Mobile Technology

Review: Amazon Fire Phone

Gizmag reviews Amazon's first smartphone, the Fire Phone
Gizmag reviews Amazon's first smartphone, the Fire Phone
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The Fire Phone has a glass back ... much like several popular phones from 2010-12
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The Fire Phone has a glass back ... much like several popular phones from 2010-12
Gizmag reviews Amazon's first smartphone, the Fire Phone
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Gizmag reviews Amazon's first smartphone, the Fire Phone
The Fire Phone has a 4.7-in screen with 720p resolution
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The Fire Phone has a 4.7-in screen with 720p resolution
Virtual pet monkey games are as good a use of Dynamic Perspective as anything
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Virtual pet monkey games are as good a use of Dynamic Perspective as anything
Firefly is basically Amazon's old Flow app (available for iOS and Android), which lets you identify objects in your environment
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Firefly is basically Amazon's old Flow app (available for iOS and Android), which lets you identify objects in your environment
Firefly correctly identified the cheesy Travolta flick Broken Arrow, but gave me the IMDB info for a 50s TV series of the same name
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Firefly correctly identified the cheesy Travolta flick Broken Arrow, but gave me the IMDB info for a 50s TV series of the same name
Back of the Fire Phone
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Back of the Fire Phone
The Fire Phone is 8.9 mm (0.35-in) thick
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The Fire Phone is 8.9 mm (0.35-in) thick
The Fire Phone, sitting next to another glass-backed phone with a 4.7-in screen, the Nexus 4
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The Fire Phone, sitting next to another glass-backed phone with a 4.7-in screen, the Nexus 4
Amazon's rotating carousel of recent apps, familiar to anyone who's used a Kindle Fire, is now on a phone
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Amazon's rotating carousel of recent apps, familiar to anyone who's used a Kindle Fire, is now on a phone
Amazon's Appstore has built up a solid selection of apps during the last three years, but it isn't in the same league as the App Store or Google Play
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Amazon's Appstore has built up a solid selection of apps during the last three years, but it isn't in the same league as the App Store or Google Play
The Fire Phone has five front-facing cameras, all devoted to the gimmicky Dynamic Perspective feature
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The Fire Phone has five front-facing cameras, all devoted to the gimmicky Dynamic Perspective feature
At least you can read Gizmag on it, via Amazon's Silk web browser
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At least you can read Gizmag on it, via Amazon's Silk web browser
Dynamic Perspective uses face-tracking technology to create an illusion of depth
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Dynamic Perspective uses face-tracking technology to create an illusion of depth
Another look at the Fire Phone's home screen
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Another look at the Fire Phone's home screen
Tilt the left side of your phone forward, and a menu will pop up on the left ... is this Amazon's idea of innovation?
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Tilt the left side of your phone forward, and a menu will pop up on the left ... is this Amazon's idea of innovation?

Amazon is an innovative company. It practically created online shopping, popularized e-books and made the first mainstream budget tablet. Can the company now work its mojo on smartphones? Let's find out, as Gizmag reviews the Amazon Fire Phone.

The Fire Phone confuses me. Amazon has earned the trust of millions of customers throughout the last couple decades, building a reputation as a company that delivers quality products for budget prices. But here we have its debut in the smartphone space, and it looks like an Android phone from 2012. Then it takes the worst thing about the Kindle Fire, cuts out the best part and covers it up with some cheap gimmicks. Yep, this phone is a little baffling.

The Fire Phone has a glass back ... much like several popular phones from 2010-12
The Fire Phone has a glass back ... much like several popular phones from 2010-12

My favorite thing about the Fire Phone is its glass back. Unfortunately that isn't saying much, because it's a dated design language that I thought had already run its course a couple years ago. To its credit, the phone feels good in hand and has a (somewhat) premium aesthetic. But to its detriment, the last phone I used that looked like this, the Nexus 4, cost US$350 off-contract ... two years ago. The Fire Phone rings up for nearly twice that in 2014.

Then there's the software. It runs Amazon's forked version of open-source Android, Fire OS, which will be immediately familiar to Kindle Fire owners. To me, the Kindle Fire was always a tradeoff. You put up with some limited software (it's basically a virtual Amazon shopping mall), but in return you get some great hardware for a terrific price. The Fire Phone has the same limited software as the Kindle Fire, but none of the bang-for-your-buck in return.

Another look at the Fire Phone's home screen
Another look at the Fire Phone's home screen

Like the Kindle Fire, the Fire Phone's UI centers around a carousel of large icons, showing your most recent apps and content. If you want a full list of your apps, you simply swipe up to see the more conventional app grid. Sounds functional enough, right?

Well, it is functional, but I also wouldn't necessarily call it good. For starters, there are no Google apps or services anywhere to be found (since Amazon uses the open-source version of Android, not the Google-enriched version that ships on phones from Samsung, LG and the like). But it also strikes me as primitive and not particularly attractive. It doesn't have Google-flavored Android's versatility, not to mention iOS' or Windows Phone's beauty. It's a platform that doesn't give you enough of a reason to invest in it.

Amazon's Appstore has built up a solid selection of apps during the last three years, but it isn't in the same league as the App Store or Google Play
Amazon's Appstore has built up a solid selection of apps during the last three years, but it isn't in the same league as the App Store or Google Play

The Fire OS's applications all come from its own app store, with a selection that lags behind Android's Play Store and the iPhone's App Store. In fairness, Amazon has been building up this app ecosystem for more than three years, both on Kindle Fires and as an installable app marketplace for Android phones. But it's still a weakness. It's also one more reason to question why you'd want to bother switching from iOS, Android or even Windows Phone.

The Fire Phone has a 4.7-in display, which gives it 38 percent more screen area than the latest iPhones, and 33 percent less than the Galaxy S5. And the screen's 720p resolution places it in a sharp enough, but not the sharpest range. By 2012 standards, this would be a high-end smartphone display. By 2014 standards, the screen is, at best, mid-ranged.

The Fire Phone has a 4.7-in screen with 720p resolution
The Fire Phone has a 4.7-in screen with 720p resolution

So what is Amazon's case for the Fire Phone? Surely a marketing genius like Jeff Bezos will have an angle that will make your ears perk up, right? Well, unfortunately the Fire Phone's killer features are anything but. To me, they're little more than gimmicks that betray Amazon's reputation as an innovator and value-conscious company.

Have you ever used an iPhone or iPad running the latest version of Apple's software, iOS 7? If so, have you ever noticed how, when you tilt the device back and forth, the home screen background appears to move a little bit? Okay, well, imagine taking that effect and exaggerating it. Now you have what's supposedly the Fire Phone's first killer feature.

Dynamic Perspective uses face-tracking technology to create an illusion of depth
Dynamic Perspective uses face-tracking technology to create an illusion of depth

On the Fire Phone, Amazon calls this illusion Dynamic Perspective. It's a 3D-like technology that uses five front-facing cameras to track your gaze. The result is that you can do things like "peek around corners" in games and see a bit more of a map than you'd otherwise be able to see, just by leaning your head or tilting the phone. I wouldn't exactly call it 3D, but it creates an illusion of depth nonetheless.

Dynamic Perspective does very little for me. I see it as a gimmick that adds next to nothing to the experience of using a smartphone. We might see some interesting games based on the technology (the Fire Phone comes bundled with a few slightly cool examples), but those don't come close to justifying the cost of this phone. Again, I'm at a loss for words about Amazon's strategy here.

Tilt the left side of your phone forward, and a menu will pop up on the left ... is this Amazon's idea of innovation?
Tilt the left side of your phone forward, and a menu will pop up on the left ... is this Amazon's idea of innovation?

Closely related to Dynamic Perspective are some built-in motion gesture controls. Tilt the left side of the Fire Phone forward to see a menu pop up on the left (see above). Do the same on the right to see a new menu on the right. Again: gimmicks. Why not just swipe the damn screen to bring up a menu? You're better than this, Amazon.

The Fire Phone's second killer feature is called Firefly. With a long-press on the phone's camera button, Firefly springs into action, ready to recognize objects and media in your environment. Hold the phone up to a bag of Oreos, for example, and it will pop up a little bar that lets you tap a couple times to buy it on Amazon. It also works for barcodes, QR codes, web URLs and email addresses. It can even recognize songs and TV shows. In my testing, it works well, identifying these things more often than not.

Firefly is basically Amazon's old Flow app (available for iOS and Android), which lets you identify objects in your environment
Firefly is basically Amazon's old Flow app (available for iOS and Android), which lets you identify objects in your environment

Sounds cool enough, right? Okay then, congratulations: because you can have this feature on the phone that you already own. That's because Firefly is basically a combination of Amazon's Flow app, which has been around for several years, along with music/TV ID services like Shazam. Download those apps on any current iPhone or Android phone and enjoy your current phone's new "Firefly button."

The movie ID feature is, in fairness, unique to the Fire Phone, but I wouldn't recommend buying this phone just for that. It also has some kinks to work out. For example, I flipped on the TV and tested it on a cheesy old John Travolta movie, Broken Arrow. After listening for a few seconds, Firefly identified the movie's title. Unfortunately it showed me the IMDB info for a 1950s TV series of the same name. Instead of Travolta, I got Tim Conway.

Firefly correctly identified the cheesy Travolta flick Broken Arrow, but gave me the IMDB info for a 50s TV series of the same name
Firefly correctly identified the cheesy Travolta flick Broken Arrow, but gave me the IMDB info for a 50s TV series of the same name

Like the latest Kindle Fires, the Fire Phone has a Mayday button. It's an innovative form of customer service that lets you connect to an Amazon tech support rep 24/7, just by clicking a shortcut on your device. The rep will pop up in a video chat box: you'll see and hear him, but he will only hear you (and your screen). It's a handy feature for beginners. But on the Fire Phone, you might want to hit the Mayday button just to ask "why did I buy this phone?"

Battery life is solid enough, lasting nearly as long in our streaming test as the iPhone 5s did. And the Fire Phone's 13 MP camera, when it isn't looking for items and media for you to buy on Amazon, takes solid enough pictures.

In fact, "solid enough" is a good description for most of the phone's features. My criticism isn't due to Amazon launching the phone with some faulty hardware or buggy software. Everything is smooth and serviceable. Nope, the problem is that "solid" + "gimmicks" doesn't equal something I recommend buying. Not at this price.

Back of the Fire Phone
Back of the Fire Phone

So who do we recommend the Amazon Fire Phone to? Well, I'm at a loss. There are so many better phones out there that cost the same as – if not much less than – the Fire Phone, that I just don't see the value proposition here.

It's as if Amazon's product developers started working on this phone in 2011, and let the phones that were around then dictate its strategy. It ignores the last three years of smartphone evolution. The Fire Phone is one of the few products I've reviewed that I wouldn't recommend to anyone. If Amazon cuts its price in half, then we could talk. But at its current price point, it's too gimmicky, lacking compelling features and, contrary to Amazon's history, just not a good deal.

At least you can read Gizmag on it, via Amazon's Silk web browser
At least you can read Gizmag on it, via Amazon's Silk web browser

If you want a new smartphone, do yourself a favor and browse the handsets in our latest Smartphone Comparison Guide and Phablet Comparison Guide. Very few of them cost more than the Fire Phone, and many cost less. I'd recommend every single one of them ahead of this head-scratching debut from Amazon.

The Amazon Fire Phone is available now, for $650 off-contract or $200 on-contract (exclusive to AT&T in the US). You do get a free year of Amazon Prime with your purchase, but I don't think that's enough to make this gimmicky and overpriced phone worth your money.

Product page: Amazon

5 comments
Kie
"Amazon is an innovative company. It practically created online shopping, " You gotta be joking, they were a long way from being first and the shop search and product finding sucks incredibly bad, they don't police the categories which mean when you search for a product, you end up with a thousand accessories instead. You search for 64gb, you get every size under the sun. To can't narrow your search with filters without limiting your selection to 1 category when often the product you want can be in 3 or 4 categories. Yes they may have come up with 1 or 2 nice ideas, the rest they copied from competitors. They treat their staff like crap and currently Green Peace is pointing out that their whole cloud business is one of the worst going with regards to the environment. Summary: The sun does not shine out of their a**e.
Chris Bedford
"Amazon [...] practically created online shopping" Uh. Yeah. Before amazon there was no such thing as mail order, right? Sears Roebuck didn't exist then.
Glenn Rossi
I agree with Gizmag's points in their review of Amazon's debut Firephone! Not worth buying at this very high price and with such limited new features!
Kyle McHattie
And what genius decided to do the one thing that turned so many people off the original iphone by making it exclusive to AT&T? Did they learn nothing?
Nancy Wilkins
I find the glass quality cheap. Mine slide less that 2 feet and landed flat, but the glass cracked anyway. Wish I had stuck with my Iphone.