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Fire Phone REVIEW: Plenty of Flash, Little Substance

by Brandon Russell | August 6, 2014August 6, 2014 3:15 pm PDT

I was out to dinner with a friend when a message on my phone came through. Movie at 9—meet in lobby. I responded that we were just finishing up. See you soon.

I sent a text to another friend, and then jumped out to the home screen, which is organized with your most recent apps. Here you’ll scroll from left to right through a familiar carousal, which provides relevant information for each app, such as your most visited sites, recommended apps, recently used settings and more. You can also swipe from the bottom up to reveal an app drawer.

For the most part, it’s an OK layout, but even as a self-professed Kindle Fire HDX fan, it still takes some getting used to.

I stared at the home screen for a beat longer than usual, sitting over a half-eaten brownie, a little disoriented because I forgot for a moment what I was doing.

The time. I wanted to check the time.

Only the time isn’t something the Fire Phone cares about. When on the home screen, it’s nowhere to be found—that top status bar, which exists to provide at-a-glance information, is hidden. Only when you tilt the phone slightly does it appear, and even then it flickers like a fluctuating light bulb. In apps, like messaging, you can only get the status bar to appear by swiping the notification tray down.

It’s maddening, frustrating, annoying. This basically sums up my experience with the Fire Phone.

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Goodies

Here’s why Amazon thinks you’re interested: a purchase of the Fire Phone means you get a handful of perks—one free year of Amazon Prime membership for your Amazon account (limited-time offer), Mayday customer video support, free cloud storage, and a feature called Firefly, which is capable of pinpointing the objects that surround you in its store. These are all features no other phone offers (aside from the cloud storage bit); based on the Fire Phone’s heftier price ($200 on-contract), these are included to ease the initial shock of a higher asking price. You don’t get tomorrow’s specs, though you do get some really terrific services thrown in. That has to count for something, right?

Amazon Prime is prime. We already know it’s one of the best Amazon account services around, so getting it for free should speak for itself. In fact, getting the Amazon Prime membership gratis is made even better due to the recent Amazon Prime Membership price hike; though, we’d argue, an Amazon Prime membership is still very much worth the higher cost—you get Prime Instant Video, Prime Music, Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and free two-day shipping on millions of items. It’s hard to beat that if you frequently order stuff through the company’s online storefront, and that’s one reason why an Amazon Prime membership is so attractive to millions of people. But do we need it on a smartphone?

Mayday, as we saw with the new Kindle Fire, is designed to ensure your mom and dad don’t bombard you with questions while you’re at work. We saw with the new Kindle Fire that the feature works surprisingly well. With just the press of a button, an Amazon account rep will appear on your screen in a matter of seconds—Amazon promises 15 seconds or less— and no appointment is required. And through a partnership with AT&T, you can actually use the feature over a mobile network, which is something you couldn’t do on Amazon’s most recent tablet.

If you’ve never seen the benefits of Mayday in person, it’s one of those features that’s priceless to folks who aren’t well-versed in complicated technology. The great thing is that Amazon reps can actually take over your screen and show you step-by-step how to find a feature or perform a specific action. It’s pretty remarkable—these reps can also draw on your display, pointing out menus and settings that you didn’t otherwise realize were there. Mayday is unlike anything else in the mobile market, and it translates perfectly down into your pocket.

Amazon fire Phone-18

Amazon fire Phone-17

Amazon fire Phone-17

Firefly is perhaps the Fire Phone’s standout feature—at least from a marketing perspective. In our testing, we found it’s actually not all that it’s cracked up to be, though we’re looking forward to Amazon introducing software improvements down the road. It’s more than capable of recognizing text on business cards and visiting websites without having to type the actual address in; it’s also great at identifying the song you’re listening to, as well as picking out TV shows and movies.

But it’s not so great at recognizing physical objects. We demonstrated Firefly in a recent video, and you can plainly see the software get products wrong, or otherwise fails to bring up a product at all. I even tried to Firefly the Fire TV, and nothing is brought up. For other things, like Mario Kart 8, Firefly works just fine and prompts you to buy the goods from your Amazon account, but the feature needs a lot of extra care and attention before it works the way Amazon envisions.

Design

The Fire Phone’s design can best be described as unremarkable. It features glass on the front and back, chamfered edges, and a soft touch plastic housing that surrounds the sides, top, and bottom. There’s also an oval-shaped home button up front that’s slightly raised, an Amazon logo emblazoned on back, power button, volume rocker, and a dedicated camera button that is also used to quickly execute Firefly.

It’s basically a boring black rectangle that looks like a cross between the iPhone 4 and Nexus 4. Like those phones, it manages to simultaneously feel rugged and fragile. Compared to other flagships, it has a noticeable heft; whereas the Galaxy S5 is 145g, the Fire Phone is a portly 160g. Not an astronomical difference, but it’s definitely something you notice the first time you pick it up. The Fire Phone is also 8.9mm thick, while the S5, which has a larger battery, is an even 8mm. So it’s a bit heavy and thick, though by no means unmanageable.

For how dull the design is, it’s not to scoff at. The rubberized sides and rounded corners mean it has great ergonomics, and it feels substantial. Amazon has shown great design evolution with its e-readers and tablets; the Fire Phone is very much a first-generation effort. It looks like the company spent all of one day in research and development deciding over a form factor before moving onto more important matters, such as the Dynamic Display.

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Amazon fire Phone-23

That brings us to the Fire Phone’s four front-facing cameras (five if you count the traditional camera everyone uses to snap selfies). These sensors are essentially what make the Dynamic Perspective feature possible (more on that later). Other internal specs include a 2400mAh battery, 4.7-inch 720p display, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage, dual stereo speakers, 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, which Amazon says is a cut above the competition.

The screen is pretty decent—I wouldn’t call myself a screen snob, so 720p looks just fine to my eyes. Text is sharp, movies and YouTube are bright and vibrant, and other content looks A-OK. Viewing angles, meanwhile, are good; it’s difficult to see under super bright sunlight, as most phones are. On the bottom Amazon has included dual stereo speakers, though I was rather disappointed by their performance. I can recall trying to watch the newest trailer for The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies and hardly being able to make out the audio. Granted, I had the TV on, but I would still expect to hear whatever content it is I’m pumping out of my device, Fire Phone or otherwise.

Basically, the Fire Phone’s design isn’t awful, and it’s not particularly noteworthy. I do wish the power button was on the side where my thumb would rest—that would make life easier. The rear glass is a fingerprint magnet. I would have preferred the entire thing be made with the rubberized material that surrounds the outer edges. The two-sides glass design has been widely adopted in the mobile industry, and there’s a very obvious reason for that.

Light My Fire OS

It’s really hard to appreciate Fire OS on a phone. Frankly, it’s something only a mother (Amazon) can love. Amazon’s software, to an extent, is successful on a tablet because it’s a fleeting experience—you only deal with it in spurts. Let’s face it: your sole purpose of using a tablet is to consume content available through your Amazon account (movies, books, apps, etc.). On a phone, Fire OS—Amazon’s heavily customized vision of Android that also runs on the new Kindle Fire—is complicated and downright frustrating.

I’m reminded of the Fire Phone’s inability to simply show me the time. The lock screen provides the time no problem; it’s right there big and bold in the animated wall papers that are stock in Fire OS. But as soon as you unlock your phone, the status bar at the top only shows up when you tilt the device to the left or right. But using this method only works sometimes. And let’s say you have Dynamic Perspective turned off: there’s no way to see any status bar information (time, remaining battery, connection strength, etc.) unless you swipe the notification tray down.

You can actually toggle a setting to have the status bar show at all times, but it’s such an odd decision to have it hidden by default. It took me a few days to realize I even had an option to show the status bar full-time, and I’m sure many other users will run into a similar issue.

There are many other situations just like this. Let me count thee ways: when you’re in an app, Fire OS is designed to show you layers of options and settings only when you want them, and the only way to see these layers is to swipe in from the left or right (sometimes both); you can also use gestures to bring these menus up. It seems like a nice way to keep the experience clutter-free, but it winds up making things more confusing.

When you’re in the Silk Browser, for example, two panes exist off-screen: one that can be swiped in from the left, and one that can be swiped in from the right. That description makes it sound easy enough, but there’s no indication these layers are even there. It’s terribly inconsistent across the OS, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to Amazon’s madness. There’s never an indication these panes exist; the best way to find them is to see if they’re there in an app-by-app basis.

Another frustrating quirk I found is when you’re in an app and your screen turns off, unlocking your device won’t open straight into the app you last had open; it’ll drop you straight to the home screen. That’s not the hugest deal, but it would be better if it would just resume the app you were in before your device went to sleep.

That said, there’s some familiarity in Fire OS. Double-pressing the home button will bring up a Quick Switch menu, and when you hold the home button down, Fire OS’s voice assistant will pop up. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that like the rest of Fire OS, a lot of work needs to be done before Amazon’s voice technology joins the ranks of Siri, Google Now and even Cortana.

One final thought on Fire OS: the lack of access to Google’s suite of apps can be a deal breaker for a lot of buyers. On a tablet, Amazon can get away with it because you’re not really buying the new Kindle Fire to be a productivity machine. But on a phone—devices that are increasingly important for work and play—it’s a hard obstacle to overcome. Sure, the Fire Phone has its own pre-installed solutions, along with other commendable third-party options. But the lack of Google’s app suite leaves a gaping hole, and no amount of features and services can fill it.

That said, the Fire Phone isn’t unusable without Google’s support, but it’s a pretty significant. There are other major instances where support isn’t there, too: there’s no access to Snapchat, Hulu Plus, Path and more. Amazon’s app store has reached parity with most of the big-time apps, though there are still some clear instances where it’s clear the company still has a lot of catching up to do. It may work on the new Kindle Fire, but it doesn’t work here.

Camera

Amazon put a lot of stock in the Fire Phone’s 13-megapixel camera, which comes with a fast five-element wide aperture f/2.0 lens and OIS. Compared to other devices on the market, I wouldn’t say the Fire Phone is any better than what’s already out there; it’s also not worse. In low-light conditions, it can keep up with other devices out there, maybe even performing slightly better thanks to the wider aperture. I wouldn’t say it’s the best camera we’ve ever seen, though.

While the camera is adequate, don’t expect a very feature-rich experience from a software perspective. You can turn on HDR, Lenticular and Panorama modes, turn your flash off and on, and that’s about it. When you shoot video, you won’t be able to get slow-mo, and you won’t get nearly the amount of features you get with a Galaxy S5 or LG G3. Amazon seems to be leaving that up to third-party apps, but we still would have liked a little bit more to beef the experience up.

You do, however, get a burst capture, free unlimited (and automatic) cloud backup, and a dedicated camera button, so you can fire the app up right away to snap a picture. Auto focus seems to be pretty solid, while pictures are snapped at an OK pace. It doesn’t quite match something like the M8, but it’s still fairly quick and precise.

Amazon fire Phone-12

Dynamic Perspective

Before the Fire Phone was even announced, this was the feature that got people excited. This wasn’t just going to be an ordinary phone—it was going to be a device that came equipped with a feature that made it stand out from the competition. It generated a lot of hype, and early Fire Phone testers seemed to love it. Unfortunately, it’s not as great as it sounds.

Instead of some crazy futuristic technology, the Fire Phone merely gives the impression of 3D. By using the four new front-facing cameras—one on the top left, top right, bottom left and bottom right—the Fire Phone is capable of tracking a user’s head at all times, adjusting the UI to create the 3D-like effect. If you’ve used the vomit-inducing parallax feature in iOS 7, it’s like that, but amplified.

The trick is best demonstrated with Amazon’s own collection of stock wallpapers, some of which are animated. When you move your head or tilt the display, the content on the Fire Phone will change dynamically. The technology works well, and it’s really cool the first time you see it.

But, overall, Dynamic Perspective is pretty useless. It doesn’t benefit the user in any way, and it becomes more of an annoyance than anything after prolonged use. I turned it off pretty early on into my time with the Fire Phone and didn’t miss it one bit. Sure, it’s fun to show to friends—it always gets a, “That’s neat,” gut reaction. But if right now it’s only a temporary amusement, I’m perfectly fine living without it.

One of the more annoying aspects of Dynamic Perspective is how the technology is used to execute menus and other information throughout Fire OS. As discussed, when you’re in certain apps, you can flick the phone to bring up different menus, but it’s easier to just swipe them in with your finger. Same goes for the status bar, which is hidden by default and can only be shown when you tilt the phone awkwardly to the side.

Amazon really did its best to tie Dynamic Perspective in with the software, especially for those who prefer one-handed use, but it’s mostly just chaotic and unintuitive. Considering the amount of research and development Amazon put into the technology, I expected to be wowed. Right now all it warrants is a dismissive shrug of the shoulders.

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Amazon fire Phone-11

WAIT/DON’T BUY

The Fire Phone is filled with plenty of neat ideas, but it ultimately falls well short of other competing devices on the market.

As it stands, the Fire Phone seems more like a demonstration than a finished product. Amazon’s Dynamic Perspective feature is neat, but it serves little purpose. The design is plain, the software needs work and the lack of Google apps is a big deal.

What you’re really buying the device for is the perks (Mayday, Firefly, Prime, etc.), and Amazon’s unmatched ecosystem of music, movies, TV and stuff. Features like Firefly exists for the sole purpose of making sure you buy through Amazon, and not at a store down the street. Fire OS, meanwhile, always ensure it recommends a new book or app to try, littering your home screen with suggestions.

There are so, so many great phones out there right now; some old and some new: Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8), LG G3, iPhone 5s, Nexus 5, and the wild card: the OnePlus One. All of those devices offer bigger ecosystems, better hardware, better software—some are much cheaper, too. Most of these devices are also available on multiple carriers (the Fire Phone is only available on AT&T).

You do get the added benefit of some Fire Phone-specific features, but they’re not really enough to warrant a buy over more established mobile players. Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets were able to disrupt the balance because they were dirt cheap while offering easy access to the company’s giant catalog of media. That content ecosystem plays less of a role on a smartphone, while the lack of some important apps becomes more inescapable.

Maybe in the future, after more work, Amazon will figure out a way to make Dynamic Perspective less of a gimmick and more of a must-have feature. And with software updates, Fire OS certainly has the potential to be something much greater than what it is now. But, as it stands, the Fire Phone is simply filled with great ideas without the proper execution.

Brandon used the Amazon Fire Phone for six days before writing his review. Jon used the device as his daily driver before recording his portion.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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