The more I use Amazon's Fire phone, the crazier it seems that Amazon is launching its first smartphone in 2014.
The smartphone market is now saturated with iPhones and Android handsets, and they've become so sophisticated that smaller competitors have little room for error. Just ask Microsoft and BlackBerry, whose respective platforms are constantly playing catch-up on features and struggling to gain market share.
Still, I get why Amazon wants to step into the ring. The Fire phone, which launches July 25, offers a direct pipeline into Amazon's library of videos, books, music and apps--more so than any other phone. It's also the easiest way to shop for physical goods on Amazon's website. Amazon already sells tablets and a TV set-top box for these purposes; a smartphone is the obvious missing link.
While I can see the eventual appeal of an Amazon smartphone, my first few days with the Fire phone revealed that it has too many first-generation blemishes and omissions compared to the polish of iOS and Android. Those blemishes make it harder than it should be to be productive with the Fire phone. And for a platform that's largely about media consumption, I wish the hardware did a better job at it.
Ahead of our official review, here's my initial thoughts about the Fire phone after spending the better part of a week using one.
Playing with Fire
The main reason to consider the Fire phone would be to get the most out of Amazon services, especially for Amazon Prime users. The phone includes a year of Prime service (normally $99), which gets tacked onto your membership if you subscribe already. The phone also includes Amazon's Kindle, video, and music apps, along with a store for Android apps. The idea is that you take the phone out of the box and have a vast library of free stuff to enjoy almost instantly.
But I tend to think of smartphones as communication and quick reference devices first, and media consumption devices second; in the time I've spent with the device, it's become apparent that the Fire phone doesn't do enough to shift that balance in its favor.
Although the 4.7-inch display is crisp and clear, especially outdoors, I found myself wanting a bigger phone while playing games, watching videos, and reading books. An extra-large screen would allow for a bigger battery as well, and while I haven't had enough time to thoroughly test the Fire phone's battery life, I generally needed to be mindful of usage to get through the entire day. Also, the Fire phone's stereo speakers were lacking in bass response, and made me pine for something like the HTC One's rich, front-facing speakers for music and videos.
Better audiovisual capabilities would lend themselves well to the Fire phone's focus on media consumption, too.
That's not to say Amazon doesn't try to compensate with a few other tricks. The Fire phone's neatest feature is called "Firefly," which allows you to scan all kinds of real-world things--printed URLs, phone numbers, music, videos, barcodes--by holding down a button on the side of the phone. For instance, you can identify a song on the radio and then look up concert tickets on StubHub, or you can scan a bag of chips and integrate its nutritional information with your MyFitnessPal diet plan.
The scanning process is fast and almost magical, and the potential is enormous--especially when paired with third-party apps--but right now, the applications are limited. I had a hard time thinking of situations where I might need to use Firefly, except out of obligation for this review.
The Fire phone also uses sensors and four front-facing cameras to track the user's head position for a feature called "Dynamic Perspective." Some games use it to let you peer around corners or get a different viewing angle on an object, and some apps let you tilt the phone to bring up menus or see additional information. Dynamic Perspective also adds some 3D effects to the lock screen and home screen, just for the sake of curb appeal.
This feature was less gimmicky than I was expecting, because it allows for motion control in situations that wouldn't be practical on other phones. For instance, you can recline or lean forward while playing a game, and it won't lose its calibration because the motion tracking is always relative to your head position.
Finally, Amazon's "Mayday" feature is on board, letting users press a button to get near-instant tech support from a real person over live video. It was impressive on Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, and still is on the Fire phone. (It only got a bit awkward when the technician asked if I liked the phone, when my feelings are clearly mixed.)
Room for improvement
As unique as these features are, they still end up on the fringes of typical smartphone use. As for the core things you'd expect from a smartphone, the Fire phone still needs work, and many of those quirks can trip up attempts to use the phone for productivity.
The email app, for instance, bungles threaded conversations by highlighting the most recent message and hiding any older ones you haven't read yet. The quick settings menu doesn't have a rotation lock toggle, and the notification bar doesn't include quick actions--like responding to Tweet or deleting an email--like you get with Android (and soon, with iOS 8). Holding the home button allows for basic voice commands, but lacks crucial ones like "directions to," "remind me to" and "set an alarm for." There's no clear timeline for when Amazon will expand these voice commands.
The fact that Amazon uses a heavily-modified version of Android for the Fire phone also creates some problems. Amazon isn't allowed to offer Google's Play Store for apps, and its own Appstore has a smaller selection with no Google apps at all. That means no official YouTube app (and therefore no good way to upload YouTube videos), no Google Docs, no Google Maps, and no Chrome browser. Some other apps that I was hoping to use--including MLB At Bat and Microsoft OneDrive--aren't available either.
More frustratingly, some apps are still optimized for conventional Android controls such as the back button, which the Fire phone doesn't have. You might, for instance, open a link in Twitter, only to realize there's no clear way to get back to Twitter from the browser. (I eventually realized you can simulate the Android back button by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, but this won't be obvious to new users.)
Even Amazon's headlining features don't always work as they should. Using Dynamic Perspective, for instance, involves some guesswork because you don't know which apps will use the feature, or how, so you could end up tilting the phone in futility. Amazon's Music app doesn't currently have a way to filter for Prime content, and won't for months after launch. You can't search the entirety of Amazon's Kindle Lending Library for free e-book rentals either, though there are a handful of selections you can browse.
The one area where I have no complaints is the camera, which launches quickly with a button on the side of the phone, and takes sharp, well-lit photos indoors and out. The f/2.0 aperture is wider than most smartphones, so flash wasn't necessary in rooms with decent lighting, and the optical image stabilization did a fine job of preventing blurred photos. The camera's software also has some useful features, such as burst photos and smart suggestions to turn on HDR photography, but doesn't feel weighed down by unnecessary bloat.
After spending several days with Amazon's handset, I actually don't think the Fire phone is unusable, or even bad. As far as first drafts go, it's miles ahead of what BlackBerry and Microsoft achieved with their late entrants to the smartphone market.
But rare is the product that leaps into a crowded field and makes an impact without any iteration. I'm looking forward to the Amazon phone that's as great at media consumption (and still adequate at everything else) as the company's other hardware--even though my initial impressions strongly suggest that's not the Fire phone being released this week.
Stay tuned for our official Amazon Fire phone review in the coming days.