Sometime after Amazon launched their first tablets, the rumors started circulating that they were readying a smartphone. However, it took nearly 3 years until something official was introduced. What took so long? Reports indicated that Amazon went back to the drawing board at least once, possibly more. Amazon knew this was a bold move and they wanted to “get it right.” They decided that the world needed something different, and it would take a little longer. By incorporating multiple camera lenses, the Fire Phone features a user interface with a Dynamic Perspective giving you a somewhat 3D experience. Yes it’s a gimmick, but the Amazon Fire Phone is more about selling Amazon products and services. Gimmicks aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Samsung has made a lot of money with gimmicks, so it’s possible Amazon could find that same success. However, this is no Android phone. Yes, it’s built using Android, but it feels like a completely different operating system. It doesn’t even have any of the same Google services that you will find on the majority of other Android (and Apple) phones. Buying the Fire Phone is like buying into something completely different, so it better offer something very compelling. Does the world need an Amazon phone?
One of the bright spots of the Fire Phone has to be the design. It’s not that I am in love with it, but it doesn’t feel chinsy. It sports what I am totally against, a back glass, but the rubberized edges provide a fantastic grip. In fact, this might be the most non-slippery phone I have ever held. Anyone who knows me, knows that I despise slipperiness on smartphones, and Amazon killed it in this category. Still, that glass back is an accident waiting to happen, not too mention it’s an absolute smudge magnet. If you’re someone who likes your phone looking pristine, be prepared to carry a cloth at all times.
The phone itself does look iPhone-like in that it’s rather small, but it also features an extra bezel at the top and bottom. Those extra bezels house additional camera lenses for the Dynamic Perspective (more on that later). You get one lens at each corner of the phone. It does look a little odd, but you get past it after a day or so. Amazon also took cues from Samsung by utilizing a hard oval-like home button at the bottom of the front of the phone. There are no other navigating buttons either on the device or on screen.
The only real negative about the design is the glass back, but I know a lot of people won’t mind it. That is simply a taste preference. If everything else was great about the phone, I would gladly deal with the smudges and that accident waiting to happen. If glass is your thing, you will like the Fire Phone.
The Fire Phone features a 4.7-inch 720p (1280 x 720) LCD display with Gorilla Glass 3 (312 ppi), a 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, an Adreno 330 GPU, 2 GB of RAM, 32 GB or 64 GB of internal storage, 13 MP rear camera, 2.1 MP front-facing camera, Nano-SIM, and 2,400 mAh battery.
Radios: AT&T compatible – GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900, HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100, LTE 700/800/850/900/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600
The Fire Phone sports the Snapdragon 800, which is more than enough power, but I did find the OS to be sluggish at times. The display is only 720p, but I think it’s more than adequate for the average user. I am not a display connoisseur. I know some of you can see every single pixel, but to me, this display gets the job done. Colors are bright and viewing angles are great. The Fire Phone does offer dual stereo speakers, but I found the sound to be average. I am surprised they skimped in this department considering that Amazon Instant Prime is a big selling feature of the phone.
I ran my usual battery test in which I run continuous video while the phone is connected to LTE and WiFi and Bluetooth are turned on but not connected. I also leave GPS on and set the display at about 2/3’s brightness. I was able to get a little over 9 hours out of it, which isn’t bad. However the Fire Phone is a little different in that this indicator doesn’t tell us so much. The Dynamic Perspective appears to drain the battery, but it doesn’t affect the video loop test since it’s not running at that time. If Dynamic Perspective is turned off, you will have no problem going from morning until bedtime, but if it’s turned on, you will most likely need to charge up at some point during the day.
Now we get to the nitty gritty of the phone….the software. The Fire Phone utilizes Fire OS version 3.5, which is proprietary to Amazon. It’s a complete fork of Android, so don’t be mistaken that it’s similar to other skins that Samsung, LG, HTC, and other manufacturers place on top of Android with their phones. This is completely re-written and it doesn’t offer any Google services. This means no Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Drive, Docs, Chrome, or even the Play Store. Although based on Android, it’s more like Amazon created their own software from scratch. In a world where we have Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, Microsoft’s Windows 8, and Blackberry’s QNX, Fire OS feels more like a 5th mobile OS rather than something that is an Android offshoot.
Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression in that you won’t be able to get your Gmail or see your Google Calendar. Amazon will import that info into their own Email and Calendar apps. It’s however, not the same experience whatsoever. You will also get Amazon’s own curated Appstore, which houses roughly 200,000 apps as compared to Google’s over 1 million in the Play Store. Still, most of the good quality and popular apps will be found in Amazon’s store, so if you’re a casual user, you probably won’t have an issue. Probably the biggest negative is that apps don’t get updated nearly as much as they do on the Google Play Store.
Getting around this phone is simply not easy. You will find a carousel at the top which is your main source of navigating. You will find your recent apps there as well as Amazon services like the Appstore, Newsstand, Music Store, and so on. You will also find a slew of recommendations below each of these main icons. It seems simple enough, but you will find yourself constantly swiping to get to what you want.
Unlike Android, there are no separate home screens, but you can swipe from the right edge of the screen to the left (or tilt the phone to the left) to see status info like what the weather is, recent emails, calendar events, and/or the status of your Amazon orders. If you instead, swipe from the left edge of the screen to the right (or tilt the phone to the right), you will get options for Apps, Games, Web, Music, Videos, etc. There is no status bar (at least always on), but if you swipe down from the top, you will see your battery status, time, cell reception, and WiFi reception. You will also find icons for the main settings, search, MayDay, as well as quick toggles for airplane mode, WiFi, Bluetooth, and a built-in flashlight.
You will also find an app tray at the bottom of the main home screen. It can consist of any four apps that your choose or you can even create folders of multiple apps within it. It’s really the only thing that you can customize on the device. From the main screen, you can also swipe up from the app tray to find your app drawer (the closest thing to Android) to see all your apps. They break that up into “Cloud” and “Device.” The Cloud would include apps that you have downloaded in the past, but aren’t installed on the device. There is one physical home button on the device, but you won’t find a back button or recent button. To go back, you must swipe up from the bottom edge.
A lot of the user interface is unintuitive, but I have to give credit to Amazon for creating a decent tutorial for when you turn on the device for the first time. It walks you through just about everything so that you can feel comfortable with the Fire OS. If they hadn’t included that video, I would have been lost for a while.
On top of all this, Amazon has has a few gimmicks in store for you. The first is Dynamic Perspective. By including four extra front-facing cameras and four infrared LEDs, things can appear 3D-like. When on the main screen, the large icons in the carousel appear to have depth as you tilt the phone. You can also experience this in Amazon Maps when zooming in on detailed landmarks, they look multi-dimensional. Staying in Amazon Maps, there is also the peek feature, which is activated by tilting the phone. You will then see ratings, reviews, and photos from Yelp. The peek feature also works in Amazon Shopping as it will show you multiple enlarged images of products. Probably the most interesting use of Dynamic Perspective will be with games. Developers can create games with Dynamic Perspective giving you a chance to play in a 3D-like world. With certain games, you will even be able to move your head to look around. Dynamic Perspective is something that appears kind of cool at first, but then you realize it’s completely a gimmick that offers zero substance. If anything, it’s more annoying than anything pleasing to the eye. Hardcore gamers might like the option, but developer support would have to really take off for me to recommend this phone as a gaming device.
Another addition is Firefly, which is Amazon’s take on Google Goggles. You will find an extra button on the left side of the phone just below the volume rocker. If you press and hold it, the camera will start and you will see a bunch of little fireflies on the screen. Just hold the phone over a book, DVD, CD, or grocery item, and it will immediately figure out what it is and give you more info along with the opportunity to buy it on Amazon. You can even use it for business cards to add people to your contacts. It’s actually a very cool and powerful product, and is nice to have, but I don’t feel like I need to buy this phone for the feature.
X-Ray, which showed up on the Fire tablets last year, gives you more information about the movies you’re watching, music you’re listening to, and/or the books you’re reading. A single tap on the screen will provide the actor’s names or even the lyrics to a song. This will only work when using Amazon’s services, not other third party apps. It works very well.
Then there is Mayday, which also debuted on last year’s Fire tablets. Mayday will give you 24-hour live video support for anything you need help with. The operator can take over your device to show you how to do whatever it is that you want to do. If you find that you need Mayday, the operators are pretty helpful, and you shouldn’t need to wait longer than 15 seconds to get one.
An Amazon device isn’t an Amazon device unless it has Amazon services so you will find everything on the device. You will obviously have the Appstore as well as their main store for merchandise, but you will also find Instant Prime, Kindle Books, Cloud Storage and so on.
Amazon offers a 13 MP rear camera that surprisingly was a lot better than I was expecting. The interface is simple and easy to understand. Amazon included an onscreen shutter button, but you also use the Firefly button as well. The only problem with it is that when holding the phone properly to capture photos, the Firefly button is at the bottom. You can certainly rotate the phone, but it would move the onscreen shutter button to the left.
As to how the Fire Phone does at capturing pictures, this has to be one of the other highlights of the phone. I was surprised at how well it did in low light situations, and I can’t remember a phone performing better. Here are some example photos.
Extreme Low Light
Amazon if offering you the Fire Phone so that they can attract you to their services. They want to suck you into their ecosystem similar to what Apple does with iOS. Now I don’t mean to sound negative. In fact, I am an Amazon fan. I carry around an Amazon Visa card and I buy a lot of stuff from them. I am also a Prime member. With that said, I can enjoy the majority of Amazon’s offerings without this phone. That’s not the case with Apple’s iOS. If I like any of Apple’s services, I either need to buy an iPhone or iPad to enjoy them. So why get the Fire Phone? There appears to be only one reason to buy the Fire Phone, and it’s not because you love Amazon or that you need Dynamic Perspective. It would be because of Amazon Instant Prime, something that Amazon refuses to offer on other Android devices. However, it’s available on iOS devices so I often wonder what their strategy is.
Amazon is looking to expand their ecosystem, but they are doing it the wrong way. Why spend millions on R&D to create hardware? Why not offer all of their services to all Android users? Every service is available except for Instant Prime, and I am sorry, it’s not a good enough reason for me to go out an buy this convoluted mess of a phone.
The Fire Phone appears to be built on ego. Amazon is a retailer, but for some reason they feel they need to offer you hardware. They are playing the “me too” game, which is senseless. They already have an ecosystem with a ton of customers. Instead of spending money building a phone, spend it on marketing the services. I like shopping at Walmart and Target, but do they need to offer a smartphone too? The Fire Phone should not exist. It offers nothing to you whatsoever.
Many reviewers just see the Fire Phone as overpriced indicating they would recommend it if it were appropriately priced. There’s no question that based on the specs, the Fire Phone is overpriced. However, let me be clear. If the Fire Phone was priced at $250 off contract, I still wouldn’t recommend it. I would rather see you buy a Moto G or Moto E before wasting your money on it. You would still get all Google services and all Amazon services except for Instant Prime. And seriously, who needs Instant Prime on a phone anyway unless you’re going to fling it to your TV? If it’s so important to you, then buy the Amazon TV for $99 and forget the flinging. Let’s just hope that Amazon isn’t planning a Fire Phone 2, but something tells me their ego will get in the way yet again.