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A month with the Amazon Fire phone: The 3D handset falls flat

After its initial release, the Amazon Fire phone was labelled a shopping trolley with a phone attached. Now it's arrived in Europe, is there more to the device than that?

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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

After seven years of making e-readers and tablets, Amazon is no stranger to making hardware that's generally thought of as solid, value for money kit. Can its first foray into smartphones follow the same path?

The Amazon Fire phone was released earlier this year in the US, with a release in the US and Germany following this September. I've spent around a month with the device, and here are my thoughts so far.

Design

The Fire feels very much like it's bringing up the rear when it comes to specs.

Like many of competitors, the Fire is a simple black rectangle. Despite its plastic outer casing, the phone is robust – it showed not even the slightest of hint of a scratch after a month of fairly rough treatment. 

At 1280 x 720 pixels, the HD LCD screen resolution isn't at the top of smartphone pack, but it's still clear and colourful enough, and performs well in bright sunlight.

The display itself is 4.7 inches, which means that it copes with one -handed use just fine, and at 160g, you won't break your wrist doing so. That said, you may wish the Fire had taken a leaf out of the book of many of the thinner, lighter devices out there.

However, the device has a half-inch bevel at its top and tail to accommodate the five cameras on the front (four to support Dynamic Perspective, more of which below, and a front-facing snapper with a 2.1 megapixel sensor.

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2 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

Camera

As well as the front facing camera, there's a 13 megapixel rear-facing equivalentwith HDR, which by and large turns out very respectable pictures. However, it can struggle a little in low light, and you'll have to learn to ignore the device's repeated insistence to turn on that HDR.

For all those snaps, Amazon offers unlimited online photo storage – and yes, they really mean unlimited, apparently.

If you're not in a cloud storage mood, there are also two very welcome, nicely sizeable onboard storage options. Though there's no removable storage, the 32GB and 64GB built-in should keep you going for a while.

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3 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

Hardware

Elsewhere on the hardware front, there's 2.2Ghz quad-core Snapdragon 800 CPU, and 2GB of RAM. Again, it puts the Fire squarely in the middle of the pack — no flagship killer, but no slouch either.

Its battery is 2400mAh, which lasts for a respectably long time for normal use. However, prolonged use did seem to cause the back of the device to heat up noticeably.

The Fire is heavy on the hard buttons: on the left hand side above the SIM tray are a volume rocker and hard camera button; on the top, a power button; and there's a hard home button below the screen. The placement of the camera button is bizarrely frustrating – it's typically the place where you might find a power button, so you're very likely to find yourself turning on the device and then immediately having to shut off the camera before you can back to where you want to go.

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4 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

User interface

The UI is familiar from the Fire tablets, and it does have some nice touches – a default swipe keyboard, for example, is always a favourite, as is autoscroll, where tilting the phone slightly will get it to scroll through a web page – for reading long articles or documents.

Pressing the home button or swiping up will take you to the app grid, swiping down will bring up recent notifications and eight preset elements, including airplane mode, settings, and the Mayday help button.

Swiping left from any app will summon a list of options, for example in the Silk browser will show most visited pages, bookmarks, history and so on. Of all the Amazon apps on the device, it's Silk that's the most uncomfortable to use. I found the address bar is all too prone to disappearing, and getting the back and forward buttons to appear is something of a lottery.

Swiping up meanwhile will bring you to a screen devoted to the last used app, signified by a huge icon and some notifications relating to it underneath, which didn't necessarily seem to be the most current. It's not something you're going to find yourself using often.

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5 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

GMS

As the Fire runs Amazon's Fire OS rather than stock Android, be prepared for the app gap.

Fire OS is a fork of Android, so there's none of the Google Mobile Services (GMS)  apps you might be used to – Maps, the Play Store and so on.

There's Amazon own-brand equivalents for GMS apps, including a white-label version of Here's maps, which manages to put Dynamic Perspective to fairly decent use to give a 3D sense of buildings.

The Amazon Appstore meanwhile is stocked with all the big names you'd expect as well as the usual drek — London Bus driving simulator anyone? — though numbers are far short of both the Apple and Play stores.

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6 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

Dynamic Perspective

Dynamic Perspective, if you believe Amazon's marketing material, is one of the Fire's standout features. Dynamic Perspective works to give normally flat images a 3D feel and, using the four embedded cameras in each corner, allows the user to alter their view of the image by moving their head. You can peer over objects on the screen, or tilt your head to the side to look around a corner.

It's far better executed than other 3D technologies designed for use with a small screen and without 3D glasses – other implementations have made me feel more queasy than impressed.  Amazon's obviously pleased with it, and has larded it liberally all over the smartphone — the view of the app icons moves in response to your head, the screensavers are designed for showing off 3D, even some of the menu lettering is tweaked with Dynamic Perspective.

The problem with Dynamic Perspective is that it feels inessential. There are some examples in gaming where it's nice to have — a block puzzle game where you can move your head to get a better view of where to make your next move, for example — and others where it feels shoehorned in, such as a snowboarding game where you can control the boarder by tilting your head in one direction or another.

Gaming aside, there's little else where the 3D is used to any interesting effect. It's the first time Amazon's used the tech though and it's opened up its SDK for the device including Dynamic Perspective, so fingers crossed we'll see it put to more inventive uses soon. 

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7 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

Firefly

One of the other features that Amazon has made much of is Firefly.

Accessed by holding the camera button down for a long press, Firefly is designed to recognise words, images, URLs, objects, audio and video, and either input it to your phone, or show you how to buy it.

As you'd expect from Amazon, it's chiefly a vector for getting you to buy more stuff. The idea presumably is that you'll be out shopping — or showrooming — and you see something you like. Rather than buy it there and then, you can do a quick check of the price on Amazon and maybe shift your purchase online.

According to Amazon execs, when most people first get hold of their Fire, they'll Firefly a load of things just to see how the system works. I wonder how many of them will use Firefly beyond that initial dalliance.

While Firefly is undeniably a nice piece of software, I'm not convinced it's an essential one. Granted, the process is quick, but the difference in time between using Firefly and typing your shopping query into a comparison site, or into Amazon for that matter, isn't large enough to notice. It's at its most handy when used with music — what's that song you always hear but can never get the name of? — but that's not exactly new thanks to Shazam, which Firefly uses, and its numerous rivals.

There's also a missed trick when it comes to business cards, where Firefly could really be useful. Stick a business card under the camera, and it will recognise each individual line of information, but not bring them together in a single contact. You'll have to create a new, or find an existing, contact then add each line (phone number, email address etc) to the contact separately.

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8 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

Prime

There's more encouragement to shop with the Fire in the form of Prime.

Buying the Fire automatically signs you up to a year-long Prime subscription. If you're already signed up Prime, Amazon will begin that year when your existing subscription finishes.

As well as expedited shipping on a number of items, you get access to a load of other Amazon content, including thousands of films, TV episodes, and Kindle e-books.

Given a year of Prime normally costs £79 in the UK, €49 in Germany, or $99 in the US (the only three territories where the device is available currently), offering a subscription with the phone makes it feel like more of a bargain. In the UK, it retails for £399 on PAYG. If you deduct the cost of Prime, you're looking at a more reasonable £320.

Interestingly though, you can't buy a Fire from Amazon in the UK. Thanks to an exclusive deal with O2, if you want to get your hands on one, you'll need to go through the operator even if you don't want a contract. If you do, however, the phone is free with 24 month contracts of £33 per month and up, starting at 2GB of data.

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9 of 9 Jo Best/ZDNet

The verdict

After Amazon's long history of hardware building, the Fire seems a bit out of place — it feels like the first device that misses its mark by a fair margin.

Amazon's to that effect: the company took a $170m hit on Fire phone inventory due to weak sales.

The price tag on the Fire is seemingly that of a relatively high-end device — not quite iPhone territory, but not far off — yet its specs make it more of a mid-range play. Amazon has not quite made this the flagship it feels like it wants to be, able to take its place alongside the iPhones and Galaxys of this world, nor is the affordable everyman device that the company has targeted with its earlier Kindles and Fire tablets.

The new tech that Amazon has included in the Fire phone shows that there is still room for innovation in hardware, and Dynamic Perspective and Firefly show potential. What Amazon hasn't proved with either yet is that they're essential, rather than just gimmicks to show off one day and forget about the next. Where the device succeeds most is on its more run-of-the-mill elements, including its screen, memory and battery — but that's not enough to make it stand out from the crowd.

While both, along with Fire OS on mobile, don't quite succeed in the way Amazon is hoping, they show the company isn't afraid to do new things with the wearying smartphone form. Here's hoping more of them will hit the target in the Fire phone's second generation.

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