Two days after I first turned on the Amazon Fire Phone, I walked into the foyer of my apartment building and saw a package with my name on it. This was odd: I’m the guy who orders something and then sits patiently by the front door waiting for it, not the guy who gets surprised by packages on a Saturday.
This is how life changes when you begin carrying around Amazon’s first smartphone. The Fire Phone, which will be available July 24th for $199 and a two-year contract, is the most immediate and accessible device ever made by the company that endeavors to sell us absolutely everything. It's also something even more ambitious: a complete rethinking of how we use our phones. Amazon's worked for years on the Fire Phone, thought deeply about what smartphone users need and want, and put all the resulting ideas into one device.
Time and time again, however, the Fire Phone has reminded me that there’s a difference between good ideas about phones and good phones. A big difference.
All of Amazon’s big ideas are in software, in the way the phone works rather than how it looks. But before we get to all that, it’s worth just considering this distinctly Amazonian device simply as a phone.
It’s a study in ruthless efficiency, without regard for anything so immeasurably subjective as “beauty.” It’s a dense black slab, a beveled rectangle with glass panels connected by plastic sides whose edges curl ever so slightly beyond the front and back, creating a tiny lip that my fingers can’t help but constantly rub against. It gives the impression in my hand that the Fire Phone was well-conceived but never quite perfected.
The five (yes, five) cameras that peer out from the phone’s front panel are nakedly shown, and they just feel out of place, like exposed screws in luxury furniture. Yet they’re the only distinctive thing about the Fire Phone; no one I’ve shown it to even recognized the device until they saw the Amazon logo etched into the back.
You only get to take pictures with two of the Fire Phone’s six cameras, and they’re both pretty good. They also come with unlimited storage for all your photos, which are automatically synced to Amazon’s cloud services — it’s a completely unbeatable deal for phone photographers. The rear-facing, 13-megapixel shooter in particular takes clean and clear images in most situations, as good as almost any Android phone I’ve used. It’s slow, though, occasionally painfully so, and it has focusing problems that really hurt video capture — footage I shot was often pulsing in and out, hunting for focus. The Fire Phone takes good photos when you get the shot, but it’s definitely prone to missing it.
There’s nothing terribly special about the Fire Phone’s hardware, but there’s very little to turn you off either. That seems to be Amazon’s goal: to build a device that works only well enough to serve its primary purpose, and no better. In that way Amazon was successful, but next to the striking red Nexus 5, the gorgeous metallic HTC One, the slender and polished iPhone 5S, the Fire Phone leaves me feeling a bit empty.
A new perspective
There’s a button on the left side of the Fire Phone, just underneath the volume rocker. Click it once and it opens up the camera. Press and hold it, and hundreds of little flickering dots start to hover around in the frame and look for an object to identify. Welcome to Firefly. At a very basic level, it’s a price-comparison tool: you’re shopping in Walgreen’s, you point it at some Tide detergent, and oh look it’s two bucks cheaper on Amazon. Tap, tap, and ship. It’s so simple I accidentally bought $36 worth of toilet paper.
Firefly can recognize lots of things, but it’s incredibly, hilariously inconsistent. It figured out the type of Jelly Beans I was shopping for, but only offered them to me in massive bulk. It identified my Dove deodorant as the wrong scent; it turned green tea into citrus; it logged the wrong kind of Trident gum. It identified Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing by its large, title-driven cover, but couldn’t figure out the small type and barren green cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It couldn’t identify my keyboard or mouse or speakers or shoes, despite the fact that I bought them all on Amazon. Most of the time, as long as you have a package of some kind – a box, a book cover, a barcode, a big logo — Firefly will at least get close, but it’s not nearly as accurate as it needs to be.
It’s better with other things: phone numbers, URLs, email addresses, TV shows, movies, and songs. And it’s here that the technology’s potential is already starting to be realized. iHeartRadio has tapped into Firefly, so that you can immediately start a radio station based on the song that’s playing. Or, you can head straight to the StubHub app to buy tickets to their next concert. When it identifies a TV show, you’ll immediately get information about the show, that episode, that scene, and everyone in it. Developers have complete access to Firefly’s identification abilities — there’s lots of potential here. At least, there will be once Amazon gets a whole lot better at figuring out what it is you’re looking at.
Amazon’s other big idea about smartphones is called Dynamic Perspective. It uses the cameras in the four corners of the Fire Phone’s front face to track your head at all times. When you move your head or tilt your phone, the phone literally shifts your perspective: you’ll be able to see the sides of icons, peer around the edges of an object, even see parts of an image you couldn’t before. It’s part of the core UI, part of most of the built-in apps. It works well and consistently and is a fun thing to show off.
But to what end? Sure, it’s cool to have icons move when I move my head, but it serves no real purpose. Even in Amazon’s most-advertised use case, in which you look at a map and tilt the phone slightly to see more information about a location, it’s only slightly more efficient than just tapping and zooming. Dynamic Perspective is meant to keep the screen simple, showing you only information when you ask for it, but it mostly just hides useful information. Exposing that information then requires such finesse that for a long time you’ll be seeing things rapidly flicker in and out of existence, not knowing how to make them stick around or find them again. Dynamic Perspective makes for awesomely fun lock screens with much more to them than first meets the eye, but it does nothing to meaningfully improve the smartphone experience.
Eventually, it could, in a couple of ways. There are a handful of games from Amazon’s studios that already take advantage of the technology, and looking around to see everything in To-Fu Fury is an awesomely immersive experience. At its best it’s a bit like the Oculus Rift, making you feel like you’re actually inside a level. But that’s the only real additive experience right now: tilt-scrolling in the browser is infuriating and the gesture-based UI is complex and difficult.
Ultimately, the success and potential of the Fire Phone rests on Firefly and Dynamic Perspective — cool technologies that both rely on developers finding better ways to use them. Right now, they’re just fixing a problem nobody has.
If nothing else, Amazon’s first smartphone is a constant reminder of how incredibly vast the company has become. The Fire Phone – which currently comes with a year of Prime benefits — is all about access to an ecosystem of items and content, making buying, renting, and streaming impossibly easy. Make no mistake: this isn’t just a smartphone. It’s also a store.
Take the home screen, the first thing you’ll see after swiping away your phone’s crazy lock screen. This ugly, drop-shadow-laden, gray-on-gray page is based on the same carousel of content as Amazon’s other devices, showing the apps and content on your device in the order in which you opened them. Underneath each item are related items: flip to the email client and you’ll see a few recent emails; the Silk web browser shows your most-visited pages. But most of the time, all you get is a list of other apps you might like. Oh, you have a to-do list app? Here are eight others you might like. Liked The Fault in Our Stars? Try If I Stay. Imagine if the App Store was your home screen — that’s the Fire Phone.
In theory, developers can solve this issue, customizing what you see underneath their apps. But therein lies Amazon’s biggest problem: for all its good ideas to come to fruition, it needs developers to invest in tweaking and optimizing for the unique aspects of the Fire Phone. And since it’s already without Google apps — no Gmail, no Google Maps, no Chrome, only inferior Amazon equivalents — it needs third-party support more than ever. Amazon’s never had the app selection or quality that Android itself offers, either. While it’s done some work getting tablet-optimized apps over the last few years, it’s only now trying with smartphones. The gap is huge, and until and unless Amazon addresses it, the Fire Phone’s most powerful features are used only in service of The Internet Shopping Network, not in making a great smartphone.
One thing developers will never fix? The Fire Phone’s unintuitive, convoluted navigation. Amazon’s standard app interface is three panes — the middle is the content, your emails or the website you’re browsing. To the left are menus: your folders in your email, or your bookmarks on the web, the table of contents in a book. To the right is what Amazon calls “delighters,” a bit of information or a secret feature that you’d never look for but will almost certainly appreciate. On the home screen, it’s a handy Today view: calendar, weather, and more. In the music app, you’ll see lyrics; in Kindle you’ll get book recommendations. It’s different across every app, but it’s always fun and useful.
It’s useful enough, in fact, that it ought to be a lot easier to find. You’re entirely reliant on gestures and flicks of the phone to access these menus. Most apps have no indicators or helpful icons; you just have to open every app and twist the phone around like a lunatic to find things. You can’t even see the time without tilting your phone just so. An errant buzz is your only indication that you have a notification, prompting you to cock your wrist or swipe down from the top bezel to open the notification windowshade. None of this is explained, none of it is intuitive. Dynamic Perspective makes everything look cleaner, but makes actually using your phone a lot harder. I don’t need my phone to be clever, or spartan. I need it to be obvious. The Fire Phone is anything but.
That’s one reason I suppose Mayday, Amazon’s one-touch customer support service, is really useful. As with the Fire tablets, you can use Mayday for almost anything, and reps can even take over your device and do things for you. You’ll need the help at some point, I guarantee it.
When Jeff Bezos took the stage in June to first announce the Fire Phone, he told a story about the debut of the first Kindle in 2007. “When we launched that first generation of Kindle,” he said, “there was a lot of skepticism.” He then noted how the tenor of those comments has changed over the years. As he talked about the tens of millions of Kindle owners, a picture of the Kindle Paperwhite displayed behind him.
The Kindle Paperwhite is what the Fire Phone should be, a device perfectly suited to its task with subtle improvements lurking behind every corner. And who knows? Maybe in seven more years we’ll have the smartphone equivalent. But this Fire Phone is more like that first Kindle: a device with so many features, so many ideas, that it has either forgotten or ignored what it’s supposed to be for. Dynamic Perspective and Firefly are impressive technological achievements with bright futures (if by some miracle Amazon can get its developers on board), and the Fire Phone is a remarkably efficient shopping machine. But it’s not a very good smartphone.
Amazon’s consumption-first approach works on tablets, for watching and reading and shopping. But tablets are for fun. Smartphones are for work, for life. They’re not toys, they’re tools. Amazon doesn’t understand that, and the Fire Phone doesn’t reflect it. Amazon’s first smartphone is a series of interesting ideas in a package that is somehow much less than the sum of its parts.