Amazon's Fire Phone life-meets-work review: Wild cards, but notable Android entry

Amazon's Fire Phone life-meets-work review: Wild cards, but notable Android entry

Summary: Amazon's Fire Phone proved itself to be a good everyday phone even though it's unclear whether Dynamic Perspective and Firefly will be hits. Amazon's Fire gives us something unique in the me-too land of Android smartphones.

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Amazon's Fire Phone ships July 25 and the device is a solid first effort that carries two signature innovations — Dynamic Perspective and Firefly — and is a worthy real-world contender in the Android mix.

firephonetilt
(Image: Amazon)

When I received that Fire Phone review unit, I was skeptical before I even turned the device on. Amazon's Fire Phone is one of the few things to really talk about in the Android smartphone derby, but faces a few hurdles. My doubts revolved around the following:

Was Dynamic Perspective, which delivers 3D effects, useful or a gimmick? After playing with the phone for four days I'm still not completely sure. At times, Dynamic Perspective is handy. The screen on the Fire pops for me and you notice Dynamic Perspective with games, magazines and photos at times. However, I won't have a real verdict until I send the phone back and see if I miss the feature. Developers and how they use Dynamic Perspective will ultimately tell the tale.

Will Firefly make me spend more money and how much will I use it? Going into the review, I had expected that Firefly, which reads the surroundings and calls up data on specific objects, to be a hit. Firefly is basically Shazam for everything. Sometimes Firefly recognized objects and other times it didn't. Firefly will improve with usage and the jury is out on that one, but I suspect the technology will help Amazon's model.

How's the learning curve? The Fire Phone uses tilt to navigate and I was curious to see how often I'd use it. Would the Fire really be better with one hand? The short answer is that I adjusted to the tilt navigation easily, but more often than not the Fire was used like my other phones. In short, the learning curve isn't that big of a deal.

fire box

Can the Fire be your everyday phone? The short answer is yes. The Fire Phone hooks up with your work email and calendar easily. The cloud backup is seamless. And all the apps I need are there since Amazon has already built out its ecosystem. Yes, the Fire Phone runs a forked version of Android, but the average bear won't care. If you're not in Amazon's ecosystem already — I'm a Prime subscriber — the Fire Phone may give you pause, but the e-commerce giant has bundled Prime with the device.

In the end, Amazon's Fire Device is a handy way to bring you into Amazon's engagement engine. The Fire Phone may be a no-brainer for Prime subscribers. All your stuff is there from the beginning.

How will the Fire phone fare in the crowded smartphone market? The Fire enters a crowded Android landscape and lands a few months before Apple's iPhone 6. If you have a contract expiring this month, there will be reticence about jumping to a first-gen phone vs. waiting to see what devices land. Overall, the Fire is a contender and unique.

If you want pure Android — as if there's such a thing unless you buy directly unlocked from Google — the Fire won't fly for you. Most of us have some bogged-down version and Amazon's value add actually adds value. Speaking of value, Amazon's price at $199 is an issue, but that model has more to do with dealing with carriers over the e-commerce giant's decisions. The goodies with Fire arguably offset the $199. Consider:

  • Fire comes with 32GB standard. Most $199 phones under contract start with 16GB.

  • Prime, which runs $99, is included for 12 months. Existing Prime subscribers are extended.

  • Unlimited cloud storage is provided and depending on what vendor you use the bundle is worth at least $40.

  • Do the math and you can argue that the Fire Phone is heavily subsidized with Amazon services.

The bottom line for me is that I wouldn't hesitate to buy the Fire even though it's unclear how Dynamic Perspective and Firefly ultimately fare among developers and the broader market.

The caveat: I have the Fire tablets and am in Amazon's ecosystem. If I weren't in Amazon's ecosystem, my criteria would be different. Using AT&T's Next pricing also minimizes fear of a two-year commitment. The Fire is arguably the most interesting Android device of the bunch — even if Dynamic Perspective and Firefly don't become huge differentiators. The reality is we won't know if those features will be differentiators for months.

Here's a look at my criteria for a device these days. What follows isn't a standard review (that's what CNET is for), but a look at what matters to me and some observations.

Work-life integration. The Fire Phone isn't billed as a bring-your-own-device play and Amazon isn't going to tout enterprise usage. Other device makers are giving plugs to the enterprise features at every launch, but Amazon didn't go there. However, I need some enterprise hooks to function. The Fire integrated with my Exchange account easily (actually easier than my other Android phone), the calendar functioned well and could handle multiple accounts, and docs sent to my Kindle showed up on the device. Productivity apps are available, but Salesforce wasn't in Amazon's store. ADP, Citrix and Intuit had applications available.

Bottom line: You'll need to check for your critical enterprise apps and availability on the Fire before making a decision. If you're a heavy Salesforce app user, the Fire may not be for you. One productivity wrinkle to ponder is whether Microsoft Office will be on the Fire and Amazon tablets when it goes live on Android. My guess is that Microsoft Office will be on Amazon's devices because the software giant is a partner on the Fire and powers search with Bing. 

The camera. There's nothing more annoying than a smartphone with a camera that doesn't measure up. The Fire Phone's camera measured up and worked well in the field. Amazon doesn't overwhelm you with settings. Editing tools worked well. The setting that's most interesting is Fire's lenticular setting, which takes a series of shots to create a 3D view. I used that approach a few times and the 3D-effect seemed gimmicky. I may not be immersed enough in the selfie culture to truly enjoy the lenticular feature. My kids thought the Dynamic Perspective/3D selfies were pretty cool. 3D selfies were entertaining a bit, but Dynamic Perspective didn't do much for this picture. 

towerpic
(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

Tilt navigation. Flick your wrist right, you get a menu that's contextual. Flick your list left, you get weather and other items. When I first tried this at Amazon's launch event, I dropped the phone. After a few minutes, tilting was handy. However, I didn't use tilt navigation much with the wrist flick. I did use tilting a good bit to scroll up and down. For the primary use case, one-hand operation remains compelling though.

Dynamic Perspective. Games — at least the few of them that use Dynamic Perspective — shined. If all of Amazon's game developers use Dynamic Perspective, then the feature matters. There were a few apps that used Dynamic Perspective, but not enough. I couldn't find a killer app for Dynamic Perspective. Gun to my head I'd say Dynamic Perspective would be more gimmicky today. No way I'd rule the technology out though. The real win for me is that Amazon's Fire was the first 3D thing I've looked at without getting a headache. Since I wasn't confident about calling the fate of Dynamic Perspective, I ran the Fire by a series of 11 year olds and 7 year olds. They all thought the technology was cool. Memo to Amazon: Get Minecraft to work with Dynamic Perspective and you'll sell zillions of Fire devices.

Firefly. The biggest thing I was looking for with Firefly was general usefulness and whether it would prod me to shop more on Amazon. Firefly's performance was decent, but there were multiple times where it didn't recognize the product. I was hoping that Firefly could scan my pantry, focus on the cereal shelf and then create a list for me so I could schedule delivery. That scenario didn't quite work out. Firefly's database needs to evolve, but I think it's too early to make a call about whether the technology works out for the user or Amazon's e-commerce ambitions.

firefly screen1
(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

Wearable connections. I haven't found a smartwatch worth the time or money, but it's worth checking whether Amazon's app store is supported by whatever wearable you have. My Jawbone UP app was readily available for the Fire and Fitbit was there too. If you have a Garmin Vivofit, you'd be out of luck. Android Wear isn't available for folks on the smartwatch early adopter bandwagon either. Ditto for Google Glass. Yes, Amazon's latest phone runs on Android, but it's a forked version that limits the apps available relative to Google Play.

Music, video and cloud backup. The main sell for Amazon's Fire Phone — at least for Prime subscribers — is the integration of music, video and cloud backup. Overall, the music integration, Prime video and playback worked well. It's worth noting that my libraries already existed on Amazon. Cloud backup for photos was seamless and just happened. On my other Android devices, backup was clunkier whether it was to Google's cloud or the Dropbox service. If you're in Amazon's ecosystem, the Fire Phone is a no-brainer. If you're not, Amazon gets you goodies with the Prime subscription that comes with your phone. In the end, Amazon's real point with the Fire Phone is to engage with you. It remains to be seen if the Amazon's Fire is an engagement and e-commerce kiosk in your pocket, but rest assured that's the plan.

videoscreen
(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

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Topics: Mobility, Amazon, E-Commerce, Smartphones

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27 comments
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  • Limited potential.

    8 years ago? Perhaps.

    As it is Prine represents 1:10 US people. AT&T represents about 7:20 of subscribers. Smartphone users are at about 7:10 subscribers. Each quater you get 1:8 available customers so this limits Amazon to about 49:1600 or 3% or a peak of 9,000,000 units per quarter.

    Now 45% of their target market is pretty locked into iOS so we are at, say 5,000,000 units ASSUMING everyone potential customer bites.

    I am betting 10% will be optimistic so we are looking at 500,000 units/quarter.

    Ouch.
    Bruizer
    • I'll say the same thing I said about Ubuntu and Firebox phones

      What are the compelling features that woul make me want to switch from Android or IOS?

      The same could be said for WinPhone. The interface is unique and attractive, but it isn't enough to make me want to switch.
      otaddy
      • Scope

        Ubuntu and Firefox are not limited to AT&T in the US. And the phones don't come at 600+$. For people who aren't at least prospective Amazon Prime customers, this is a very bad deal.

        And bruizer forgot that most smartphone owners do not replace their smartphone every 2 years even if they are on contract, and that it's not an option for business issued phones. So the numbers he uses are very generous.
        Sacr
        • That is my top line estimate.

          I suspect sales will be lower.
          Bruizer
        • But what feature do they offer

          That would entice one to use it instead of Android or iOS?
          otaddy
      • The competing feature is that it's easier

        to buy stuff from Amazon. No. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Part of the demo for Firefly had the phone identifying a jar of nutella so you could order it from Amazon. Because, apparently, it's impossible for anybody to actually go to a store to get a jar when they need / want one, so they are excited about ordering one from Amazon and waiting two days for it to show up on their doorstep.
        baggins_z
  • Little Interest

    I live in an area where technology, & smartphones in particular, play a very important part in people's daily life. I was very surprised that not one person I spoke with 2 days after the Amazon press conference even knew that it had taken place. There seems to be an unusually low level of interest in this phone. I don't see this as being a huge seller. Perhaps people who feel the need to get a phone with the latest gimmicks will buy it, but it doesn't really offer any practical advantages over the many other smartphones on the market & perhaps has some drawbacks. I guess time will tell.
    vjed
    • I one of two things is going on

      1. The phone took longer than expected to develop and now it is behind. John Q Public is not going to get locked into a contract and pay a couple of hundred bucks for this device, even if they are prime customers. You can get a moto g off contract on gsm carriers for less than $200. There are also other compelling cheap phones on the market. Unless it has fruit on it, nobody is going to pay $500 for a phone.

      or more likely:

      2. This is about the long game and they feel like they need to be in this space. If they sell a few hundred thousand and each of them will be responsible for generating a bunch more revenue once it is in the hands of the users, so be it. They will eventually lower the price for the holidays or put out less expensive versions.

      I honestly thought that they were going to sell a much less expensive handset. I might be a buyer if it was $200 cash with a free year of prime and on t-mobile.
      redhaven
  • 1 major flaw

    ...the AT&T network that's required to use the phone.
    vancevep
    • Probably because they didn't want to make a CDMA version initially

      If it takes off, (unlikely) then they will consider a CDMA version.

      We still have a long way to go until LTE only phones are feasible, and it will remain that way until voice over LTE services are ubiquitous.
      otaddy
  • Amazon Phone

    It looks kind of like an Android phone tweaked to look a bit like a Win8 phone with features borrowed from BlackBerry 10, but in reality it's an Amazon retail terminal with a phone attached.
    bb_apptix
    • LOL. What does ITunes look like for IDevice owners

      Itunes is music, movies and Apps.

      Amazon just has a larger selection of products it sells and offers less expensive hardware than Apple.

      Personally, I'm invested in neither ITunes or Amazon Prime, but Prime offers more IMO.
      GotThumbs
      • iTunes looks like a value add for iDevice

        owners, not the entire reason for the iDevice's existence. But, hey, if you think its awesome that you can now buy a jar of Nutella from Amazon by pointing your phone camera at the jar you bought from Publix last week, more power to you. Just realize that you represent probably less than 1% of the buying public.
        baggins_z
  • best quote so far "... but the average bear won't care..."

    and so accurate and so missed by the readers of these blogs.
    ScanBack
  • "If you want pure Android ..."

    "... — as if there's such a thing unless you buy directly unlocked from Google."

    Yes, there are the Google Play editions of the HTC One, Galaxy S4 and Moto G, but there is also Cyanogenmod, which is AOSP improved - really - and runs on a wide selection of devices:

    http://wiki.cyanogenmod.org/w/Devices#
    hello_world.c
  • How Much Did Amazon Pay ZDNet

    to get this POS device to be front page news?
    Stilbe
    • Launch timing

      Good timing. There isn't much else to write about right now.
      Sacr
  • master of manipulation

    Bezos is a master of manipulation. From deceptive accounting to grossly inflate earnings to bait and switch, amazon and Bezos are less than honest boy scouts.

    Dow Jones Newswires reports that amazon's prices are higher than competitors 70% of the time. Its amazing that less than savvy consumers are willing to overpay 70% of the time.

    The miracle of the internet is that the world is at your fingertips and far better pricing can be found everywhere else with a click or flick.

    Yesterday I bought a Kohler part. It was $14.99 on amazon. I bought it at eBay from a plumbing vendor for $8.25 free shipping no sales tax. I also bought a spare refrigerator form the basement. It was $1299 at amazon. I bought it for $1079 at Best Buy with free delivery/shipping and free cart away of the old unit. I saved over $200 on just two items by NOT shopping on Amazon and I did not have to pay a yearly fee. Why pay amazon a yearly fee when nearly every vendor offers free shipping and amazon's pricings are absurd.

    I can't believe anyone would pay amazon $100 bucks a year to overpay on their website and pay for services that others give away for free. Truly insane.

    The Fire phone is simply a portal to get less than savvy consumers to buy more overpriced merchandise on amazon.

    We use iPhones and windows phones and they are two extraordinary products- don't think we will be switching to a Bezos manipulated fire phone in this lifetime.
    $vix
    • If you

      convince the masses that eating rocks are good for you, they'll do it. BTW, a lot of people like Prime and the value they get from it and the movies..just because you don't like Prime doesn't mean everybody thinks like you do. Also, just because a fridge was found less at a Big-box store doesn't mean millions of other items are going to be more expensive on Amazon. This is where your logic really falls short.
      Stilbe
      • High Prices

        Everything I have purchased I have found far less expensive elsewhere and have never had to pay for shipping.

        Bought a computer at the Microsoft Store for $999. Amazon had the same one, same configuration for $1429.

        Bought a blu ray dvd at eBay for $8.99. It was $14.99 at amazon.

        Bought a generator at electricgeneratorsdirect.com for $3299 with free ship not tax. Same genrator at amazon was $4999.99 plus tax.

        Bought a small jewlery safe for $149.99 at opticsplanet.com. Same safe was $189.99 at amazon.

        I could go on for days, but the bottom line is that whatever I need or want to buy, I can be sure I'll find it everywhere else cheaper than amazon and I wont have to pay any yearly fees.

        I have saved thousands of dollars by smarter shopping. I'd rather not give amazon $100 bucks a year when others offer the sames services for free.

        With all the money I saved by not using Amazon I have money left over to buy an ipad air, a Surface pro 3, apps for the kids, dinner at a five star restaurant, a vacation in the South of France........

        Let me know the recent items you bought at amazon and I'll send a link where is can be easily bought far cheaper. I prefer not to overpay for the exact same item and constantly have amazon's hard sell shoved down my throat.

        Thats the beauty of where we live- I'll save money and shop where I want and you'll shop at amazon and grossly overpay.
        $vix