firephone apps

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos denied it for years, but last month the company finally announced its Fire Phone to the world. As of July 24, U.S. folks can buy one starting from $199 with a two-year contract and $649 unlocked so long as they’re okay with AT&T as their wireless carrier.

Amazon selling its own smartphone isn’t a surprise. After all, the company already sells its own e-readers, tablets and set-top box. What was surprising at the unveil event was just how hard Amazon went to design a smartphone with features other smartphones don’t have.

Features like the four extra cameras on the front that let you tilt the device to see the OS and apps in a 3D “Dynamic Perspective.” And Firefly which lets you ID website URLs, emails, phone numbers and over 100 million items including movies, books and songs, and then take action. These two features are the Fire Phone’s marquee features.

I’m no stranger to smartphone gimmicks (hello Samsung Galaxy S4!). But if gimmicky features work well, then I’m down for change. The big question is if the Fire Phone’s quirky features are game changers or not. Let’s find out.

Context

Before we dive into the review, it’s probably a good idea for you to know that I’m an iOS and Android guy. I switch between my own personal iPhone 5 and various Android devices I’m testing for work.

My smartphone is my mobile connection away from my laptop and desktop. I use it like everyone else: to keep up with email, tweet, check up on Facebook, and browse the Internet. From time to time (mostly on a train or bus), I’ll play some games — some which are graphic-intensive and some which are simple 2D games. When I’m on a long train ride, I’ll usually plug into my 18GB-strong music collection (I own a 64GB iPhone 5). Additionally, I use my iPhone 5 to take tons of photos and record HD video.

As for using Amazon’s own Kindle Fire tablets and the Fire TV — I’ve tried them all, but don’t own any myself. That said, I did enjoy using the Kindle Paperwhite e-reader, which I still believe is the best e-reader yet. While it may seem like I’m not the target for the Fire Phone because I don’t use Amazon’s Fire OS-powered hardware, the truth is I buy things from Amazon all the time — many times via the Amazon shopping app (because an awesome deal never lasts long). I’ve been a happy Amazon Prime customer for years and appreciate how Amazon is adding more value — more instant videos, music, books, etc. — every year.

Specifications

Product NameFire PhoneGalaxy S5iPhone 5sG3
BrandAmazonSamsungAppleLG
Weight5.64 Oz5.11 Oz3.95 Oz5.26 Oz
Street Price$590$680
Resolution1280×7201920×10801136×6402560×1440
Display (Diagonal, Inches)4.7″5.1″4″5.5″
Processor NameSnapdragon 800
4-core
2.2 MHz
Qualcomm MSM8974AC Snapdragon 801
4-core
2.5 MHz
A6
2-core
1.3 MHz
Qualcomm MSM8975AC Snapdragon 801
4-core
2.5 MHz
Operating System (OS)FireOS 3.5Android 4.4.2iOS 7Android 4.4.2
Memory Card TypeNoneMicroSD
(128 GB max)
NoneMicroSD
(128 GB max)
Built-in Storage64 GB32,16 GB16,32,64 GB16 GB
Rear Camera Megapixels13 MP16 MP8 MP13 MP
Front Camera Megapixels2.1 MP2 MP1.2 MP2.1 MP
Battery Capacity (mAh)2400 mAh2800 mAh1560 mAh3000 mAh

Design (good)

firephone size comparison 1

Size comparison: iPhone 5, Fire Phone, HTC One (M8), and LG G3.

Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets and Fire TV aren’t what I would consider sexy electronics. In fact, they’re all more budget-looking than Samsung’s plasticky smartphones and tablets.

At first glance, the Fire Phone is as generic as can be. It’s a black rectangle — same as any other smartphone. But once you hold it, the Fire Phone feels solid and has a nice weight to it.

In terms of size, the Fire Phone sits in between the Moto X and the Galaxy S5 — a good, functional dimensions, if you ask me. I have small-ish hands, and although I think the iPhone 5/5s/5c are the perfect size for me, I adored the Moto X and had no issues using it as a daily smartphone for months. That said, the Fire Phone is taller than the Moto X, which makes it a little harder to operate with one hand. However, it’s still easier to hold than the Galaxy S5 or a larger phablet.

firephone real glossy back

Glass back is super slippery and attracts fingerprints.

The front and rear are both made from scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass 3, which makes it durable and gives it a more premium aesthetic. The glass back resembles the Nexus 4, only without the sparkly circle pattern.

firephone front camera

Also on the front, next to the receiver, is a 2.1-megapixel camera that can record 1080p HD video. In addition to that selfie camera, there are four Dynamic Perspective cameras — one in each corner (more on this further down).

There is one thing that irks me about the front glass, and that is the glass isn’t flush with the bumper. This could be a manufacturing defect on my review unit, but the front glass panel sits slightly lower than the rubber frame. It’s not as pronounced as it is on the Lenovo ThinkPad 8 that I reviewed a little while back, but it is a QA quirk.

The back is pretty simple with only the 13-megapixel camera, LED flash, and a microphone located towards the top.

firephone side bumper

Moving to the side of the device, Amazon reinforced the device with a rubber bumper, which helps the Fire Phone absorb shock better if it takes a drop to the ground. The rubber bumper also enables you to get a firm grip on the device. On the left side of the Fire Phone is a volume up/down button, the camera button which doubles as the Firefly quick-launch button (more on that later), and a Nano SIM card slot.

firephone chamfered buttons

Unlike on other devices, the buttons on the Fire Phone don’t feel cheap; they don’t have any of that squeakiness or plasticky depression to them. Plus the buttons are chamfered (really!). I would have preferred if the volume up/down buttons had a little more separation, though. On more than several occasions, I pressed the camera button instead of the volume down button.

firephone top

Fire Phone’s display picks up dirt really easily.

At the top of the Fire Phone is the power button, 3.5 headphone jack, and one of two stereo speakers. The other speaker is located on the bottom of the device along with the Micro USB port. Together, the dual stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus audio processing produce equally balanced sound that is audible even in noisy places. The speakers are one of the better ones in a smartphone.

firephone bottom

Bottom of Fire Phone

The Fire Phone’s design plays it safe, and honestly that’s not a bad thing. Bold colors may be all the rage, but sometimes it’s good to be more discrete. (Although the five front-facing cameras and somewhat large Amazon logo on the back may make it stand out more.)

firephone thickness comparison

Thickness comparison between iPhone 5, Fire Phone, and HTC One (M8).

Display (good)

firephone display

I remember when 4.7-inch smartphones were considered large. This was back in 2011 (think HTC Titan). Nowadays, they’re considered mid-range and small compared to larger devices like the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3, 5.5-inch LG G3 and 6.4-inch Xperia Z Ultra.

The Fire Phone has 4.7-inch HD LCD screen (diagonal) with 1280 x 720 resolution. It’s no surprise why Amazon picked this size — it’s what many deem is the perfect mid-range size for a smartphone; not too big and not too small.

Motorola’s Moto X had a 4.7-inch screen and the iPhone 6 is rumored to increase from the 5s’s 4-inch display to a 4.7-inch one. It’s safe to say 4.7-inch is probably the biggest a smartphone display can go before being unusable in one hand for most people.

firephone landscape

The Fire Phone’s 720p resolution at 315 ppi is exactly what you’d expect. It’s sharp, but not as sharp as a 1080p screen. Viewing angles are actually pretty good, too. Photos and videos look fine on it. One great thing about the screen is its brightness — 590 nits — which is overwhelmingly bright.

Amazon says the screen’s circular polarizer helps with outdoor visibility, like in the sun. Sure enough, I was able to wear my sunglasses and see alright, but not perfectly clear outdoors when the sun was shining overhead.

Performance (good enough)

The Fire Phone’s specs are decidedly mid-range, too. The hardware reads like almost every other smartphone: a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, Adreno 330 graphics, 2GB of RAM and 32/64GB of internal storage.

It’s become commonplace to say a smartphone is “blazing fast” or “screams.” In 2014, almost any respectable flagship smartphone from a big-name tech company is more than fast enough to handle basic web browsing, music, taking photos, and playing trendy games. That’s a given. The Fire Phone can handle all of those things aplomb.

The lightweight Fire OS 3.5 runs quickly and smoothly. I didn’t notice any lag that significantly hampered the Fire Phone’s performance. I expected gradual slowdowns or lag with constant use of Dynamic Perspective and Firefly, but nope, the Fire Phone carried on like a champ.

Since the Fire Phone runs Fire OS and doesn’t have access to Android benchmark apps without sideloading them on (note: I tried sideloading benchmark apps, but Fire Phone became so unstable and unusable that I had to factory reset it), so I used what benchmark apps were readily available in the Amazon Appstore.

Running PassMark PerformanceTest Mobile, I was able to get numbers on the overall performance of the Fire Phone — how well its CPU and 2D/3D graphics performed — compared to other smartphones.

According to the app’s benchmarks, the Fire Phone scored a 3316 overall Passmark score, which puts it squarely in line with a Samsung Galaxy S4, but well under all of the flagship devices of this year such as the LG G3, Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8).

The CPU, while a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, is not the most powerful, falling just behind the Galaxy Note II, a smartphone from 2012.

As far as graphic benchmark scores, the Fire Phone isn’t much of a beast, either. Its 2D (3031 score) and 3D (1491 score) capabilities are just slightly less powerful than the Samsung Galaxy Note II (3046 2D score) and Galaxy Note 3 (1548 3D score). Compared to the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 tablet (2981 2D score / 1957 3D score), the Fire Phone falls short when running GPU intensive apps — no surprise, since the smartphone doesn’t need as much GPU support as a tablet.

Graphic-intensive games such as Asphalt 8: Airborne worked almost flawlessly. The few dropped framerates I noticed can most likely be attributed to software issues, as I’ve played this game across every mobile platform and the glitches are always the same.

Overall, the Fire Phone is a good-enough smartphone for basic uses. The only real bothersome issue is that when you use Dynamic Perspective apps and Firefly, the Fire Phone tends to get warm, and it only gets warmer the longer you use them. The heat emitted is further worsened when you use the Fire Phone outside in warm/hot temperatures.

Dynamic Perspective (gimmicky)

As I mentioned above, the Fire Phone has two hallmark features that make it different from any other smartphone. The first is called Dynamic Perspective. Amazon describes it as “a custom-designed sensor system that responds to how you hold, view and move your phone.”

Basically, the Fire Phone uses the four infrared cameras on the front of the device to track the direction of your face. As you move your face left, right, up and down, the perspective of certain on-screen elements will change accordingly. For instance, if you’re using the built-in maps app, if you move your head left and right, you’ll see the surfaces of landmark buildings. Or if you’re playing a game, you’ll be able to look around things and discover items and areas that would normally be hidden in 2D perspective. The change in perspective also works when you tilt the Fire Phone in different directions.

Perhaps a video showing you how it works in various cases will help illustrate Dynamic Perspective more effectively:

Dynamic Perspective isn’t a feature that’s built into certain apps. It’s littered throughout Fire OS 3.5. You’ll see it in the large icons in the Carousel, in the immersive lockscreens, and within some of the core apps like the weather.

Dynamic Perspective is an impressive technical showcase of the Fire Phone’s software and hardware, but it’s really mostly a visual gimmick — similar to the glasses-free 3D in Nintendo’s 3DS. It’s a cute feature at first, but it quickly becomes old. The only difference between Dynamic Perspective and the actual 3D in the Nintendo 3DS is that the visual trickery on the Fire Phone doesn’t “pop” out; it’s more like you’re looking deeper into the screen. There’s also no center “sweet” spot your eyes need to focus on, since the cameras track your face.

firephone rocket robo

Rocket Robo is an awesome game that uses Dynamic Perpsective to enhance the gameplay.

Some apps and games really work great with Dynamic Perspective and some apps leave you wondering why they even bothered. For example, in the game Rocket Robo, where you control a little robot and guide it to collect stars along a side-scrolling level, Dynamic Perspective is used wonderfully to provide X, Y, and Z depth. You can float the robot left and right, but also forward and backwards; the depth adding much to the experience.

On the opposite spectrum, apps like the Phone app have no business using Dynamic Perspective. Why exactly do you need to tilt your phone to see the sides of the numbers on the keypad? It’s absolutely silly and useless, not to mention a waste of battery life.

firephone dynamic perspective games

Some of the games available that use Dynamic Perspective: Saber’s Edge, Monkey Buddy, and Amazing.

At the time of this writing (3-4 days after availability), the Amazon Appstore has 33 Dynamic Perspective-ready apps, two of which are “lite” versions of their full versions, which means there are actually 31 apps. I’ve tried almost all of the apps, and I can say with near certainty that most of them are half-baked with the feature shoehorned in, adding little value.

Firefly (inconsistent)

firephone firefly

When I was a child, I wished somebody would invent a device that would let you point it at objects and it would tell you what it was, how much it cost and where you could buy it. Firefly is that invention.

Now think for a second how a scanner works. It’s usually a laser that is looking for a barcode, QR code or some kind of marker that matches it to a piece of data. If the laser can’t recognize the product marker, it can’t deliver any kind of data on it.

Firefly is just like that, only it doesn’t need any kind of barcode to ID things — at least that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. Amazon says Firefly is powerful enough to ID phone numbers, email addresses, web URLs, movies and TV shows, music, and over 70 million products including household items, books, CDs, DVDs and more.

firephone firefly 2

To launch Firefly you can tap on its icon or press and hold the camera button on the left side of the Fire Phone. To identify a product, you just point the Fire Phone at it and then dozens of little dots (digital fireflies) flock over it and try to make sense of the imaging.

When Bezos demoed the feature in front of invited press, Firefly seemed like magic. Bezos was able to use Firefly to ID products in seconds — almost instantly. It was unreal.

firephone firefly book

And unreal is what Firefly is for now, In its current form, Firefly is unreliable. It can ID movies, TV shows, songs, and virtually any text with ease, but it has trouble ID’ing most regular household items.

firephone firefly 1

In the week I’ve been using the Fire Phone, I’ve spent more time Fireflying products than using any of the phone’s other features. I’ve pointed the Fire Phone at hundreds of objects — at books, CDs, game controllers, toys, other smartphones and electronics, food and snack packaging, DVDs, and more. Firefly failed to identify a lot of the products in my apartment. The ratio of misses to hits was around 10:1 for products without labels, text or any kind of clear marking. Clearly labeled products usually worked almost instantly.

When Firefly is able to identify a product, it will bring up pricing info and then let you order it on Amazon. You can also share the product info via other apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and SMS.

firephone firefly fail

I was expecting Firefly to be a game changer for shopping, but it turns out it’s not — at least not right now. As of launch, Firefly is like Siri was when it first appeared on the iPhone 4S: ambitious with tons of potential, but lacking in polish and reliability. The Fire Phone is brand new. Amazon has plenty of time to improve Firefly. Hopefully things will get better soon.

Battery (poor…)

firephone battery life

The Fire Phone has a 2400 mAh battery. According to Amazon, that’s enough to get up to 22 hours of talk time, 285 hours of standby time, up to 11 hours of video time, and up to 65 hours of audio time.

Those sound like impressive figures, but what about real-world usage? You know, like how long does the Fire Phone actually last when you’re constantly browsing the web, reading books, watching a few YouTube videos, making calls, texting — stuff people use their smartphones for.

Not very long is the answer with Dynamic Perspective and the tilting features turned on (default). I was only able to get on average 6.5 hours before having to recharge it. This is with the default settings it came configured in out of the box. With Dynamic Perspective and all of the tilting features turned off, I got an average of 8-8.5 hours, which is in line with battery life on popular smartphones like the iPhone 5s, Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8).

In the end, battery life was underwhelming. Yes, I can turn off some (or all) of the motion features and Dynamic Perspective to get more battery life, but that defeats the whole purpose to the Fire Phone’s appeal. What would have been impressive is if Amazon was able to pack in 8-9 hours of battery life with all of those features turned on for the usage I noted above.

Camera (average)

firephone rear camera

13-megapixel rear camera with LED flash (no dual-tone flash like on iPhone 5s/HTC One (M8), LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy S5.

The award for most cameras in a smartphone goes to the Fire Phone. As I mentioned earlier, Fire Phone has six cameras — five on the front and one on the back.

Since I already went through the four front cameras for Dynamic Perspective above, I’m not going to repeat it here. Let’s talk about the 13-megapixel f/2.0 rear camera with optical image stabilization and LED flash.

Having more image resolution is always great for a smartphone, but more and more, what matters is image quality — low light performance, color reproduction, and sharpness — something smartphones like the iPhone 5s and Lumia 1020 excel at.

firephone camera UI

The Fire Phone camera UI is kind of dull-looking. Reminds me of Android’s older, uglier versions of the camera UI.

The Fire Phone’s 13-megapixel camera, like everything else about the smartphone is functional, but lacks that extra polish to really blow you away.

Outdoor photos with plenty of sunlight look sharp with little noise. Low-light performance, as Bezos boasted on stage, is better than most other smartphones.

Take a look for yourself. As you can see in the comparison below, there is way less image noise from the Fire Phone.

firephone iphone 5 vs fire phone low light performance

Low-light camera comparison: iPhone 5 (left) vs. Fire Phone (right).

There is one big caveat that holds the camera back from being a great one: inaccurate white balance. In the indoor photo comparison below, you can see how much warmer (yellower) the color temperature is. Some, but not all, of my outdoor shots also showed warmer white balance tones. You can easily correct this with an smartphone app or on your computer later, but many people never do that.

firephone iPhone 5 vs Fire Phone comparison indoors

Fire Phone (right) produces yellower/warmer color than the iPhone 5 (left).

Not only is the white balance inconsistent, but the autofocus isn’t always spot on, either. I often took a photo thinking I nailed the focus, only to end up with a blurry pic. HDR is a little slow to process. Taking panoramas with the Fire Phone is excellent, but the resolution is nowhere near as good as even the iPhone 5′s. See comparison shot below:

firephone panorama firephone iphone 5 comparison

Panorama comparison between Fire Phone (top) and iPhone 5 (bottom). The iPhone 5 panorama has higher resolution, despite the camera having fewer megapixels than the FIre Phone.

The Fire Phone has another weird photo feature called “lenticular” shot, which lets you take several square photos and blend them together into a crossfading animation. I tried that feature twice, realized it was silly, and never used it again. It also doesn’t help that these shots can’t be viewed on a computer (each picture shows up as an individual file).

As I also mentioned earlier, I take a lot of photos with my smartphone. Whether it’s a picture of something I want to remember, some cool street art, or snapshots from parties and dinners, my smartphone is my main camera these days when I’m not working (I have a DSLR for that).

Amazon knows that people are taking more photos than ever. To ensure you never run out of storage space, every Fire Phone comes with free unlimited full-resolution photo storage in the cloud. Mind you, that’s only for photos, not videos or anything else. (Full detailed FAQ here.)

Fire OS 3.5 (confusing)

firephone ui

The Fire Phone’s operating system is Fire OS 3.5, which is based on Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. For those who don’t know, Fire OS 3.5 is what is considered a “forked” version of Android — its underlying code is Android, but the UI is so heavily customized that it doesn’t even resemble it, nor does it have access to Google Play or Google’s suite of official apps such as Gmail, YouTube, Chrome, Google Drive, Google Maps, Google Music/Movies, etc.

Depending on the type of user you are, not having Google apps may or may not be deal-breaker. Personally, I need those apps, and can’t live without Chrome, Google Maps and Google Drive. The Fire OS email app works fine (you can still setup a Gmail account with it like Apple’s Mail app) and the Nokia Here Maps and the Bing search are usable as well, but I’m a power users and none of those apps are as good as Google’s in my opinion.

Fire OS 3.5 shares similarities with the Kindle Fire tablets. The OS uses the same gray, white, orange, and black palette. The background wallpaper remains a dull gray pattern of tiny hexagons. If the wallpaper is too dreary for you (and it is for me), that’s too bad because you can’t change it. Yeah, a smartphone in 2014 that doesn’t let you change the home screen background. Crazy.

The UI is split into three screen panels: Left, Center, and Right. The Center screen is your main home screen. This is where you see the large app Carousel at the top, and your four-app Dock on the bottom. The Carousel displays your most recently used apps; the last opened app appearing at the front. You can also pin apps to the front if you use them often.

In between the Carousel and the Dock, is a preview list, which shows you related information that might be useful. What kind of information shows up depends on what app you’ve selected. If you’ve selected the Settings app, you may see a list of frequently used settings such as connecting to Wi-Fi or turning on the Bluetooth; the Email app shows new unread emails, the Silk Browser shows your most visited websites. An app or game with no pertinent preview defaults to displaying other apps similar to it that Amazon recommends from the Appstore.

firephone silk browser

This is the Amazon Silk Browser. It’s a little barebones.

Swiping up from the Dock reveals all of the other apps installed on your Fire Phone. And just as the app icons in the Carousel have Dynamic Perspective, all of the little app icons do so too.

From the Center screen, if you swipe in from the left or tilt your Fire Phone to the right, you’ll open up the Left panel. Here you’ll find a list of all of your content categorized neatly into Apps, Games, Web, Music, Videos, Photos, Books, Newstand, Audiobooks, Docs, Shop and Prime. In other apps, the Left panel usually displays the main navigation or menu.

If you swipe on the screen from the right or tilt your Fire Phone to the left, the Right panel will slide in. The Right panel is dynamic as well and changes based on what activity you’re doing. Opening the Right panel from the Carousel screen displays the current weather and other notifications such as emails, text messages, etc. Other examples include showing song lyrics when you’re listening to Amazon Music or displaying thumbnails of photos from your gallery for you to attach in a text message. I particularly enjoyed the lyrics which are highlighted as the artist belts the words out, as I can’t remember them for my life. It’s like having a portable karaoke machine on your phone.

The Left and Right panels are creative, but I found it too easy to swipe and open them up by accident. Constantly tilting the device to open these panels also fatigued my wrist, similar to the way constantly double flicking the Moto X to instantly launch its camera app did.

Whereas iOS and Android started out as smartphone OSes first and then were scaled up for tablets, Fire OS just doesn’t scale down well. That, or Amazon did a sloppy job repurposing it as a smartphone OS.

firephone status bar

By default, the status bar is not visible at all times. Amazon prefers you tilt the Fire Phone to the left to make it show up. Luckily, you can change the setting so it always shows.

There are tons of things beyond the pointless Dynamic Perspective OS elements that ruin the Fire Phone experience. Things like having to flick it to the left very gently in order to see the status bar that shows you the time, battery life and wireless signal. (That’s the default setting, but I later found out you can also set the status bar to be shown all the time). Or things like swiping up from the home button bezel in order to perform a back action. Or tilting the phone back and forth to scroll up and down a website, but the same “feature” doesn’t even work for Kindle books or magazines in Newsstand.

firephone text

I fear Amazon went too far with trying to make the Fire Phone different that it instead created one of the most unintuitive mobile operating systems ever.

Apps / Amazon services (so-so)

The Amazon Appstore is tiny compared to the iOS App Store and Android’s Google Play. Amazon’s digital storefront has over 240,000 apps, 182,352 (as of this writing) of which are Fire Phone-optimized. Comparatively, iOS has over 1.2 million apps and Google Play has over 1.3 million apps. Even Microsoft’s fledgling Windows Phone Store has more: 255,000 apps.

But how many apps does a person really need? That’s subjective. The reason why it’s wonderful that iOS and Android have massive app stores is because it gives users a larger pool of choices to pick from.

On the Fire Phone, you can find most of your essential apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, but you won’t find gems like Infinity Blade or VSCOCAM. Or any of the aforementioned official Google apps.

firephone email app conf

One of the most annoying things about downloading apps from the Amazon Appstore is that the company feels the need to send you an email to confirm each and every download. You can imagine how insane that is when you’re downloading a ton of apps at once to populate a new device. I dug into the settings and searched Google hoping to learn how to disable the notifications with little success.

firephone mayday

Mayday, Fire OS’s live technical support is fast and very helpful when you need to troubleshoot something.

Desperate, I was forced to hit the Mayday button in the notification menu. To my surprise — it was my first time using Mayday, thank you very much — an Amazon tech rep connected almost instantly once I gave them permission to look at my screen and my camera view. A little window popped up showing Faith, my tech rep, who kindly told me that there is indeed no way to disable those email notifications. Faith was calm, cheery, and very sweet. She sympathized with my frustration and said she’d file my suggestion for disabling the emails with the Fire Phone team.

Like every customer service, your experience will vary. On a second Mayday call to confirm that the gray homescreen wallpaper couldn’t be changed, a rep actually had to put me on hold (though, I could still see video of her), on-hold music and all for about 60 seconds, while she tapped away at her keyboard searching for an answer. Understandably, the Fire Phone is still new, and she probably didn’t know all of the ins and outs of it yet. Still, I think Mayday is a fantastic feature. Shame, you may need to rely on it a lot if you find yourself lost trying to navigate Fire OS 3.5.

As with the iPhone, the Fire Phone only has fixed internal storage (32GB or 64GB). It doesn’t have a microSD card for storage expansion. The only way to add more storage is via the cloud. In addition to the unlimited cloud storage Fire Phone owners get for their photos, Amazon also includes 5GB of free personal Cloud Drive storage for documents, videos, music, etc. If you want more storage, you can upgrade to 20GB ($10) or 50GB ($25) per year. If those still aren’t enough, other options include 100GB ($50), 200GB ($100), 500GB ($250) and 1TB ($500) per year.

firephone amazon app store content

But if you’re even thinking of buying a Fire Phone, you’re probably somewhat invested into Amazon’s ecosystem of cloud services. Amazon Instant Video, Music, Kindle e-books and digital magazines in Newsstand are accessible on the Fire Phone. And those are all great.

Accessories (good, but…)

firephone accessories

The Fire Phone comes with three things: a USB charging plug, Micro USB cable and a pair of earbuds. The earbuds are particularly interesting because they’ve got magnets inside of them so that you can attach them together. This helps with preserving them and preventing cable tangles. I love this idea.

But just like Fire OS and the hardware, the earbuds lack polish as well. The wiring is partially flat; this is to prevent tangles. Great you say! But wait, why didn’t Amazon make all of the wiring flat? As they are now, only the bottom cable uses flat-style wires. The top half, which splits into left and right earbuds uses regular tear and tangle-friendly cables. It’s like two different designers worked on the two different halves, but didn’t ever convene to say “hey, let’s pick one or the other.”

Conclusion (too gimmicky and confusing)

firephone rear back

For a first smartphone, Amazon went out of its way to differentiate the Fire Phone with it four extra front-facing cameras, Dynamic Perspective, Firefly, and flick-activated operating system. Unfortunately, the sum of those parts is not very impressive.

While fun at first, the 3D Dynamic Perspective quickly became annoying and I ended up turning it and all of the gimmicky tilting features off for the sake of longer battery life. Firefly, a trojan horse to get you to shop more on Amazon.com isn’t reliable enough. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t.

By far, the Fire Phone’s greatest flaw is that Fire OS 3.5 is a complete mess — more confusing than logical and intuitive. The last thing you want from a smartphone is a user interface that boggles your mind and aggravates you with every minute and unintended tilt and flick. Even worse is that Fire OS 3.5 is extremely limited, because it Amazon’s App store isn’t as large as iOS and Google Play. And say what you want, but Google’s bundle of services including Gmail, Google Drive, Chrome and Google Docs are very important to a lot users. Being locked into Amazon’s puny app ecosystem is not a way to attract customers when you’re launching a smartphone in 2014.

So, exactly who is the Fire Phone for? The diehard Amazon customer who lives and breathes Amazon services. And quite frankly, I’m not sure many of those exist.

The Fire Phone suffers from the same misguidance that doomed Facebook Home and the HTC First Facebook smartphone. Both Amazon and Facebook have massive customer install bases that love using their services on other, more robust devices, but few are loyal enough to want to live entirely within an Amazon and Facebook world by using smartphones built by them. That’s just too much.

I’m pooing on the Fire Phone right now, but Amazon is not a short-tail company. When it chooses to do something, it knows it has a tall mountain filled with obstacles to climb. At $199 (32GB) and $299 (64GB) with a two-year contract, the Fire Phone is priced to compete with premium smartphones like the iPhone 5s, Galaxy S5, LG G3 and HTC One (M8), but it’s just not as good as any of those.

Dynamic Perspective and Firefly are interesting features that will only get better with more supported apps and when more products are added into Amazon’s analysis database. I expect those features to improve greatly by the time Fire Phone 2 and 3 roll around. But right now, the rest of Fire OS 3.5 drags the Fire Phone down.

Overall product rating: 6/10

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