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Amazon Fire Phone deep-dive review: Two weeks with a weird device

JR Raphael | Aug. 7, 2014
Do you want Amazon in your pocket? After half a month with the company's first smartphone, this reviewer was left scratching his head.

Other tasks are similarly convoluted — like playing music on the phone. Once you start audio from an app like Pandora or Amazon's Music app, there's no easy way to skip through tracks or pause playback; since the system doesn't support widgets, you have to awkwardly navigate back into the main app in order to access those basic controls.

There are plenty more examples — like the fact that the Fire Phone's app grid is split into two confusingly overlapping tabs labeled "Cloud" and "Device" without any explanation — but you get the point. All in all, the software feels very much like what it is: a rough and messy first-gen OS trying to compete with far more polished platforms.

Basic environment aside, Amazon's Fire Phone has three distinguishing software features: Dynamic Perspective, Firefly and Mayday.

Dynamic Perspective
Dynamic Perspective may be the most ambitious of the three: It taps into four special front-facing cameras to monitor your movements and adjust on-screen elements accordingly.

The effect is mildly novel in certain contexts. When you view the phone's lock screen, for instance, the graphic on the screen appears to shift around as you tilt the phone or your head, making it feel like you're looking around a three-dimensional space. It's neat at first, but the novelty wears off quickly and there's no real value provided.

And that's the problem: By and large, Dynamic Perspective feels like a gimmick -- and one that delivers flash at the expense of function. Within the main UI, for example, elements like menu subtext and the status bar aren't usually visible; you have to tilt the phone at just the right angle to get them to appear. And with the status bar invisible so much of the time, there's no easy way to see pending notifications for things like missed calls or new messages (not to mention the clock or your battery level).

At the same time, visual elements will randomly flicker on the screen for a split second here and there when you inadvertently move your head or hand -- both in the main phone UI and even in some apps, like Amazon's own storefront, in which the tiniest tilting causes images to zoom in and take over your display. It's disorienting and irritating, to say the least, and makes the phone difficult to use.

Dynamic Perspective can also let you do things like open menus or scroll down Web pages by tilting or pivoting the phone in a particular way, but that feature seems like a solution in search of a problem. If you're anything like me, you'll try it once or twice and then go back to the far easier, more consistent and more natural method of swiping on the screen to accomplish those same tasks.

 

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