The fact that Amazon uses a heavily-modified version of Android for the Fire phone also creates some problems. Amazon isn't allowed to offer Google's Play Store for apps, and its own Appstore has a smaller selection with no Google apps at all. That means no official YouTube app (and therefore no good way to upload YouTube videos), no Google Docs, no Google Maps, and no Chrome browser. Some other apps that I was hoping to use--including MLB At Bat and Microsoft OneDrive--aren't available either.
More frustratingly, some apps are still optimized for conventional Android controls such as the back button, which the Fire phone doesn't have. You might, for instance, open a link in Twitter, only to realize there's no clear way to get back to Twitter from the browser. (I eventually realized you can simulate the Android back button by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, but this won't be obvious to new users.)
Even Amazon's headlining features don't always work as they should. Using Dynamic Perspective, for instance, involves some guesswork because you don't know which apps will use the feature, or how, so you could end up tilting the phone in futility. Amazon's Music app doesn't currently have a way to filter for Prime content, and won't for months after launch. You can't search the entirety of Amazon's Kindle Lending Library for free e-book rentals either, though there are a handful of selections you can browse.
The one area where I have no complaints is the camera, which launches quickly with a button on the side of the phone, and takes sharp, well-lit photos indoors and out. The f/2.0 aperture is wider than most smartphones, so flash wasn't necessary in rooms with decent lighting, and the optical image stabilization did a fine job of preventing blurred photos. The camera's software also has some useful features, such as burst photos and smart suggestions to turn on HDR photography, but doesn't feel weighed down by unnecessary bloat.
After spending several days with Amazon's handset, I actually don't think the Fire phone is unusable, or even bad. As far as first drafts go, it's miles ahead of what BlackBerry and Microsoft achieved with their late entrants to the smartphone market.
But rare is the product that leaps into a crowded field and makes an impact without any iteration. I'm looking forward to the Amazon phone that's as great at media consumption (and still adequate at everything else) as the company's other hardware--even though my initial impressions strongly suggest that's not the Fire phone being released this week.
Stay tuned for our official Amazon Fire phone review in the coming days.
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