REVIEW: The Amazon Fire Phone, packed with Firefly, Mayday and Dynamic Perspective, is totally neat but not all there yet.
Amazon is on to something.
After a day with the Amazon Fire (normally I would spend several days, so take that for what it's worth), my feeling is that it's a phone for a specific band of society—a stratum. Not business professionals for whom efficiency is a priority, not teenagers or college kids who may or may not have credit cards, and not the most super-cool of 20- or 30-somethings. The Fire is a fit, instead, for the people who do most of the shopping in a household and who want from their smartphone a great camera, great call quality and the everyday necessity apps like messaging, emailing, maps and social networking.
Thanks to the Mayday feature, the Fire could also be a good fit for the decidedly un-tech-savvy, or for older users nervous to move past feature phones.
I hesitate, however, to recommend it to that last group, since the Fire can be a little bit dizzying. A key piece of what distinguishes it is what Amazon calls Dynamic Perspective—a combination of four low-power special cameras, four infrared LEDs, a dedicated processor, real-time computer-vision algorithms and a high-performing graphics-rendering engine. A lot of the time the result feels gratuitous. The lock screen images bob around rather nauseatingly, for example.
But sometimes it makes for a lot of fun. In some games, for example, you can control a character by tilting the phone or just your head, or jutting your chin. The use case I found most compelling was in Amazon's shopping app. Browsing through dresses, I could tip the phone slightly and a line of models in dresses moved toward me at a pace I controlled by tipping more or less. After tapping on a dress I liked, rocking the phone then worked to make the site shift through the three offered views of the dress.
It was fun when it worked well, but frustrating when it didn't—when a tip or wrist flick didn't result in the reaction I was expecting, or when I couldn't get something to stay still long enough to tap on it.
Still, the Fire shines brightest where Amazon does, too.
The Fire is designed to put Amazon's offerings very literally at your fingertips. On one hand, it's easy to feel put off by how blatantly Amazon created a phone so we can buy more things from it. On the other hand, it's easy to feel grateful for how empowering—or at least efficient—it can feel.
Amazon does this in two ways: with an app that's very easy to use and through Firefly, a technology that can recognize household products, songs, movies and more and offers to put them in your Amazon cart to start the process of shipping them off to your home or phone (in the case of digital content) with the click of a single button.
Standing in my bathroom brushing my teeth, I thought about how later in the day, between picking up my daughter from school, stopping at the library and hurrying home to make dinner, I'd need to stop at a pharmacy to buy saline solution and toothpaste.
I grabbed the phone off the kitchen counter, pointed it inside my medicine cabinet and Firefly recognized both products, individually. I hit "Add to Cart," anticipating adding a few more things later, and that was that. An errand off my list.
The Fire comes with a one-year subscription to Amazon Prime (a value of $99; if you already have Prime, Amazon extends your subscription by a year). Knowing most things will ship quickly and for free makes it easy to add things to the cart.
It's also easy to add things to the Amazon cart when you're shopping in a physical store and suspect you're not getting the best price. For years, apps have helped customers find the lowest prices on bigger-ticket items. I have never used such apps. But standing in a gourmet market feeling cranky about spending $6 on what's essentially a General Mills cereal, it was easy to press the Firefly button, see that Amazon will give me the same cereal for $3 and toss it into my cart with my waiting toothpaste and saline.