The Amazon Fire phone is one of those products that was probably inevitable. I say that not only because Amazon has been in the hardware business for quite a while with its Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets, but also because it just makes sense to give people who like the company’s products and services as direct a pipeline to all that stuff as possible.
And after spending a few weeks with it, that’s exactly how the Amazon Fire phone makes you feel. It appeals more to Amazon enthusiasts than smartphone connoisseurs, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s bound to disappoint anyone looking for something that stands out from the crowd or is revolutionary in some way.
At first glance, the Amazon Fire looks a lot like most other current smartphones. It’s a long, black rectangle with a single button below its 4.7″ screen, front and rear-facing cameras, a couple of buttons on the left side and one on top. Get closer and you’ll see the four sensors on the front corners (which we’ll come back to in a second), and the big Amazon logo on the back is hard to miss.
The phone does feel good in your hand; it’s solid but not too heavy, and it’s got a rubberized grip that runs the whole way around. Both the front and back surfaces are made from Corning Gorilla Glass 3, and even the buttons have a nice texture to them.
One of the left-side buttons is dedicated to the camera system, which is easy to use, and while not top-of-class, certainly will represent a step up for people upgrading from older smartphones. The rear camera is 13 MP and has an LED flash, and the front camera is 2.1 MP. Both can shoot and record video in 1080p.
In terms of highlights, call quality stands out as a definite plus. The same can’t be said for battery life, as the phone runs ou of juice quickly when you’re using it to surf the web, play games or pretty much anything except using it to make calls. A recent software update is supposed to help in this area, so we’ll see. Appropriately, the Amazon Fire also seems to get hot quickly during heavy use.
The Amazon Fire has a couple of nifty feature built in that are intended to be its calling cards:
- Dynamic Perspective
Remember those four sensors I told you about? They’re actually low-powered cameras combined with infrared sensors, essentially allowing the phone to detect the presence and motion of objects in front of it — usually faces, obviously. This system powers the Dynamic Perspective feature which gives menus, icons, the lock screen, and most importantly, some new mobile games, a pseudo-3D effect. You can see it in action by turning your head or by moving the phone around in front of you, though it’s the former method that seems to give the designers the most pride.
Some reviewers have reported problems with motion sickness, and it’s possible to turn Dynamic Perspective off if necessary. It’s certainy a cool gimmick, though even in the games that use it, not one that will shake up the mobile industry. It could be one of those technologies that just needs time and ambitious developers to get the most out of it.
I’ve made jokes about the Joss Whedon show elsewhere, so I’ll leave it alone this time. This Firefly is activated by holding down the camera button, and it works with both the imaging system and the phone’s microphone to identify things around you. The audio part works almost flawlessly, as I was able to identify nearly every song on the radio, eliminating the need for apps like Shazam. The batting average for the camera was a little lower, but it’s still impressive when it works, and simple to use.
The main gripe about Firefly is that it sends back links to much of what it identifies so people can buy those items on Amazon. I don’t see that as a negative, given that the target demographic for the Amazon Fire is … well, heavy Amazon users. Of course they’re going to want to simplify the shopping process, and since the phone comes with a year of free Amazon Prime (for now, anyway), they can even get those things shipped for free.
Borrowed from the Fire tablets, this free service summons an Amazon Tech Advisor to walk you through any feature with which you might need help. It’s available around the clock and works over wi-fi, 3G or 4G connections. Perpetuating the stereotype about guys who hate asking for help, I didn’t test out Mayday myself — partially because nothing on the phone stumped me enough to need it.
INTERFACE AND APPS
Here’s where people who don’t already worship at the altar of Amazon are going to have the most to think about. One of the main reasons that people prefer Android to iOS is the freedom it grants, as Apple’s ecosystem is much more of a walled garden than the one Google has constructed.
With the Amazon Fire, you’re giving up that freedom and going with what Amazon. It means Amazon Maps, for instance, is the default way of giving you directions. It means the built-in email client (which actually isn’t that bad) is how you get your messages, and that you’re going to be watching your streaming video mostly through Amazon Prime, which makes sense since you get a free year of it anyway.
Mostly, though, it means your app selection is going to be much smaller than what Android users are accustomed to through Google Play. Among big ones, there’s Netflix, Instagram and Vine, but you can easily make a list of others that you can’t use — prominent apps like YouTube and Google Hangouts among them. Gamers will find less to pick from here than maybe any other OS besides Windows Phone, though developers are slowly starting to give the Amazon Appstore more consideration during launches.
As for the actual navigation experience of the Fire OS, the phone has a main carousel screen that includes your message inboxes, recent Firefly finds, shortcuts to recently used apps and a direct route to shopping, naturally. Much of it is designed to allow people to use it with one hand, and it succeeds on that front.
It’s hard not to feel like the Amazon Fire phone has just a tiny bit of an identity crisis. It’s fairly expensive and tied to AT&T, making it appear like it’s a premium product, and features like Dynamic Perspective and the free year of Prime seem like they’re supposed to incentivize people who wouldn’t normally go gaga for an Amazon product to bite on this one.
Yet in many other respects, it’s too restrictive and nondescript to really lure people who are really into their phones. To find a permanent niche for it, Amazon is probably going to have to decide if it’s content giving its existing customers a more convenient portal to what they already love or go back to the drawing board and come up with even more compelling ways to lure new converts.
Pull the trigger on the Amazon Fire phone if …
- You’ve been longing for an even faster way to shop Amazon
- You aren’t a power smartphone user and just want a solid all-around AT&T option
- None of your friends or family members will share their Prime subscriptions with you
Don’t pull the trigger if …
- You’re an avid mobile gamer
- You want the full Android experience
- The thought of helping Amazon achieve world domination will eat at you
(Disclosure: App Trigger was provided with a review unit for the purposes of this review. The phone was returned at the end of the review period.)