Hands-on with Amazon's Fire Phone: Gimmicks over purpose

The Fire Phone has one flagship feature: a display with three-dimensional aspects. Other software elements in the retail giant's debut smartphone are gimmicky at best. This device feels like a work in progress.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

Amazon's Fire Phone can be described in two ways: an inducer of motion sickness; and a gimmicky device at best, but one that has great potential.

Over the weekend, I gave my trusty iPhone a rest and swapped the SIM card to the Amazon Fire Phone, the newest pseudo-Android smartphone on the market. Sooner rather than later, troubles emerged. The initial experience is one of confusion — despite the device's best efforts to "train" me, the user, on how to get started — and one of design frustrations. 

It took a little bit of getting used to, but after a few not-so-easy smartphone habits to kill, it became second nature. From someone who still struggles with the complexities and nuances of Android, Amazon's Fire OS operating system is refreshing. 

Make no mistake. I landed at much of the same conclusions as ZDNet's Larry Dignan. Sans the enterprise app support, and aside from the relatively basic core functionality one might expect from any developed device on the market, there's little to make a business user jump and shout.

After using the phone for the last few days, I landed at these conclusions. In many cases, I had more questions than answers.

Stunning hardware; perfectly sized, potential is there

The phone itself is beautifully constructed. Hold it in your hand, and the device feels sturdy to grip. The outer edge feels as though it's made of a high-quality rubber or plastic that's very easy to hold. It also has softly rounded corners so it fits into the palm of your hand without sharper edges, which some have criticized the iPhone (and other phones) for.

It's a little heavier than one might expect at 160g, compared to the iPhone 5s weighing in at 112g. But for that, you get a larger 4.7-inch display and a device packed with technology you wouldn't expect — or find — in other devices. 

As for the camera, landing it at 13-megapixels, it rivals (if not occasionally surpassing) the iPhone in quality and precision. Taking side-by-side Fire Phone and iPhone pictures, there are clear differences, such as the slightly lighter and more balanced iPhone picture. But the Fire Phone kicks out a high quality, clear and sharp image that when compared to the iPhone can be indistinguishable. 

You can have more pixels on the camera, but it doesn't necessarily make the image that much clearer.

Though it has a smaller 8-megapixel camera, the iPhone does a proportionally and visually far better job than the Fire Phone. For the wider landscape or outdoor shoots, the quality of the Fire Phone's pictures are undeniably beautiful.

The 4.7-inch display itself has a resolution of 1280 x 720, packing in hundreds of pixels-per-inch. To the naked eye, it's undeniably a brighter and better-quality display than the iPhone, but likely indistinguishable from any Android device with a high-density display, like the Samsung Galaxy S5.

Dynamic Perspective gave me motion sickness

And then things began to go a little downhill.

The Fire Phone's long-rumored and flagship feature deserves the attention, because of its prominence throughout the device. The three-dimensional appearing display seems to run throughout the device in terms of multi-layered and "pop-out" visuals.

The smartphone has four cameras on each corner of the front-facing display, which recognizes where your face is. Cover the cameras, and the three-dimensional display fails to work at all.

Depending on how you hold the device, the three remaining cameras can still pull together enough imagery for the 3D effects to function, but not as well.

Dynamic Perspective is impressive. It's the next-generation extension to Apple's parallax effect on iPhones and iPads running the latest iOS 7, except it's designed to give a 3D feel to the software, rather than just the perception of depth. It's extremely responsive and looks near perfect. But look at it for much longer than a few seconds and the motion sickness may set in. For me, it didn't take long, but it does take some getting used to. 

Dynamic Perspective is most visible on the lock screen where a set of scenes can be rotated daily. Or, you can stick with a scene for as long as you like. 

The extension of Dynamic Perspective filters throughout the software. The "tilt" menus, which can be accessed by swiping from the left or the right, or flicking the phone either way for the list of menus or the quick-look screen respectively, appear flat. The text however responds to where your eyes are. This adds drop-shadows and layers behind the text, which can be hard to read if you are not holding the device at the perfect angle. 

Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

The icons in the app menu also apply this 3D logic. Some icons are subtler than others in their 3D effects. For some, it can be jarring and unsettling. The icons I can live with. The text blurs and effects I cannot. These can be switched off by accessing Low Motion Mode. But in that case, what's the point of its flagship feature? If you don't like the feature, don't buy the phone. And even with the motion features disabled, some of the text remains permanently 3D, making it in some cases difficult to read at-a-glance.

Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

Another core element to Dynamic Perspective is the wider user interface. I can't escape the feeling a five-year-old designed it. The style elements used throughout the platform, from the fonts to the images for drop-down menus, feel underdeveloped and simplistic — like going back to the text-only menus of the BlackBerry way-back-when. 

The user interface lets down the operating system a great deal. Amazon's user experience appears to focus on the perceived 3D-display and other core elements to the software, such as Firefly — we will explore this later. But while areas of focus have clearly had Amazon's developers and designers awake for days at a time, others feel underrepresented and incomplete. It's hard to find a thread that ties some of these features together. 

Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

It's clear that the user interface isn't finished — at least for the wider public's viewing pleasure. A lot more can be done in terms of style, aesthetic, and visual engagement. My only hope is that Amazon is merely testing the water for now, and has plans to improve the software over time. But even the iPhone's or Android's first software wasn't as jagged or as inconsistent as Amazon's Fire OS appears to be.

Firefly: Patchy, but cool; a shameless sales driver?

When Firefly works, it works. When it doesn't, you're left annoyed, frustrated, and confused as to why it can't pick up some of the more recognizable devices we know in the real-world.

Firefly is another flagship Amazon Fire Phone feature that, allegedly, allows you to point-and-click at nearly any device, product, technology, or item, and it churns back a result in seconds. It'll tell you what it is, where you can get it, and how much it might cost. But it depends almost entirely on Amazon's database of products, and keeps the results within the Amazon family. If Amazon doesn't have it — firstly, a shocker, as Amazon seems to have everything from cigarette lighters and toilet paper to MacBooks and mouthwash — then it'll either take its best guess or will simply refuse to give you anything else to go on.

Items are recognized by shape, size, and other identifiable features. Think of it as facial recognition for the physical world. 

Before long, my frustration began to bubble when Firefly couldn't identify well-known and highly popular devices, such as my MacBook or my iPhone — both items which can be found on the Amazon.com store. But mouthwash and a bottle of water from the local grocery store? Ping, and it's there. In a moment's notice, you're one step closer to buying what you need.

So far, I can't seem to narrow down exactly what Firefly does and doesn't work with, but it does appear that anything within the "hurricane emergency" category of household items will be picked up in a heartbeat. Anything else? You might struggle.

If it doesn't know what you're looking for, you can scan a barcode and go from there. If you still get nowhere, you can search for it online. That often yields a good result, but it's far from perfect.

The fact that Amazon keeps Firefly within the family may be an antitrust issue waiting to happen — that is, if the Fire Phone takes off. Not everyone wants to use Amazon. Opening it up to Google Shopping, eBay, and other services wouldn't make sense for the company, whose sole motivation is to generate profits. But it would ultimately be better for the end user and consumer.

Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

Just like the next generation of iPhone and iPad software, iOS 8, comes with Shazam for music recognition, Firefly can also identify music and video content. Again, it's far from perfect and feels more "beta" stage than anything else. But when it works, it's a marvel.

Strategic partnerships may have entered Amazon's mind, like Apple did with Shazam, but by keeping it within the family opens the device up to be a gateway to Amazon's own services — something I, and others no doubt, will not want to be so closely tied into.

Give it time and the service may improve. The in-your-hand Firefly product may not need much improvement, bar a software update here or there. But the back-end infrastructure powering the service needs a great deal of work to make Firefly a viable product.

Bottom line: Strong hardware entry, but software drags it down

There's a good reason to compare this to the iPhone. At least on a skin-deep level. The hardware is impressive, and its build quality is divine. But in the end, your device relies on what's on it, and not what it looks like.

The software itself, the operating system and the functionality, is clearly in its infancy — especially when compared to other operating systems, like Android, and iOS for iPhones and iPads. The user experience needs work. And if the Dynamic Perspective is the flagship feature for the device, Amazon's priorities are clearly in the camp of showing off flashy new breakthroughs instead of common functionality, features, and focusing on the more subtle and detailed elements of the user interface.

There's no doubt in my mind that the device is all-but-entirely software oriented. If those issues can be resolved —and much of my personal issues with the device rely on the apparently misplaced priorities by Amazon — the Fire Phone can be a serious contender to Android in Google's well-established and firmly-placed position. 

For now, as is the case with early adopters, it's little more than a public developer preview — just without the formal title. It's a good effort, but it needs work. And until the ecosystem widens to rival platforms, services, and technologies, Amazon's technology internalization could ultimately harm the platform.

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