Amazon Fire Phone $199
26th Sep 2014 | 09:00
Is Amazon's foray into the smartphone space a success?
Introduction, hardware and software
Jumping into a highly competitive space, like the smartphone market, is risky. But if there's a company out there that could do it with a chance of success, it's Amazon. Its new Fire Phone is the company's first stab at it, and we're going to find out how well it fares against the competition.
In order to have any measure of success, Amazon has to differentiate its smartphone from everyone else, namely Android and iOS smartphones.
There have been rumors of an Amazon smartphone for years, but because of the insane success of Android smartphones from Samsung, HTC and LG, the Amazon smartphone hype never reached the heights that future iPhone iterations would.
Of course, Amazon is no stranger to the mobile device market. Aside from the Amazon apps and Kindle apps, Amazon also has the Kindle Fire HDX, which succeeded the Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Fire.
It's important to note its tablet efforts, because many of the features found on Amazon's tablets are also on the Fire Phone. However, the Fire Phone is loaded with things you won't find on Amazon's tablets, so it's not just a shrunken version of the Kindle Fire HDX.
So, how does Amazon's Fire Phone stack up to today's smartphone market? Does it hold its own, or is it just another vehicle for Amazon to sell you more of its products and services? Or does it fall somewhere in between? And will the fact that it's only available on O2 in the UK (and costs the same as most other high end phones with better specs and features) hurt it? Let's find out.
The Fire Phone reminds me very much of the Nexus 4 due to its glass front and back, and its soft plastic edges. It feels like a nice device, but it doesn't quite have the same high-end, premium feel of the HTC One M8 or iPhone 5S, for example.
The display measures 4.7 inches with a resolution of 1280 x 720. While it's nowhere near the resolution or pixel density of displays we're seeing today - the LG G3 comes in at a whopping 2560 x 1440 - it's not terrible. It's just not that great.
You'll have 32GB and 64GB memory options for the Fire Phone, with 2GB RAM all powered by a Snapdragon 800 chipset and 2.2GHz CPU and Adreno 330 GPU. Again, not the highest end hardware available on the market, but it's sufficient.
Around the phone, you'll find a power button at top, volume keys and camera button on the left side, and a microUSB port at the bottom.
The back is layered with glass, emblazoned with the Amazon logo, along with a 13MP camera and an LED flash. The camera up front is a 2.1MP shooter, and both cameras are capable of recording 1080p video at 30FPS.
There are also cameras on each corner of the phone that enable Dynamic Perspective, a software feature that gives the display a 3D effect when you tilt the phone.
If you're interested in the exact dimensions of the device, it measures 139.2 x 66.5 x 8.9 mm. It's not the slimmest or leanest device, but it's not bulky, either. And at 160g, it's a nice balance between heft and lightness. I don't like phones that are paper light, nor do I like them brick heavy.
In comparison to the HTC One M8, iPhone 6 and LG G3, it's hard to call the Amazon Fire Phone a high-end or premium device. In fact, in terms of specs, we could've expected a phone like this back in 2012, and hardly in the second half of 2014.
That's already a strike against the Fire Phone in terms of competing with the best out there, which is exactly what Amazon should be doing if it's going to fight for space where Samsung, HTC, Apple and LG live.
Here's where the real meat and potatoes lie, in Amazon's Fire OS. It's based on Android, but if you've ever seen or used Android before, you'll notice immediately that Fire OS looks and feels nothing like Android.
When you fire up the Amazon Fire Phone, you'll be greeted with a 5-minute tutorial on how to use the phone, along with the key features of the device - namely Firefly and Dynamic Perspective.
It's a nice introduction into using your phone, because as you'll find with the Fire Phone, it's not very intuitive. One example is the lack of a menu button and back button, which are things you'd normally find on an Android device.
For many things you'd want to do or access, you'll have to get used to using gestures. It's frustrating and confusing at first, but it's still a nuisance even when you get used to it. For example, instead of a back button, you have to swipe up on the display from the bottom near the home button. It's not naturally intuitive, and sometimes easy to forget even after doing it so many times.
If you're familiar with the Kindle HDX, or any other Amazon devices using Fire OS, you may feel at home with the Fire Phone. Many elements remain the same, such as the carousel home page where your most recent apps live.
On the home page carousel, your recently used apps will also show contextual or relevant info, such as notifications and message previews. It's nice for at-a-glance information, but if you have snooping eyes nearby it's not so pleasant.
It can also be frustrating to have to flip through so many apps to get to the one you want, and it would be nice if you could get rid of the apps with a quick swipe upward, like the old webOS (remember those days?) or the multitasking feature on iOS.
There is a notification panel, like Android and iOS, when you swipe down from the top, although it's a strange animation that takes you there. Rather than seeing the panel drop down, the screen fades into the notification center when you swipe downward.
If you swipe from the left of the display, you'll get a quick list of shortcuts, like for apps, photos, videos and more. Swipe in from the right of the display, and you'll have daily contextual info, like calendar entries and weather.
To access your panel of apps, simply press the home button when you're at the home screen carousel, and a list of app icons will appear.
I'm not here to write a tutorial or instruction manual on how to use the phone and every little feature Amazon decided to include in the Fire Phone. However, I will say that it takes time to get acquainted with the platform and to find everything you need.
Firefly and Dynamic Perspective
Don't get this confused with the science fiction show by the same name, as Amazon's version helps you do one thing and one thing only: buy more Amazon stuff.
To use Firefly, you open the app and it fires up the camera. Point your camera at anything, like a set of headphones or even a can of sardines, and it will attempt to link it to a product page on Amazon.
However, in testing this didn't really seem to work most of the time, if at all. This notion was OK in the US, it seems, but the UK version just wanted to look at barcodes.
Firefly doesn't just work on physical, tangible items that you can identify with the camera (in theory). When the app is fired up, it can also recognize music, movies and TV shows. As long as the phone can hear sound from your radio or TV, and it can pair it with something in Amazon's store, it will be recognized.
For example, if you're watching an episode of Friday Night Lights and you point the phone toward the TV and allow Firefly to see and hear the TV, it will tell you what you're watching along with a link to buy or watch episodes of Friday Night Lights on Amazon Prime.
The same goes for music. If you're itching to find the name of a song you're listening to, simply open up the Firefly app and place your phone near the sound source. If it's in Amazon's massive library, the song will pop up with an accompanying link to download or listen to the song.
Firefly is useful, in a sense, because you can identify a lot of things you don't recognize. If you've ever encountered an object, song or movie and wondered, "What on earth is this?" there's a good chance that Firefly could identify it for you.
But of course, like pesky ads in a free game, those little Amazon pop-ups poke you, begging, "BUY ME!"
I'm tempted to say that you can file Dynamic Perspective in the Useless Folder, but such a folder would be ironically living up to its own name.
It's a trick, a gimmick. Sure, it's neat to see stuff move around on your display when you tilt the Fire Phone, and it does give it a little bit of a 3D effect, but it's hardly functional.
Amazon argues that you open up a whole new world of stuff within the display, and you can dive a little deeper into content by peeking around or behind things. But there is absolutely no reason why you need to stuff four front-facing cameras to do this when you can do the same with finger gestures.
It also feels unnatural to tilt the phone around in my hand. I almost want to follow it around with my face, which would defeat the purpose of Dynamic Perspective.
As you can imagine, the degree to which you can tilt the device is very limited - start tilting it too much and your entire perspective is going to be nothing but bezel.
There are a few tricks that Amazon stuffed into Dynamic Perspective. One of those is in maps. If you have several pins or areas of interest that come up in a search, a slight tilt of the phone will reveal the names and/or ratings of each of those places.
Again, most of what you can do with Dynamic Perspective, which isn't much, can really be done with just your fingers. But if this is the best Amazon can come up with to distinguish itself and be unique, it isn't helping much.
It's not even that accurate, with the shifting and scrolling juddery and unresponsive. For something that requires FOUR cameras to achieve, it seems a complete waste of time.
The camera is somewhat admirable on the Amazon Fire Phone. I'm also a fan of the fact that it has a dedicated camera button to fire up the camera and to snap photos. When you long-press the camera button, it quickly opens up Firefly.
You'll quickly notice that the Fire Phone's camera software doesn't offer a lot of latitude and flexibility when it comes to exposure settings. Unlike many other Android phones, the Fire Phone is devoid of ISO, exposure compensation, white balance and scene settings.
You're basically limited to HDR, turning image review on and off, and the choice to go between two other camera modes: Panorama and Lenticular, the latter being like an animated gif maker.
There's also an option to switch to the front-facing camera and set your flash to on, auto or off.
That's about it as far as camera settings go. It's very basic.
Now if we're talking image quality, I'd give the Fire Phone a 3.5 out of 5. It's not spectacular or amazing, but it's not terrible, either. It's a little better than average when it comes to color reproduction and sharpness.
One thing that impressed me is the low light performance on this 13MP camera. It can shoot in relatively dark scenes and retain good color and detail. Images aren't terribly noisy, but photos don't become too smudged because of the camera's noise reduction.
In low light, the camera does a good job managing noise reduction and sharpness, and if your hands are more stable than my shaky paws, there is very little motion blur. Most of my low-light photos were sharp.
The only downside to the camera in dim scenes is that it is painfully slow to focus, taking nearly two to three seconds to focus, and sometimes it missed focus entirely.
In many instances, especially in low light, the camera software will recommend that you switch to HDR mode. My gripe with that is that HDR mode takes significantly longer to snap photos. If you're trying to capture a good moment, don't take it in HDR mode or you'll miss it or get a blurry photo.
The rear camera is also capable of recording 1080p video at 30FPS. It's also quick to adjust exposure if you move from a bright scene to a dark one, and vice versa. However, if there are bright highlights in your scene, the camera will tend to expose for that.
Battery life and performance
Battery life on the Amazon Fire Phone has been impressive. It has a 2,400 mAh battery in it, and given the specs on this phone, that easily lasts through an entire day - sometimes it even goes a day and a half.
Thanks to a 720p display and software that isn't so power hungry, you really won't have to worry about this thing dying on you at the end of the day if you've unplugged in the morning.
Almost not surprisingly, along with good battery life, the Fire Phone has pretty good performance, too. Of course, the software seems really bare bones, and again the display resolution isn't as high as what you'd find on most flagship phones today.
During my long period of review, I can't recall a single instance when an app stalled or crashed. That's impressive for any smartphone. And with gimmicks like Firefly and Dynamic Perspective, it's even more impressive.
The downside is that many of those apps don't get updated in a timely manner, or there are strange update features that you can't take care of because of the ecosystem. What I mean by that is these are Android apps that will occasionally give you a pop-up or in-app notification telling you an update is available. However, you can't update because you don't have access to the Google Play Store.
Still, this hardly affects performance, but you will have to wait until those issues get sorted.
When opening up the camera, swiping around and performing other actions, the Fire Phone doesn't ever slow down. There wasn't a single time when the phone suffered from a hiccup or lag.
For a midrange phone, I'd say this is rather impressive. Again, you're paying for it with scant features, lower resolution and a lack of customization options.
As far as call quality goes, remember this is exclusive to O2. It performs well in terms of O2 coverage, but make sure you're not already in a blackspot as this phone isn't going to help a lot in those situations.
Don't buy the Amazon Fire Phone. It's very rare that I'll say that to kick off a verdict, but that's the bottom line with this device. We don't need wax philosophical about its implications and its competition. We don't need to talk about Amazon's strategy in depth.
First, it's expensive for what it is. If you buy this on contract, it will cost you the same as an HTC One M8, LG G3 or Galaxy S5, and you can't even buy it off contract. The Fire Phone is closer to a midrange device than a high end one.
Second, its midrange parts and display will feel incredibly outdated in just a few short months. One can argue that the Fire Phone is already outdated, but when most smartphones start adopting insane QHD displays, blazing fast CPU speeds and monster batteries, the Fire Phone will look antiquated. It already does. This phone is not future-proof.
Third, one of its two gimmicky features, Firefly, is essentially a tool to help you buy more stuff on Amazon. It's disguised as a useful search and identification app, but that's hardly a new concept. Shazam and the like have existed for some time, and Google Goggles was doing the same thing identifying objects.
Fourth, the software is so light on features. It's based on Android, yet looks and feels and functions nothing like Android. Fire OS is not very intuitive, and the Amazon app store isn't nearly as rich and varied as the Google Play Store. You'll miss out on cool new Android apps and timely updates.
Finally, we aren't too keen on the fact that this smartphone is nothing more than a vehicle for Amazon to sell more of its products and services. It's exactly like the Kindle Fire HDX in that sense, and the Fire OS tablets that preceded it.
Now, if Amazon were to give away this phone for free, or sell it for half / a third of the price of other top end phones, it would be a different story. There's no hiding the fact that this phone is intended to make Amazon more money in the long run by locking you into its ecosystem.
I can picture Amazon executives sitting in a conference room asking themselves, "How do we get people to spend even more time and money in the Amazon marketplace? I know! Let's shove into their lives where they're already immersed--smartphones!"
Don't fall into that trap.
Battery life was good. Call quality was decent.
The Amazon Fire Phone is hardly an honest effort in breaking into the smartphone market and keeping its footing. It's a device for Jeff Bezos and Company to make more money in selling other goods and services. It's not a device that will help simplify and supplement your life with usefulness and customizability.
Its specs - and I understand specs never tell the whole story - are paltry at best. It already feels outdated, which ought to make one worry about its shelf life at the pace of Android's progress.
Fire OS is, and has been, half baked. It's just enough to do enough, if that makes sense, which is to say that it won't do much more. You can check e-mail, browse the web, use Facebook and watch some videos. But forget about having powerful widgets and access to better apps.
The two standout features are more gimmicky than they are buying factors. And if we're honest with ourselves, most of the new tricks up the Fire Phone's sleeve didn't have to be baked into the phone - they could've been standalone apps.
Amazon's Fire Phone is a decent attempt at selling more Amazon goods and services, but it's hardly a smartphone worth considering if you're not already invested in Amazon's ecosystem.
If you're looking for flexibility in an operating system (customization, great apps, etc.) and you want top-end specs to boot, consider an Android flagship smartphone or older iPhone. They cost the same as the Fire Phone.
However, if you already spend your life devoted to Amazon's Kindle products, Prime benefits and music and media, you may enjoy this phone. Then again, you can still enjoy all those benefits on Android or iOS with the Kindle and Amazon apps.
The strategy of making a low cost tablet worked for the Kindle Fire HDX range. However, with the Fire Phone, the trick wasn't repeated and as such we're left with a phone on old specs, a confusing new OS to those migrating, and a high price. Not one we recommend.