Amazon's first smartphone, the Fire phone, hits stores June 25, and comes bundled with a free year of Amazon Prime, which includes free shipping on thousands of items as well as a growing selection of free movies, books, and music.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the phone at its launch event by saying that the company decided to try something completely innovative and different.
The Fire Phone certainly is different thanks to its 3-D effects and camera mode that can automatically identify real-world objects, but it's still missing essential apps and services the iPhone and Android phones already have.
I gave the Fire a test-run over the weekend to check out what it had to offer.
The Fire phone has two main hyped-up features: Dynamic Perspective, which allows the phone to react to how you hold, view, and move it, and Firefly, which can scan objects like books, movies, posters, QR codes, and household goods to give you more information about them.
Dynamic perspective gets showcased right off the bat through the phone's lock screen: It comes with 19 different interactive options that are undeniably cool, especially the first time you see them. Although they're a good introduction to what dynamic perspective can do (images on the screen appear to have depth, and the scene shifts as you move your phone), most people probably don't really care about what their lock screens look like. The feature comes in handy mostly for navigating the phone's interface and in games.
When you first get the phone, it takes a little while to get used to the one-handed gestures possible with dynamic perspective. You can tilt the phone side-to-side to reveal additional panels and up or down to auto-scroll, or angle it slightly it to reveal "layered" information, like Yelp reviews when you're looking at restaurants on a map.
After playing around with the phone for several days, I found myself using the gestures about 60% of the time, and just swiping the rest of it. I'd imagine that it's one of those things that you'd become more adapted to the more you used it though, and definitely valuable if you want to be able to do more with only one hand.
Dynamic perspective really shines when it comes to games, though. I found "Snow Spin," a game that lets you use your head to control the path of a little snowboarding penguin, completely charming and immersive. Yes, you will look ridiculous playing, but it's unlike any other smartphone game experience out there.
Amazon also just announced a list of some other apps that take advantage of feature, and released two new games from its own Amazon Game Studio. The promise seems to be that there are more to come, too. But that's a lofty promise. There's very little incentive for developers to start making special games for a brand new smartphone platform with 0% market share. As we've learned over and over, developers still prefer to make the best apps for iPhone first, then Android, then everything else.
The phone itself also takes advantage of dynamic perspective in fun, subtle ways: Every app icon on the phone looks like it has depth when you tilt it. The on-off switch in the Wi-Fi part of the settings pops out like a real button, and you can "visit" 3D-looking landmarks through maps. None of these factors would be your main motivator to buy the phone, but they prove that Amazon was paying attention to the details.
Another design quirk is its Enhanced Carousel. Although you can rearrange your apps just like you would on a more traditional smartphone, the carousel lets you scroll through the ones you've recently used, and, in some cases, take action right from the homescreen.
Generally, I liked using the carousel, but the format was definitely more useful for some apps more than others. Email was great because I could see (and respond to) recent messages. The calendar app let me check out everything that I had going on each day at a glance.
It would be amazing if Twitter or Facebook eventually integrated parts of their timelines into the home screen too. As is, you just get suggestions for other apps you can download.
As far as Firefly, Amazon boasts that it can recognize and give you information about over 100 million items, as well as recognize web addresses, phone numbers, or QR codes. Although I didn't find myself naturally using Firefly very often, there is something thrilling about watching your phone figure out what you're looking at. I found it most useful for identifying music, easily dialing a phone number that I had on a business card without having to type it in, and checking whether a physical book was also available for Kindle. Power users, on the other hand, might love it for scanning products to see if they're cheaper on Amazon than in-store.
Like the easy integration with Amazon Prime services, Firefly will encourage Amazon fans to spend more money, by making purchases completely seamless.
Like Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, the goal of the Fire phone, and especially the Firefly feature, is to keep you locked into Amazon's world of shopping. And because it lets you compare prices of real-world objects to what Amazon sells them for, the feature is a showrooming nightmare.
Finally, there's Mayday, a feature that lets you hit a call button and have a live video chat with an Amazon representative if you have any trouble with your phone. The Amazon rep can even doodle on your screen to walk you through what you're supposed to do.
To be honest, I didn't need to use Mayday once. In fact, I totally forgot about it until my editor was reading this review and asked what I thought about it. So, that either means I'm a tech genius or the Fire phone is so easy to use you won't need Mayday at all. (However, Steve Kovach used Mayday when he tested the newest Kindle Fire tablet last year and found the Mayday representatives to be quite pleasant.)
Here's what it looks like when you use Firefly on a book:
In summary, the new software features in the Fire phone are pretty nifty, but they likely won't offer enough to entice people to buy Amazon's phone over a normal Android phone or iPhone.
The first thing you notice about the Fire phone is how great the screen looks. It has a 4.7-inch screen, which is slightly larger than the iPhone 5S, which has a 4-inch screen. It also has an HD 1280x720 resolution that looked great even when I was playing with it outside.
For as great as the screen looks, though, I wish Amazon offered a "phablet"-sized, 5.7-inch option like Samsung's Galaxy Note 3. I've been using a phablet for months, and am addicted to the increased real estate. Since content consumption is hard-wired into the Fire's very existence — I watched more Prime Instant Videos in the last three days than I ever have before — it really feels like its screen should have a bigger option.
The other issue I had with the Fire phone was that, because it's running a modified version of Android, I couldn't download some of the apps that I usually would. Four of my basics — LinkedIn, Snapchat, Venmo, Secret — aren't available for the Amazon Fire yet. And if you use Google services like Gmail and Google Maps, you're out of luck. It's frustrating.
The camera, however, was a definite pro. My photos looked great, and it came with a host of fun editing tools baked in. For the selfie lover, you can whiten your teeth, reduce red-eye, and get rid of blemishes with a few easy swipes, while also futzing with your contrast and saturation all in one fell swoop. Plus, the magnetic headphones really didn't get as tangled as the model Apple ships with its iPhones.
One of the biggest surprises when the Fire phone launched was the price. Rumors had pegged it as dirt-cheap, but it rings up at a more standard $199.99 with a two-year contract from AT&T. You can also get it for $650 through 24 monthly installments of $27.09. With that, though, you get a free year of Prime (usually $99), 32 GB of memory instead of 16 GB, and unlimited free online photo storage. How does that measure up to other options out there? Prime gets you free two-day shipping on many items from Amazon, access to thousands of free streaming movies and TV shows, and over 1 million streaming songs.
The Fire phone is about $100 cheaper than a 32 GB iPhone 5S, which you can get on contract for $299, and the same price as a 16 GB Samsung Galaxy S5, which is $199.99 on contract, and comes with the option to buy 64 GB more memory for $43.95.
The free Prime membership is definitely huge, but if you didn't already have one, be warned: I can almost guarantee that you'll end up spending the difference on new stuff (and Amazon thinks so, too).
Overall, the Fire phone is a solid deal: You get all the smartphone basics, with some added bonuses, for a price that's in line with the market. Neither the gesture controls nor Firefly are life-changing, but they're fun and useful.
The GIFs in this review don't do dynamic perspective justice: Go to an AT&T store if you're interested to check them out for yourself. If you are obsessed with Amazon and want to make it even easier to buy stuff off it or like to watch a lot of movies or shows on-the-go, buying the phone makes a lot of sense: You're essentially paying $100 for Prime and a phone built to take advantage of it.
However, if you care about getting the latest apps and services or having a big screen, you might want to consider other options.
This is a phone for folks who only want to live in Amazon's world and don't need access to the latest and greatest apps and services rival devices offer. I suspect most people don't fall into that category though.