Amazon Fire Phone Review28
Interface and Functionality
Amazon put in a lot of work and polish in Fire OS 3.5, but it’s still hindered by a limited apps ecosystem and a learning curve.
Amazon loves Google, there’s no questioning the mutual cooperation that the two companies share, as Amazon’s Kindle tablets are running software based on Google’s Android platform. However, make no mistake – this is not the standard Android experience you will find on any other Android phone or tablet. The Amazon phone and tablets run “Fire OS” which lacks the core Android apps (Play Store, Gmail, YouTube, Maps, etc) and has Amazon alternatives instead.
Perusing through the interface of the Fire Phone, which is running Amazon’s latest Fire OS 3.5 version, it definitely shares many elements we’ve seen already on previous Kindle tablets. Therefore, those specific users will have an easy transition here – whereas others will be faced with a learning curve.
Let’s talk about the visuals first. You wouldn’t fathom this to be Android, as the typical staples of the platform aren’t existent here with the Fire Phone. Instead, the homescreen is comprised of an endless rotating 3D carousel that shows us the most recently used apps in succession – while below each one, there’s relevant content pertaining to the selected app in the carousel. Along the bottom edge of the homescreen, four icons for Phone, Messaging, Email, and the Silk Browser sit there ready to be accessed. Pulling up that row of icons gets us into the app panel.
Unlike Android, there’s very little personalization with the homescreen. Heck, there are no special widgets or background to choose from – and the only control we have is with the layout of apps in the app panel. However, just like Android, the notifications panel can quickly be accessed by swiping down at any time from the top bezel.
Frankly, there’s no denying that Amazon spent a great deal of time building up and putting in a lot of work in the platform. Several new features are in tow with Fire OS 3.5, but the bigger question is whether or not they prove to be viable solutions in making the phone great and functional – more so against the other highly selective smartphones that are out and about. Let’s talk about what they are!
Without question, dynamic perspective is one of the most notable features of the Amazon Fire Phone – it’s similar to the parallax motion we already have with the homescreen of iOS. Essentially, four ultra-low power camera sensors and four infrared LEDs integrated to the front of the phone all work in conjunction with one another to deliver a neat 3D effect to certain elements of the experience.
It’s most profound with the lockscreen, as we’re able to tilt our head, or the phone, to see around different sections of the 3D environment of the lockscreen. Indeed, it’s pretty responsive in tracking our movement, but it becomes less apparent when lighting is at a minimum – like at night or dark settings. In addition to the lockscreen, dynamic perspective is also heavily used in other areas of the interface. For example, the giant icons in the carousel move – while the icons in the bottom app drawer also tilt. Heck, the effect is also incorporated in a few games from the onset.
All told, this is the only phone that heavily makes use of dynamic perspective – whereas with iOS, it’s subtle. Certainly, it adds value to the visual presentation of the platform, but at the end of the day, it’s something we can certainly live without. Knowing that, we feel as though it’s still somewhat of a novel feature.
Shoppers will eat up the Amazon Fire Phone, since this is a phone that takes great pride in providing users with that top-notch shopping experience. Not only does the handset incorporate many of Amazon’s popular services, but they’ve added one new feature that arguably makes it the ultimate shopping tool. With a simple long press of the camera button on its side, we are instantly transported into the magical world of Firefly.
At first glance, Firefly’s interface is easily mistaken for any ordinary camera app, as the screen is dominated by a viewfinder. However, the magic happens once we point the camera towards something – anything to be exact. From a box, a UPC code, a movie playing on TV, to even a business card, Firefly intelligently populates relevant functions that pertain to each thing. For example, snapping the cover of a Blu-ray compiles prices from Amazon, and more details from apps like IMDb and Flixster. Meanwhile, snapping a shot of a business card, we’re given options to save information to a contact.
Our biggest complaint about Firefly is its support for third-party apps. Yes, you have a few out of the gate, but the more important matter lies with shopping apps. Being a product from Amazon, Firefly gives us pricing for Amazon – not from other rival services like eBay, Best Buy, Walmart, or Craigslist. For those who love to showroom, not having that level of transparency is alarming, no doubt, especially when they’re searching for the best prices. Still, Firefly is already one step ahead of most shopping tools.
The size of the phone is arguably more agreeable to one-handed operation, in comparison to other flagships, but Amazon goes one step further by offering us one-handed gestures. There are various gestures in play here, they include the swivel action of the wrist to access “quick actions” (aka notifications panel), auto-scroll to scan web pages vertically, and a peek movement to reveal helpful contextual “layered” menus/information.
Out of the bunch, the one-handed peek gestures used to reveal contextual menus requires the most adjustment, as this isn’t something that most people have come across. The feature itself is a process of trial and error, seeing that not all parts of the experience make use of it. On the homescreen, for example, tilting the phone towards the left uncovers a categorized menu – while doing the opposite shows us weather information. In other places, like the email app, the left menu displays our various inboxes, and the right one jumps to another menu for attachments.
Unfortunately, the integration of these gestures aren’t uniform with all apps. In third party ones, like Facebook or Twitter, the one-handed peek gestures do absolutely nothing. Obviously, these gestures help to maintain minimal interaction with our other hand, but these contextual menus can also be accessed by merely swiping left/right from the sides of the display with our finger.
Speech Recognition Service
Voice recognition services aren’t new, however, instead of employing Google’s own versatile Google Now, Amazon has decided to employ its own new service. Sadly, though, the Fire Phone’s speech recognition service, which is accessed by long pressing the home button, lacks any serious depth to make it a viable threat. At its core, the service is extremely basic in what it can do – though, it’s pretty accurate with its recognition. Specifically, we can perform tasks such as calling, texting, or sending messages via voice. However, it doesn’t dish up any “smart” responses, like asking it what the weather is like.
How it stacks up
Even though Amazon has shown us that they take great pride in delivering an immersive experience, there are certain elements about it that we can do without. As a shopping tool, it’s an outstanding thing that any Amazon user will greatly appreciate, but in order to be a resounding offering, it needs to offer support to rival services. It’s one thing to get prices on Amazon, which are competitive to begin with, but it would be nice to get prices from other places too.
Additionally, when it comes to getting stuff done, Fire OS 3.5 lacks the diversity and expansive offerings of typical Android. Yes, the basics are on hand, but they pale in totality to the myriad of functionality and personalization that standard Android delivers. On top of all of that, the limited amount of third party apps through the Amazon Appstore is not only restricting, but it begs the question of whether or not the limited offering will turn away some folks.
Seeing that Amazon is calling the shots, the only available keyboard here is the one given to us from Amazon. It’s not bad at all, especially when it proves to be responsive and spacious in layout, to give us little trouble in typing away long passages of text. Alternatively, it features a Swype-like method as well for those who really prefer a one-handed operation.
Processor and Memory
It’s surely not the newest thing from Qualcomm’s camp, but the Fire Phone is able to maintain an exquisitely responsive overall performance.
It’s not the latest chipset out of Qualcomm’s camp, but the Amazon Fire Phone’s quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 SoC proves to be powerful enough to handle even the most demanding tasks. Combined with 2GB of RAM and the Adreno 330 GPU, there’s rarely a stutter to the heavy 3D effects seen with its dynamic perspective feature. To be frank, even the most demanding users will be undoubtedly impressed by its prime performance.
Offered in 32GB and 64GB capacities, our 32GB packing review unit actually boasts 20.86GB of free storage out of the box. Certainly, it’s nice to see that many of Amazon’s services are streaming-based, but it would’ve been nice to see a microSD slot on hand to supplement things locally.
Internet and Connectivity
The Silk Browser might not be as well-known as some of its counterparts, but it’s nonetheless equally sound with its offerings. Thanks to its 4G LTE radio, pages are quick to load – while navigational controls and page rendering are equally responsive. In addition, there are functions to search for keywords in a page, and sharing via social networking, that make it a competitive offering worth using. Finally, it offers vertical scrolling thanks to its dynamic perspective feature – where tilting the phone/up down allows us to scroll. Indeed, it’s much more intuitive than that eye-scrolling feature with Samsung’s devices, but its limitation is in the amount of lighting that’s present. Under darker conditions, it struggles to work.
An AT&T exclusive, this quad-band GSM phone offers support to 9 bands of 4G LTE. Supplementing its load, it packs along some of the usual connectivity features – such as aGPS with Glonass, Bluetooth 3.0 with EDR, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, and NFC.