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Amazon Fire Phone review: Amazon's gutsy phone fails to ignite

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The Good The Amazon Fire Phone has cool "3D" visuals and a fresh OS design, and it hits the sweet spot for one-handed operation. It has deep, convenient integration with Amazon services.

The Bad Although it costs the same (or more) as competing Android and iPhone models, the Fire Phone delivers a less extensive app store and service experience and more sluggish performance. Battery life is disappointing.

The Bottom Line Despite its daring aspirations and 3D-like party tricks, the brave, new Fire Phone's lack of Google services will alienate anyone who expects the flexibility of a modern Android phone.

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6.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

Studded with four motion-tracking cameras and crammed with the retail giant's membership perks, Amazon's 4.7-inch Fire Phone strides into the hypercompetitive smartphone arena armed with industry firsts, including 3D-like Dynamic Perspective visuals, an integrated "Firefly" scanning button, and a real-time Mayday help desk. Amazon is sweetening the deal -- for a limited time -- with a free year of Amazon Prime for both new and current subscribers. For the most part, these bells and whistles work as advertised, delivering some notable features you won't find on other smartphones.

What doesn't work is the premium retail price, the so-so performance, and the slightly sub-prime specs. The $200 on-contract price with US carrier AT&T has already dropped to $1 since the phone's debut (it's still $650 off-contract), and the phone costs £33 or £48 on-contract in the UK through O2. (There's no Australian pricing or availability yet.) The quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor struggles to respond, battery life sputters out quicker than I'd like, and the phone also throws off enough heat to melt a pat of butter. Also, as the Fire Phone (like Amazon's tablets) uses a heavily modified version of Android, the limited app store blocks Google Play services. That last issue will be a deal-breaker for many, because you you won't be able to access popular services like Google Now and Google Maps that you'd find with a "true" Android phone (or an iPhone).

The Fire Phone is daring, aspirational, and pleasing to use. But you need to be all-in on the Amazon ecosystem to fully appreciate it, and even then, it's not delivering a lot of Amazon features that you can't get on rival products. When the Fire Phone eventually gets its inevitable markdown -- say, $99 or less on contract -- and Amazon delivers more must-have apps to its app store, the Fire Phone may be more recommendable beyond hard-core Prime addicts. In the meantime, fervent Android fans (and anyone else looking for the best deal) are better off with an LG G3 , Samsung Galaxy S5 , or HTC One M8 .

Dapper design

Look at the Amazon Fire Phone, and four eyes peer back. Infrared cameras in each corner track the position of your head in relation to the display, creating a sort of 3D effect in hot spots throughout the phone. These cameras form the Fire Phone's most distinguishable physical characteristic (apart from the Amazon logo on the back) in an otherwise indistinct-looking black-on-black body. In other words, this phone looks like almost every other smartphone in its class.

Amazon's aesthetic is all sleek distinction, with a tall, relatively narrow chassis (5.5 x 2.6 x 0.35 inches; 140 x 66 x 9 millimeters), glass backing, and gently rounded spines. The dimensions lend themselves to easy pocketing and one-handed slinging, though any glass backplate is in danger of breaking, and smudges are inevitable. While its 5.6-ounce (160 gram) heft makes it feel sturdy, a tumble has already mildly dented the top-left corner.

Amazon's Fire Phone looks tailored and sleek, for those who like their phones to blend in. Josh Miller/CNET

The Fire Phone's 1,280x720p HD screen isn't as high-resolution as other handsets with 1080p HD or quad HD displays, but it has a respectable 315ppi pixel density. I really had to strain my eyes to see much difference between the Fire Phone and HTC One M8 when comparing 4K wallpaper and zoomed-in lettering.

In terms of external features, you'll find a small, oblong home button along the bottom edge, and a volume rocker, SIM card tray, and convenience key on the left spine. Double-click the home button to view recent apps, and long-press for bare-bones voice commands, like placing a call or text. Similarly, a tap on the convenience key turns on the camera (any button on the left edge takes a photo after that) and a long-press launches the built-in Firefly scanning app (but more on that later). Unfortunately, you can't reprogram the convenience key as you can on Samsung's Galaxy S5 Active if you'd like that side button to do anything else.

The screen lock button sits up top and the Micro-USB charger lives down below; the lens to the right of the Fire Phone's speaker grille serves up selfies, and the camera on the phone's back has a sidekick in an LED flash. A sealed device, there's no popping off the back cover, but 32GB of internal storage (with a 64GB optional upgrade for $750) is more than enough for most.

Dynamic Perspective: A new angle

You call it 3D, Amazon calls it Dynamic Perspective. This mouthful refers to the phone's visual effects and details that flicker in and out, depending on how you tilt the phone.

You see Dynamic Perspective in lock screens you can peer in and around (some look more like dioramas, truth be told), on home screen widgets and app-tray icons, and in secondary lines of text tucked within menu bars and search results as you angle your eyes. Maps and certain games (like To-Fu Fury and Saber's Edge) also include the shifting graphics, as do browser pages you can autoscroll as you tilt the phone up and down. Worry not: if this annoys you, you can turn it all off.

The Dynamic Perspective lock screen looks great, though some designs are more immersive than others. Josh Miller/CNET

In the camera, Dynamic Perspective appears in the "lenticular" camera mode, piecing together multiple photos of a scene into a moving image that resembles a jerky hologram or GIF.

Is Dynamic Perspective a gimmick? A little bit. You certainly don't need it, but parts of it look really cool. Amazon deserves credit for trying to spark a new hardware trend and for extending it into multiple aspects of the operating system, not only the 3D lock screen -- but, out of the gate, it still feels more like a party trick than something that changes the way you'll use your phone.

Firing up Amazon's OS

If you're familiar with Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, then you can guess that the Fire Phone OS has its own character, even though it's founded on Android code. A row of oversize widgets makes up the home screens, with context such as app recommendations or your browsing history stacked below.

I like the look -- it's intuitive and visual, though there'd be more room for suggestions if the widgets were smaller, and I wish you could simply swipe or X-out a widget to clear it (instead, you have to press and hold). Even though you can pin icons to the carousel, the Fire Phone doesn't always snap open to the first one, the primary home page, as you expect it should.

Amazon's widgety carousel stands in for home screens. Josh Miller/CNET

Beyond that, navigation remains mostly the same as you'd see on traditional Android phones, with support for folders and an app tray -- swipe up to reveal it. Amazon has incorporated gestures that slide open the notifications tray and menus on either side of the screen, though you can also swipe with your digits as well. Swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go back.

A basic voice assistant makes calls, sends texts and email, and can search the Web.

If you get lost at any point along the way, Amazon's video tutorial is very complete, and its live Mayday chat puts you face-to-screen with a customer service rep who can draw on your display to guide you step by step.

Apps and ecosystem: Don't think 'Android'

Just as Amazon designed its own interface, it also takes control over the app store and services. A yearly Amazon Prime subscription ($99; $50 for students; £79; Amazon doesn't offer Prime in Australia) gives you faster shipping, a wide selection of Instant Video and music downloads, and a free e-book a month from the Kindle lending library. Even if you're not a Prime member -- or if you want content that's outside of the Prime bucket -- you can still get it, you'll just have to pay. Luckily, free photo backup for life comes with the phone regardless of your Prime status.

Amazon's video and music stores have strong catalogs, but you shouldn't necessarily expect a lot of competing services to be available. Because the Fire Phone doesn't hook into the Google Play app store, you can access only Amazon-compatible apps. That includes (at launch, anyway) Netflix, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Pandora, but not Vudu or YouTube.

Amazon also adds in perks like X-Ray, which does things like gives you song lyrics in the right-hand menu, and Miracast syncing that lets you watch stuff from the Fire Phone on any other compatible device, say the PlayStation or Amazon Fire TV.

Don't hold your breath for Android features like Google Now. The Fire Phone isn't compatible with Google Play services. Josh Miller/CNET

If the Fire's lack of Google Play services douses your enthusiasm, this isn't the phone for you. It means no Google app store (or video or music downloads), no Google Now, and no Waze real-time feedback on the map. In addition, Google hasn't made standalone apps available for the Fire Phone/Kindle store at the time of this review, so you'll need to find a way to live without YouTube, Google Voice, Hangouts, and Drive. (But you can easily integrate the calendar, contacts, and email accounts.) Ditto Endomondo, Runkeeper, Clash of Clans, and others.

That said, Amazon's Appstore does have a lot of apps I'd want to use most days: like CNET (natch), my bank, my airline, Skype, Yelp, Groupon, Instagram, Tumblr, Open Table, Airbnb, Hotel Tonight, Evernote, Vine, Kayak, Flipboard, Trip Advisor, and TripIt. It also comes with some popular gaming titles, though there are plenty of apps and games that haven't yet made the jump. Expert users can "sideload" some third-party Android apps, but sideloading premier Google-made programs won't work.

For the most part, I could do all the basic things I needed to do: navigate with Here Maps, manage my inboxes, and communicate on social networks. Still, with so much of my personal and professional life attached to Google, the loss of those apps meant I had to establish workarounds to get my tasks done.

Little things also got in the way, like absent social media alerts that made it hard to keep up a conversation, lack of Priority Inbox filtering that cluttered up the email app, and loose ends like a Facebook Chat Head option that did nothing when I pressed it. Amazon has said it's working with third-party developers to fix some of these known issues.

Firefly: More than shopping

If the thought of scanning-versus-typing fills you with a warm glow, you'll love Firefly. Programmed into the camera key, you set the item within the frame and wait for the twinkling lights to home in on your object (hint: you can also launch Firefly from the app tray).

Sure, you can quickly find shopping items, but Firefly also packs in an optical character reader and a sound database for movies and tunes. Josh Miller/CNET

Shopping for stuff on Amazon is the obvious use case, and as an Amazon customer myself, it came in handy. However, you can also scan an email address or phone number to quickly ingest it into your address book, and identify songs, TV shows, and movies.

I was impressed that Firefly pegged almost everything I threw at it, even when items remained in their packages and bar codes were somewhat obscured. Firefly's features aren't new -- in fact, you can find every feature in some combination of preloaded and third-party apps for any OS, including some of Amazon's. The difference here is that Amazon packaged it all together and made it launchable with a button press.

Camera and video

Amazon keeps camera options spare on the 13-megapixel shooter, letting you swap between front and rear cameras for videos and stills, ignite the flash, and turn on HDR, panorama, and lenticular modes (see above). At least you'll find a full complement of photo-editing tools in the photo gallery, a plus. It'd be nice to have more say-so over images in the photo gallery, like assigning them to folders on the device (you can arrange them online through Cloud Drive).

The 13-megapixel camera options are bare-bones, but the images are nice. Josh Miller/CNET

Image quality itself was more than decent, though not spectacular. Photos are absolutely usable for sharing with loved ones and even printing onto a mug, though edges were a little soft, exposure was off, details blended together, and colors tended to fade compared to real-life scenes.

Video capture in 1080p was smooth and audio was loud, though the camera struggled to adjust to some outdoor lighting conditions, blinking between exposures even when I held the phone absolutely still.

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