Amazon Fire Phone review: Amazon's gutsy phone fails to ignite
The Amazon Fire Phone is a mixed bag of visual and shopping treats and small disappointments that nevertheless add up. Here's what's good and bad about the e-tail giant's brave first phone.
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 .
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
The 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera is nothing special, but to be fair, none of them really are. The universe just does not want us to take selfies. I actually don't mind the slightly grayed-out airbrushed effect as much as I should. Sue me.
Performance: Speed and battery life
4G LTE speeds were smokin' when I tested the on AT&T using the diagnostic Speedtest.net app in San Francisco, blazing at around 38 and 40 Mbps down and 11 to 19 Mbps up. In real-world tests, it landed within the rest of the pack of smartphones, downloading CNET's mobile app in about 10 seconds, the mobile website in about 5, and the desktop site in about 13 seconds.
Unfortunately, the Fire Phone doesn't exactly crackle with energy when it comes to processing power. Passmark's diagnostic test measured a score of 3,642, compared to the Samsung Galaxy S5's score of 4,355 (the S5 has a Snapdragon 801 chipset). In real life, there were some noticeable delays, like a 38-second boot time (compared to a 25-second standard) and up to 5 seconds to load the camera (which in most cases takes 2.5 or 3 seconds).
The Fire Phone also sometimes tripped up when navigating around, especially when loading up the lock screen. Touch response also straggled in a squiggle test, in which I zig-zagged my finger across the screen to check lag. The Silk browser crashed on me once or twice. It happens, and I wouldn't flame the phone because of it, but it does indicate some performance issues are at play. Speaking of play, also noticed delays with Dynamic Perspective in games like To-Fu Fury. Still, other things were fast, like the camera's shot-to-shot time.
Amazon Fire Phone performance tests
|Install CNET mobile app (5MB)
|Load up CNET mobile app
|CNET mobile site load
|CNET desktop site load
|Boot time to lock screen
|Camera boot time
|Camera, shot-to-shot time
|1.5 seconds, longer with autofocus, no flash. Burst mode capable
When it comes to thermal dissipation, this phone is a scorcher, which is especially apparent when you stuff the phone in your back pocket. (Insert joke about "hot seat" here.) Flaming-hot phones make me nervous, especially when I'm holding one up to my ear, though if you're not using it 24-7 like I've been, the mercury won't shoot sky-high.
The phone seemed to burn through battery too, which is surprising considering its 2,400mAh ticker. To be fair, I did use the phone heavily during my testing period, so it's not shocking that its power pack would ebb at a faster rate. This is absolutely a phone you have to charge each day, especially if you stream a substantial amount of music and video.
Yet, the Fire Phone lasted 17 hours 48 minutes during our talk time battery drain test, which is very good, and 12 hours 22 minutes of looping video playback. The higher capacity in these tests versus real-world use suggest that Dynamic Perspective could be the power-sucking culprit.
According to FCC tests, the Fire Phone has a digital SAR of 1.34 watts/kilogram.
Call quality is a point of strength for this device. Volume sounded warm and natural on medium level when I tested it in San Francisco. Occasionally, voices sounded a little hot at peak levels, but dropping the volume a notch solved it. A low, sizzling noise permeated each call but wasn't distracting, especially in noisier environments.
On his end, my chief testing partner didn't like the call as much as I did, saying said I sounded slightly unnatural and perhaps a little flat; and definitely not premium. He, too, heard a low background hush. On the plus side, my speech was clear and volume was strong.
Speakerphone quality was also quite strong, with robust volume. My partner sounded distant and tinny, with a little echo and buzz. That might not sound too great, but I'd take it over a lot of other speakerphones I've listened through.
On his end, my buddy said I sounded clear and strong. He still heard the white noise, but complimented the Fire Phone's echo control and rated it an A- or A.
Buy it or skip it?
You have to hand it to Amazon for digging into smartphones in a big way. The Fire Phone's pioneering tracking cameras and stunning 3D lock screens make it one of the most ambitious devices this industry has seen in a long time, particularly because Amazon has tried to spread the benefits of Dynamic Perspective throughout the phone's mapping and navigation. You can easily live without either, and the visuals do burn through battery and exact a performance toll.
That said, you need to be a hardcore Amazonian to buy this phone -- someone who already has (and loves) a Kindle Fire tablet, a Fire TV, and Amazon Prime -- and you already have your music, video, and e-book collection firmly in the Amazon ecosystem. You also need to be prepared to live with some first-gen roughness around the edges, such as battery life, performance, and screen resolution that are all well short of best-in-class.
The app situation is also a mixed bag. You're giving up access to the real Android Google Play store. And with the possible exception of the cool Mayday feature -- click the icon, get free human support in about 15 seconds -- there aren't any killer apps or Dynamic Perspective games, and even portions of Amazon's Firefly shopping app are already built into its Android and iOS app (where it's called "Flow"). Likewise, you can get the Amazon Music, shopping, and Kindle apps on Android and iOS, as well. (Amazon Instant Video, available on iOS and Fire Phone, remains absent on Android, however.)
That said, it's early days yet. More apps will come -- though envisioning a frenemy like Google bring its keystone apps to this rival platform seems like wishful thinking -- as will firmware updates, performance improvements, and -- eventually -- price cuts. But with rivals like Samsung, HTC, LG, and Apple, the Fire Phone will have its work cut out for it. Hopefully Amazon will work out all the kinks in time for the second generation.
Buy the Amazon Fire Phone if you:
- Crave a new OS experience
- Like a phone you can use with one hand
- Regularly shop Amazon
- Often use Amazon Music or Instant Video
- Want a free year of Amazon Prime (if you act quickly)
Skip the Fire Phone if you:
- Rely on Google services daily, like Google Now, Google Voice, and Hangouts
- Use a variety of specialized apps
- Require long battery life
- Are on a budget
- Do not want to pay a yearly Amazon Prime membership