- Easy to use with one hand
- Solid camera
- Comes with free year of Amazon Prime
- Dull design
- Some unintuitive software and lacking app selection
- Underwhelming battery life
The Fire Phone is Amazon's first smartphone, and as such it relies heavily on the Amazon ecosystem. It brings a fresh interface and some intriguing ideas, but the rest of the device is just too ordinary.
The most important part of my phone review process has always been deciphering the point of each little wonder that makes it into my hands. Some do it better than others, but most smartphones today have the usual stuff down pat. The screens are fine, the chipsets are strong, and the batteries last long enough. What stops every phone from feeling like a clone are the details each manufacturer decides to emphasize above all else.
These points of emphasis are usually what bring out a phone’s true goals, the purpose it’s striving to fulfill. Some want the best build, others want the top camera, and still others want super utility. The Amazon Fire Phone, meanwhile, has a broader aim: to get you to buy stuff from Amazon. It’s an idea coded into its hardware, its UI, and its cameras; everything about the Fire Phone points you back at the giant who made it and the impossibly large number of goods and services it offers. It makes the boldest claim yet that the smartphone is not just its own product, but a gateway to every other product, physical or virtual, as well.
As long as it’s on Amazon. Let’s take a closer look at the Bezos clan’s first smartphone, which is now available on AT&T and just recently dropped to $450 unlocked or $1 with a two-year contract.
Build and Design
So the Fire Phone is a vessel, one that hopes to bring your attention to Amazon and Amazon alone. As such, it’s content to be average as a phone. That much is apparent as soon as you lay eyes on the device, which is as black slab as black slabs get.
At 160 grams, it’s neither heavy nor light. With dimensions of 139.2 x 66.5 x 8.9 mm, it’s neither thick nor thin. It’s made of two glass panes on its front and back, reminiscent of Google and LG’s Nexus 4 from a couple years back. In between is a stainless steel frame that’s coated in a rubberized material and extends around the rest of its body. Its edges and corners are curved, but not dramatically so, allowing the phone to keep a rectangular form reminiscent of the iPhone 5s.
Also like the iPhone, the face of the Fire Phone is adorned with just a single home button. It’s comprised of well-crafted aluminum, just like the volume, camera and power buttons on its sides. Outside of that, the tiny speaker grilles are on the bottom, the headphone jack is on the top, the SIM tray is on the right, and the 13-megapixel camera is in the top right corner of the back. It’s like Amazon took the dictionary definition of smartphone and made it into a tangible object.
There are exactly two things about the Fire Phone’s build that are close to being out of the ordinary. The first is the five-pack of cameras that adorn the corners of the phone’s front. The primary purpose for four of them (the fifth is an actual camera) is to track your face so it can enable a 3D-ish depth effect dubbed “Dynamic Perspective,” which we’ll get to later. These sensors look weird, but they’re easy enough to look past once you start using the device.
The second thing that stands out on is the big Amazon logo that shines across the black of its back.
Boring isn’t the worst thing for a smartphone to be, and the Fire Phone’s build does have some good things going for it. Most notably, it’s genuinely easy to use with one-hand. Amazon hasn’t gone to war with the other Android manufacturers over screen size, opting for a tall 4.7-inch display over a fatter 5-inch one, and its mixture of materials is sturdily weaved together. That rubberized material on the sides is particularly easy to grip, and the Gorilla Glass that engulfs the rest of the phone is pleasingly smooth in the hand. (Though it’s important to note that said glass is a bona fide fingerprint magnet, and that it’s less likely to survive a drop without any nicks than an aluminum or plastic phone by nature.) It’s also nice to see a carrier exclusive not get mauled by logos and branding for once.
But still, it’s boring. The design here is wishy-washy, stuck between the cold, mechanical style of a Nokia Lumia Icon and the everyday feel of an iPhone, but not committing to either. Plus cameras. The result is a phone that’s just a phone — reliable enough, but lacking in personality.
The Fire Phone’s 4.7-inch, 720p LCD display mostly furthers this sentiment. That resolution gives it a pixel density of 315 pixels per inch, which is sharp enough for everyday use but decidedly middle-of-the-road by nature. Contrast is decent, with blacks that aren’t as dark as they could be. Colors are mostly accurate, maybe a little too light, but either way they don’t pop out at you like they do on similarly priced devices. And while the bezels that surround the panel aren’t terribly thick on the sides, they fatten up a bit too much on the top and bottom.
There are more definite positives. Viewing angles are good and wide, for instance, and everything can get plenty bright when needed. The latter quality makes the Fire Phone easy to read in direct sunlight; combined with its relatively compact size, this is a device that’s much less fussy to use on the go than some of its peers. Yet even with that said, the Fire Phone’s display doesn’t do much to go above and beyond what you’d expect from an ordinary phone. It never offends, but it rarely makes you excited about using it.
It’s the same old tune when it comes to the Fire Phone’s performance. It certainly packs some punch on paper, especially considering its new midrange price. It’s powered by the aging yet capable Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset, which includes a quad-core 2.2GHz Krait 400 processor and an Adreno 330 GPU, as well as 2 GB of RAM. There’s also 32GB of storage space, which is relatively generous for a base model. (A 64GB version is also available for $100 extra, but it’s worth noting there’s no microSD slot on either model.)
For casual needs, those guts are too strong for the Fire Phone to fail. Quickly scrolling through Amazon’s UI was a breeze, games like The Walking Dead and Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing ran without any major issues, and overall call quality was loud and clear. The speakers were good, the GPS was reliable, and AT&T’s LTE speeds were never a concern here in the greater Boston area. It isn’t a blazer, but the Fire is a perfectly capable smartphone.
And yet, like almost every other aspect of the device, there are enough issues to prevent the Fire Phone’s performance from ever excelling too much. It’s far too quick to overheat, for one, as gaming and browsing heavier websites usually caused the phone’s glass back to get uncomfortably hot in a matter of minutes. Bootup times were painfully slow, sometimes taking up to 45 seconds to get going, and both first- and third-party apps weren’t as quick to load as they could’ve been (though they never crashed on me).
Stuff just tends to go rogue from time to time — sometimes a settings menu will refuse to open, other times Amazon’s Silk Browser will have a few hiccups, and still other times the phone’s suite of one-handed gesture controls will overreact to the slightest of movements. The phone never really gets outright sluggish, but niggling annoyances like these make it feel less polished than a true flagship should.
The culprit behind some of these struggles seems to be Amazon’s Dynamic Perspective tech. It generally did an impressive job of keeping up with my face once it got into gear, but it often needed few sluggish moments to first recognize me and readjust the 3D images on screen accordingly. Turning the trick off and relieving the phone of its depth sensing duties makes it more responsive and reliable as a whole, which is to be expected when it only has to handle a 720p display. All these issues are much more tolerable after the Fire Phone’s drastic price cut, but you shouldn’t expect anything beyond solid, midrange quality here. It’s good for the new cost, and that’s it.