Amazon’s first smartphone is a recent addition to the retail giant’s offerings. Although Amazon was early to the eink reader business, it’s late to the smartphone game. The Fire phone, released in the UK recently, has had terrible reviews. Really.
So I had low expectations when I began testing the handset. Let’s be clear: it’s not the best smartphone on the market. But it has a lot more going for it than you might have heard. Not least because since it went on sale, there have been literally hundreds of software updates to fix bugs, change features and so on.
Let’s start with the hardware, which is glass front and back, with a rubbery edge. It’s tapered towards the back, which looks good, and there’s a silvery Amazon logo shining out pleasingly from the rear. But it doesn’t feel as good as rival handsets, thanks to a slightly proud edging that’s not as smooth as you might like. Not bad, but not high-end enough to compete with flagship phones. Maybe this is Amazon’s plan – its first Fire tablets have been substantially improved with its more recent Fire HD and Fire HDX updates.
The rear camera is 13 megapixels and not bad at all, delivering decent shots even in lowish light. It has a simple interface with few settings. You can choose whether or not to use HDR – the clever system that takes multiple shots in quick succession, combining them for the most eye-catching result. You can decide whether to review shots after you’ve taken them or not. And you can ask the phone to pick the best shot for you. Otherwise, there are no other settings – the camera chooses for you.
There’s a hardware trigger button to launch the camera, even from standby.
There are actually more cameras. A front-facing model for selfies and four more little ones which are also on the front, watching you. They’re doing this for one of the Fire phone’s most trumpeted features – Dynamic Perspective. Not everyone will like this, but I did.
It means that as your eyes move, the four little cameras spot this and the image on screen moves in response, with 3D effect. The carousel of recent apps, books and so on is populated with faux-3D icons that tip and move as the phone does.
There are lots of lock screens to choose from, such as an astronaut bouncing on the moon, antique biplanes putt-putting through the sky and more. They look tremendous, though if you don’t like them or suffer from motion sickness, then you can turn them off.
But this movement monitoring is baked right in to the software: there are physical gestures to change what’s on screen. As you tip the phone, the battery level appears at the top of the screen. Twist your wrist to the left and a panel slides in with notifications and weather, for instance.
And the software is a strong reason to buy the phone. Amazon has its own special version of Android which is designed to be exceptionally easy to use. The downside is that every app must be re-coded for the Amazon system (though there are now 240,000 available) but the upside is you know the apps are all going to work reliably.
Amazon’s OS is slick and attractive, with the same elegance as Palm’s webOS, even if Palm isn’t a player any longer. But there are also problems, like the fact that you can’t have a background photo behind the app icons as you do on Android and iOS – you’re stuck with a black background.
The carousel of recent apps can be configured to hide ones you don’t want to see. You can either long-press an icon and select “Remove from carousel” or, better, go to Quick Switch view by double-pressing the home button and then flicking the icon offscreen. Just like webOS.
Some of the system isn’t as intuitive as it could be. In the browser you go back to the previous web page not by swiping from left to right but from bottom to top.
Still, if you’re ever in doubt, there’s Mayday. This is one of Amazon’s most brilliant ideas. Available on some tablets as well, it’s a help system that connects you to a live consultant. You can see them but they can’t see you unless you want them to – if you’re having a problem with the camera, perhaps. By default they just see what your screen shows, if you give your permission. They’re skilled and informative, and can help you sort any phone issues.
The Fire phone also has Firefly, a feature activated by long-pressing the camera button. The camera launches but as well as seeing what you’re looking at, pixie dust seems to dance on top of everything.
The idea of Firefly is it can recognise sounds (such as songs, movies, TV shows) and objects using the camera. It doesn’t recognise everything but when it does, a name appears on screen. And a price – because Firefly only identifies stuff Amazon sells. So it’s ideal, say, if you’re in a bookshop and want to see how much you could save by buying from Amazon instead.
And useful though this is, it has the effect of making the phone seem like it’s there just to sell you stuff. After all, the carousel showing a book you’re reading is complemented by pics of other books you might want to buy. These are customer services, but can be so dominant that it might make Amazon seem greedy.
Battery life is good and the phone is a quick performer. Other features are not outstanding, but not bad either – there are much higher-resolution displays on rival phones than the 4.7-inch model here, for starters, but this one isn’t bad.
My overriding feeling with the Fire phone is that for all its strengths, it’s not quite finished. Of course, it should have been before it went on sale, though software updates will be able to fix stuff as well. In other words, this is a phone with great potential, which Amazon is sure to work on. So should you buy one? Yes, but maybe not just yet.
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