Amazon Fire Phone in-depth review - Extinguished by gimmicks

 Amazon Fire Phone Review - Extinguished by gimmicks
3

Review by Sunetra Chakravati,10/14/2014 2:59:27 PM

8

out of 10

Performance

6

out of 5

Look and feel

6

out of 5

Ease of use

8

out of 5

Features

8

out of 5

Battery life

Pros:

Good quality screen | Impressive camera | Ideal for heavy Amazon users

Cons:

Unintuitive software | Major feature is a visual gimmick | Bland design

The Fire Phone by Amazon is unique for several important reasons. A 3D user interface which reacts to how you and the phone move; a system for receiving live and immediate technical help from Amazon staff, via webcam; a way of buying almost anything online by just taking a photograph of it.

Amazon Fire Phone: Look and Feel

Not a particularly striking phone, the Amazon Fire looks like any other handset on the market; it comes in black, has a glass front and back, plastic edges with a grippy rubber texture, and buttons for power, home and volume. The speaker grills look similar to those on the iPhone 6s and the plastic edges taper slightly at the back to make it more comfortable to hold.


At 160g it’s quite heavy - the iPhone 6 is 129g and has a larger screen - and at 8.9mm it isn’t particularly slim either. There isn’t much to write home about until you notice the four infrared cameras, each occupying a corner of the front panel…

Amazon Fire Phone: Dynamic Perspective

Staring at you a bit like one of George Orwell’s telescreens, the infrared cameras aren’t anywhere near as sinister and instead track your movement and position relative to the screen. This information, plus how you hold and move the phone, is used to create what Amazon calls Dynamic Perspective, a user interface which subtly moves around in relation to you.

Moving the phone, or adjusting your view of it, causes applications icons to tilt and lean, giving them a 3D effect; it’s undeniably clever, but I’m struggling to see how it could be in any way useful or beneficial over the static systems used by everyone else. A further feature, whereby a flick of your wrist to the left or right brings in hidden menus from the sides of the screen, is also strangely implemented.


Although accessing extra menus with a wrist flick is fine - it’s even quite responsive once you’ve learnt how it works - the trick doesn’t work everywhere. Sometimes there will be extra content hidden to the side of the screen, and in other apps there won’t be. Adding to the confusion is the lack of a back or multitasking button - as found flanking the home button of most Android handsets - so navigating around apps can be a pain.

I admire Amazon for trying something different with the Fire Phone - and to be honest an otherwise dull-looking handset needs something to spice it up - but Dynamic Perspective simply isn’t good enough. Even if it was much more obvious and as engaging as a virtual reality headset I’d still argue that menus and application icons don’t need to be jazzed up.


Amazon Fire Phone: Display

The Fire Phone’s 4.7-inch screen has a resolution of 720 x 1280 and a pixel density of 312 per inch. It’s exactly the same size as the iPhone 6 and has a very similar resolution; both screens can be cranked up to equal nea-retina-burning brightness and both handle glare and reflections well when used outside.

Where the iPhone’s screen is slightly warm in colour (whites have a slight yellow tinge to them), the Fire phone is cooler, adding a faint blue tinge to whites. The Amazon’s coolness isn’t as pronounced as many Samsung handsets, and it’s only really noticeable when compared side-by-side with another handset. It’s just as sharp as the iPhone 6, with excellent colour reproduction and viewing angles.


Amazon Fire Phone: Software and Performance

You’d have no idea that the Fire Phone is running Android. Just as Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet range run a heavily modified version of Google’s mobile software, so does the phone. This means an interface which puts Amazon’s services front and centre, and where your main point of call is a carousel of recently-opened apps on the home page.

A swipe in from the left edge - or a flick of the phone from left to right - opens access to your apps, games, music, videos, photos, books, documents and more; these links also take you to Amazon’s web stores where content can be bought and downloaded. A swipe up from the home screen reveals all installed apps, while a swipe down opens your notifications and gives access to screen brightness and other quick settings like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Unique to the Fire Phone is Firefly, an app which uses the camera to recognise products sold by Amazon. Show it a book, DVD or other product and if recognised you’ll be offered a link to where you can buy it from the online retailer. We found the system a bit hit-and-miss. It managed to identify books after a few seconds, but failed when it came to various phones and tablets in our office - including, awkwardly, my own Kindle ebook reader.

Firefly fared better with phone numbers, names and email addresses written on business cards. It also recognises QR codes and website URLs, as well as music, films and TV programmes.

Finally for unique features is Mayday, which is a hotline to Amazon’s customer support service. Hit the icon and you’re quickly entered into a video chat with a staff member who can talk you through any problems, or explain features of the phone. You can see them but they cannot see you; they can annotate your screen and even control your device, but they cannot see any passwords or sensitive information you enter.


The fire’s 2,400mAh battery is good for a day to a day-and-a-half of average use, although it really depends on how you use the phone. Using Firefly for a prolonged amount of time saw the battery tumble (and the rear get quite warm), for instance.

Amazon Fire Phone: Camera

A 13-megapixel sensor with optical image stabilisation makes for a good rear camera, with low-light performance in particular helping it to stand out from the competition. Amazon claims the optical image stabilisation means the shutter can be held open four times longer than normal, capturing more light and therefore producing better low-light shots without relying on the flash.

However, the Fire’s camera app is very basic. You can switch the flash and HDR feature on or off, take panoramic shots, and use a feature called Lenticular, which shoots gif-type files with multiples images. It’s all rather basic, and although the volume up button doubles as the shutter button, I often found myself accidentally covering the lens when reaching for it. A dedicated button of the left of the phone opens the camera with a short press, or Fireflywith a long one. Finally, Full HD 1080p video recording is possible with the Fire.

The Verdict

First off, Amazon should be applauded for trying something different with the Fire Phone. It has a host of truly unique features which make the handset stand out from a crowded market if very similar devices. But unfortunately this where the praise mostly ends.

The Fire has a fairly dull design which is heavy and quite chunky compared to other phones costing £400; its software is unintuitive and the 3D effects created by Dynamic Perspective add nothing to the experience. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple.

Firefly works better, but acts as little more than a shortcut to giving Amazon money, while the lack of Google Play means users miss out on many applications - not to mention Google services like Gmail, Maps and Chrome.

At £400 SIM-free, there are some much better options out there.