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Amazon Fire Phone review: Give this Fire time to grow

Susie Ochs | July 30, 2014
The Fire Phone has several delightful touches, like contextual menus and gesture navigation, but it suffers from a still-maturing app store and signature features that offer more flash than utility.

Amazon's Fire Phone is really solid, maybe even great. But unless it's your first smartphone, it might be hard to switch from a more mature platform like Android or iOS. You'd have to be really committed to the Amazon ecosystem--the type who already has a Kindle Fire tablet and probably also a Fire TV and a plain Kindle e-reader--to want to make this device your everyday phone, at least in this first generation.

Still, Amazon has some great ideas, not just the Dynamic Perspective and Firefly features the company is touting the loudest, but also the gesture-based navigation and the always handy Mayday button. And after a couple more iterations, and more third-party developer support, the Fire Phone could attract more users than just Amazon superfans.

The hardware
The first thing that needs iterating is the utilitarian design. The 4.7-inch, 1280x720 screen is pretty plain. It stays nicely bright even in sunlight, and it doesn't look strange when viewed through polarized sunglasses, something that drives me batty with my iPhone 5c. I also appreciated the extra width over my iPhone when watching videos, and I liked that it isn't huge like the Galaxy Note. Two speakers provide stereo sound but aren't loud enough, and the included earbuds sounded decent but hurt my ears after about an hour.

The 13-megapixel back camera takes great photos, especially in low light, and I love how you can launch the camera app with a dedicated button on the side of the phone. That button is pretty close to the volume buttons, however, so I often hit it by mistake when trying to adjust the volume of TV shows or music. I also kept accidentally pressing the software button that toggles between photos and videos, and the shutter fired a little slower than the camera on my iPhone 5c, but not by much.

The phone's body is attractive enough, but it isn't exciting. The back panel of Gorilla Glass picks up tons of fingerprint smudges, and the four cameras on the front, used for Dynamic Perspective, stick out rather than blending in. The phone isn't ugly, but it lacks the style of the HTC One (M8), Samsung Galaxy Alpha, or iPhone 5s.

The software
Where the Fire Phone does have style is its interface. Once I got the hang of the largely gesture-based navigation, I absolutely loved how everything has extra layers of context. If you've used a Kindle Fire tablet, you'll be familiar with the Carousel, a rotating list of apps and media you've recently accessed--it's the dominant feature of the Fire OS home screen.

On the Fire Phone, the Carousel's huge, 3D icons appear over a scrollable list of whatever relates to each app: The email app shows previews of your most recent messages, and even let you delete them. The maps app shows your last few searches. The Amazon Shopping app (come on, you know there was gonna be one) shows suggested items. The camera app shows your most recent photos. It puts your personal info front and center, which can be awkward if you should ever want to hand your phone off to a friend for a minute. But it's incredibly convenient for you.

 

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