Amazon Fire Phone: Nice but nothing to get fired up about

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Credit: Amazon

The Fire Phone is really nice but when you weigh up the pros and cons it’s just another smartphone with less brand recognition and no outstanding edge over the competition.

I've had my hands on an Amazon Fire Phone for a couple of weeks and I can sum up my thoughts in two words: “Ho hum.”

Don’t get me wrong, the Fire Phone is a really nice product; it’s just that when you weigh up the pros and cons the Fire Phone is just another smartphone with less brand recognition and with no outstanding edge over the competition. For example, at $199.99 for the 32GB version with a 2-year contract it’s not better priced than the Samsung Galaxy S 5 or the iPhone 5S and its customized version of Android, called Fire OS 3.5 (which is shared with Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet, and compatible with Android 4.2.2, API level 17), while solid and sleek is not really more solid and sleek than the Android version on the Galaxy S 5.

fire phone physical Amazon

Specifications

Physically, the Amazon Fire Phone a minimalistic black slab (as thin as an iPhone 5S and about 0.25” inches wider and about 0.5” longer) with a pleasant heft (at 5.64 ounces, it’s 1.69 ounces heavier than the iPhone 5S). 

When it comes to other major hardware features, again, with a two exceptions I'll come back to in a minute, the specs of the Amazon Fire Phone are pretty standard stuff which I'll compare with the iPhone 5S specs:

  • A 4.7 inch, 720 x 1280 pixel, 16M color, display which is physically bigger bigger than the iPhone 5S’s 640 x 1136 pixel, 4.0 inch, 16M color display but roughly the same resolution at 312 and 326 pixels per inch respectively.
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, Wi-Fi hotspot (Same as the iPhone 5S)
  • A 13MP primary camera with 4128 x 3096 pixels, optical stabilization, autofocus, LED flash, and 1080p@30fps video with optical stabilization (except for the iPhone 52 having only an 8MP primary camera with 3264 x 2448 pixels the other specs are the same).
  • A 2.1MP secondary camera (the iPhone’s is 1.2MP)
  • 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, proximity sensor, compass, and barometer (the iPhone 5S is the same except for the barometer)
  • A non-removable 2400 mAh Li-Ion battery providing 285h stand-by, 22h talk time, and 65h music play (the iPhone 5S has a non-removable 1560 mAh Li-Po battery with 250h stand-by, 20h talk time, and 40h music play)

Call sound quality and connectivity performance are roughly the same as the iPhone 5S so, in short, the Fire Phone has a slightly superior specification but is otherwise much the same as the iPhone 5S.

Bluetooth Falls Short

Where the Fire Phone is noticeably different is in only offering Bluetooth 3.0 rather than, as the iPhone 5S does, Bluetooth LE. Apparently hardware support for BLE is already built into the Fire Phone so its absence in software is even more surprising particularly as so many gadgets now require LE to connect to a smartphone and the burgeoning “wearables” category pretty much relies on the standard.

Also, I think it's a shame that Amazon didn't do something that many of my friends have frequently complained about other smartphones not having: Replaceable batteries and replaceable storage. 

Yet More Cameras and Head Tracking

The other big difference is that the Fire Phone has four additional cameras facing the user that perform head-tracking. There are a few games that take advantage of this feature for "looking around" the game display  by simulating parallax which Amazon calls “Dynamic Perspective” (because, of course, we need a new marketing term despite having a perfectly good word for the phenomenon already) but that's it.

As much as I have thought about it and asked other people for their ideas there’s not much I can imagine using head-tracking for that isn’t game- or “ohhh”-oriented. And “ohhh” is definitely what you say when you first see the lock screen of the Fire Phone; Amazon pushes new parallax-enabled screens to the phones every day and some of them feature really impressive graphics and animations.

So, despite the clever tech, unless killer apps appear that use the feature the Fire Phone's head tracking is little more than a gimmick.  

Who Wants a Shop in Their Pocket?

Another notable feature of the Fire Phone is the Magic Window app. This software displays the primary camera view and a swarm of “fireflies” (dots on the screen that move around the outlines of objects in the view “looking” for product identifiers such as labels, icons, bar codes, QR codes, etc.). The app can also listen for music, TV shows, and movies. 

When something is identified by Magic Window, the app offers you several options; you can purchase the item (natch), share it, view the photo of what was recognized, send feedback to Amazon, or remove the photo from Magic Windows’ history.

Amazon is so committed to this app that if you press and hold the button below the volume rocker on the left of the phone, Magic Window will be launched. What Amazon is doing is turning the Fire Phone into a mobile store … and I’m not sure I want any device in my pocket with that much focus on parting me from my money.

The problem with Magic Window? It’s is erratic and occasionally amusingly wrong. Is it a good idea? I suppose so, at least for Amazon, but I doubt whether it’s key to the success of the Fire Phone. What it amounts to is the company trying to encourage and satisfy impulse buying via Amazon.

Combine this with Amazon’s nascent drone delivery service and short of cars and kitchen appliances you could conceivably get anything you want anywhere you might be at any time. I’m betting there will be much bigger drones are in our future … but I digress ...

fire phone mayday Amazon

Mayday, Getting Help on Your Fire Phone

One of the things I really liked on the Fire Phone was Mayday, Amazon’s interactive, human-driven technical support service that’s also available on the company’s Fire tablets. I launched the app and a small window opened in which, after a few seconds’ wait, a human being named Amanda appeared wearing a headset with Amazon emblazoned on the wall behind her. As cool as that was she couldn’t hear me (by the way, the techs can’t see you). I launched another Mayday session and got another tech, Arsenio, who could now hear me but this time I couldn't see him.

The techs can take control of your phone and demo how to do things or fix problems but as there’s no request to transfer control to the tech (they can just take control in a Mayday session) I worry about potential Zero Day security issues.

Unfortunately, in the next two attempts the techs couldn’t hear me at all so color me disappointed; this is a great idea but apparently there are significant technical problems.

So, Will the Fire Phone Sell?

Overall and as I said at the beginning, when you weigh up the pros and cons, the Fire Phone is just another smartphone. Yes, it's a nice, well-designed, well-engineered, solid product priced neck-and-neck price with other top-end smartphones but it’s entering a market crowded with a lot of really solid, established products such as the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy. 

These directly competing top-end products have huge brand recognition as well as enthusiastic users and, because it’s just not different enough, I doubt whether the Fire Phone will be able to break established buying habits. It would be great to see Amazon shake up the market with some new feature or features in the near future but that would seem to be unlikely and with the iPhone 6 due to come out this fall the Amazon Fire will have even stiffer competition to overcome. I predict the company will get some good sales figures but they’ll be unimpressive.

Gearhead Rating

The Amazon Fire Phone gets a Gearhead rating of 3.5 out of 5.

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