Apple launched the iPhone seven years ago. The first flagship Android phones hit the scene four and a half years ago. Hell, even Windows Phone has been around for over three years. But now Amazon is launching its first smartphone in mid-2014. Though we aren't yet ready to publish our full review, we have the Amazon Fire Phone in house and have some early thoughts.
Physically, the Fire Phone looks like the iPhone 4s and Nexus 4 spent a lonely evening together, downed a bottle of whiskey and – oops – made a baby. Like those two flagships of yesteryear, the Fire Phone has a glass back. Borrowing more from the Nexus 4, it also has a plastic band wrapping around its edge. But more like the iPhone, it has a physical home button below its screen. Amazon's first smartphone is partying like it's 2012.
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So how does Amazon try to differentiate its flagship smartphone when it's this late in the game? Well, the answer appears to be with gimmicks.
Dynamic Perspective is Amazon's name for a 3D-ish technology that simulates the experience of seeing objects on the screen from different angles when you tilt your face or the phone (it uses a series of front-facing cameras to track your gaze).
So far Dynamic Perspective is kinda neat, but also doesn't really add much to the experience of using a smartphone. Sure, it will open the door to some interesting new games (a clay sculpting game that's bundled with the phone, for example, shows this potential). But, so far, I'm wondering if Amazon, an innovative company, is trying a bit too hard to innovate in a product category where that well is running dry.
FireFly is another gimmicky feature, but it has more of a practical side to it as well (even if it's as much for Amazon's benefit as it is yours). When you long-press on the Fire Phone's dedicated camera button, you can hold the phone up to objects in your environment and it will try to identify them. It can scan things like physical products, songs, TV shows, movies, email addresses, web page URLs and QR codes.
FireFly appears to be building on the same technology from Amazon's Flow app, which can identify products on store shelves, so you can save a few bucks and convert your local brick & mortar store into an Amazon showroom. Only now it's expanded to include digital content as well.
So far, FireFly seems to be working fairly well, accurately identifying most products that I've scanned. The dedicated FireFly button can have you identifying a product within a few seconds of pulling out your phone. And of course anything you scan is just a tap or two away from being added to your Amazon shopping cart. It's great for Amazon's bottom line, but I can see this being handy for more than a few loyal customers as well.
The Fire Phone's UI is a lot like a shrunken-down version of the Kindle Fires' recent interface. That means lots of dark mesh backgrounds with white and gray text. There's also some gesture control, as you can tilt the phone in different directions to bring up various menus. Fire OS covers most of the standard smartphone bases (apart from any Google apps), but I also don't see anything about Fire OS so far that would make me recommend this software over iOS, Android or Windows Phone.
That ties into my overall first impressions of the Fire Phone. It's a solid enough handset, but I don't see enough compelling reasons to buy it over any of the current – more mature – flagships out there. Lately I've been using the LG G3, and it's a bit jarring to switch from it to the Fire Phone. The G3's display size and resolution, robust software and camera quality are all better.
Granted, I cover smartphones for a living and am always using one of the latest high-end flagships. I suspect the Fire Phone is aimed more at people who haven't upgraded their phones in three or four years. But even if you're one of those folks, it's hard to see me recommending the Fire Phone to you.
Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets have always been priced aggressively, helping to justify their limited software (which is basically a virtual Amazon shopping mall) by giving you hardware that would normally sell for much more than Amazon's asking price. But the Fire Phone rings up for about the same price as the iPhone 5s, Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8) and LG G3. I'll be spending more time with the Fire Phone to allow my opinion time to evolve, but right now I'd recommend every single one of those phones ahead of the Fire Phone. Without the slightest bit of hesitation.
The Fire Phone is available now from Amazon, for US$650 off-contract or $200 on-contract (exclusive to AT&T in the US) and includes a full year of Amazon Prime with every purchase. Stay tuned for Gizmag's full review.
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