is another key feature, particularly if you plan to stream a lot of content. Please note that while I am not advocating illegal pirating of content, VPNs offer a layer of protection from nosy neighbors and nosy governments. If you aren't in the United States but want to stream US TV, a VPN can also be used to 'trick' services like Netflix that you are in a different part of the world and help you access geo-locked content. Read more about installing a VPN on your Fire TV Stick.

Final Thoughts

The 'Jailbroken' Fire TV Stick seems like a nifty device, but it can lead to some big legal trouble if not used safely. Never pay extra for a 'jailbroken' TV Stick since they can't be rooted, don't need to be anyway, and you can load the software at home on your own. When it comes to content, be very careful and picky about what you add. If you insist on pirating content (and even if you don't), consider using a VPN to help secure your online profile. Feel free to share your questions and experiences in the comments.

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