Amazon Fire Phone Review

on Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Turning up to the party late may be fashionable, but Amazon is several years late in bringing out a phone. There are only three ways for Amazon to go with the Fire Phone given how tardy it is: go cheap, go different or go home.
At £399, the Amazon Fire Phone certainly isn’t cheap, but it is different.
In fact, in several ways the Fire Phone slips into downright weird territory. And while we’re all for devices carving out a niche, we don't want a niche for niche's sake, and that might be a trap that Amazon's fallen into.
The Amazon Fire Phone’s niche is obvious once you get your hands on the thing. There are five cameras on the front.

One is the normal selfie camera, and the others sit in each corner. These track your face constantly, which makes the Fire Phone the first device with something in common with that weird bloke on the bus.
We’ll look at exactly what this gets you in return in a bit, but it doesn’t do the Fire Phone’s design any favours. The cameras make the front of the thing look quite busy. It’s quite at odds with the otherwise pretty innocuous style.
The Fire Phone is all-black, with Gorilla Glass 3 panels on the front and back, and plastic sides. It’s quite Sony Xperia Z3-like in this respect, but it actually looks a bit closer to an iPhone 4S clone up close. And, yes, we realise such an old iPhone is basically ancient history now.

There is something slightly dated to the feel of the Fire Phone, too. While being 8.9mm thick hardly makes the phone chunky, it is quite heavy (160g) and thick for a phone of its class, and its style just isn’t consistent enough.
A lot of it comes down to the front panel in the end: it’s kinda ugly. And there are a half-dozen little other hardware bits that just aren’t that well thought-out.
There’s a camera button, but it’s right where power buttons are normally placed. It’s confusing and doesn’t feel good when used to take photos. It’s because it actually doubles as a shopping button, used to identify books, music and other stuff when given a long press. We’d use it as a camera button more but – no surprise – the shopping angle has really been given design precedence.
Too many things feel like they’ve ended up in the wrong spots here. The front home button sticks out too much too. And, most important, there are no soft keys.

Just about all other Android phones in the world have either hardware or software soft keys. They’re built around them. The Fire Phone has a Home button, but to go ‘back’ in an app, you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen.
This would be fine if the system were really built around this, but the phone actually runs a heavily customised version of Android. It runs Android apps, which often rely on ‘normal’ soft keys. This often means just using the phone is a lot more opaque and confusing than it should be.
Of course, Mayday can get you out of a pickle if you need it. If you’ve not seen the TV ads, this is the customer support service that involves an Amazon tech bod popping up on your screen to give guidance and even change settings for you if you want them to, and it’s unbelievably quick and effective, even if during testing the techs admitted to not yet being entirely au fait with the new Fire Phone. It’s a great safety net for those who might not have owned a smartphone before, but it’s not really a great excuse or compensation for unintuitive design.
The bit of software that we can blame for the Fire Phone’s usability problems is called Fire OS. We’ve seen it in Amazon’s Fire tablets before, but this is the first time it's been used in a phone.

Kill it with Fire

We’ll come straight out with it: we’re not big fans. It’s one of the least coherent Android skins, and it doesn’t seem to have made the transition from tablet to phone all that well.
The odd thing about Fire OS is that it doesn’t really make any attempt to make your home screen look remotely attractive. There are no widgets in Fire OS, and the default screen in-use simply shows the app you used last.
If that’s Whatsapp, what you’ll see is a big Whatsapp logo, with a couple of messaging app suggestions you might want to download from the Amazon Appstore below. It’s a clue as to what’s at the root of the Fire Phone’s problem – it cares more about providing a platform for Amazon’s digital content services (Kindle,, Amazon Appstore etc.) than creating a space that’s nice to hang around in.
This is especially weird when you consider that the Fire Phone’s face-tracking camera feature initially seems to be all about prettifying the interface. It lets the phone use 3D lock screens you can ‘look around’ by moving your head. In a similar vein, the icons in the Fire OS UI proper also tilt when you move your head. It makes the phone perfect as a tool for show-offs, and several of the lock screens do look pretty great.
But that little novelty wears off mighty quickly, and where the best Android phones end up feeling like a sort of little digital home after a day or so’s use. Obtuse interface decisions and a lack of real customisation make using the Fire Phone feel more like renting a room in someone else's house. Someone who keeps moving your stuff and charges you to watch the telly or dishwasher. And you can’t move out because you have a 2-year contract. Nightmare.

Getting physical

Unsurprisingly, as well as pushing you towards it's digital media platforms, Amazon also wants to use the Fire Phone as a way to get you buying actual physical things from that little internet shop it's got going.
A simple long-press on the camera button on the side opens the Firefly app, which identifies just about any sort of media Amazon sells. Books, DVDs, TV series, films – it can identify just about anything with just a scrap of information in the real world.
To do this it can scan barcodes or book/DVD covers using the camera, or listen to songs and even snippets of TV dialogue to identify specific episodes of specific series. It’s clever and works remarkably well, although it doesn't perform searches based on very basic OCR or product names.
To do a bit of online price-checking while on the high street, Firefly is great. However, it is also very, very transparent, not to mention harmful to your bank balance.

A one-finger gesture

Further proof of Amazon's commitment to doing things differently is evident in how you interact with the Fire Phone - this is far more gesture-based than the average Android.
You flick from the right of the Fire Phone screen to see your notifications, the left to see different kinds of content on your phone (or – more often – Amazon services), from the top to switch features on and off. And, of course, from the bottom to go ‘back’.
The issue is that as other parts of the interface also react to flicks near the sides of the screen, you need to be very deliberate otherwise these gestures sometimes simply don’t work. It’s an intermittent problem, but a darn annoying one.

There’s a reason why Android uses the top of the screen for its core gesture, because it’s an area other apps and the interface itself don’t otherwise use too much.
The gesture-based style is fiddly and frustrating, and led to us simply ignoring some of these parts after a few days. It’s the same story with some of the other periphery features. You can tilt the phone to scroll through pages of text in the browser, but it doesn’t feel more convenient than using a finger. Plus, it’s nothing new – it’s called Smart Scroll in the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5.
A few too many supposed extras of the Fire Phone made us react by saying “Ah, that’s neat”, followed by “how do I turn it off?”

Kindle Fire Phone tech specs


Operating system: Fire OS
Screen: 4.7-inch 1,280 x 800 pixel IPS LCD screen
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 @ 2.2GHz
Storage: 32GB/64GB
Camera: 13MP rear, 2.1MP front
Connectivity: 4G, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, Bluetooth 3.0, micro USB 2.0
Battery: 2400mAh
Dimensions: 139 x 67 x 8.9mm
Weight: 160g


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