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

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.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

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.

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. 

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.

Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

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