What is the Amazon Fire Phone?It’s not often, but every now and then a smartphone arrives that shakes us out of the endless cycle of sequel devices with incremental spec upgrades and slightly bigger screens. The Amazon Fire _phone_ is one such device.
Unlike the Kindle readers and the early Kindle Fire tablets, this isn’t a cut-price gadget aiming to change the market and lower the point of entry, it is a fully-fledged, premium-priced smartphone aiming to go straight in and compete with the upcoming iPhones 6, Galaxy S5 and and HTC One M8.
The Fire _phone_ is on sale in the US for $649 and on contract via AT&T, but Amazon hasn’t announced plans for a wider release.
Amazon Fire Phone: DesignAnyone familiar with Amazon’s popular range of Kindle Fire tablets will have a fair idea of what to expect from the Fire Phone. It has a reassuringly heft and a solid, sturdy feel to it, but falls a little short when compared to super premium build of handsets like the HTC One M8 and iPhone 5S.
Its deep black chassis is adorned by a single sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 on both the front and rear. The rubberised grip on the sides the Fire phone adds to the comfort level, but the edges have a pronounced angular feel that can be almost sharp and a little awkward to begin with.
There are five aluminium buttons, also black. The power/display button sits on the top left corner and with a one handed grip it’s a little awkward to access. The home button is the only one on the face. Finally, on the left side sits the volume rockers and the camera shutter button. Pressing the camera button takes you straight to the capture screen even when the phone is locked, so there’s less chance you’ll miss a shot.
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Speaking of cameras, the Fire phone has something no other phone on the market does. Five front facing cameras. One of these is the 2.1-megapixel video calling/selfie cam, while the other four lenses (one in each corner) are motion sensors that assist the Dynamic Perspective tool, the Fire Phone’s unique user interface. The rear-facing camera and LED flash sit in the top right corner, behind the Gorilla Glass.
At 160g it weighs exactly the same as the metal-clad HTC One M8 and is slightly heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S5 (145g), both of which have larger screens. In terms of thickness it sits between those two top-end Android phones. Its 8.95mm girth compares with the 8.1mm S5 and 9.35mm M8.
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Amazon Fire Phone: ScreenThe Fire phone arrives with a 4.7-inch IPS LCD display, falling slightly below the current craze for handsets that have crept north of 5-inches. It also has a 720p HD (1280 x 720) resolution, again less than the typical 1080p resolution of top phones.
This also means you won’t enjoy the Full HD 1080p movies from the Amazon Prime Instant Video service, which is bundled in with the phone, to their fullest. Video streaming performance was great and reliable over Wi-Fi and 4G data, though, and at this size you probably won’t notice the difference in quality. Indeed, the pixel density is still an over-par 312 pixels per inch (ppi), only slightly less than the 326ppi of the iPhone 5S.
Amazon does include and ambient light sensor and Dynamic Image contrast, which promises better performance in outdoor conditions. Following our tests, we can attest to the validity of this. It remained visible even on a particularly bright South Florida afternoon even with Sunglasses. Compared to the iPhone 5’s Retina Display in the same conditions, we found the Fire phone performed considerably better.
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Colours are bright and vibrant, something immediately evidenced by the default lockscreen scene of a forest, which jumps off the display thanks to the neat Dynamic Perspective UI tool, which we’ll get into shortly. Text looks crisp and clear even at short distances, while the Gorilla Glass 3 should ensure it stays relatively free of scratches and scrapes along the way.
Overall though, despite offering adequate performance, the Fire Phone’s display is a bit of a let down. Considering the SIM-free cost is $649 and akin to the absolute best handsets on the market, there’s no reason consumers should settle for anything less than Full HD, especially with QHD displays such as the one within the LG G3 will soon become commonplace.
Amazon Fire: Software and Fire OS 3.5The Fire Phone’s unique selling point comes not from its solid, yet bog-standard, design, nor its adequate screen technology. It’s all in the software, the custom user interface and the way it all ties in with the phone’s front-facing motion sensors.
The phone runs on Android but, like the Kindle Fire, it’s not something you’ll necessarily recognise as being a Google device. The Fire OS 3.5 is a completely forked version of the operating system, with a completely custom user interface.
A carousel and app drawer
The unique experience begins on the home page, with the carousel of recently-used applications that allows users to scan left and right through their recent activity without delving through app menus.
One of the key advantages of this is the ability to select, for example, an email from that portion of the carousel without heading into the Email application first. Items like your recently viewed products on Amazon or recently taken photos can also be opened in this manner.
There are two further elements to the Homescreen. A swipe from the left edge brings up a menu offering quick access to apps, games, music, videos, the internet, shopping and more, while a swipe from the right edge brings up app specific information depending.
For example, within the Prime Instant Video app, it’ll bring up recommendations, while the Calendar app will show upcoming appointments. If you’re shopping (as Amazon hopes you will be) it’ll showcase items other viewers frequently bought.
The right hand tilt menu in Amazon Prime Instant Video (left) and the browser (right)
When using the Silk Browser, the right panel shows sections for the website you’re visiting (BBC shows news, sport, etc.), but perhaps the most useful integration is within messages, where a right tilt will reveal photos that can be easily attached with a single tap.
However, what really makes this unique is the Dynamic Perspective tool that allows users to access these menus with tilting gestures rather than manual swipes. This is all made possible thanks to those four motion sensing cameras.
Amazon made a lot out of this when revealing the device and with good reason. A tilt to the left will always open the left menu, while a tilt back to the right will close it. The same goes for the right menu.
Maps app without (left) and with (right) Peek activated
It has also integrated another innovation called Peek, which allows you to glean further information about an item or object just by tilting the device slightly. For example, in the Photos app enabling Peek will show when the pics were snapped and in Maps (see above), it’ll reveal the name of businesses and their Yelp score.
The idea is to make the phone easier to use with one hand and, although it takes a little getting used to, it works pretty well. Initially we found ourselves moving our heads to compensate for the display tilt.
Peek and Tilt are augmented by an auto-scroll feature that allows users to tilt the phone backwards to move through a book or web page. It’s quite sensitive and takes a little mastering but works well and plays into that simple, one-handed experience Amazon is going for.
The rest of the UI is straightforward enough. A quick swipe up compensates for the lack of a back button, swiping up from the docked app icons launches the app menu, while dragging down from the top of the screen reveals recent notifications and quick settings like Wi-Fi, display brightness, Bluetooth, etc.
Quick Settings and Amazon's Firefly app for scanning objects
It also features quick access to Amazon’s MayDay customer service tool, which connects you to a representative via a video call. As Brits this seems way too forward, awkward and scary to ever use. Besides, whomever you get is going to be far less interesting than the flirty redhead Amazon portrays in its ads.
Speaking of assistants, the Amazon phone has a Siri-like personal assistant, which allows users to hold down the home button and speak to make calls, send emails and set appointments, etc. Unfortunately, it works while the display is locked and we triggered it while the device was in our pockets multiple times.
Notifications need some work, too. Often you’ll receive an alert, but the Fire phone doesn’t do a very good job of allowing users to see where and whom it was from. An email, message and missed call icon shows up on the lock screen, but otherwise you have to go searching.
All in all, though, a few quibbles aside, it’s a neat effort from Amazon that helps the Fire phone stand alone from the rest of the smartphone crowd. However you should be under no illusions. This phone and its interface is here for one reason: For you to continue parting with your cash after you’ve parted with your cash. Amazon itself admits the Fire phone is for its “most engaged customers” and the experience plays out as such.
Amazon Fire Phone: PerformanceUpon first testing the Fire phone we were a little perturbed by its sluggish performance, compared with some of the hotter handsets on the market. It just seemed a little sticky.
Anyway, our fears were soon resolved by an out-of-the-box software update to v3.5.1, which saw performance improve significantly. And so it should. The device is running the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, clocked at 2.2GHz, which keeps things moving along at a fair old clip. It also has 2GB of RAM, ensuring multi-tasking is handled easily and those Dynamic gestures work in time with your tilts and twists.
The graphics are handled by the more-than-capable Adreno 330 chip, helping to keep those dynamic, interactive lock screen wallpapers looking sweet. All-in-all we were impressed with the performance of the phone as apps never lagged or crashed. It does tend to run a little warm during heavy use, though.
Amazon Fire Phone: Apps and GamesVery early on you realise the soul purpose of the Fire phone is to lock you into the Amazon ecosystem. The Dynamic Perspective tool is perfectly tailored to chilled-out shopping through the Amazon.com app. A quick flip here, a slight tilt to reveal photos of an item in full screen, a quick swipe to return to the previous page… it’s effortless. Indeed the Left homescreen menu is absolutely loaded with quick access to Amazon’s portals like Kindle books, Newstand magazines, the App Store, Games, Documents and more.
It’s an Android phone, but not as we know it.
With that in mind, those buying this phone must accept that few of the benefits of Android are available. There’s no Google Made apps, for a start. No Google Now, no Hangouts, no Maps, no YouTube, no Gmail, no Google Camera interface, no Google Drive and so on. Amazon has its own versions of many of these and Amazon Maps is perfectly adequate, but there’s no real replacement for something like YouTube.
However, despite the lack of Google apps, most of the other big third-party hitters are available via the Amazon App Store. There’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, Skype, WhatsApp, Netflix, Tumblr, Vine, Evernote, you name it. Naturally, the store isn’t quite as populated as the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store, but it’s by no means bereft of big name apps.
In terms of games, you’ll be able to play the likes of Candy Crush Saga, Cut the Rope 2, Minecraft, Angry Birds, Temple Run and Plants vs Zombies, but the catalogue is certainly, shall we say, less dense.
Amazon Fire Phone: CameraThe Fire phone may not have a full HD screen, the very latest generation processors as wide a range of apps, but the firm certainly hasn’t skimped in the camera department. It has included a 13-megapixel rear sensor with optical image stabilisation, LED flash, powerful autofocus and a mighty speedy f/2 lens.
As we mentioned earlier in the review, the camera can be accessed from the lockscreen by pressing the camera button. However, it’s not quite as fast acting as you’d hope. There’s a definite pause while the camera sorts itself out and prepares for action. Shooting options are also limited. There are no manual settings like ISO or white balance to tinker with, although an HDR option is available.
You can take panoramas in much the same way you can in iOS (scarily so), but perhaps the most unique offering is the Lenticular setting. This allows you to take multiple photographs in a row (11 in fact) from slightly different angles in order to form a 3D view that operates just like the Dynamic Perspective wallpapers. It works pretty well for selfies, and was fun to try with the young nieces and nephews, but it’s not much more than a gimmick.
In terms of image quality, the Fire phone performs decently. Nothing really stands out about the pictures, but they’re perfectly acceptable.
The phone’s performance is surprisingly good in low light. It also produced a decent amount of depth of field in the right conditions, which is nice if you want to get a bit creative.
The front-facing camera, well it’s 2.1-megapixels and again, the results aren’t really anything to write home about.
The display may not offer 1080p resolution, but the camera can record 1080p video at 30 frames per second, with optical image stabilisation also included. Autofocus is relatively fast in this arena, too.
A long press of the camera button also opens up Amazon’s neat Firefly tool, which can be used to identify pretty much anything so it can be, yep you guessed it, bought on Amazon.
It works particularly well on books and album covers, while it’s also a dab hand at recognising Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream flavours, although you probably don’t want to order that from the internet. The tool impressed us with how remarkably fast it worked and, in a single click can direct users to a listing on Amazon’s various shopping portals.
Firefly can also be used like Shazam to identify music and television shows, with the purpose of redirecting you to the Amazon storefronts, rather than necessarily settling your curiosity.
Amazon Fire Phone: Battery LifeThis is an area of the Fire phone that performs above expectations, especially when the 2,400mAh cell is smaller than many of the top-end handsets on the market. After ten hours of playing, prodding and testing our life force had only diminished by half, although that did not include video playback or music streaming.
We had no problem with picking the phone up and rocking it the next morning too. For Amazon’s part, it promises 285 hours of standby time, 22 hours of talktime and 65 hours of music playback.
It appears the Fire OS may be a little less power hungry than some of the custom UIs on the market, while the presence of a 720p display rather than 1080p also goes a long way towards keeping the battery going.
Amazon Fire Phone: Call and Sound Quality.The Amazon Fire phone is available exclusively on the AT&T network in the United States right now, so much will depend on how good the service is in your locale. In my ‘hood, AT&T is second to Verizon, but I didn’t experience any dropped calls.
When Skype calling, the recipient came through loud and clear, while a chat over the Atlantic with a family member brought solid results over Wi-Fi and 4G. The sound quality that emits from the top loaded speaker isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but its serviceable if you’re ever without headphones. Like most phones, the presence of bass is minimal, while the output can be quite tinny.
Should I buy the Amazon Fire Phone?For makers of mobile devices and mobile operating systems, the trick is to get users locked into that content ecosystem after they’ve purchased the device. Apple has perfected it with iTunes, iBooks and the App Store’s walled garden and, despite its inherently more open nature, Google isn’t far behind with the Play Store.
Amazon takes this to an entirely new level with the Fire Phone, to the point that if you're shopping and content consumption habits do not revolve around Amazon.com Kindle, Prime Video, Amazon MP3, and you have no intentions of that becoming the case, it’s very difficult to recommend the Fire Phone. At times the device appears like a handheld personal shopping tool that just happens to have cellular capabilities.
We like the innovative user interface, the Dynamic Perspective gestures work very well and, once you’re become accustomed with the OS, life is a breeze. Amazon should be commended for thinking outside the box and what Amazon is trying to achieve has been executed very well.
However, it has to be said that this is an upper-mid-range phone with a very high-end price tag. If Amazon was offering this phone at a price that rivalled the Nexus 5 or the Moto G, then it might be a different story, but alas it is not.
VerdictThe Fire phone isn’t a bad first effort from Amazon but there’s little for non-Amazon loyalists to justify the hefty price tag.
Next, read our best phones round-up or look at the iPhone 6 rumours