Amazon Fire Phone review: the right phone at the wrong price

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The long-rumored, long-awaited “Amazon Phone” is finally here, and it’s a doozy in more ways than one. Over the past week of testing, we’ve shown you its most fun features and run through its camera capabilities, and we’ve taken your questions live on the air during a special segment of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast. Now it’s time to see how our impressions of the Fire Phone have changed since our first hands-on.

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As Amazon’s own site helpfully reminds buyers, Fire is the only smartphone on the market with “Dynamic Perspective, Firefly, Mayday, and more.” It’s the only phone that gives you a year’s subscription to Amazon Prime when you buy it, the only one that “seamlessly integrates” all 33 million Amazon media titles into the day-to-day experience of using the device. It hardly needs stating that Amazon considers the Fire Phone the best way for customers to access its unique ecosystem.

But is a smoother Amazon experience enough to justify the Fire Phone’s flagship-level pricing? Can the combination of a novel interface and innovative features overcome its restricted availability and limited app ecosystem? How many times can we avoid using the phrase “playing with Fire” in a text piece of this magnitude? The answers below in our Amazon Fire Phone review!

Video Review · Specs & Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance

 Pros/Cons · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Amazon Fire Phone Review Video

 

Index

Specs & Hardware

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DSC02571The Fire Phone isn’t the phone to buy if you’re looking to stand out in a crowd. It’s a nondescript rectangle of a device, a mid-sized amalgam of Gorilla Glass 3 and rubberized polyurethane that, like the Model T Ford, comes in any color you want – as long as it’s black. Its fit and finish heavily resemble the old Nexus 4, while its size and shape tend more toward the iPhone 5C. Like all glass-backed phones, the Fire is heavily susceptible to fingerprints and smudges.

At 160g and 8.9mm in thickness, the Fire Phone feels nice and substantial in the hand, and the rubber midplate gives the impression that it could survive a fall or two. A springy home key sits at the very bottom of the display, while a special Firefly/camera button rests beneath the volume rocker on the left-hand side. Stereo speakers join the typical USB and headphone jacks at bottom and top, respectively, with the top side also playing host to the power/standby key. Considering the Fire Phone’s lack of tap-to-wake, that positioning isn’t the best, but the phone’s small stature combines with its home key to make unlocking a fairly simple affair.

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DSC02643The Fire Phone is powered by hardware with a very capable set of specs (2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 SoC, 2GB RAM) and comes in both 32GB and 64GB storage options that, along with Amazon’s cloud-based offerings, help make up for its lack of microSD expansion. Being an AT&T exclusive, it features full support for GSM/HSPA/LTE bands on the nation’s second-largest carrier, along with the expected preinstalled nanoSIM and 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac compatibility. Bluetooth 3.0 (rather than the now-standard 4.0 LE) is something of a disappointment, though.

That pile of specs is topped off by the Fire Phone’s display, a 4.7-inch, 720p LCD with a typical maximum brightness of 590 nits. While 1080p panels became standard for most flagships last year, and other manufacturers have begun churning out even higher-res smartphone displays since, we don’t mind the comparatively low pixel density here. For all the focus on ultra-fine panels these days, the Fire Phone’s 315 pixels per inch are still plenty for everything from reading to gaming. And the four special optical/IR cameras dotting the display’s perimeter enable a feature that makes its middling resolution much less noticeable.

Index

Software

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blockquote1That feature is called Dynamic Perspective, and it makes possible the best handheld 3D effect we’ve ever seen. While the “3D screen on a smartphone” trope is one that resurfaces every few years, usually with unfortunate results, Amazon spent a lot of time and money to ensure that its implementation was best-in-class. The four corner cameras constantly track the user’s face relative to the screen, in light or in darkness, continually readjusting the display’s perspective to give the Fire Phone an almost magical aspect. The result is a fun –if at times disorienting– depth effect that also includes some practical advantages: tilting the screen reveals details otherwise hidden, like the signal strength/battery life/status bar up top, helpful descriptors on menu items, or additional information about selected items on a map.

The Fire Phone hasn’t forgotten its accelerometer in all this, either: the phone comes equipped to interpret a series of gestures meant to make one-handed use easier. On the subtle side is the tilt-to-scroll functionality in the Silk Browser and other apps: leaning the device either backward or forward causes the page to slide up or down, with the scrolling speed directly related to the degree of lean (this is something we’ve seen before, but the crucial difference is that it actually works well here). On the less-subtle side: flicking the phone quickly to the right or left brings up the side panels present all throughout the OS. This gesture tends to make you look a little funny in public, and it’s less reliable on the whole, so thankfully those panels are also accessible with a thumb-swipe in from the bezel.

fire phone left panelThose panels are a highlight of FireOS 3.5, Amazon’s special fork of Android. On the home screen, the right-most pane provides a context-sensitive rundown of your day, from agenda items to the weather to recent text messages, while the left one serves as a springboard to various features and services on the device and in the cloud. The panes change based on which app is displayed: in messaging, the left panel is absent while the right-hand one offers photos to send as MMS. In the Kindle app, the left side offers a chapter list, while the right side provides X-Ray features like word definitions and character bios. It’s a very simple layout filled with very useful shortcuts.

That usefulness continues on the home screen, though in less consistent form. On the plus side, FireOS uses an easy-to-understand control paradigm: a carousel of oversized icons dominates the upper half of the home screen, with apps, books, movies, and other items sharing space on a seemingly never-ending ribbon you can thumb through from left to right. Down below each item, a context menu takes up the rest of the carousel’s active area, and it’s actionable: you can preview and delete emails and text messages right from the homescreen, for example, without ever launching the Mail or SMS apps. At top and bottom, respectively, are the familiar swipe-able notification area –complete with shortcut toggles– and the app tray, both of which serve as reminders of the FireOS’s Android origins. To make up for the absence of a back button, Amazon has created an up-swipe gesture from the bottom bezel to serve this purpose – an addictive, fun input that’ll have you fruitlessly up-swiping on phones long after trying out the Fire.

fire phone right panelOn the down side, the usability issues typical of a first-generation smartphone OS are here too. Positioning the carousel on top and the context menus down below looks good, but we wish it was inverted for usability’s sake; it’s awkward to constantly reach up to the ribbon to switch apps, especially when you haven’t used an app in a while and find yourself endlessly scrolling to get back to it. (The so-called “Quick Switch” function, accessible via a double-tap on the home key, is inconsistent in terms of which apps it displays.) Also, not all titles can take advantage of the action area below; instead of displaying recent tweets or updates, apps like Twitter and Facebook just display related apps available in the Amazon Appstore, which isn’t very helpful at all.

Speaking of the Appstore: if you’re like us, it’ll impress you at first with popular titles like Evernote, Spotify, Instagram and so on, titles that cater to the cloud-first lifestyle that many Amazon customers doubtless lead. There are even some cool games here that take advantage of the Fire’s Dynamic Perspective, like F18 Carrier Landing II and Monkey Buddy. But dig much deeper than that and you’re reminded that this isn’t the Google Play Store. Apps like Gmail, Google Maps, and Hangouts are nowhere to be found in Amazon’s marketplace. Despite its Google-sourced underpinnings, this ain’t no Android phone.

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To those of us heavily reliant on Google’s ecosystem, the Fire Phone feels a lot like Windows Phone: its stock apps are well designed, responsive, and attractive, so you don’t immediately mind the inconvenience of settling for what’s essentially a third-party solution. But the fact that many mobile sites identify the Fire Phone as an Android device and prompt you to “download the app instead!” –even when such an app doesn’t exist for the Fire Phone– is galling, and only serves to remind you of the limited catalog you’re forced to deal with if sideloading isn’t your thing. And you can forget about asking Amazon’s voice assistant to do anything more complex than calling someone; it’s effectively useless compared to competitors like Siri, Google Now, and Cortana.

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blockquote2If you’re one of those hardcore Amazonians we mentioned above, you’ll do much better on the Fire Phone. Amazon’s media offerings are much more impressive than its app selection, and the company has found a nice means of showcasing this with Firefly. The charming, sprite-laden piece of augmented reality has gotten something of a bum rap –its shopping focus is to thank for the Fire Phone’s uncharitable nickname of “overpriced bar code scanner” in some circles– but it can do more. Its song-identification software is more than good enough to replace Shazam, and we really like how quickly it can identify a movie or TV show, too. There are even plans to get Firefly to recognize artwork, wine bottle labels, and more. Sure, all that’s already possible with third-party apps, but having it just a button-press away right out of the box is very nice.

Reading a book on the Fire Phone’s Kindle app is also significantly more immersive than on any other phone, and the free year of Prime that Amazon gives Fire buyers as a gateway drug is also pretty awesome. Other features like ASAP, WhisperSync, Immersion Reading, and Second Screen make up a small fraction of the options that Amazon devotees will adore about this device. And the company’s Mayday feature stands ready to connect you with a real live human being should any part of the experience go amiss – though no matter how many times we tried getting this feature to work on our review unit, we found ourselves stymied.

Camera

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Shooting photos with the Fire Phone’s 13MP camera, like using most of its software, is a lot of fun. As we called out in our post showcasing photos shot with Fire, the 13MP module is a “custom-tuned camera system” with “a fast five-element wide aperture f/2.0 lens” and –we’ll ditch the quotes here because it’s actually awesome– optical image stabilization. The viewfinder is simple and can be launched with a touch of the side key, and it’s smart too: it suggests HDR when applicable, which can then be enabled with a tap. It also offers a fun lenticular shooting mode so you can create photos that respond to Dynamic Perspective, which can then be shared on apps like Spin My Planet.

Photo quality itself is … okay. The Fire Phone has the same exposure sensitivity issue as some other devices we’ve seen, so the focus point you select has a big effect on whether a photo is washed out or very dim. There’s also not much dynamic range; saturation is often on the low side; and while HDR does help with extreme gulfs between highlights and shadows, it also washes out colors and introduces still more fuzz to the picture. Low-light performance isn’t the worst we’ve seen, but it’s also nothing spectacular despite the optical image stabilization. On the bright side, all the photos you take are backed up for free on Amazon cloud storage.

Stabilization does come into play in video recording, which tops out at 1080p and usually produces smoother clips than on phones without OIS. The viewfinder experience, in particular, is far more fluid than on most non-stabilized devices, which gives video recording a luxuriant feel. That said, the focus tends to drift easily, the colors don’t pop quite as much as we’d like, and the microphone is very easy to cover up accidentally.

Index

Performance

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Using the Fire Phone for voice calling is a surprisingly good time. There’s great, warm sidetone in the earpiece, something we don’t see from many manufacturers these days. Hands-free enthusiasts should be fairly pleased as well: outdoors on a quiet day in loudspeaker mode, one caller said she couldn’t tell we were on a speakerphone. The top-and-bottom positioning of the speakers makes for some nice stereo effects when the Fire is held in landscape, but while they’re fairly loud, they’re also very tinny – so much so that we really don’t like using them if we don’t have to. Fortunately the Fire Phone comes with earbuds which rank among our favorite in-box accessories: they incorporate magnets to keep them stuck together when not in use, and a flat anti-tangle wire that conjures memories of linguine (al dente, natch).

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The Fire Phone is exclusive to AT&T Mobility, so you’ll be happy to know that our testing on Big Orange has gone quite well over our weeklong review period. LTE speeds initially weren’t as blazing-fast as we’ve become accustomed to, but they sped up substantially as the week wore on, and having coverage everywhere from the ‘burbs to the Boston subways is always nice.

Gaming is a real pleasure on such powerful hardware, and the Fire Phone handles graphically intense titles with aplomb – but you’ll definitely want to take a charger with you if you’re planning on anything close to heavy use. We haven’t once reached 4 hours of screen-on time with the Fire Phone’s embedded 2600 mAh battery, and charging it every night has been a non-negotiable reality of life. This point in particular annoys us more than others, as Amazon shamelessly quotes “uncompromised battery life” on its product page. While we’re using it more heavily than you probably will, we see plenty of compromise in this phone’s endurance, and we’re fairly sure you will too.

Index

Pros

+ Unprecedented Amazon integration with solid perks for “Amazonians”
+ FireOS is refreshing, smooth, and fun
+ Dynamic Perspective offers best 3D experience yet
+ Well crafted, comfortable hardware
+ Solid voice quality

Cons

 Ridiculous price
 Thin app ecosystem
 Poor to fair battery life
 Middling camera
 Unremarkable aesthetic design

Index

Pricing and Availability

In the United States, the Fire Phone is available exclusively from AT&T for an off-contract price of $649 and a 2-year contract price of $199 for the 32GB version. Upping the capacity to 64GB bumps the price to $749 and $299, respectively. The Fire Phone can also be had for monthly installment payments of $27 to $37 for 12 or 18 months via the AT&T Next payment plan, with specific price quotes available at AT&T’s website.

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Conclusion

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That pricing is the Fire Phone’s principal failing, in our eyes. We can see Amazon’s logic in this regard: it’s a Snapdragon 800-powered phone with a best-in-class 3D screen and innovative new software features, and you won’t find a better Amazon experience anywhere. But Fire also brings significant handicaps in ecosystem, endurance, and camera performance, along with the first-generation software shortcomings common to all newbie smartphones.

Those who value tight Google, Apple, or Microsoft integration will keenly feel the imperfections of the Fire Phone; it’s not a device for anyone who’s become dependent on an established ecosystem to get things done. So giving it the same price tag as its more-capable competition seems a mixture of overconfidence and naiveté that’s frankly surprising coming from the company that brought us the first truly affordable Android-based tablet. Amazon’s first smartphone isn’t a bad product, but it’s twice the price it should be.

That said, there’s certainly a lot to like here. Those who value fresh ideas, those not bullied into demanding conformity by the overwhelming cynicism of the jaded tech world, will appreciate the freshness the Fire Phone brings to a slowly stagnating space. For reading, for shopping, for existing within Amazon’s special corner of the internet, it literally doesn’t get any better than this. And for everything else … well, there’s always version two.

Index


Scored For Me

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!