[alert type=alert-blue]Technical details[/alert]
OS Android Kitkat 4.4
Processor 2.2 GHz quad-core
Resolution 1280 x 720 pixels
microSD compatible? Yes, up to 64GB
Camera 13MP, 2.1MP
Dimensions 139.2 x 66.5 x 8.9 mm
Battery 2,400 mAh
Following its launch in the US earlier this year, the Amazon Fire Phone has now made its way to these shores. The device forms part of an expansive electronics strategy for Amazon, as it now manufactures everything from tablets to set-top TV boxes.
In the US, however, the Fire Phone’s launch was underwhelming to say the least and Amazon recently cut its price on contract – a sign that perhaps sales of the premium device weren’t as high as it was expecting.
Nonetheless, now that it has graced us with its presence, we shall try to put the context behind us and judge the Fire Phone purely on its own terms. Amazon has promised plenty of unique features, including 3D-style visuals and new tilt controls. The biggest obstacle, however, will be converting the Android and iOS masses to Amazon’s retail environment – which is integral to the device.
Amazon has wisely stuck to an all-black colour palette for the Fire. The outer edges of the phone contain a continuous rubberised frame, which you hope will result in it being able to take a fall or two.
A minimal aesthetic is present throughout the handset. Although the front of the device houses the five cameras that enable its 3D depth imaging and face-tracking functions, they are so small as to be hardly noticeable. Additionally, there is a small rectangular speaker on the top bezel and a rectangular home button at the bottom. The glass back of the handset makes it look more glossier than the front. It also houses the rear camera and LED flash and the rather prominent Amazon logo.
Although it’s 4.7 inch display means the Amazon Fire is the same size as an iPhone 6, it’s a bulkier device that consequently weighs a lot more than Apple’s counterpart (160g compared to 129g). Its general shape and curved corners bring it closer to the affordable Nokia Lumia 630. Although its build definitely looks more premium.
In terms of physical control buttons, where we felt Amazon went wrong was the addition of a camera button next to the volume controls. We aren’t doubting its functionality, the problem lies with usability and human error. Perhaps it was just on our part, but its resemblance and close proximity to the volume controls meant we kept pressing the camera button when we wanted to lower the volume. It could turn out to be an initial stumbling block for other users too, but it’s something you can condition yourself to overcome.
Users of bright, customisable handsets like the Motorola Moto G or Nokia Lumia range may yearn for replaceable back covers when making the jump to the Fire – but as you can clearly see on the back, the panel cannot be removed meaning the device does not contain a removable battery. Purely in terms of looks, we like the minimal design of the Fire Phone. It reminds us that keeping things simple is often the best option.
As it’s a completely new device, the Amazon Fire phone will require a bit of getting used to for Android, iOS and Windows users looking to switch. Make no mistake, underneath its forked UI still beats an Android heart, but significant changes have been made here.
Firstly, new users need to keep in mind that you will require an Amazon account to be able to purchase everything from apps to music, films, and books. The Fire Phone contains the entirety of Amazon’s retail hub, including services such as Kindle, the Appstore, Amazon Prime and Instant Video. It’s a wealth of media and entertainment but without an account it’s inaccessible. Luckily, setting up an Amazon account is a quick and simple process. However, Amazon Prime membership – which (in terms of entertainment) includes access to the Amazon Instant Video streaming service and the Kindle lending library – comes at a price. If you’re after the full package, it will cost you £79 per year. Although if you purchase the Fire Phone before the end of the year, you will receive a year’s membership to Amazon Prime for free via the handset’s exclusive UK operator O2.
Aside from purchases, the other factor that may be a hindrance at first are the phone’s controls. We would therefore advise you to accustom yourself with them before you get started. There is a visual guide that begins upon set-up and can also be accessed later from the menu screen, which is an invaluable tool. It will teach you about the tilt controls and various gesture functions. Seeing as we tested the device, we’ve detailed those controls below.
The feature that Amazon has touted the most on the Fire Phone is its dynamic perspective. Even the box has those words draped across it.
Without bogging everyone down with the intricate details behind the new tech, it basically works by utilising the five cameras on the front of the phone to track the user’s face and offer 3d images that adapt to your gaze. Tilt the phone in any direction and you will be able to see more of a dynamic image. Although, it’s only available on select items at present (i.e. the Maps app, Amazon’s app icons, dynamic wallpapers and a select amount of games – mostly developed in-house by Amazon), it really does look impressive. Despite having spent a couple of weeks with the handset, we still find ourselves staring at its magic visuals with childlike wonder.
The Maps app, which takes advantage of the dynamic perspective feature is also a useful tool. It basically builds upon Nokia’s Here maps app by utilising the Fire Phone’s impressive visuals to add 3D icons to significant locations on the map. Again, tilting the device brings the dynamic images to the fore. As Windows Phone users will no doubt be aware of, Here maps is as good as its rivals from Google and Apple.
The forked Android UI on the Fire Phone sees Amazon give Google’s OS a slick redesign. The main difference is the app carousel located on the home screen. This is a large slider filled with icons of your most recently used apps along with additional information about them – for example if you recently read a book on Kindle it will be displayed here alongside recommendations for similar books.
In terms of navigation, Amazon has utilised a mixture of tilt and touch controls. Tilting the phone slightly brings up information, such as battery life, network, connectivity. A sharp quick tilt to the right brings up an additional text-only toolbar, which contains all the main features of the phone. Doing this whilst inside certain apps will lead to the toolbar displaying relevant in-app actions. Tilting sharply to the left will bring up an information screen that sometimes displays the weather – often it displays nothing. Tilting the Amazon Fire back and forward whilst in the web browser will also allow for page scrolling.
The Amazon Fire Phone has no physical controls except for its home, volume and camera buttons. Therefore, to go back, you must swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Again, this is something that is easy to get accustomed to.
With all its software and control modifications, there is no doubt that the Amazon Fire Phone will give users that are bored with Android’s stock OS plenty to sink their teeth into.
Although the Amazon Fire Phone is crammed full of unique features, it manages to slip up in some integral areas.
It’s foremost unique feature is Firefly. An intelligent scanner that utilises the handset’s camera, Firefly can bring a wealth of information to your fingertips. Amazon claims that Firefly can be used to scan everything from product barcodes (allowing you to conveniently purchase the same products from Amazon.com) to artwork and movies. Firefly uses its audio recognition software to verify the latter, along with music too, in a manner akin to Shazam.
It sounds like an amazing resource on paper, the only problem is that Firefly doesn’t always work. We found that it was faultless when it came to scanning barcodes, as it quickly recognised everything from food items to DVDs and brought up the correct Amazon.com listing for the item. However, things get problematic when it comes to scanning audio. We repeatedly tried to use Firefly to scan film audio but it could never decipher what we were watching. For those users out there that aren’t as retail oriented as Amazon expects its buyers to be, its exactly these kind of informative functions they will predominantly use Firefly for. We can only hope that Amazon smooths out its rough edges with future updates as it no doubt has the potential to be a great tool.
Anyone who has used the Amazon Kindle Fire tablets will be familiar with the Mayday feature, which makes an appearance here too. Mayday basically offers Amazon Fire Phone users video support, which you can only hope you won’t require too much of whilst using the device.
Another downside for the handset in terms of software is the lack of a Google Play Store. Amazon has shunned Google’s superior app store in favour of its own Amazon Appstore, which carries just a just a fraction of the apps compared to Google’s behemoth. Although, you will get access to all the exclusive Amazon Fire Phone apps, which take advantage of its dynamic perspective function. At present, that’s not much of a consolation as they only amount to a handful in total. Amazon Games Studios own lineup of in-house games such as Saber’s Edge and the upcoming Til Morning’s Light are particularly appealing. The former performs well on the device, as do most games and apps.
Access to Amazon Prime should help relieve the pain that comes from app withdrawal. Your enjoyment of the multimedia service on the Amazon Fire Phone will really boil down to whether you enjoy watching films and TV shows on a small 5-inch screen. Personally, we think tablets are more suited to both TV shows and, in particular, feature-length films. But, we understand that not everyone is a visual purist like us.
If you do decide to take advantage of the service, it looks good enough on the Fire Phone’s 720p HD screen. The small size means that a higher resolution won’t make much of a difference, so we’ll refrain from complaining about a lack of full HD or QHD – as is found on larger handsets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 or LG G3.
Finally, the area where Amazon really needs to up its game is the rear-facing camera. Although it has proven that it knows how to create innovative camera technology – via its multiple front-facing dynamic perspective cameras – it skipped town when it came to creating a solid rear snapper. As a result, you get a standard 13MP lens – you can’t put anything less powerful on the back of a flagship these days – with very little imaging functions. Users will be able to utilise HDR, panorama, and lenticular modes. The latter being the only unique function available, that allows you to create a moving collage of several images using the device’s tilt controls. Simply put, the Amazon Fire Phone has nowhere near the amount of functions offered by other devices, such as the new Sony Xperia Z3.
When we first learnt of the Amazon Fire Phone, the hype focussed on its status as the e-retailer’s first smartphone and its dynamic perspective. Although, we initially thought the latter may just be a gimmick, it actually turned out to be the feature we loved the most. Many of its other aspects, from design to UI, suffer from small hiccups that add up to form significant usability flaws. However, it has a lot of potential, which is why we’re hoping that the Fire Phone gets a second version. With a bit of work this could truly become a device that can incinerate its foes with unique features and a desirable forked Android interface.
Despite offering plenty of unique features, the Amazon Fire Phone lacks the apps and general usability of its rivals. Not to mention the fact that both Android and iOS users will have to adapt to the Amazon retail ecosystem.