Fire Phone Review: Amazon’s First Smartphone a Mixed Bag

Amazon (AMZN) has morphed from an online retailer into making and selling one of the most popular lines of tablets and also offers a set-top streaming box in the Fire TV. The release of the Fire Phone completes its transition to also being a consumer electronics giant taking on companies like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG).

Amazon Fire Phone Intro
Source: Amazon

In our Fire Phone review, we’ll examine the first Amazon smartphone in detail, to see how it stands up against established category leaders like the iPhone 5s and Samsung (SSNLF) Galaxy S5.

We’ll also discuss the new features Amazon is introducing in the Fire Phone, including Firefly one-button shopping and Dynamic perspective — the sources of so many rumors over the past year about Amazon building a 3D smartphone.

Is the latest entry into the flagship smartphone race worth buying, or does it fail to live up to the hype? Read our Amazon Fire Phone review to find out.

Amazon Fire Phone Review: Firefly and Dynamic Perspective

Amazon Fire Phone Firefly
Source: Amazon

The new Amazon smartphone packs two key features intended to set it apart from a field of competitors who have a massive head start. Unfortunately, both suffer from being first-generation efforts.

Dynamic perspective uses four corner-mounted cameras to track the user’s head and then shift graphics on the display for a 3D effect. It’s a cool trick, but Amazon also integrated Dynamic Perspective heavily in the user interface for the Fire Phone and that’s where things go sideways.

Instead of transforming the Fire Phone into a revolutionary, hands-free device with a clean and simple interface, the 3D effect hides information that should be available at a glance and makes it difficult for people who have grown up on a touch interface to do what they want.

Firefly is a one-button operation that lets a user identify a product and near-instantly have it show up in an Amazon cart where they can click and have it delivered. It works with songs and movies and also with physical products — point the Fire Phone at the object and it’s identified using Amazon’s massive product database.

While Firefly may be the future of shopping, it’s a little rough around the edges yet. Over time, software should improve and Amazon’s database will get larger. At the moment, scanning bar codes yields impressive results, but Firefly can be hit or miss when pointing the Fire Phone at a physical product.

Amazon Fire Phone Review: The School of “Good Enough” Hardware Design

Amazon Fire Phone OK hardware
Source: Amazon

We weren’t expecting the first Amazon smartphone to be a premium device, so if its specs and appearance were on par with budget smartphones, that would be acceptable.

However, Amazon broke from its usual strategy of low-balling hardware prices and introduced the Fire Phone as a $649 smartphone — flagship-level pricing. That means it’s competing directly against the best smartphones on the market like the iPhone 5s, HTC One (reviewed here) and Galaxy S5.

The Fire Phone doesn’t have bad specs, but components seem just good enough to get the job done and nothing stands out as being ahead of the pack. The camera — 13MP with optical image stabilization — could be one feature where the Fire Phone does better than average, but a slow autofocus rains on that parade.

Appearance-wise, it’s very nondescript, just a slab of black plastic and glass with no attempt to stand out visually. The back panel is black glass with rubberized plastic trim and a silver Amazon logo. The glass back (the same effect Apple abandoned after the iPhone 4s) quickly gets covered with fingerprint smudges and is prone to scratching.

The look would be fine for an established player releasing a budget smartphone. But for a new manufacturer trying to break into the highly competitive flagship smartphone market, “good enough” hardware and a conservative/inexpensive-looking product face a really tough battle.

It’s also worth nothing that because the Fire Phone runs Fire OS, it’s locked into Amazon’s own app store, so it can’t compete with iOS or Android in terms of app variety.

Amazon Fire Phone Review: Specs

Amazon Fire Phone Specs
Source: Amazon
  • 4.7-inch HD LCD display (315 ppi)
  • 2.2GHz Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 800 CPU with 2GB RAM
  • 32GB or 64GB internal storage
  • 13MP rear-facing camera with optical image stabilization, LED flash, 2.1 MP front camera
  • Dynamic Perspective sensor with multiple infrared cameras
  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, NFC
  • Micro USB 2.0
  • 2400 mAh battery rated for up to 22 hours talk or 11 hours video playback
  • Runs Amazon’s Fire OS 3.5
  • 5.64 oz
  • Premium “tangle-free” headphones
  • Includes Mayday tech support, and free year of Amazon Prime
  • MSRP $649 or $199 on contract, exclusively through AT&T (T)

Amazon Fire Phone Review: Conclusion

Amazon Fire Phone Review Conclusion
Source: Amazon

Amazon may just once again change the way people shop — eventually. The Firefly button and ability to point the Amazon smartphone at an object and have it show up at your door a few days later is promising, but frequent misfires in product identification show that it’s clearly at the early stages. Ditto for the 3D interface, which needs work.

Meanwhile the hardware is capable enough but not particularly exciting and the bland, black monolith Fire Phone looks outclassed next to other smartphones in its $649 flagship bracket.

As The Verge’s Tom Pierce says in his Amazon Fire Phone review: “Time and time again, however, the Fire Phone has reminded me that there’s a difference between good ideas about phones and good phones.”

If you simply must have an Amazon smartphone or you’re an online shopping junkie who makes full use of Amazon Prime, then the Fire Phone isn’t a terrible device; it should cover your basic smartphone needs. But most potential buyers would be better off waiting for the next version.

As of this writing, Robert Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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