Fire OS: Better than Android for the masses

Amazon has excited the technorati this week with the unveiling of its Fire phone. It’s based on the Fire OS used on the Kindle Fire HDX tablet. This is a good move as Fire is better than Android for the majority of consumers.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
Fire phone home
Image: Amazon

Purists will tell you that the Amazon Fire OS, used on the Kindle Fire HDX tablets and soon the Fire phone, is based on an Android kernel. While true, the resemblance stops deep in the kernel because Amazon has written Fire OS from the ground up with providing a good user experience (UX) in mind.

Those unfamiliar with Fire OS on the new Fire phone should rest assured it is very good. Owning two Kindle Fire HDX tablets, the longer I use Fire OS the more impressed I am with it. It is designed with the user in mind right out of the box. Every Kindle tablet, and I expect the same with the Fire phone, is preconfigured by Amazon before the device ships. The user supplies her Amazon account information when buying the gadget, and it arrives already assigned to that account.

This means you take the Amazon device out of the box, and your stuff is already there. It makes an impression that the gadget already belongs to you in when you first turn it on.

While the phone version of Fire OS will no doubt differ from the tablet version, it looks in photos to be very similar.

The carousel

The feature in Fire OS that makes devices so nice to use is the large carousel toward the top of the home screen. That’s the screen that first presents itself when the device is turned on.

The carousel consists of a row of large icons representing the things you’ve done most recently, a very useful function. When you run an app, read a book, or listen to music, an icon clearly representing that action is placed to the left of the carousel. This ensures you can always resume an activity with a tap as the icon is likely right there in view. If it’s not, simply swipe the carousel to the right and you’ll find it.

This is particularly gratifying for media. Instead of having to find an app icon, the album or book cover is on the carousel. It is natural to see the book you’re reading and tap the cover to resume reading.

Fire OS carousel
Carousel -- note content strip at top of screen
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Install an app and the icon is automatically placed on the left of the carousel. It’s logical to assume you’ll want to run a new app once installed.

The content strip

Above the carousel at the very top of the screen is a simple strip for accessing content in Fire OS (this doesn't appear in photos of the Fire phone). The categories represented are useful and include books, music, games, photos, and docs. If you haven’t used a particular piece of media or for some reason it doesn't appear in the carousel, just tap the appropriate category and find it. Of course once you open a media file it will jump to the carousel in case you want to access it again.

The app screen

You need a simple way to find an app so Fire OS has this too. At the bottom of the homescreen is a row or two (depending on the size of the device display) of app icons. They form a kind of dock as they are always displayed in either portrait or landscape orientation.

Fire OS apps screen
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

You can tap and hold an icon to move it into the desired spot, just like on app docks on other platforms.

For apps not visible on the home screen, simply swipe up and see all the apps you’ve told Fire OS you want to see. You can put all apps here, but odds are there are some apps you seldom use that you will want to keep hidden. This gives you control over what appears when you swipe up.

Don’t worry about hiding apps, which you do by tapping and holding an icon. You can easily get to a screen with all apps by tapping Apps on the content strip at the top. What’s cool about this all-apps screen is you can select not only apps installed on the device but also apps in the cloud. If you’ve bought or installed apps in the past from the Amazon app store, they are all in the cloud and show up on this screen.

These apps in the cloud are accessible from when you first power a new device on due to that preconfigured Amazon account previously mentioned. This makes it easy to install an app locally on the device by tapping the icon on this screen. No going to the app store and finding it, it’s right there.

You can also access the Amazon App Store from this screen with a simple tap.

The hidden app bar

Fire OS hidden app bar
Hidden app bar
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

When you run an app, the home screen and all the useful features described are gone as the screen is taken over by the app. No worries, if you want to go back to a recently run app just swipe in from the right bezel (when the home/ back buttons are showing) and the App bar slides in. This shows the four or five (depending on screen size) most recently used apps.

It’s all about the UX

Android enthusiasts will tell you that the OS is very full-featured and customizable, and that’s accurate. Fire OS, on the other hand, is all about putting the things you do all the time right in front of you. This makes the UX pleasant and very useful.

Fire OS is similar to iOS in one regard in that it hides the power of the OS under the hood. What’s exposed is the part of the OS that makes the Amazon device comforting and easy to use. It presents your stuff to you in an unobtrusive way, and that’s the mark of a very good UX.

Having used dozens of devices running it, I can state categorically that Android is a good OS on both smartphones and tablets. It is especially suited for the power user wishing to control every aspect of the UX. That’s not the vast majority of consumers, however.

Unlike Android, you can bet that every Fire smartphone, just like the Kindle Fire HDX, will always run the latest version of the OS. The interface will look the same on every device, presenting a welcome environment when the phone is turned on. Android devices are all different in both look and feel, and that’s due to the various versions of Android they run, as well as the garbage and customization that OEMs and carriers do.

While it’s only just been released, there’s little doubt the Fire phone from Amazon will have a great UX as it uses Fire OS. Amazon has proven with the Kindle Fire HDX tablets that it knows how to do the OS right, and the Fire phone will surely carry on the tradition.

That’s why Fire OS is better than Android for the majority of smartphone and tablet users.

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