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.
Amazon Fire Phone Has a Few Bugs to Work Out
Using the Fire phone, I could feel the tendrils of Amazon reaching farther into my life than ever before—I have never before bought cereal from Amazon—and that bothers me a little. But I clicked “Add to Cart.”
Firefly is a design delight. The user holds down a dedicated button on the side of the phone (pressing it quickly pulls up the camera) and little firefly-like lights appear. Or maybe they’re like scrubbing bubbles, or a weird, cute alien life form that recognizes a thing by touching and tasting it. The little lights go to work on whatever you point the phone at, running over the details of a face, rushing to a logo and tasting at corners. In most instances, a bar quickly pops up at the bottom of the screen, with a bing, like the aliens are playing a game show and have come up with an answer.
Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. Map of the world.
Amazon then offers to take you to “Shop Amazon” or will let you share the information you’ve uncovered (via email, Facebook and all the other expected routes), or send Amazon feedback. If it’s a food item, it offers to share nutrition information.
Often, when you go to Shop Amazon, Amazon up-sells you a bit. It doesn’t show a single product but 12 boxes of the cereal, or eight four-packs of soap. Each time I turned to Amazon, the per-item price was lower. But, often, I’m not keen to make a $50 investment in bar soap or buy 12 boxes of granola bars to enjoy a quantity discount.
Firefly also puts a music note icon at the top of the screen that a user can tap to identify a song that’s playing. It recognized “Born to Run” in the first few notes, but insisted it didn’t know the dance number to an old Bollywood movie after listening to a long instrumental stretch; when I asked again during the chorus, it got it right away.
It’s also helpful with things like business cards. The lights grab on to a phone number or email, and offer to add them to your contacts, or to call or send a message. It’s helpful—you can quickly add a number to your contacts and take a person’s picture to add to it, instead of carrying around the card and finally throwing it away, not remembering whom it’s from.
A drawback, though, is that it can’t grab the email and phone numbers at once—you have to grab them separately, just like I had to ask Firefly twice about the saline and toothpaste, even though they were in the same frame each time. I suspect this is something Amazon will address in the next version of the software.
There were several times when the next version of the software came to mind.
For example, when you’re using the camera—which loads slowly, despite the dedicated button, but takes very crisp, beautiful photos—there are lots of editing options. Say you hit “Whiten,” for example, but then decide you don’t want to use that. There’s no back button. It’s either “Apply,” or you have to hit the Home button and gradually make your way back to the photo.
I also bumped into the lack of a back button in Firefly, which holds on to the items you take pictures of (or “Firefly,” if I can use that as a verb), but then doesn’t let you go back to the Firefly menu after you tap on a photo. It’s the Home button or nothing.
Amazon Fire Phone Has a Few Bugs to Work Out
I pressed the Mayday button to ask if maybe I was missing something—if maybe there was a back button I wasn’t figuring out. After all, the phone is filled with sensors and responses to hand gestures. You can give a half shake to the left to make a software “drawer” pop out and show details relevant to the moment (weather, calendar, etc.).
A half shake to the right pops out a drawer on that side with popular destinations: Apps, Games, Web, Music, Videos, Photos, etc. Sometimes swiping up from the bottom accomplishes something—like pulling up the full list of app icons, both on the device and in the cloud. (There’s a clearly labeled on-screen button that lets you toggle between the two.)
The Mayday worker was very nice, and agreed that there didn’t seem to be a way out from the places I got stuck, beyond hitting Home and starting over.
The Mayday worker I reached when I couldn’t get the video on my Fire phone to play on a Fire TV was similarly extremely nice and quick to answer the call. The 24/7 service is fantastic, and it’ll get even better as the workers become more familiar with the products with time. (Like me, she couldn’t figure out why the video wasn’t showing up on the TV despite the devices’ acknowledging each other.)
The Fire’s Home screen is a carousel, like it is on the Kindle Fire HD X tablet; the icons are in a row and you swipe from one to the next or, again, you can view all the app icons at once. On the phone, Amazon has improved the carousel by including recent information under each icon. You see the most recent emails under the email icon, for example, and the items you asked Firefly about under the Firefly icon.
I’m inclined to say it’s nice, but again there can be a lot of unintentional slip-sliding around, with drawers opening and closing, and Dynamic Perspective-enabled items doing little dances in place.
Turning to Amazon’s app store, which emails receipts for seemingly everything you do on the phone, also takes a little getting used to.
Though I appreciated the email pointing out that sometime during the day I’d inadvertently purchased a four-pack of cereal (something I’d earlier turned Firefly on). Let’s hope my family acquires a deep hunger for shredded wheat.
My first impressions of the Fire are that the sound quality is noticeably better than I expected. Listening to Beats Audio with earbuds, I could hear the difference in the music quality compared with what I’m used to, and the same was true on calls. The phone is also a little heavy—the back panel is plastic but feels like glass—in a way that weirdly felt satisfyingly solid. The camera is, again, very crisp—impressively, noticeably crisp. And the beauty of the display comes across most impressively when viewing magazines and books and, of course, videos—content Amazon has plenty of experience with.
(After using the Samsung Galaxy Tab S, though, with its magazine spreads optimized for the device, it’s a little hard to go back to traditional magazine layouts.)
AT&T is exclusively selling the Fire, beginning July 25, for $199. Remember, that’s with the year of Prime included, and for a 32GB version of the phone (not the more typical 16GB). Plus, the Fire comes with unlimited cloud storage for your photos.
If you’re an Amazon tablet user, the transition will be easier. For those who aren’t, but who are Amazon’s target audience, some surprises—mostly pleasant ones—await.