It’s 2014. The dynamics of the smartphone business seem pretty well settled. The iPhone and handsets based on Google’s Android have divvied up the market between them, leaving little room for underdog alternatives such as Windows Phone. Only a company of stratospheric ambition and audacity would arrive on the scene with a smartphone based on yet another new platform.
A company such as, well, Amazon.
As with its Kindle Fire tablets, the company started with Android as a technological building block, but went on to buff out almost every sign of the software’s Google origins: It calls its operating system Fire OS. This is an Amazon phone running Amazon apps, plugged into Amazon cloud services and content stores. And it spotlights two Amazon-invented technologies which I’ll get to in a bit: the Dynamic Perspective 3D effect and Firefly product-identification feature.
Some of the early press for the Fire has bashed it for being little more than a 1-Click Amazon store you can stick in your pocket. That’s unfair. The shopping features are there, and deeply integrated; if you have no interest in buying stuff from Amazon, this isn’t the phone for you. But for the most part, the commerce stays out of your way until you want it.
The Fire phone’s bigger problem is that it’s decidedly a version 1.0 gadget. In a world full of phones such as the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5--models which are the result of years of iteration and refinement--it suffers from design gaffes, and some elements feel like works in progress. I also found it just plain buggy at times--icons would refuse to respond to my touch, and screens would seize up.
Most of the basics of the Fire phone are well done. It sports Gorilla Glass on both its front and backside, giving it a slippery-but-solid feel reminiscent of the iPhone 4 and 4s. (However, at 5.64 oz., it’s on the heavy side.)
The 4.7-inch screen is crisp, bright, and reasonably easy to make out in sunlight, and its midrange size makes for a phone you can use with one hand without too much thumb fatigue. Even the earbuds--which sport a flat ribbon cable instead of a tangle-prone cord--show attention to detail.
The phone’s 13-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization--still a rare feature on a phone--is capable of capturing very nice images. Like every other phone camera, it has a high-dynamic range mode which is helpful in tricky lighting situations, but it’s the first one I’ve seen which is smart enough to detect when using HDR is a good idea and suggest you turn it on.
It’s also one of relatively few phone cameras with its own physical button dedicated to picture taking. Press it once--even when the screen isn’t turned on--and the camera app launches. Press it again, and you take a photo.
Here are a couple of my snapshots:
For all that’s pleasing about the Fire’s camera, I found it frustrating. For one thing, I had to train myself to clutch the phone gingerly, by the edges: When I grabbed it the way I’d hold a conventional point-and-shoot camera, with my forefinger on the camera button, my other fingers obscured the lens, which sits on the right-hand corner of the phone's backside, near the volume and camera buttons.
A long press on the camera button brings up the phone’s Firefly product-identification app. But it’s way too easy to trigger by accident: Again and again, I launched Firefly when I just wanted to shoot a snapshot. Sometimes I even thought I’d taken a picture, but hadn’t.
Amazon’s Appstore, which is the only major reminder of the phone's Android origins, offers 185,000 third-party Android apps and games. It's a decent selection, although there are some plenty of major no-shows which are available in the Google Play store available for stock Android devices, such as Snapchat, Hulu Plus, OneDrive, Camera Awesome, SwiftKey, Path, and all of Google’s apps.
By deciding to scrap all the standard Android features, Amazon gave itself the dizzying challenge of writing its own versions of all the apps you assume a smartphone comes with: web browser, email, calendar, photos, maps with turn-by-turn navigation, and much more. There are things I miss from garden-variety Android. (No other map program can compete with Google Maps, for instance.)
Overall, though, the Fire’s apps are impressive. Most of the features you'd expect to be there are present and accounted for, such as a full complement of tools for editing photos. And some you might not expect--including the X-Ray feature which annotates movies and books with background material--set it apart from the iPhone and plain-vanilla Android phones.
The Fire phone doesn't support the widgets which let you plop itty-bitty applets onto your phone's desktop. Instead, Amazon cooked up its own alternative in the Carousel, a way to browse through your apps and content which displays relevant bits of information for each item--most-visited sites for the Silk browser, for example, and recent messages in your inbox for email.
Fire OS also goes its own way when it comes to gestures, some of which involve motion detection. For instance, if you tilt the screen back in the Silk browser, text starts to auto-scroll. Tilt it to the left or right and back in most apps, and context-sensitive features slide into place--like an image browser which lets you attach a photo to an email. (You might not learn about all these on your own, which makes watching the five-minute tutorial which Amazon supplies as part of the setup process a wise idea.)
One notable omission: There’s no full-blown voice assistant to rival Siri, Google Now, or Windows Phone’s new Cortana. You can dictate text anywhere there’s a keyboard, and can speak to dial the phone, search the web, and send emails and text. Try other commands, however, and the Fire replies with a doleful “Sorry, I can’t do that yet.”
Like the Kindle Fire, the Fire phone has Mayday, one of the cleverest, most useful features which Amazon or anyone else has put on a mobile device. It lets you get tech support from a rep who you can see and hear right on the phone--and who can step you through solving problems or even take control and change settings from afar. It's as if Apple built the Genius Bar into the iPhone itself.
Okay, now for the two new features which Amazon touts as primary reasons to choose a Fire phone over the competition: the Dynamic Perspective 3-D effect and Firefly product product identification.
Dynamic Perspective calls on multiple technologies which nobody has ever built into a phone before. Four additional cameras sit at the phone’s corners, each with an LED to help it see in murky lighting. Together, they track your face’s position, letting the phone render 3-D images which shift in perspective--at sixty frames a second--as you move your head. You can crane your neck to see elements at different angles: Peek under the shopping cart icon which represents the Amazon shopping app on the home screen, and you even catch a glimpse of its rear wheels.
Dynamic Perspective is a dazzling bit of technological magic. But it also feels like a trick in search of a killer app. It’s used to nifty effect in 19 lock-screen animations--set everywhere from ancient Egypt to inside a pinball machine--but who picks a phone based on lock-screen imagery?
In some instances, Dynamic Perspective is a minor plus. In the Maps app, for instance, landmarks such as Seattle's Space Needle and San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid are rendered as towering 3-D models, but you can peer behind them to see whats on the other side. In other places, it's a pointless, regrettable flourish. Some text hovers above dynamic-perspective drop shadows, which mostly makes it look muddy.
The good news is that if there’s a Dynamic-Perspective killer app out there, Amazon doesn't bear full responsibility for finding it: It's opened up the technology to third-party developers. As I write, more than 30 apps and games have incorporated at least some degree of support, and at their best, they provide glimmers of its potential. For instance, in a 3-D modeling app called Clay Doodle, you sculpt with your fingers and move your head (or the phone) around to see your work from different angles.
As for Firefly, it's not truly a new feature: Amazon already offers an earlier version called Flow in its iOS and Android apps, and Google's Google Goggles app, which first appeared in 2009, is an obvious predecessor. This is the first time that it's been built into a phone as a primary feature, though; the camera button lets you launch it in a second or so.
Aim the camera at a product--a book, a DVD, a can of soup--and the odds are high that Firefly can tell what it is. Aim it at a sign, and it can pull out information such as a phone number. If music or a TV show is playing, it can use Shazam-like technology to identify it. Amazon says that the ability to recognize other items, such as works of art, is on the way.
What can you do once Firefly has identified something? Well, if Amazon sells it, you can buy it with two taps on the screen, which is one reason why some folks are accusing the Fire phone of being overbearingly commercial. But just as it's opened Dynamic Perspective to third-party developers, Amazon is also letting other companies create actions for Firefly. Already, for instance, you can listen to a song and then create an iHeartRadio station based upon it. Or you can point your camera at packaged foodstuff and then get calorie counts from MyFitnessPal.
At this early stage, the Firefly integrations I tried weren't perfect--MyFitnessPal confused a box of inkjet cartridges for squid-ink pasta, presumably because it mismatched data based on the presence of the word “ink” on the box. Even so, I think the technology has plenty of potential to be useful for activities that go far beyond shopping at Amazon.
There's that word again--potential. The Fire phone is full of it, and laudable though that might be, it's not an argument for buying the phone right now.
Most people who are currently happy with an iPhone or an Android phone won't find anything in the Fire phone to make a switch tempting. Even if you're a die-hard Amazon addict, I'd wait for the first major software update; with any luck, it'll iron out some of the kinks I encountered and fill in features such as Firefly's art identification. Biding your time will also give third-party developers some time to explore the possibilities of Dynamic Perspective and Firefly, and might improve the selection in Amazon's Appstore.
Amazon has a solid track record of making its hardware products better and better over time: Its highly polished current Kindle Fire tablets are a far cry from the crude, buggy models which debuted in 2011. Here's hoping that the Fire isn't a soon-forgotten blip like the Facebook phone, but rather the first rough draft of good things to come.