The Amazon Fire Phone goes on sale this week—July 25—from AT&T, the exclusive provider, but we can offer you a sneak peek based on hands-on experience with a press sample this weekend. Overall, I’d say the phone has a few fun features that will attract potential users and a few that will annoy them.
On the plus side, cool features include Firefly, an onboard app that scans objects or listens to songs, then finds them in Amazon’s immense retail and digital content so you can buy them. Another intriguing technology, Dynamic Perspective, can make certain flat images appear three-dimensional on the phone’s 4.7-inch display, allowing you to view them from different angles as you tilt the phone in various ways. You can also scroll up and down Web pages, summon app menu options, or view messages and other notifications by jerking or tilting the phone. These features generally worked well for me but were occasionally buggy.
Fire Phone includes 12 free months of Prime, Amazon’s $99-a-year two-day-shipping-and-media-streaming service. Existing members will get an additional 12 months tacked on to their current subscription. Prime membership, which doesn’t have to be renewed, also includes unlimited Amazon Cloud storage for photos taken with the Fire Phone.
Not so hot, at least for Android fans: App choices are confined to Amazon’s Appstore, which is notably bereft of Google apps. That means no Google Maps, Google Music, Gmail, YouTube, Google Now, Google Plus, Google Drive, and of course, Google’s Play app store. You may get be able to jump in via the phone’s Silk Web browser or some third-party app developer, but you won’t enjoy the synergy of Google apps working together on the same device.
Consumer Reports engineers will be putting the Fire Phone through a grueling battery of tests—including its 2400 mAh battery. In the meantime, here are my impressions of this interesting phone.
The Fire trains four front-facing cameras (one on each corner) on your face so that when you move the phone, onboard technology called Dynamic Perspective alters the onscreen image so it looks like you can peek around it. The effect was amazing, particularly when looking at some of the included wallpapers that depict floating balloons or jungle passages. Even the desktop icons move slightly when you tilt the phone. This effect also works with the Map app and games that came with the phone. This effect is assisted by the Fire’s onboard gyro and accelerometers. If you block three or four of the cameras with your fingers, 3D will stop working until you move them. But until there’s more to look at in “3D,” the main effect of Dynamic Perspective may be to drive up sales of Dramamine.
A great entertainer
The Fire Phone was built for viewing content. Besides having access to Amazon’s ample entertainment ecosystem, you can stream stuff from Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and ESPN. Of course, Amazon give its content an edge, with features like X-Ray, which feeds you details on videos you’re watching, such as the actors in the film or the music playing in the background. The Fire’s Second Screen feature allows you to beam Amazon Instant video and Netflix content to Miracast-compliant enabled, which are now plentiful. When beaming Instant Video content to a TV via Second Screen, you can look up an actor or song on the phone without interrupting the movie or show that’s playing on your TV.
The Fire Phone lets you see the lyrics of some songs, which you can access by pulling a tab from the left side of the screen. Tap any stanza shown in the lyrics tab, and the music player will jump to that part in the song.
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If you’re thumb-tied, you can tilt the Fire rather than touch the screen to scroll up and down Web or e-book pages or to see different product views in Amazon’s shopping app. For example, you can tilt the phone away or toward you to move up and down a line of models wearing different versions of a particular dress. I personally find it silly to keep tilting or jerking a phone to change what’s on the screen when my thumb is already close enough to do a better job.
This app brings the functionality of the optical and audio scanning tools that have been around from third parties into one place. When launched, the app uses the Fire’s rear camera to scan objects or listens to music or movie dialog to help you identify and, Amazon hopes, buy the product or content. What it finds is stored in a list, so you can always come back later.
The audio scanner often worked well in my informal trials, IDing a movie or song within a few seconds. However, it had trouble “hearing” in noisy places such as restaurants, and some of its movie IDs were hilarious. For example, it confused the 1980s Tom Hanks movie “Big” with some kids’ puppet show I never heard of.
The optical scanner was even less successful than the audio scanner. When you aim the camera at an object, tiny little firefly-like artifacts (hence, the name) are supposed to swarm around the object’s logo or bar code until an ID is made. But it often gave up, for instance, failing to identify well-known objects such as a bottle of San Pellegrino water, a Krups coffeemaker, and a Bic pen. Despite glitches with my press sample, I believe Firefly will get better as more people use it.
Help from Mayday
Mayday, Amazon’s video-chat tech support (already available on the Kindle), lets you see a representative on screen, although he or she can see only your phone’s desktop. A tech-support rep can take control of your phone to help you get out of scrapes or connect you to AT&T to straighten out account issues. You need a strong Wi-Fi or cellular-data connection to use Mayday. If the connection is not strong enough, you won’t see your assistant’s face. In our one-on-one demonstration with Amazon, the Mayday assistant seemed a little unfamiliar with the phone. While expertise with this brand new device will likely improve by the time the phone becomes available to the public, it will be interesting to see if Amazon will be able to handle the demand for help.
A great display
Text and images on the phone’s 4.7-inch LCD display, with 1280 x 720 resolution at 315 pixels per inch, appeared crisp and dynamic, though not as sharp as some I’ve seen on other phones, including the LG G3 I’m currently reviewing.
With its flat, rounded edges, the Amazon Fire Phone looks like a large, black iPhone. Measuring 5.5 x 2.6 x 0.35 inches, it fit neatly in my hand and allowed my thumb to comfortably reach all of its onscreen icons and menus. The soft material along the Fire’s edges seemed to reinforce my grip on the device, though it didn’t appear “giving” enough to offer the device much protection if it were dropped.
New interface, new tricks
The Fire Phone’s unique interface borrows some elements from Amazon’s Kindle tablets, though it took this Kindle owner a bit of effort to master them. Pushing the physical home button at the bottom of the phone toggles the view between the home screen and the app drawer. The home screen includes a carousel of recently used apps, which should be familiar to Kindle tablet owners. To shut an app down, delete it from the phone, or perform other maneuvers, you keep your finger on any app on the carousel until the options menu pops up. Icons for the phone, messages, e-mail, and the Silk Web browser appear on the bottom of the home screen, but move to the top when you’re in the app drawer. I found having these controls on the top of the screen instead of the bottom made these apps harder to reach.
A virtual switch at the upper-left-hand corner of the screen lets you toggle between apps on the device and others you may have downloaded from Amazon in the past for other devices. You can download these apps onto your Fire, but they may not always work. For instance, the NY Times app I downloaded kept crashing at launch.
There’s no back button. To go back a step or return to a previous menu, you swipe your finger up the screen from the bottom of the phone. As your phone fills with apps, you can scroll down to the next page to access them. You can herd icons into folders and easily manage documents via the onboard file manager.
Amazon went hog wild on menus, which are like flaps you can pull from the top or right and left sides with your finger. You can also summon them by jerking your hand to the left, right, or sideways. Pulling down the top flap usually summons Settings, a search key, a flashlight, Mayday, and other controls. But what the left and right flaps show you largely depends on the app you have open. For instance, from the home screen the left flap menu provides quick links to apps, games, and other content on your phone and Amazon’s ecosystem. Pulling out the right flap will show you the weather, recent messages, and other alerts. But if you’re using the music app, the right flap will show either more albums from that artist or the lyrics for the song (not always available). One neat trick: Tap any stanza shown in the lyrics tab, and the music player will jump to that part in the song. There’s not enough room for me to list all such cool features.
Amazon decided to go with its own Map and GPS Navigation apps. And it seems it had help from Microsoft’s Nokia (you’ll see a Nokia’s Here logo at the bottom right of the screen when you have it open). Unfortunately Amazon’s Maps lacks many of the terrain details and other features that have spoiled Android, iPhone, and even Windows phone users (Nokia Windows phones have very good maps and navigation apps). Searches worked well, but there’s no satellite view. And while you can “fly” around 3D renderings of such landmarks as the Empire State Building and Seattle Space Needle, they lack the detail of their counterparts on Apple and Google Maps. And the Here Navigation app on our press sample missed a miles-long traffic jam in Manhattan, which was easily shown on my Android phone running Google Maps.
You can get the 32GB version for $200 down with a two-year contract, or pay $650; the 64GB version costs $300 down with a two-year contract, or $650. You can also pay for the phone in monthly, interest-free installments if you sign up for AT&T’s early-upgrade Next plans.
The Amazon Fire Phone is really fun and has a lot of potential—especially as developers design more apps that take advantage of its Dynamic Perspective technology and Firefly feature. But this Amazon device may have Lilliputian appeal unless Amazon allows its users to enjoy the many popular apps available from Google’s Play app store.
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