I love Amazon. So very much. I’ve been a Prime member for years, generally enjoy its tablets and have nothing but praise for its customer service and shopping experience.
But ask me about its first smartphone, the Amazon Fire Phone, and my tune changes: It’s just not a good phone, though it’s a valiant first try that does just enough a smartphone should do to get by.
And even saying that is a stretch. I mean, yeah, the Fire Phone works like any phone should: It makes calls just fine, it’s easy and comfortable to use for texting and Web browsing, but it’s 2014, and customers demand more from their devices.
In a way, the Fire Phone confuses the heck out of me. If you’re used to using a Kindle Fire, then the Fire Phone will feel familiar. The problem is that Amazon cut out the best parts about the Kindle Fire, left in all the junk and has the guts to price it at $650 off-contract at AT&T ($199 on).
The Fire Phone, like its tablet brethren, is using a severely limited version of Android called Fire OS. Unlike Amazon tablets, the Fire Phone has added gimmicks to make the device more enticing, yet it does little to make the user experience more enjoyable, productive or meaningful.
Amazon put all its eggs in the software basket with the Fire Phone, with apps like Firefly. Firefly scans items and then finds those items on Amazon for purchase. It also can listen to songs and audio from movies and identify the artists and movie being played.
Firefly is a fun app to play around with, but it’s inconsistent and takes too long to use for it to be beneficial.
For instance, a coworker of mine uses AmazonBasics cables for his tablet and phone. His attempt to have Firefly identify the cable went nowhere, because the app didn’t recognize the Amazon logo or the shape of the cable.
The same thing happened when I tried using Firefly to find the Amazon Fire Phone by scanning the box the phone came in.
And nada. Like it had some sort of sad existential crisis. And that’s not good for a device that wants to encourage shoppers.
I saw the same kind of inconsistency when I tried to have Firefly recognize music and movies — like a stubborn child, it only responded when it wanted to.
But Firefly isn’t a necessary app. Reason is, the Amazon app has a bar code scanner for items you might want to scan in a store, then there’s Shazam for music identification, and IntoNow that identifies movies and television shows. And all of these work every single time.
Then you have Dynamic Perspective, which is Amazon’s pride and joy of the Fire Phone. It uses four (yes, four) front-facing cameras to track the user’s face so the image on the screen can be altered based on how the phone and user’s face is moving.
But what does that do for anyone? Besides being cool to look at and play around with, it’s completely useless in a practical sense, and is a battery killer (I had an average life of eight hours). I can only hope that, very soon, Amazon will find a much better use for the technology.
It’s worth noting that the front-facing cameras won’t get much use outside of selfies and Dynamic Perspective. Its 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, however, is one of the few good things about the device, and even then it’s still ho-hum when compared to the phone-based cameras that have come out in the last two years.
The camera lacks even the most common features (it has a panorama option and that’s it), and the photos it does take are mediocre at best. Amazon does sweeten the deal by giving free unlimited cloud storage for all Fire Phone photos, and gives one year free of its Prime service (a $99 value). But that won’t be nearly enough to entice customers to drop their devices in favor of the Fire Phone.
The biggest concern I have about the Fire Phone is that it gets hot quickly (about 10 minutes) if you’re using Firefly or playing around with Dynamic Perspective. Not so hot that you can’t use it, but it’s hot enough to make you question if you should put the phone down to let it cool off.
What about the OS?
Surely, though, Fire OS 3.5 gives us something good, right?
I found the Fire Phone’s interface to be almost unbearable. It’s one thing to experience the carousel interface on a tablet, and another entirely on a smartphone. It takes up an obscene amount of space, and tasks that should be executed on the fly take too long to accomplish.
There is the traditional app drawer style of navigation, but calling it up requires an awkward flick of the wrist and, like Firefly, it is inconsistent. It’s a neat idea in theory, but the gesture execution is unwieldy and frustrating. Alternatively, hitting the device’s home button brings up an app drawer, so thank goodness for that otherwise I’d have thrown the Fire Phone against the wall and called it good.
One thing I missed most while using the Fire Phone OS was the plethora of Google apps found on other Android devices. I can live with that kind of omission on a tablet (used for recreation, fun), but it’s criminal to not include them on a smartphone (used for business). And as someone who is used to Gmail’s amazing customization options, I felt a tad overwhelmed using Fire OS’s email client. Instead of having emails separated by sender, type and so on, every email was lumped together.
Which meant I could no longer filter Facebook notifications, emails from work and newsletters. I finally became fed up with it and stopped using the mail app altogether.
Even sadder is Fire OS’s version of Google Now and Siri. The poor thing never worked properly for me when I asked it to launch apps, or when I asked for directions. It did work when I asked it to make a call or search the Web, but there definitely is room for immense improvement.
Of course, being new to the smartphone world, Fire OS lacks support for common apps like Snapchat, and jumping from Android to Amazon means you’ll have to repurchase all of your apps (if they’re available) from Amazon. I do expect app support to strengthen in the coming months, however.
The Fire Phone is powered by a 2.2 GHz Snapdragon 800 quadcore processor, 2GB of RAM, and has up to 64GB of internal storage.
A 4.7-inch, 720p display and 2400 mAh battery rounds things out. All of that housed in a device bland on design and short on “wow” factor.
I do applaud Amazon for its first venture into smartphone territory. The Fire Phone is full of neat ideas, but the clunky interface, gimmicky selling points, limited battery life and lacking performance doesn’t make it a smartphone you want to own.
Skip it entirely. You can do much better.