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

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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.

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It's possible to coax great detail and color balance from the Fire Phone. This was one of the best of many flower attempts. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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In tricky lighting situations, the Fire Phone sometimes blew out whites. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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Although the photo is nice, it lacks crisp, defined edges. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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Colors are a little grayed-out here on this front-facing image, but I don't actually mind in this case. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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The standard studio shot threw a brownish cast on the scene. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance: Speed and battery life

4G LTE speeds were smokin' when I tested the Fire Phone on AT&T using the diagnostic 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.

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The Fire Phone performed well on diagnostic speed and benchmarking tests. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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) 10.4 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 3.8 seconds
CNET mobile site load 5.3 seconds
CNET desktop site load 12.5 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 38.2 seconds
Camera boot time 5.3 seconds
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

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.

Amazon Fire Phone call sample

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

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