For the past month I have been the owner of an Amazon Fire Phone. The mythical device whose name is adhered upon many an Amazon shipping container, but whose visage is rarely seen in public. For the past month I have grappled with a decision. Should I accept the Fire Phone as my primary digital companion, or send it back to Amazon in the cardboard box that bears its name? As a instrument of suspense, I will leave my ultimate decision until the end of this review. In the meantime here are some of the factors that led me to my decision.
At $199 the Fire Phone is a steal. That is the price I paid on Black Friday, when the 32 GB Unlocked Fire Phone went on sale. Had the price been $249, $449, or $649, I would not have bought it. Even at $199 the price is deceptively high. A Fire Phone at any price comes with one year of Amazon Prime, a $100 dollar value. As a regular Amazon Prime subscriber you could say my 32 GB Fire Phone cost me the same as a 16 GB storage upgrade on a iPhone 5s.
Unboxing the Fire Phone was a real treat. Straight out of Apple/s playbook, each fold of the box concealed a new joy. From the carbon fiber texture of the packing materials, to the way the micro USB cable, charger, and earbuds came tucked away in their own separate compartments. Everything felt luxurious.
Even setting up the Fire Phone was a delightful experience. Upon pressing the power button, I was greeted by my name. My Fire Phone had been preregistered with my Amazon Prime account, Amazon Music, and Amazon Cloud Drive. Imagine if your next iPhone came preregistered with your iCloud account, apps, and the latest software updates. Amazon gets a head start over its competitors by having Fire Phone come preregistered out of the box.
The phone itself resembles a super-sized iPhone 4; Gorilla Glass front and back, except this time the bare metal sides have been wrapped in soft touch rubber. Thicker than the iPhone 6, the Fire Phone really feels good in the hand. There is a weight to it that I associate with high-end electronics. Some people might say the style, thickness, and heft of the Fire Phone make it appear out of date. But I would rather hold a comfortable phone in my hand, than watch a slippery slice of aluminum and glass shatter on the floor.
Fire Phone is adorn with the usual ports and buttons. A power button and headphone jack on the top, micro USB port on the button, volume rocker, dedicated camera button, and nano SIM card slot along the left side. Because the low volume and camera button feel similar, I find myself sometimes taking a picture of the inside of my pocket by mistake. Fire Phone has paired speaker grills along its top and bottom; giving it Dolby stereo sound when held in the portrait orientation. The volume of the speakers is better than most phones. As a nice touch, the Amazon logo and regulatory information have been etched into the glass back. A noise canceling microphone, 13 megapixel camera, and LED flash bring up the rear. Photos are on par with an iPhone 5 or 5s, but not an iPhone 6. It is not until we get to the front of the phone that things start to become interesting.
All the better to see you with
On the face of most phones there is at least one camera staring back at you. Fire Phone has five. In addition to the usual proximity and ambiant light sensors, Fire Phone tracks your eye movement and viewing angle with the use of four low power cameras. (A 2.1 megapixel front facing webcam is available for selfies.) Amazon calls this feature Dynamic Perspective, and it gives the user interface a third dimension not usually associated mobile phone displays.
Think of Dynamic Perspective like the gyroscope-driven parallax effects in iOS 7, only turned up a notch. You might call it a gimmick, and I would not say you are wrong. Just like the gyroscope in the original iPhone, Dynamic Perspective doesn't have much value until developers take advantage of it. The only problem is that unlike the gyroscope in almost every modern smartphone, the Fire Phone is the only phone with Dynamic Perspective, and from the looks of Fire Phone sales it will probably stay that way forever. I quickly learned to turn off Dynamic Perspective to save battery life.
A 720 x 1280 pixel, 4.7 inch (~312 ppi pixel density), IPS touchscreen display dominates the face of the phone. The screen is super bright. So bright in fact, that I have its brightness set to one of the lowest settings, and it still outshines most other phones. With this settings, and Dynamic Perspective turned off, Fire Phone's battery gets me through the average day with plenty of charge to spare. Below the screen is a raised rectangular Home button. It appreciate the extra grip it gives you when pulling Fire Phone from your pocket.
Because Fire Phone doesn't have any other hardware buttons, the Android-powered user interface is navigated with gestures. They aren't as complicated as gestures on the BlackBerry Z10 I tried a couple months ago. Just the usual swipe left, swipe right, and swipe up, but they can be confusing for new users. Amazon provides a tutorial to get you started, but even I found it confusing that many Amazon apps stick to the prescribed swipe left and right to reveal hidden menus, while most Android apps from the Amazon App Store do not. At least you can always rely on a swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring you back, and if all else fails the Home button returns you to the Home screen's grid of familiar icons.
Since the interface on every Android phone is a little different I can't say the Fire Phone is unique. The large Coverflow inspired carousel of recently used apps works for finding your last launched applications. Below that a dedicated dock of four icons keeps your favorite apps close at hand. While swiping up from the bottom reveals a grid of icons, familiar to any iPhone user. The combination of all four user interface elements means I can always find the app I am looking for. Some apps even show additional real-time information below their enlarged carousel icon, but often Amazon just uses this space to try to sell you something from their store.
Lack of Apps
Just like on Google's Android, double tapping the Home button brings up the multitasking switcher, holding it down brings up voice command. Unlike Google's Android, the voice commands are not powered by Google Now, and there is no Google Maps, Play Store, or Gmail to be found in Fire Phone's App Store. Apps can be side-loaded of course, but if you are looking for the Google experience on Fire Phone, look somewhere else.
As a frequent Windows Phone user I know what limited app selection is like. I did find most of the apps I wanted from Amazon's App Store, and the built-in Android apps took care of my Exchange email, contacts and calendars. I might be satisfied by Amazon's offering, and the option to side-load Android apps, but I feel most iPhone user's will be disappointed.
I am keeping my Amazon Fire Phone. As I said before, it is a steal at $199; even without the one year subscription for Amazon Prime. The hardware is top notch and the software, although limited, does everything I want a smartphone to do.
Fire Phone may not be right for you. If you base your choice of phone on carrier subsidies, or are heavily invested in an existing phone ecosystem, Fire Phone should not be you first choice. But Fire Phone makes a pretty good unlocked spare GSM phone, even if you don't plan on shopping with Amazon.