Like any good smartphone, the Fire Phone is an attractive rectangular prism. It’s got lightly-rounded corners that make it look an awful lot like a slightly bigger iPhone, and a Samsung-esque oval home button. It’s also a little heavy. At 160 grams it’s not quite as burdensome as a Lumia 920, but it’s noticeably heftier than an iPhone 5S (112 grams), Nexus 5 (130 grams), or Galaxy S5 (145 grams). It’s a chunkier, but not to the point that you’d feel it weighing down your jeans.The rounded sides of the Fire Phone are rubberized for grippiness, but considering the back is glass it’s still a bit prone to sliding on tables, just not out of your hand. It’s kind of a disappointed step back from the fun, weird, but ergonomic and cool-looking angles of the Kindle Fire HDX line. Instead, the Fire Phone is a lot more nondescript.The buttons are nice and solid, way less cheap feeling than the ones on my Nexus 5, and it’s kind of fun to have a devoted camera button (and Firefly button, if you hold it down) though, I kept accidentally activating the camera and taking mistaken creep-shots of strangers on the train while I fumbled around to stop it.Its most distinguishing feature comes in the form of the five front-facing cameras sprinkled across its face; one is for selfies, the other four are devoted to tracking your face to pull off its fancy 3D tricks. The Fire’s 4.7-inch, 720 x 1280 pixel IPS display has a nice, wide viewing angle, which you’ll need when you’re tilting the phone all over the place. And size-wise it’s a sweet spot, at the sides are rubberized for increased grippiness least for my largish man hands. 4.7 inches is just on the top end of screens that are still small enough that my thumb can touch any corner without struggling.All of which is to say that the Fire Phone is fine-looking, if also kind of boring. Some of my coworkers disagree though, and at least a handful find the thing to be down right ugly.
One area where the Fire Phone stands out is Firefly, a universal visual-scanning app that uses the camera and a huge database to identify items and objects, and then tell you what it is or give you the chance to buy it (through Amazon, naturally). It isn’t the first app to recognize QR codes, items, music and audio tracks, and URLs — most mobile OSes can do some of these, and Microsoft Windows Phone has a similar capability, called Bing Vision.Still, Amazon’s attempt is front-and-center as a secondary camera button function, so it’s a lot easier to get going with a long-press. Firefly also goes even further than Bing Vision, recognizing the audio on TV shows — down to the time stamp — and pulling up information via IMDB (which Amazon owns). It can also tell you about famous works of art and pull out printed phone numbers and addresses. Yes, other third-party apps attempt to do these things already, on both iOS and Android, but this looks like a universal Amazon reality-scanner…for shopping, or otherwise.Amazon definitely wants developers on board, so it’s created an SDK and already has iHeartRadio, MyFitnessPal, and Vivino, a wine database, taking part.
Fire OS 3.5
At its core, the Fire is a perfectly usable—if not fantastic—phone. Fire OS, Amazon’s unrecognizable fork of Android, has moved past the awkward teen years. But Fire OS 3.5 often feels better-suited to the tablets it was originally meant for than it does a phone. There’s a difference between idly swiping through apps and movies and books on your tablet, and pulling out your phone to glance at what’s next on the agenda before you duck into the subway, and Fire OS still leans a little bit to the wrong side.For instance, the main interface is a still a giant, space-devouring icon carousel better suited for a larger, landscape screen.Fortunately you can pin important apps to the front of it now, and beneath each icon is a little widget that provides a glimpse at the data inside. A quick look at your last two emails from the home screen is super convenient, though not every app offers bonus data that’s quite so useful.Fortunately the icon wheel isn’t your only way to navigate. With an inward flick of the wrist (that registers maybe like 40 percent of the time) you can call up a more efficient menu that categorizes all the different types of stuff you have on your phone; the categories include Apps, Games, Web, Music, Videos, Books, etc. It’s a way more convenient way to get around, but actually engaging it with the gesture controls was so iffy that I usually wound up just swiping up on the dock to access a more traditional app drawer. Fire OS offers unique ways to navigate, but none of them is preferable to the basics.Extras are fine, even if you’re ultimately ignoring them, but Fire OS 3.5 is also missing some features that are pretty standard now across iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8.1. Fire OS’s voice assistant, for example, is way behind Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. If you ask it to open an app, for instance, it’ll apologize and offer you the paltry list of things it can do: Make calls, send texts, send emails, and search the web. And if you ask it for directions to the nearest gas station, it’ll return a query for “gas_station” on the Yelp mobile site. Lots of room for improvement here. Fortunately some of the other glaring absences that we noticed in our hands-on time—like a lack of transit directions and a task switcher—have been fixed.But the big Fire OS omission that is still here and here to stay is the absence of Google’s suite of apps. It hurts far more on a phone than it ever did on a tablet because where a Kindle Fire is generally a sidekick device, the Fire Phone wants to be your daily driver. That said, the lack of Google apps never made the Fire Phone feel altogether unusable. After all, it has things like Nokia’s (great!) Here maps for directions, Amazon’s Silk browser for web surfing, and native email and messaging clients. But the little annoyances of not having Google still add up.Chief among them is the lack of an official Gmail client. Sure, it’s easy to just connect that sucker to the Fire’s default Mail app, but you lose the precious tabs that separate the email wheat from spammy chaff. Every single promotion and update and newsletter you never opted out of because it was tucked away in some other tab has now been promoted to a first class citizen. I practically drowned in Twitter and LinkedIn notification emails before I finally turned them off.The Fire Phone approximates some of Google’s other absent features as best it can. There’s a menu you can pull out from the right side of the homescreen that tries its damnedest to be Google Now by offering you info about the weather and the events on your calendar. As a feature it’s reflective of Fire OS as a whole; not as good as the competition, but still good enough.
Dynamic Perspective is ostensibly the Fire Phone’s killer feature. It’s the first billed on Amazon’s feature list, and the secret star of Amazon’s initial teaser trailers. It’s the trick where the Fire Phone uses its four front-facing infrared cameras (and corresponding infrared LEDs) to track your face on three axis (x, y, and z), enabling you to alter what’s on the phone’s screen by either tilting the display from side to side or moving your head around. It can see you, even in total darkness.First, and to be absolutely clear, Dynamic Perspective will impress you the first time you see it, and Amazon is pretty good at showing it off. The Fire Phone’s lock screen is by default one of several Dynamic Perspective-enabled scenes, displaying the time as one of several different objects. It’s made of rocks in the “Egyptian ruins” mode, it’s written on the table in spilled milk in the “food fight,” which features a shattering milk bottle frozen in mid-shatter. It’s parallax taken to its natural extreme by making everything a slightly rotatable 3D object that reacts not only to the movement of your hand but also the movement of your head. It’s neat!But if there’s some cool, useful functionality to be had from super-aggressive, super-accurate face tracking, the Fire Phone doesn’t have it. Dynamic Perspective is packed into pretty much every corner of the Fire Phone, but in ways that range “amusing the first dozen times” to straight up annoying.Dynamic Perspective touches nearly everything in Fire OS 3.5. Icons in the carousel are Dynamic Perspective-enabled 3D objects that shimmy and shake under your gaze. Unless they’re third party apps, in which case the two-dimensional icon awkwardly flaps around. Ditto the icons in the dock. And the icons in the master icon drawer. And the text in the the Fire Phone’s main navigational menu. And the numbers in the dialer.The technique is used to greater effect in some of the games that support it. It’s at its best in games like Planet Puzzles, in which you rotate 3D Rubiks Cube-esque puzzle cuboids to see and interact with their different sides. Revealing hidden information at specific angles is Dynamic Perspective’s other main trick, and it isn’t just limited to easter eggs hidden in the upper left- or right-hand corners of lock screens or games; it’s built right into Fire OS in the form of something called Peek. The idea here is that if you rotate the phone just slightly askew, or move your head to the side to create the same sort of screen-to-eyes relationship, additional information will appear. That’s right; you can reveal data by moving your phone to a position that’s (slightly) less readable than head-on.The most aggressive (and annoying) instance of this is that the status bar—where you see the time, your signal strength, and battery power—is invisible when you look directly at your phone. There’s an option to disable this in settings, but considering that the status bar area is just wasted space otherwise, why even do this at all? And it’s not just the status bar. I didn’t see a single instance of Peek where it revealed some sort of information that couldn’t have just been there all along, or didn’t need to be there at all.
There’s nothing more annoying than a smartphone with a camera that doesn’t measure up. The Fire Phone’s camera measured up and worked well in the field. Amazon doesn’t overwhelm you with settings. Editing tools worked well. The setting that’s most interesting is Fire’s lenticular setting, which takes a series of shots to create a 3D view. I used that approach a few times and the 3D-effect seemed gimmicky. I may not be immersed enough in the selfie culture to truly enjoy the lenticular feature. My kids thought the Dynamic Perspective/3D selfies were pretty cool. 3D selfies were entertaining a bit, but Dynamic Perspective didn’t do much for this picture.
Amazon is taking huge risks in going against the big guys like Samsung and Apple. It’s done it before, but in a tablet space that isn’t as entrenched — or as vital — as smartphones.While the 3D features and Firefly scanning app are both cool and unique (which gives Amazon some brownie points in our book), it’s unlikely that people will gravitate toward these additions.More likely, customers will come for the free year of Amazon Prime, especially if they rely heavily on Amazon’s online services, like shopping and music and video streaming, or own a Kindle or Amazon Fire TV.There’s also the price-to-specs ratio to consider. The 32GB versions’ $200 on-contract also gets you the Samsung Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8, both full-service Android phones at the top of their game with higher-end listed specs. Still, the difference among them isn’t enormous, and Amazon does back its pricing by citing the free year of Prime and unlimited online photo storage.
Music, video and cloud backup
The main sell for Amazon’s Fire Phone — at least for Prime subscribers — is the integration of music, video and cloud backup. Overall, the music integration, Prime video and playback worked well. It’s worth noting that my libraries already existed on Amazon. Cloud backup for photos was seamless and just happened. On my other Android devices, backup was clunkier whether it was to Google’s cloud or the Dropbox service. If you’re in Amazon’s ecosystem, the Fire Phone is a no-brainer. If you’re not, Amazon gets you goodies with the Prime subscription that comes with your phone. In the end, Amazon’s real point with the Fire Phone is to engage with you. It remains to be seen if the Amazon’s Fire is an engagement and e-commerce kiosk in your pocket, but rest assured that’s the plan.
The potential in apps and games
The possibilities for Dynamic Perspective is much more evident in games. In the game To-Fu Fury (above) you can tilt and move the phone to look around a scene, supplementing your fingers as a way of controlling the game. In a Rubik’s Cube game, you can look at different sides of the cube by moving the device in your hand, while using your fingers to rearrange the cube and solve the puzzle.This speaks to the need for third-party apps to leverage the sensors to fully realize the potential of Amazon’s new phone. The company has released a software development kit for Dynamic Perspective, and this week pointed to strong early momentum among developers.But these 3D navigational features feel more like gimmicks in the Fire phone’s basic user interface — not yet compelling enough to warrant a fundamental change in the way we interact with our devices.It is possible to turn the features off in the settings, and you can even turn off individual aspects (tilt, peek, swivel, Dynamic Perspective, etc.) selectively.
But that won’t be satisfying to someone who bought the phone for these features.As a longtime Amazon customer, what I’d really like to see is innovation in the economics of the smartphone business — offering the device with included wireless service as part of a souped-up Amazon Prime subscription, for example.Hopefully that will come someday. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to get a handle on that “peek” maneuver.