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AZ Tech Beat | March 29, 2017

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Calling from a Shopping Cart: Amazon Fire Phone Review

Calling from a Shopping Cart: Amazon Fire Phone Review
Travis Arbon

The Amazon Fire Phone attempts to offer a new perspective on the way we interact with our phones. In many ways, it works. But the phone falls short on delivering on some of its core strengths and goals.

After building a name for itself with the Kindle Fire line of tablets, Amazon launched their smartphone and hoped to grab some of the market.

On the inside, it houses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, which is paired with an Adreno 330 GPU, 2GB of RAM and either 32 or 64GB of storage.

The screen is a 4.7 inch LCD with a 1280×720 resolution, which is clear and bright enough, though not particularly visible outdoors. On the back is a 13.3 megapixel camera that is, again, good enough for your average smartphone photos.

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I do have to commend Amazon for the relatively clean design of the phone. The layout is simple, with a home button on the front, power button on the top and volume and camera buttons on the left side of the device. Aside from the FCC information, the only logo or branding on the phone is on the back, which helps the device stay rather unassuming.

In fact, unassuming is probably the best way to describe the Fire Phone from a distance. It’s a long, black rectangle in a sea of other similar devices. Both the front and back sides of the device are glass, which is very reminiscent of the iPhone 4 and the Nexus 4. And although the phone feels solid and surprisingly heavy (dense is the word that comes to mind), the matte plastic band that binds the two glass panes together is slippery.

Every time I hold the Fire Phone, I’m constantly aware of how easy I could shatter it. I would recommend purchasing a case if you do buy the phone, because, as iPhone users learned four years ago: glass panels can be a blessing and a curse.

Read: Thin, sleek, but so big! Reactions to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus

It’s not a particularly thin device either, but I wouldn’t call it thick. It’s slimmer than the Moto X, but the hard angles and length of the device may make it unwieldy for some users. The overall build quality is high and I’m not worried about the phone falling apart in the course of normal use.

From a distance, the only way you could tell the Fire Phone apart from any other smartphone is the five front-facing cameras that adorn the device. There is one in each corner and an additional near the earpiece.

These cameras are central to one of the Fire Phone’s most important features: dynamic perspective. Dynamic perspective uses head tracking and internal accelerometers to shift elements on the screen based on the angle you’re viewing the phone from.

The Amazon Fire Phone uses a standard micro-USB connector and is of uniform thickness throughout.

The Amazon Fire Phone uses a standard micro-USB connector and is of uniform thickness throughout.

At first it glance it makes for a really awesome effect. The pseudo-3D views of the lockscreen and the app draw can be stunning. However, it becomes a challenge when trying to view the phone from any angle other than head-on. Icons and images tilt and shift around the screen and made maintaining a consistent view of the UI elements difficult.

The general theme of minimalism in the phone’s outer design extends to the OS as well. The Fire Phone runs on Fire OS 3.5, which is a forked version of Android that is almost identical to the system used on the Fire tablets. It has, however, been modified to play to the strengths of the Fire Phone. In some ways, this works. In others, it makes using the phone clunky and unintuitive.

Related: It’s fast, but crazy cluttered and far from done – Samsung Galaxy S5 review

I really enjoy the concept behind Fire OS’s hidden menus. By shaking the phone in a given direction, a contextual menu will appear. Menus on the left generally deal with navigation, while menus from the right offer additional options. I love how clean and straightforward this makes most of the native apps and the interface in general. It’s how apps should be. Navigation gets out of the way and puts content front and center.

However, activating the menus isn’t always responsive, and it’s not entirely clear which apps do and don’t have hidden menus. I often found myself shaking the phone over and over again just to get a menu to appear. A swipe from offscreen in either direction will accomplish the same thing, but this too was unreliable.

Aside from the hidden menus, I found Fire OS to be very smooth and rather feature complete. The Fire Phone really makes use of all that internal hardware, and general operation was very fast and silky.

The Fire Phone is slightly thinner than a Moto X's thickest point, but is thicker overall.

The Fire Phone is slightly thinner than a Moto X’s thickest point, but is thicker overall.

Where Fire OS runs into issues is with the way it sells Amazon content and services to the user. Every Fire Phone comes with a free year of Amazon Prime, and it’s clear you’re meant to use it. There are so many ways of purchasing things from Amazon via the Fire Phone that using the device felt like making calls with a shopping cart.

That may be a good thing if you’re already immersed in Amazon’s ecosystem and order packages on a consistent basis. In that respect, the Fire Phone may make your life much easier.

Easy access to Amazon is part of the Fire Phone’s other killer app: Firefly. Firefly uses the camera to seek out objects or listen to media and access that item for immediate purchase on Amazon. Like many aspects of the Fire Phone, it’s a little hit or miss.

Related: Apriva partners with GoCoin to boost digital currency payments via smartphone

Firefly recognizes songs quickly and accurately, and barcodes are almost instantly scanned. However, it has trouble discerning real-world objects. In fact, I could only get Firefly to work by scanning barcodes, which comes close to defeating the purpose.

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The Amazon Fire Phone tries to bring a new experience to the smartphone landscape but falls short.

That said, if you don’t mind the constant Amazon integration or the UI quirks, the Fire Phone is a very good phone for actual communication. Call quality and reception were excellent, as was the speed of its 4G LTE connection.

At the end of the day, the Fire Phone does some things very right. Amazon built a device packed with features, content and top of the line internals, but the execution of the Fire Phone’s main selling points falls short of expectations.

The Fire Phone is available only on AT&T, and can be had for $0.99 on a two year contract or starting at $449 without a commitment. Alternatively, you can get it for $0 down on an AT&T Next plan.

AT&T provided AZ Tech Beat with the Amazon Fire Phone for review.