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Kindle Fire Phone: Our first 5 days with Amazon's smartphone

Jared Newman | July 24, 2014
Amazon's first foray into smartphones brings some interesting features to the table, but frequently stumbles over the small stuff.

Better audiovisual capabilities would lend themselves well to the Fire phone's focus on media consumption, too.

That's not to say Amazon doesn't try to compensate with a few other tricks. The Fire phone's neatest feature is called "Firefly," which allows you to scan all kinds of real-world things--printed URLs, phone numbers, music, videos, barcodes--by holding down a button on the side of the phone. For instance, you can identify a song on the radio and then look up concert tickets on StubHub, or you can scan a bag of chips and integrate its nutritional information with your MyFitnessPal diet plan.

The scanning process is fast and almost magical, and the potential is enormous--especially when paired with third-party apps--but right now, the applications are limited. I had a hard time thinking of situations where I might need to use Firefly, except out of obligation for this review.

The Fire phone also uses sensors and four front-facing cameras to track the user's head position for a feature called "Dynamic Perspective." Some games use it to let you peer around corners or get a different viewing angle on an object, and some apps let you tilt the phone to bring up menus or see additional information. Dynamic Perspective also adds some 3D effects to the lock screen and home screen, just for the sake of curb appeal.

This feature was less gimmicky than I was expecting, because it allows for motion control in situations that wouldn't be practical on other phones. For instance, you can recline or lean forward while playing a game, and it won't lose its calibration because the motion tracking is always relative to your head position.

Finally, Amazon's "Mayday" feature is on board, letting users press a button to get near-instant tech support from a real person over live video. It was impressive on Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, and still is on the Fire phone. (It only got a bit awkward when the technician asked if I liked the phone, when my feelings are clearly mixed.)

Room for improvement
As unique as these features are, they still end up on the fringes of typical smartphone use. As for the core things you'd expect from a smartphone, the Fire phone still needs work, and many of those quirks can trip up attempts to use the phone for productivity.

The email app, for instance, bungles threaded conversations by highlighting the most recent message and hiding any older ones you haven't read yet. The quick settings menu doesn't have a rotation lock toggle, and the notification bar doesn't include quick actions--like responding to Tweet or deleting an email--like you get with Android (and soon, with iOS 8). Holding the home button allows for basic voice commands, but lacks crucial ones like "directions to," "remind me to" and "set an alarm for." There's no clear timeline for when Amazon will expand these voice commands.

 

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