By now, you've probably heard a lot about Amazon's Fire Phone. I figure that most people aren't really curious about what the overall phone is like – if you've used a Kindle Fire/HD/HDX then you already know. It's about Amazon services and a weird launcher layout thing. Most people are curious about the four front-facing cameras and Dynamic Perspective. I'm with you on that – that's exactly what I was curious about before getting this phone for review.
Spoiler alert: it's just a gimmick. A novelty. It looks flashy, but doesn't offer a whole lot of utility. Sure, it's cool for about five minutes and is something you can show off to your friends, family, colleagues, and coworkers...but that's about the extent of it. It's something that Amazon is clearly trying to push as "useful" with things like Peek – a feature that shows somewhat more detailed info on certain screens when the phone is slightly tilted – but at the end of the day, it's nothing that anyone needs.
And that's really the story with this phone. It's full of fun little quirky stuff that's neat for a short period of time, all of which is made to mask the real intent of the phone: Amazon's store. Every aspect of it makes it easy to buy things from Amazon. If you use the company's services a lot, then that's not necessarily a bad thing, assuming you don't have impulse control issues and know how to manage your money. Believe me when I say that Fire Phone makes spending those dollars way too easy.
Underneath all the fluff and flash, it's a pretty boring, unremarkable phone that's lacking a lot of what Android users want from their phones. As expected, it's a watered-down Android experience; but honestly, you're not going to buy this phone because it runs Android. You're going to buy it because it runs Amazon.
But even then, I'm not sure you'll want it.
- Display: 4.7-inch 720p LCD
- Processor: 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
- GPU: Adreno 330
- RAM: 2GB
- Cameras: 13MP rear shooter, 2.1MP front camera
- Storage: 32 or 64GB
- Battery: 2,400mAh
- Ports: microUSB
- Wireless/Carrier Compatibility: Wi-Fi 802.11 A, B, G, N, AC; Bluetooth 3.0, NFC, Miracast/AT&T-only
- OS: FireOS (based on Android 4.2.2)
- 32GB: 27.09/mo. on Next 18; $32.50/mo. on Next 12; $199 with a two-year agreement; $650 off-contract
- 64GB: $31.25/mo. on Next 18; $37.50/mo. on Next 12; $299 with a two-year agreement; $750 off-contract
- Good performance. Fire Phone is rocking a 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800, and while not the newest processor on the block, it's still plenty fast. Amazon appears to have done a lot to keep Fire Phone performing at top speed, as there isn't a hint of lag anywhere in the OS. It's crazy-fast all the time.
- Solid construction. It's built tough, and everything feels really well put together.
- Dynamic Perspective is cool. Sure, it's just a novelty, but it's a pretty damn cool novelty...for about 15 minutes.
- No Google Apps. Using an Android-based phone without Google Apps is just...bad. And difficult. Most of the features that Android users depend on – like contact sync, Hangouts, Gmail, remote app install, and all the other fun stuff – isn't available on Fire Phone.
- It's gimmicky as hell. Fire Phone is based on gimmicks all around, all of which I assume are to mask the fact that the device is nothing more than an elaborate storefront for Amazon. Dynamic Perspective, while cool, offers no real value.
- This is basically a store in phone form. Purchase suggestions are around every corner, so Amazon's constantly pushing you to buy stuff. Sure, it may be relevant stuff, but let's not forget that Amazon is first and foremost a retailer. They're in this game to make money, and Fire Phone won't let you forget it.
- The layout is confusing. Menus are hidden to the left and right of some screens, but not in all apps...and there's no way of knowing when a menu is present and when one isn't. It's a very inconsistent experience. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how confusing this OS can be.
- Amazon's ecosystem is drastically inferior to Google's. There's really no comparison. Amazon's App selection is nothing compared to Google's, and most of the apps that are shared between the two consistently lag behind in the Appstore. And let's not forget the obvious here: no Gmail, no Google Calendar, no Drive...or any other Google service. That's a hard hurdle to leap.
- It's heavy. It's a big ol' brick of a phone.
- The apps realize it's Android, but the phone doesn't. I installed the Facebook app from the Appstore, and after opening it, got a notification that it needed to be updated. Tapped the "update" button and was directed to Google Play in the Silk Browser. The apps know you're running Android, but there's nothing in place to tell them it's using Amazon's ecosystem instead of Google's in many cases. This might be a developer issue, but it's an issue nonetheless.
Build Quality and Design
Save for the four IR sensors/cameras on the Fire Phone's front panel, it's a pretty unremarkable looking phone. It's a plain black slab with glass covering the front and back, a small protruding home button, and etched Amazon logo on the back. The power button is on the top, with the volume rocker, camera/Firefly button, and SIM card slot on the left side. The microUSB charger is on the bottom and headphone jack on the top. It's all around basic.
The speaker layout is slightly unique, however. Instead of having one speaker on the bottom or back, it has one on the bottom and one on the top. This way you're getting audio not matter how you hold the phone or which direction it's facing. I like it.
When it comes to build quality, the Fire Phone is exemplary. It's a little on the heavy side, but man is it solid. Everything is flush, all the buttons are stable and not even the slightest bit wiggly – nothing about this phone feels cheap (except maybe the software).
Despite only sporting a 4.7-inch display, Fire Phone still manages to be roughly the same size as the Nexus 5. This is, of course, in large part due to the oversized bezels needed to accommodate the four front-facing cameras/IR sensors required for Dynamic Perspective to work.
It's also about 30 grams heavier than the Nexus 5, though to hold them side-by-side you'd think it was a lot more. The phone has a certain "meaty" feel to it, which is amplified by its thick frame and solid build quality. I wouldn't say it's overly heavy, but it's definitely not what I'd call "light," either.
The Fire Phone's 4.7-inch front panel features a modest 720p display with good color reproduction and reasonable brightness. For all its uses, the display is pretty good, and nothing really feels "missing" considering it's a 720p panel instead of 1080p.
Colors are nice and bright without SAMOLED-level saturation, whites are pretty on-point, and blacks are dark enough to almost be called black. They're really just dark gray. Text is crisp and easy to read. Really, this is one of the most unremarkable displays I've ever seen, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. There isn't really anything standout about it, nor are there any major complaints. It's just fine.
Speakers and Call Quality
As mentioned earlier, Fire Phone has stereo speakers that face the top and bottom of the device. It gets plenty loud which is good for tones and notifications, watching videos, or playing games. The fact that the speakers are positioned on the top and bottom edges of the device is interesting – it's great for entertainment purposes in landscape, as sound is coming from both edges of the device. In portrait it at least sends some of the sound towards your face (from the top side), which is incrementally less frustrating than if it only had a bottom-firing speaker.
Like most other things with Fire Phone's hardware, they just work and there isn't a whole lot more to say about them.
Call quality is on par with essentially all other devices that aren't complete garbage: it works. I could hear the other party, they could hear me...exactly what you want from a call. Audio is crisp and clear.
Fire Phone's 13MP rear shooter is actually a solid smartphone camera, and probably my favorite feature of this phone. It grabs images quickly and makes the best out of low light situations most of the time. That said, Amazon's camera software is pretty basic. Aside from the normal camera and video modes, it offers lenticular and panorama shots, but that's the bulk of it. It has HDR mode and a flash. All basic, basic stuff.
But it also has a hardware shutter button – something I miss dearly on most modern smartphones. The camera can be launched by hitting this button once (long-pressing it opens Firefly), pressing it again will snap a picture (naturally). The only thing that bothers me about the camera button is that it's on the wrong side of the phone. I once asked a bunch of people on Twitter which way they rotate their device to enter landscape, and every single one of them said "to the left." If you rotate Fire Phone to the left, the shutter button is on the bottom (as is the actual camera on the back of the device), which is annoying. But it feels so unnatural to rotate right. This is my spiritual war.
Anyway, here are some sample shots from Fire Phone's camera. I think they look pretty good.
Note: HDR was off in the indoors shots, on in the outdoor.
Fire Phone comes in two storage options: 32GB and 64GB. My review unit is 32GB, and out of the box there are about 25-ish gigabytes available to the user, which is probably plenty for anyone who would actually buy this phone.
One thing that I really like about Fire Phone is how Amazon breaks down the storage section in settings. It's far more granular than Android's storage menu, which only gives a general idea of what's hogging all the space. Amazon's solution breaks down used space by several categories, including games, apps, system apps, videos, music, photos, books, docs, and several others. It's awesome.
It's worth noting that Fire Phone does not have an expandable storage option, so if you plan on buying, make sure to get the device with all the storage you'll need until it's time to buy a new phone.
Sorry, I forgot to take a screenshot before charging it.
Fire Phone is packing a 2,400mAh battery, which might be fine under normal circumstances. But this phone isn't normal. It has four front-facing cameras and IR Sensors always tracking your face and wants you to use the camera to identify objects. Know what that means? Two words: battery drain. Since this stuff is basically always working (especially Dynamic Perspective), the more you use it, the faster it drains. And there's no simple way of disabling it from what I can tell. That makes sense, because without it there's nothing left to talk about.
But I digress. You should be able to get a workday's worth of life out of it, assuming the display isn't constantly running and tracking your face. If it is (or you're using Firefly to shop), better pack a portable charger with you. Or stay near a wall at all times.
This is really what the phone is all about. The hardware is pretty much on par with most other high-end phones, but Amazon's experience is what makes Fire Phone what it is. Aside from the dramatically different layout compared to other Android or Android-based phones, the two standout features of Fire Phone are Firefly and Dynamic Perspective. Before we get into those, however, let's talk about the launcher.
Since the core experience of most phones is defined around how you get to where you're going, the launcher is a big deal. If you've used FireOS on the Kindle Fire HD/HDX before, then you already have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Fire Phone, but I'd be lying if I said the experience translated well to the smaller screen, because it just didn't. I'm not the biggest fan of the Kindle Fire HDX series, but I don't find it confusing or convoluted in any way; my feelings couldn't be more opposite about Fire Phone.
The entire launcher is based around what Amazon calls the "carousel," which is basically Android's recent apps menu. Beneath the carousel is related content to the highlighted app; for example, the settings icon will display recently accessed settings, the camera will show images from the camera roll, and apps/music/books/movies will show similar content you may like. That last bit is important, because it's really the point of this phone: to sell you more stuff from Amazon.
Directly below all the related content is a dock, not all that unlike what's found on stock Android. Swiping up on the dock reveals the app tray, which offers quick access to installed apps as well as cloud apps that are already found in your catalog (for quick installation).
But wait, it gets better. Menus are found on the sides. But only sometimes, and there's no indication when a menu will be found and when it won't. It's like a game in itself – a game of "let's find the menu!" with Amazon and its apps. Menus can be accessed one of two ways: by swiping in from the sides or quickly twisting the phone in either direction. Fire Phone is chockfull of these kinds of gestures, which Amazon has put in place to "save time," but I found them more cumbersome and frustrating than anything else. Gestures are OK for some things, sometimes...but not for almost everything, all the time. We're just not there yet, and Fire Phone does nothing to change that. The only gesture I don't really mind on the phone is the "swipe up from the bottom to go back" gesture. That comes in handy since there are no navigation buttons aside from the physical home key.
Launching menus in apps works the same way, but it's incredibly frustrating because there's no way to tell if there's even a menu to access. In stock (or stock-based) builds of Android we have the overflow menu, a hamburger indicator, or both. On Fire Phone? Good luck. Maybe you'll find something, maybe you won't.
And there's Dynamic Perspective – the entire reason Amazon plastered the front of the device with four IR sensors and cameras (excluding the actual front-facing camera). The cameras and sensors are used to track your face while looking at Fire Phone – two of the cameras must be able to see you at all times for it to work, which is why there are four included. The idea is that this will leave at least two cameras available at any given time, regardless of orientation or hand placement.
If I said that Dynamic Perspective wasn't neat, I'd be lying. It's really neat, and pretty fun for about 15 minutes. After that it becomes borderline useless...except for the fact that you have to use it to access certain on-screen information throughout Fire Phone. Like the status bar. Nope, not kidding. Need to check the network status or time? Turn Fire Phone slightly to the right or left (or awkwardly tilt your head until said information appears). I can't be alone in thinking that this is completely obnoxious. The status/notification area is absolutely crucial to the user experience, so hiding it under some pseudo-useful feature is absolutely infuriating.
Or maybe I'm overreacting.
This sort of behavior carries on throughout the phone and in most of the Amazon-built apps. Want to see what category an app falls into in the Appstore? Tilt your head while looking at it. How about the star-rating of an item in Amazon's store? Tilty-tilty. Need to know the name associated with a phone number in the dialer? You guessed it – tilt away. I just don't see the utility here – it takes what should be a simple, straightforward set of features and complicates them. It's not even the answer to a problem that doesn't exist, it is a problem.
I don't think I'm overreacting.
All that said, it does have some pretty cool uses. For example, Amazon Game Studios released To-Fu Fury, a Fire Phone-exclusive title that uses Dynamic Perspective to allow the player to look around the room for various paths/objects. It's pretty neat. Also, maps. Looking around maps by tilting the phone is not only sweet, but it's also intuitive. So do I think Dynamic Perspective has some cool uses? Sure do, and I think with the right people putting it in place, it could be incredibly useful. The problem with its execution on Fire Phone, however, is that Amazon threw it everywhere just for the sake of it. You just can't force a feature like Dynamic Perspective.
Firefly is Amazon's way of making it incredibly easy to spend more money on its services offering quick access to things you want to buy, like music, movies, and retail items. Simply long-press the camera button to launch Firefly, and it will spring into action, trying to identify nearby items with the device's camera. It's called Firefly due to the little firefly-like on-screen elements that hover around objects to figure out what they are. The thing is...it's not all that accurate. I tested several things around my home office – a lot of which was actually purchased from Amazon – and it was able to accurately recognize about a tenth of the stuff I checked. Even things like NVIDIA's SHIELD, which in my opinion is easily recognizable, went unrecognized when checked with Firefly.
Fortunately, it does a much better job with music and movies/TV, as they're based on audio and not images. Upon accurate detection, Firefly gives the option to purchase the movie or music in question, which is its entire purpose anyway.
You know one thing that Fire Phone does really well? Perform. While I may not be fond of the interface's overall layout, I will say that Amazon has done a great job of optimizing Fire Phone's software to work well on the hardware. Not once during my time with the device did I detect even a hint of lag or stutter – even with all the Dynamic Perspective stuff going on, everything is incredibly fluid and smooth all the time. This is the way any modern phone should perform.
Since some people seem to like benchmarks, I was going to run some on Fire Phone. Like any logical person would do in that situation, I jumped into the Amazon Appstore and searched for some of the most common ones: AnTuTu, Geekbench, and 3D Mark. Guess what? They aren't available. I'm not sure if Amazon has some sort of whack-tastic block on benchmarking tools or what, but none of the big names are available. Since I know some people live and die by benchmarks scores, I yanked the latest apks from SHIELD Tablet and sideloaded them onto Fire Phone. You're welcome.
Here are the results.
Note: Geekbench is a paid app in Google Play, so it won't work on Fire Phone.
Overall, I feel like Fire Phone is a far more obvious attempt at getting Amazon users to spend more money on Amazon services than something like the Kindle Fire HDX, which at least has a clearer purpose other than selling you things. Dynamic Perspective is cool for a few minutes (and may have a small amount of utility), but ultimately it's a gimmick that seems to be put in place to somewhat mask the fact that this phone otherwise has nothing else going for it.
The idea behind Firefly is also cool, but the object recognition needs to work quite a bit better before I see it becoming any sort of useful. For recognizing music and movies, however, it works fine...but that's something your existing phone can do and definitely not a reason to buy Fire Phone.
In fact, I can't think of a single reason – other than being incredibly invested in Amazon's ecosystem – to buy Fire Phone over a real Android phone that actually offers access to Google services. An all-Amazon device works fine in tablet form, but it drastically misses the mark on the phone. What I would like to see, however, is more Amazon services from Fire Phone – like Firefly, Instant Video, and the like – come to other Android devices. That would be the best of both worlds.
Alas, as long as Amazon keeps making its own hardware, that will never happen. Maybe the sequel will be better.