Amazon Fire Phone Review, A Dynamic Perspective

Design, Build Quality, and User Experience

Amazon’s various device releases have routinely impressed from a hardware and design standpoint, over the years. E-readers the world over have attempted the mimic the success of the Kindle line, and the Kindle Fire tablet range is formidable as well. Not surprisingly, the Fire Phone is well built. Despite mid-spec innards and a clear aim for the mainstream (as opposed to the ever-picky hardcore user group), the phone is sleek, sturdy, dense, and built to last. It’s an all-black affair that has a single, small Amazon logo on the rear and nothing but cameras and a home button on the front.

Along the edges, you’ll find a power button up top alongside a 3.5mm headphone jack, a micro-USB 2.0 port for charging and syncing on the bottom, and a clean edge on the right side. The left side is home to a conventional volume rocker as well as a dedicated camera button — in fact, that button can be held down to start Firefly, which is Amazon’s built-in product recognition tool. Just point the camera at a product or let it hear a song going on around you, and it’ll pull up a purchase page. Handy, but obviously a funnel to get you into buying mode through Amazon.

Not much to look at but that's FireFly in action,
scanning our Blue mic.

The phone is just as heavy as the HTC One (M8), but the slick finish of it means that getting a grip can be tough. The phone cruised off of our couch armrest on more than one occasion. It’s great for slipping in and out of pockets, but if you’re prone to being a little clumsy, you’ll want to invest in a case. There’s also speakers along the top and bottom of the device, which adds an interesting aural element; we don’t actively listen to music through external phone speakers, but those who occasionally need a mini boombox will appreciate it.

The 4.7-inch glossy LCD is nothing to write home about. The 1280 x 720 screen resolution hints of yesteryear.  It’s a solid display and gets the job done, but it certainly doesn’t pop the way some flagship phone screens do. The real magic of the Fire Phone is in the Dynamic Perspective technology, which relies on invisible infrared illumination, a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, barometer, proximity sensor, and an ambient light sensor. You’ll notice what appears to be four front-facing cameras in the each of the four corners of the phone’s face, and those are what power the system.

In a nutshell, this enables users to lean the phone in various directions to get a slightly different view of what’s onscreen, and it also enables a “Peek” gesture as well. For instance, when looking at restaurants on a map, leaning the phone to one side will illuminate Yelp reviews. While nifty, this feature has two pitfalls. For one, Dynamic Perspective chews up a noticeable amount of system resources. When we disabled Dynamic Perspective, the phone’s performance increased substantially — everything from screen swipes to app loading sped up. We prefer raw speed over visual glitz but this is really a user preference area and the phone still remained relatively snappy with the feature enabled.

Secondly, Peek is sometimes frustrating in use. It’s nonsensical that maps would hide useful elements of information such as Yelp reviews until you lean the phone in one direction or the other. Why not just show that information at all times? It would be one thing if this were somehow useful, but Peek seems to hide information in exchange for making use of Dynamic Perspective. Also, there's no "Back" or "Menu" key in many areas of the OS. Instead, you're asked to swipe up on the screen to go back, which certainly isn't as handy as having a dedicated back button.

The 2400mAh battery is midrange by today’s standards, and indeed, the Fire Phone experienced faster battery drain than we were prepared for (more on that in the battery section). Thankfully, 32GB is the minimum onboard storage offered, though there’s no microSD slot for further expansion. There’s a 13MP rear camera along with a 2.1MP front-facing camera, and both are capable of capturing 1080p video at 30 frames per second.

The basics are here —  Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth 3.0, NFC, GPS, etc. — though there’s an interesting availability quirk to consider. It’s only available through AT&T. These carrier exclusives aren’t as prevalent as they once were, but that’s a huge issue for some. Unless you’re already an AT&T customer, there’s little reason to consider jumping ship. There’s no word yet on when the phone will find its way onto other networks, though it has been noted that AT&T's exclusive isn't forever.

As for software, Fire OS 3.5.1 is running the show. This is a forked version of Android that anyone who has used a Kindle Fire tablet will be familiar with. Android underpinnings are masked with Amazon’s software, which presents another problem. There is no access to the Google Play Store on this phone. What does that mean? No Gmail app, no Chrome browser, and more limited Amazon app support. Yes, the mainstays such as Yelp, Evernote, Pandora, Facebook, and Twitter are available through the Amazon Appstore, but let’s be clear: the Fire Phone is based on an entirely new ecosystem, though based on Android, so app port efforts are likely minimal.

Mayday is another unique feature, enabling those who need help to get near-instant video chat access to an Amazon representative. The company is taking advantage of its massive server system to offer free, unlimited Cloud Drive storage for all photos taken with Fire phone. Yes, that’s in full resolution. (Are you hearing this, Apple?)

If you're curious as to what this Dynamic Perspective looks like in person, have a gander at the screenshot above. In this shot, the screen was tilted, and you can see the icons shift a bit. In particular, the "Shop Amazon" icon really makes clear the visual change. On menu screens, it's easy to see that you don't really gain anything by having icons transition. It's a visual trick, but it comes with a slight impact on performance. Seeing icons in a new way is novel, but that novelty wears off pretty quickly.

These days, a phone's app ecosystem means just as much (if not more) than the hardware/feature set. Amazon utilizes an edition of Android that's so heavily modified that Google won't allow access to its Play Store. So, you're stuck with the above: the Amazon Appstore. It's probably the fourth most robust ecosystem out there, following iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, but that's not saying a whole lot. Plenty of holes exist, and in general, the level of app availability here is lacking compared to what you'll find for iOS and Android. That's partly due to a smaller amount of people having access to the Appstore, and partly because this is the first smartphone to actually use this ecosystem. Again, however, mainstream users that only rely on a few primary apps, will likely have what they need with the Fire Phone.

One of the few noteworthy uses of Dynamic Perspective is shown above. That's an optional lock screen, and it's certainly different than your average lock screen found elsewhere. If game developers tap into what's possible in a similar way, there's no doubt that Amazon's Fire Phone would be a unique beast when it comes to mobile gaming. However, it's tough to say if any devs will devote resources to a perspective shifting version of their title that can't be used on any other mobile platform.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that each Fire Phone ships with a free year of Amazon Prime, and those who are already Prime members will see their membership extended gratis for another 12 months without charge.

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