Amazon.com made its boldest move yet into the electronics hardware business by entering the fiercely competitive smartphone market earlier this month with the release of the Amazon Fire Phone.
The Amazon smartphone is suited with top-of-the-line components and priced to compete with other high-end devices. The Fire Phone is a perfectly capable gadget, but it isn't so remarkable that Apple or Android owners will jump ship. At best, the device is a convenient choice for devout Amazon shoppers, but at worst, it's just another fish in a sea of smartphones.
The Amazon Fire Phone looks like an oversized black iPhone with front and back glass panels, curved corners, and a narrow, rectangular build. But it diverges in a couple of ways. The Fire Phone has rubber side edges, prominently features the Amazon logo on its back and it includes a speaker on both its top and bottom sides for stereo sound -- a rarity among smartphones.
But the Fire Phone's most distinguishable feature is its four infrared LED sensors located on each corner of its front panel. These "ultra-low power specialized cameras," as Amazon calls them, work together to detect where a user's head is relative to the phone. Amazon calls this feature Dynamic Perspective, and it's used to add 3-D effects to the device's interface as well as give users another way to control their gadget. For example, with the photo app, users can prompt the Fire Phone to display the date of each picture and video by moving their head to the left or right of the device. Third-party developers can also implement Dynamic Perspective into their apps, and some already have. In the video game "Lili," users can look around the 3-D world by moving their faces around the screen in real life. It's a neat feature, but it's very gimmicky. Unless more developers find useful ways to implement it into their apps, most users will likely forget Dynamic Perspective exists.
Another unique feature on the Amazon Fire Phone is called Firefly. It uses the device's camera and microphone to detect text, products, movies, TV shows and music. The feature is activated by holding down the camera button on the left side of the device. Once on, users point the phone at whatever they want to detect. You can aim it at a business card to add a phone or email address to the phone rather than typing it out; using Firefly while watching a TV show will pull information from IMDB.com; and if you aim Firefly at a product, the Fire Phone will call up the Amazon Web page for the item, making it easier for you to buy it.
And that takes us to the most annoying part about the Fire Phone -- its main purpose is to spur more Amazon sales. The Fire Phone's interface is designed so that it is constantly recommending more things for you to buy. Swipe to a recently used app, and you'll find app suggestions. Go to a recently heard song, and the device will offer other songs it thinks you'll like and should buy. Amazon makes similar recommendations on its Fire TV streaming player and its Fire tablets, but they don't feel so invasive on those devices because you have a lot of real estate to work with. On the Fire Phone, you're only looking at 4.7 inches of screen, and though it is a crystal clear screen, it feels cramped. The recommendations are on by default, but fortunately, users can go turn them off in their settings, giving their home screen some breathing room.
If you're not sure how to turn off the recommendations, you can swipe down from the top of the screen then tap the Mayday icon to turn on Amazon's helpful customer service. Mayday will kick off a video call with an Amazon representative who is trained to answer any question you may have about the device. Amazon introduced this feature in 2013 with some of its tablets, and it's nice to see the company carrying it over to more devices.
The Fire Phone runs on Amazon's version of Android, meaning it looks and feels nothing like the software Google makes. Instead, the main screen features a carousel that displays apps and content in the order you most recently used them. You can "pin" your favorite items to the front, but navigating this way isn't too effective. Fortunately, there are other ways to get around. Swiping up from the bottom will pull up your apps, which can be rearranged however you want. If you quickly tilt the left side of the phone toward you, you'll prompt a menu that offers shortcuts to content apps, like your Amazon music, movies and audiobooks. Tilt the right side of the phone toward you, and you'll see another menu containing information Amazon thinks you'll find helpful. Mine included the weather in Los Angeles and the status of my latest Amazon order. These tilt gestures were included to make it easier for users to navigate their device using one hand, and they play a prominent role in Amazon's various apps. Tilting from the right while in the text messaging app will pull up recently shot photos, speeding up the process of sending a picture.
Those pictures are also very high quality. The Amazon Fire Phone uses a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera that shoots sharp videos and photos, but that's standard for a high-end smartphone. What's unique is that Amazon will automatically back up every picture you shoot with the Fire Phone in the cloud. This is very helpful when you're at an event, like a music festival, and you run out of space on your device -- you can delete your photos knowing Amazon's got a copy you can access later and keep snapping more. This is also a money saver. By comparison, Apple only offers customers 5 gigabytes of cloud storage for free. After that, Apple users have to pay for more space.
Users who buy the Fire Phone also get a year's membership to Amazon Prime, which includes access to Amazon Instant Video, Prime Music and free, two-day delivery on certain items -- worth $99. But the gadget itself won't come cheap. Consumers can buy the phone with no contract for $649 with 32 gigabytes of storage or $749 with 64 GB. The device is available on a two-year contract from AT&T for $199 for 32 GB or $299 for 64 GB. Customers can also pay for the device on a monthly basis using the AT&T Next payment system.
If you love shopping on Amazon, the Fire Phone might make sense for you. But if you shop from various websites and you're already entrenched in the Apple or Android ecosystem, none of the Amazon Fire Phone's features -- not Dynamic Perspective, Firefly, or even the unlimited photo backups -- are enough to warrant a switch.