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Amazon Fire phone: Hands-on first impressions

Matt Miller shares his initial impressions -- plus a gallery tour -- of Amazon's new Prime-focused smartphone. The hardware is fine, but Fire is no enterprise device.

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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 23 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Delighter right panel on Amazon Fire

Amazon revealed the and I had the opportunity to spend about 45 minutes testing out the device. While I personally won't be buying one due to the , I can see it appealing to the Amazon Prime consumer who owns a Fire tablet.

With its closed ecosystem and focus on the Amazon store, it is definitely not an enterprise device.

Hardware

The hardware itself feels much like a Nexus 4 with a glass front and back. I do like the side buttons and fact that there is a combined camera shutter/Firefly button. You press the button once to launch the camera and hold it in to launch the Firefly capture service.

There is a center hardware button, similar to a Galaxy smartphone and an iPhone, that is used to take you back to the app launcher or home carousel. A swipe up gesture also serves as a back function.

Amazon looks to have spent some time getting a solid camera into the Fire, which was great to see since so many people use their phone as their primary camera. Samsung, HTC, and LG offer much more in terms of camera effects, but the Fire does have a 13 megapixel camera with OIS.

One of the unique aspects of the Fire is Dynamic Perspective. This technology is possible due to the four front facing infrared cameras that measure the x, y, and z placement of your face in relation to the phone. 3D lock screens look fantastic and allow you to look "around" objects by tilting your head or the handset. I imagine consumers will spend a lot of time at first just looking at their lock screen.

Dynamic Perspective is used in other applications to provide additional information with a tilt of your head or device. Left and right panels also appear by tilting the device or swiping your finger. You can actually toggle off some of the gesture and movement gimmicks if you want, but they are enabled by default.

The Fire comes with 32GB and 64GB of internal storage with no external storage capability. I am very pleased to see these high storage capacities, especially when Samsung and Sony still launch high end smartphones with a ridiculously low 16GB of internal storage.

Software

The Fire phone runs the Fire OS 3.5 and functions much like the Fire tablets. The Fire OS is based on Android, but you won't get access to Google Play services so Google Now, Gmail, Google Drive, Chrome, Google Maps, and more are not available to Fire owners. Thus, there should have been some kind of pricing consideration for these limitations and closed ecosystem.

When you launch the Fire phone you will start at the app launcher display or home carousel display. Pressing the center hardware button will toggle between these two. The app launcher provides the ability to view app shortcuts for those apps installed on the device. You can organize these in any order you like, including creating folders to store apps. The top of this display shows you the four customized shortcuts to your favorite apps that also appears at the bottom of the widget page.

You can toggle over to a cloud view of the apps you have purchased and see all of these organized in alphabetical order. A small icon appears to show you which of these are installed.

The widget view, home carousel, shows large app icons along the top with data from within the app on the bottom half of the display. The lower information includes emails, messages, images you captured, music you listened to, and more. These are like actionable widgets you can find now on Android and you may be able to use many of these apps without ever jumping into the apps themselves.

The ability to listen to a movie and have the Fire show me IMDB data for the particular scene is very slick. There are many of these cool functions and actions that will impress people at first. I am very curious to see if consumers will find these useful after the first couple of weeks of use.

Like the BlackBerry 10 OS, there are some gestures and movements in Fire OS that will require you to learn. Panels appear to the left and right of the center main panel. The left one shows key Amazon apps or menus while the right includes more detailed information within apps. A side-to-side tilt shows you a notification area that I discovered by accident as I was moving the device around.

Swype is the supported keyboard so you can slide your finger around to enter text. Unlike Android, and upcoming iOS 8, you cannot install and use third party keyboards.

There are a few things in the Fire OS on the Fire phone that show me this is a beta device to start with. HERE Maps powers the Amazon Maps GPS and mapping software, but the app was built by Amazon with Yelp integration and more advanced features. Voice navigation is supported on the Fire as well. There are a few hundred monuments, like the Space Needle and Empire State building, included in the Maps that show you the cool Dynamic Perspective view. As you can see though, this is not for entire cities so has limited functionality at this time with potential for growth and more 3D images.

I expected to have the Fire phone listen to a song and add to my Amazon Music free streaming playlist, but the only option from Amazon Music is to purchase the song or add it to a wishlist to purchase later. Given that , I imagine this will be added in the future.

Mayday looks like a nice feature for my parents, but I never call customer support so would never use it myself. It is a great way to provide customer support and given that Amazon is focused on an optimal buying customer experience Mayday is a great service to see on a mobile device.

Closing initial thoughts

There are many varying opinions about the Amazon Fire online. Joel Evans, former ZDNet writer, has an associate at his company who is excited about the prospects while my MoTR podcast co-host, Kevin Tofel, shares much of my same thoughts about the launch of the Fire.

The hardware is fine, but it is priced at the high end with the iPhone 5s, HTC One (M8), and Galaxy S5 and doesn't compete with these devices in terms of smartphone capability. I expected to see the Fire priced similarly to the Nexus 5, OnePlus One, or Moto X and if that was the launch price I think there would be even more excitment from the press.

Firefly is Shazam on steroids and looks interesting, but not necessary. I don't use my smartphone to gather information on things around my house, but if you are a regular Amazon purchaser then you may find this very convenient. There needs to be a better way to organize the data captured with Firefly though since it is just a long list of everything at the moment.

The exclusivity with AT&T is a shame, especially when there is nothing to differentiate the Fire from any other smartphone on AT&T. I at least expected free Amazon Video or Music streaming, similar to what , or an unlocked device like a Nexus. Locking the Fire into AT&T, along with no news on an international release, limits the number of customers for the Fire since I highly doubt the Fire will have anyone switching to AT&T like they did for the original iPhone.

We are going to soon see even launching for this same price that will make the Fire appear to be a bit outdated. Amazon didn't revolutionize on the hardware and is counting on the Amazon Prime member to take the Prime experience from their home, to their tablet, and now to their phone.

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App launcher for apps loaded on the Fire

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More apps installed on the Fire

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Alphabetical view of apps on the cloud and device

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Glass back of the Amazon Fire

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13 megapixel camera and flash on the back

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Front hardware button and two lower sensor cameras

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Two sensor cameras and front facing camera above the display

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All the buttons and SIM card slot are on the left hand side

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Front of Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8), Moto X, Amazon Fire, LG G3

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Back of the S5, M8, Moto X, Fire, and G3

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Left panel shows you the Amazon apps and quick launch

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Home carousel

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ZDNet in the Silk browser

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Notifications area and quick launch icons

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Settings

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Yelp view of map data from tilting device

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3D view of some select monuments

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Fire share menu

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Capturing an item with Firefly

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Firefly music capture has limited options

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Firefly integration with MyFitnessPal

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Firefly capture data in one long list

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