Amazon Fire Phone review: Excellent for Amazon shopping and media services, but not a great smartphone

Amazon Fire Phone review: Excellent for Amazon shopping and media services, but not a great smartphone

Summary: Amazon's Fire Phone is made to offer you an enhanced Amazon shopping and media experience, but the high price and AT&T exclusive smother most of the excitement for some interesting tricks.

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Amazon Fire phone review: A portable Kindle Fire priced too high to compete with other smartphones
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I attended my first Amazon event back in June and had a chance to get some initial hands-on time with their new smartphone for about 45 minutes. After using a retail Amazon Fire Phone for the past couple of weeks I think it is a great device for Kindle Fire owners, but am not sure why anyone else looking for a smartphone would purchase one.

Hardware

There is nothing mind-blowing about the Amazon Fire phone hardware specifications with last year's processor, standard battery with just adequate battery life, and a form factor reminiscient of the Nexus 4. It feels well-constructed, but the glass back does concern me a bit and it collects many fingerprints.

The 4.7 inch display Moto X is shorter than the 4.7 inch Amazon Fire and has a tapered back that makes it feel fantastic in your hand. The display is only 720p, but it does look great. The Dynamic Perspective is pretty slick and I liked spending time looking at different angles on the lock screen. However, I don't like the blurred text that appears on the left menu after you unlock the device and swipe in from the left or tilt the phone. There is also not much utility in looking around objects in maps and other applications. If gaming is your thing, then Dynamic Perspective does offer some fun experiences in that regard. 

A closer look at the hardware

Hands-on with Amazon's Fire Phone:

Hands-on with Amazon's Fire Phone:

I do like the center hardware button, similar to the iPhone and Galaxy S5, as it helps you quickly get back to the home screen and switch views. 

The power button and headphone jack are found on the top with the microUSB port on the bottom. Nothing is on the right side while the volume button and camera capture/Firefly button are on the left side. A single press of the capture button launches the camera and a press-and-hold launches Firefly.

The 13 megapixel camera and flash are positioned up in the far corner. There are also four infrared sensors/cameras on the four corners of the front to detect your face and provide the Dynamic Perspective effects.

The hardware is solid, but it reminds me of a phone from a year or two ago. It's not a thin phone, one with an amazing display, one with metal construction, or anything else that really makes the hardware a stand-out feature.

Software

The Amazon Fire phone runs the Fire 3.5 OS and as a person who does not own a Kindle Fire it honestly took me a bit to figure out how to really use and navigate around on the Fire Phone.

After you unlock the display, you start in either the application launcher view or carousel view. The application launcher shows all of your installed apps and apps you have purchased that are available in the cloud on the Amazon servers. When you tap cloud your apps appear in alphabetical order and the ones that are installed have a small check mark in the bottom right of the logo.

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On the device list of apps you can change the order of apps to your desired preference and organize them in custom folders. If you swipe down on the application launcher, the carousel view appears.

The carousel view shows you large icons of recently used apps with app content (email messages, photos you captured, settings options) or related apps available in the Amazon Appstore. 

Swiping (or tilting) in from the left side opens up a panel of Amazon content consisting of the words: apps, games, web, music, videos, photos, books, newsstand, audiobooks, docs, shop, and Prime. This allows you quick access to your Amazon content. 

Swiping (or tilting) in from the right brings up the information relevant to the content being viewed, including items such as the weather, your calendar, your email attachments, and more.

I am thoroughly enjoying the easy access to Amazon content, such as Amazon Video on Demand, Kindle ebooks, Amazon Music, and Audible audio books. If you want a portable Kindle Fire and want to use your device for media content, then the Fire Phone is definitely something to consider. Watching movies is awesome with the X-ray feature that provides character specifics and fun facts.

The Silk web browser is fine, but you will regularly find some sites suggest that you download Android apps for their content. Unfortunately, these suggestions do not allow you to actually install these apps to the Fire Phone since the apps are targeted towards the Android owner.

While the Fire Phone is based on Android, you won't find any Google Services apps such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive, and more. There are hundreds of thousands of apps in the Amazon Appstore and I imagine most new smartphone owners will find what they want on the Fire Phone. As a regular Android user, I was personally disappointed to find these limitations in regards to Google Play and see no reason why I would go with the Fire over other Android smartphones.

A sideways tilt back and forth or a swipe down from the top gives you quick access to WiFi and Bluetooth toggles, airplane mode, flashlight, Mayday, search, and settings. Mayday lets you connect and get help with your device, which may be great for my mom and grandma who need help using their phones. 

Firefly seems like an interesting service, but there are already many ways to gather shopping info through third party applications and I have never had an urgent need for such service. I also found the results limiting and not related at all to how I shop for goods. For example, when I capture the bar code on my cereal box I see options to buy cereal through Amazon. I never buy cereal through Amazon and for most things I look at for pricing info I don't purchase them through Amazon. My wife took the Fire Phone and aimed it at our microwave, thinking she would see where to buy a replacement. No results appeared for my microwave or other items I scanned that I might actually buy from Amazon.

Usage and experiences

Amazon is a bit late to the smartphone game and I really consider the Fire Phone much more of a portable Kindle Fire with cellular capability than a serious competitor to iOS, Android, or Windows Phone. Unfortunately, the Fire Phone is priced like these high end smartphones and not like a Kindle Fire with cellular service.

The phone experience is very basic with utilties such as smart dialing missing from the dialer. The voice control system is basic and does not come close to what Google offers with Google Now, Microsoft with Cortana, or Apple with Siri.

Battery life is adequate, but not great and I was not able to go a full day with moderate to heavy usage. I have been spoiled lately with devices like the LG G3, Galaxy S5, HTC One, Huawei Ascend Mate2, and Lumia 1520 that last me a day and more with the same usage practice.

Pros and cons

To summarize my experiences with the Amazon Fire phone, here are my pros and cons.

Pros Cons
Solid hardware High price for older specifications
Good quality camera with OIS and free cloud storage Android-based device with no Google services support
Excellent media (ebooks and video) experience with front-facing stereo speakers Gimmicky Dynamic Perspective functionality and Firefly service
Mayday customer service experience Only an AT&T exclusive

Pricing and availability

The Amazon Fire phone is available in 32GB and 64GB internal storage options with a price difference of $100 between these two storage options. The full price of the 32GB model is $649 and the 64GB is $749. You can also buy them with a 2-year contract for $199 and $299, respectively. 

AT&T Next options are also available so you can pick one up for $0 down payment with monthly payments due, up to the full prices listed above.

Amazon also includes one year of Amazon Prime, a $99 value. If you are a current Amazon Prime member, then you will get your next year renewed for free. Free, unlimited photo storage on Amazon Cloud Storage is also provided. 1,000 Amazon Coins, a $10 value, will appear in your account so you can try out a few paid apps, books, or movies.

The competition

The Amazon Fire Phone would be an excellent choice for a mid-tier smartphone, but Amazon and AT&T priced it the same as high end smartphones. Given this pricing scheme, the current competition includes the Apple iPhone 5s, LG G3, Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8), and Nokia Lumia Icon. 

Looking at these high end devices, it becomes tougher to choose the Fire with its limited app store and connection to other mobile devices, such as smartwatches and fitness gear. New smartphone owners may be just fine with the Amazon Fire, but then again a lower priced device like the Moto G is a better option for smartphone usage.

Specifications

  • Processor: Snapdragon 800 2.2 GHz quad-core processor
  • Operating system: Fire OS 3.5
  • Display: 4.7 inch HD LCD with 1280x720 pixels at 315 ppi
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Internal storage: 32 or 64 GB
  • Cameras: 13 megapixel rear with OIS and 2.1 megapixel front facing
  • Battery capacity: 2,400 mAh
  • Dimensions: 139.2 x 66.5 8.9 mm and 160 grams

Conclusion

While we wait to see the next iPhone, Galaxy Note, Moto X, and Nexus devices, I have been looking at other devices like the G3, BlackBerry Z30, and more. The Amazon Fire Phone seemed interesting and I may have considered one if it had launched on all carriers at a more competitive price, which is what many of us figured would happen coming from Amazon.

The high price, exclusive carrier deal, and standard phone/data smartphone plan options quickly cooled the excitement around the Fire announcement.

The Fire smartphone reminds me of a Kindle Fire in a smaller form factor, but if you really want a Kindle Fire media experience then it is probably a better choice to get the smartphone you really want and pick up a Kindle Fire tablet.

Contributor's rating: 7.5 out of 10

 

Further ZDNet Amazon Fire phone coverage

Topics: Mobility, Amazon, Android, Reviews, Smartphones

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2 comments
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  • I don't disagree

    with your conclusions, however should this phone be compared with other android phones? At the end of the day it is really a new Operating system as opposed to a another android phone. If you live in google's world, an android phone will always be the best choice. I think the pricing is key, WHEN amazon drops this to $79 on contract, I suspect they will sell okay. The other issue is obviously AT&T only, that seems silly to me.
    Low_tech
  • Who makes calls on a smartphone, anyway?

    I thought it was all about emails and texting...
    William.Farrel