Amazon Fire Phone deep-dive review: Two weeks with a weird device

You can now buy almost anything from Amazon -- including a phone made by the retailer itself.

I'm talking, of course, about the Amazon Fire Phone, Amazon's first attempt at bringing its own operating system into your pocket or purse. Building off the progress of its Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire Phone uses Amazon's custom-made Fire OS and does everything it can to put the company's content front and center.

The Fire Phone is on sale now for $200 (32GB) or $300 (64GB) with a new two-year contract from AT&T. The phone is not available for use on any other carrier.

From the moment you power up the Fire Phone, you realize it's like no other phone you've used before. But as I've learned while living with the device over the past couple of weeks, different doesn't necessarily mean better.

Form before function

Let's get the basics out of the way first: In terms of physical form, the Fire Phone is a less refined version of something between the Nexus 4 and iPhone 4. The device is boxy and black, with glass on the front and back and a rubberized plastic trim on the perimeter. With its four awkwardly prominent front-facing cameras (more on those in a moment), the phone looks rather odd -- almost more like an unfinished prototype than a polished final product.

At 5.5 x 2.6 x 0.35 in., Amazon's Fire Phone is fairly small by current smartphone standards. It's comfortable to hold, though a bit heavy for its size: At 5.6 oz., it's the same weight as the HTC One (M8), which is significantly larger and made of metal.

Speaking of materials, the Fire Phone's glass casing picks up fingerprint smudges like nobody's business; you'll definitely need to carry around a cloth or be ready to do a lot of subtle shirt wiping if you want to keep the phone looking good. Like most glass-centric gadgets, the Fire Phone is also particularly susceptible to damage. I haven't dropped the device once, but if I look closely, I can already see some small hairline scratches starting to show up on the back panel.

The Fire Phone's 4.7-in. 720p LCD display is decent: It's a lower resolution than the 1080p (and Quad HD) screens gracing most flagship phones these days, but at 315 pixels per inch, it looks crisp and sharp. It's not going to win any awards for "Most Stunning Display on a Smartphone," but it's given me no cause for complaint.

The Fire Phone comes with either 32GB or 64GB of storage, depending on which model you purchase.

The weird and wild world of Fire OS

What really sets the Fire Phone apart from most smartphones is its software. Amazon's Fire OS uses the open-source version of Android as its foundation, but you'd never know it from using the device.

At the Fire Phone's core is a carousel-based home screen similar to what you'll see on a Kindle Fire tablet, with a series of large icons you can swipe through horizontally. Each icon represents an app or service the system thinks you might want to use.

Beneath each icon is a scrolling list of related content. With certain icons, the list functions as a built-in preview of sorts, showing info like upcoming appointments on your calendar or recent emails from your inbox.

More often, though, it's reminiscent of the "you might also like"-style suggestions peppered throughout Amazon's website. On many icons, in fact, the list actually includes Amazon products -- apps you might want to download, music and movies you might want to purchase, and even physical products you might want to order. (You can turn those suggestions off if you dig through the phone's settings, but the option is a bit buried and there's no outward indication to the user that it exists.)

Long-pressing any app will pin it to the front of the carousel, but beyond that, there's no way to organize the items -- which makes it rather challenging to find what you want. Using the home screen feels kind of like spinning a wheel on a game show and hoping you land on the right spot. The icons are also unlabeled, so it's often hard to tell what many of them represent.

The Fire Phone's home screen isn't exactly easy on the eyes, either: It uses a dull patterned-gray background and there's no way to swap that out for a more attractive or personalized wallpaper. The same dated-looking motif, complete with heavy drop-shadows all around, carries throughout the entire OS.

There is a customizable dock of four icons at the bottom of the home screen -- and if you want to view your full selection of apps, you can get to a more traditional grid list by swiping upward from the dock area. That gesture is somewhat confusing, as there's no on-screen cue to make you aware of its existence.

More confusing yet is the fact that there's no consistent Back button throughout the system; rather, when you want to move back a step and there's no command on screen to do so, you have to swipe upward from the bottom of the phone's surface (similar to the app list gesture, only starting even lower -- with your finger on the bezel beneath the screen). There's no on-screen cue for that, either, and it's not at all intuitive; I've frequently found myself stuck on a screen and trying to remember how to back out.

Confusion seems to be a common theme with the Fire Phone's user interface. The software has two hidden menu panels that are available only sometimes, in certain parts of the system -- one that swipes in from the left and includes "quick links" relevant to your current activity, and one that swipes in from the right and includes additional information and options. Again, there are no on-screen cues to indicate when those panels are present, and it's not entirely clear what sorts of options you'll find in either place at any given time.

Other tasks are similarly convoluted -- like playing music on the phone. Once you start audio from an app like Pandora or Amazon's Music app, there's no easy way to skip through tracks or pause playback; since the system doesn't support widgets, you have to awkwardly navigate back into the main app in order to access those basic controls.

There are plenty more examples -- like the fact that the Fire Phone's app grid is split into two confusingly overlapping tabs labeled "Cloud" and "Device" without any explanation -- but you get the point. All in all, the software feels very much like what it is: a rough and messy first-gen OS trying to compete with far more polished platforms.

Basic environment aside, Amazon's Fire Phone has three distinguishing software features: Dynamic Perspective, Firefly and Mayday.

Dynamic Perspective

Dynamic Perspective may be the most ambitious of the three: It taps into four special front-facing cameras to monitor your movements and adjust on-screen elements accordingly.

The effect is mildly novel in certain contexts. When you view the phone's lock screen, for instance, the graphic on the screen appears to shift around as you tilt the phone or your head, making it feel like you're looking around a three-dimensional space. It's neat at first, but the novelty wears off quickly and there's no real value provided.

And that's the problem: By and large, Dynamic Perspective feels like a gimmick -- and one that delivers flash at the expense of function. Within the main UI, for example, elements like menu subtext and the status bar aren't usually visible; you have to tilt the phone at just the right angle to get them to appear. And with the status bar invisible so much of the time, there's no easy way to see pending notifications for things like missed calls or new messages (not to mention the clock or your battery level).

At the same time, visual elements will randomly flicker on the screen for a split second here and there when you inadvertently move your head or hand -- both in the main phone UI and even in some apps, like Amazon's own storefront, in which the tiniest tilting causes images to zoom in and take over your display. It's disorienting and irritating, to say the least, and makes the phone difficult to use.

Dynamic Perspective can also let you do things like open menus or scroll down Web pages by tilting or pivoting the phone in a particular way, but that feature seems like a solution in search of a problem. If you're anything like me, you'll try it once or twice and then go back to the far easier, more consistent and more natural method of swiping on the screen to accomplish those same tasks.

The one area where Dynamic Perspective may hold some actual value is in games -- at least, those that have built-in support for the system. Even there, though, it strikes me as more of a novelty than anything transformative. I actually found I got dizzy from the Dynamic Perspective effects after a while and ultimately preferred playing the games in their regular modes, with Dynamic Perspective disabled.

Firefly

The next feature Amazon has added into its Fire Phone is something called Firefly. It's an all-purpose product and content scanner that aims to make it easy for you to identify any object, song, movie or TV show -- and then go buy it from Amazon.

You launch Firefly by pressing and holding the phone's physical camera button. From there, you simply point the phone at anything -- a book, a DVD cover, even a can of beans -- and if Amazon recognizes it, the phone will tell you what you're seeing and give you a link to the corresponding Amazon product page. It can also recognize info like phone numbers, email addresses and URLs, which it can then extract as text and make actionable on the phone.

If that all sounds somewhat familiar, it should: Existing apps, like Google Goggles on Android, perform similar functions. Firefly is a bit faster, though -- it recognizes visuals on the fly as it sees them, without the need for any button-pressing -- and it seems to be able to identify a broader range of household-style items. It's also able to identify multimedia content if you press the music or TV buttons at the top of the Firefly screen (something Goggles itself can't do but other existing apps can).

Where Firefly really differs from other apps of its nature, however, is in the fact that its primary purpose is quite clearly to direct you to Amazon -- and Amazon alone -- for the purchasing of anything you identify. It could certainly be useful in that regard, but it's also rather limiting and almost makes you feel like Amazon should be paying you to carry this phone around.

Mayday

The last major Fire Phone feature worth noting is Mayday, which is the on-demand help system first introduced with Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets.

Mayday is a great idea: You simply tap a button on the phone, and -- usually within about 15 seconds, according to Amazon -- see a live person pop up in a video box on your screen. The agent talks to you through your phone to help with any problems you're having and can even remotely take control of your screen to guide you through troubleshooting steps.

In practice, I've found it to be hit and miss. The first time I tried to place a call to Mayday, I waited for about 30 seconds, then heard someone pick up but never saw her face. A few seconds later, I was disconnected.

My next call went through in about 15 seconds, and the agent popped up on my screen as promised. I asked him how I could change the wallpaper on my home screen -- something that seemed like a simple enough question a regular user might pose.

The agent appeared to look something up on his computer for a couple of minutes, then asked if he could take control of my device. He started poking around the system settings and seemed confused; after another minute or two, he asked if he could place me on a brief hold, after which he came back and finally told me the wallpaper couldn't be changed.

Maybe that was just a fluke, though. I tried a few other Mayday calls and the reps seemed a little more knowledgeable. In any event, it may not be the kind of feature most of us would use often, but it's a smart concept and a nice addition to offer.

The Amazon app problem

No matter what you think of Amazon's Fire OS software, there's one massive failing with the Fire Phone: The availability of apps. Or, to be more accurate, the lack thereof.

Amazon's Fire Phone, you see, connects only to Amazon's own Appstore, not the regular Google Play Store most Android users are accustomed to using. And that means you're extremely limited in what sorts of programs you can get for the phone.

Most notably, no Google services are available; you won't find apps like Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, Google Voice, Hangouts, Chrome or Google Maps. The Google Search app, which includes Android's powerful Voice Search and Google Now functions, is also M.I.A. In some cases, you can use Web-based equivalents, but they're never a very good experience compared to the native apps (and they often border on unusable).

The Fire Phone does come with its own Email application that's capable of connecting to a Gmail account, but to be frank, it's pretty awful. The same goes for Amazon's Maps, Silk Browser and voice control apps. Everything on the phone just feels like an embarrassingly inferior version of what you'd get on an actual Android device.

For me, as someone who relies heavily on Google services, it's been incredibly challenging to even use the Fire Phone as my primary mobile device. Without the Google apps present, there are just too many basic things I need to do but can't on this phone.

To its credit, Amazon's Appstore does have a reasonable number of apps, including many big-name titles. You'll have no problem finding programs like Facebook, Netflix, Twitter and Pandora, for example. But even beyond the Google services, there are a lot of gaps -- things you might be used to relying on that simply aren't available.

Many of the apps that are present are also woefully out of date -- even those by relatively big developers. Some apps I looked at were several versions behind their Google Play equivalents, like the popular news-reading app Feedly -- which was on version 22.0 in Google Play but still on 20.1 in the Amazon Appstore. I can't help but wonder how many of them have been abandoned.

At a Glance

Amazon Fire Phone

Amazon

Price: $200 (32GB) or $300 (64GB) with a new two-year contract from AT&T

Pros: Decent display; good camera; comfortable to hold; includes on-demand live video support; makes it easy to order products from Amazon; currently comes with free year of Amazon Prime service

Cons: Uninspired design; fragile body; heavy for its size; confusing software; unattractive UI with little room for customization; counterproductive 3-D effects; limited app selection with no Google services; heavily integrated Amazon purchasing suggestions; choppy performance; no Bluetooth 4.0 support; limited only to AT&T

On the plus side, the Fire Phone is built to work seamlessly with Amazon's impressive array of books, movies, TV shows and music (though if you've already purchased or stored multimedia content in Google Play, keep in mind that you won't be able to access any of that from this device). The phone also currently comes with a free year of Amazon Prime service -- an offer that Amazon says will be available for an unspecified "limited" time.

One more thing...

The Fire Phone has one final quirk that warrants mentioning: It doesn't presently support Bluetooth 4.0 (LE). That means it either won't work well or won't work at all with wearables and other devices that require an ongoing low-power connection.

Amazon has said the functionality will be added into the phone at some point in the future, but that doesn't do much good for anyone attempting to use it today.

Bottom line

I could go on and talk about all the standard smartphone measures -- the Fire Phone's performance is somewhat choppy, its battery life is on the lower end of average, its call quality is fine and its camera is pretty decent -- but at this point, all of that seems rather inconsequential. There are just so many fundamental things wrong with this device that, for most people, it's impossible to recommend.

The Fire Phone is ultimately a collection of random ideas that don't come together to create any type of cohesive or compelling user experience. Its operating system is confusing and difficult to use, its Dynamic Perspective feature is gimmicky and counterproductive and its prominent integration with Amazon makes it feel more like a pushy salesperson than a user-focused tool.

Even if all of those factors weren't present, Amazon's limited app selection would be a deal-breaker for most consumers -- as would the fact that phone is available only on a single carrier.

If you're fully committed to Amazon's ecosystem and want a phone that makes it easy to find and order stuff online -- from Amazon and only Amazon -- then maybe the Fire Phone is worth a glance. But if you're looking for a phone that does anything else particularly well, you're better off going with a more versatile device on a more mature platform.

This story, "Amazon Fire Phone deep-dive review: Two weeks with a weird device" was originally published by Computerworld.

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