Amazon Fire Phone review
The wild speculation and early rumours suggested that the Amazon Fire Phone was going to be something special, but while those rumours left us idly dreaming of a phone with a holographic 3D display (not to mention a bundled Amazon Prime drone for instant deliveries), the reality is rather more ordinary. The Fire Phone realises its headline-grabbing “3D” user interface with a bog-standard 2D screen. See also: The 15 best smartphones of 2014
Amazon Fire Phone – a different perspective
The Fire Phone employs a clutch of cameras and sensors to work its pseudo-3D trickery. In addition to the rear-facing 13-megapixel camera and 2.1-megapixel selfie snapper, Amazon has dotted additional cameras and infrared LEDs in each of the four corners around the 4.7in display – these are key to the Fire Phone’s “Dynamic Perspective” trick.
The sensor array tracks the user’s head movements and animates onscreen items to make it appear as if they’re being viewed from different angles, an effect Amazon has plastered across every corner of Fire OS, from the fancy animated lockscreens to the Maps app.
In addition, those sensors combine with the built-in accelerometer and gyroscope to allow the Fire Phone to respond to a variety of subtle gesture controls. For example, gently tilting the phone to the right opens the running app’s menu panel, while tilting to the left brings up relevant information and shortcuts.
A pronounced flick, or “swivel”, of the phone to one side brings up the settings and notifications page, while the “peek” function allows you to tilt the smartphone very slightly to one side to reveal extra information, animating 3D buildings or exposing Yelp.com reviews in the Amazon Maps app, or quickly bringing up full-screen images of products in the Amazon store. Meanwhile, auto-scroll allows you to navigate long web pages with one hand simply by leaning the handset back and forth. It’s a neat party trick, but given how easy it is to activate some of the gestures by mistake, we can see many people turning them off.
Amazon Fire Phone review: Firefly and Fire OS
Needless to say, Amazon’s vision for the Fire Phone extends beyond 3D gimmickry; it also wants you to buy things. Hold down the camera button along the phone’s edge and Amazon’s Firefly app springs into life. The idea is simple: Firefly uses the phone’s camera and microphone to recognise physical products, barcodes, programmes on TV, movies or music, and provides a link to the product on the Amazon store if it’s successful. It’s a big if, though: Firefly regularly drew a blank during our testing. Sadly, in most cases it’s quicker to search the Amazon store by keyword.
Although Android is running under the surface, Amazon’s Fire OS remains much the same as ever – that is to say dramatically different to stock Android. The Home Carousel sits front and centre, and icons for the key apps – Phone, Messaging, Email and Silk Browser – are positioned along the bottom of the screen. Swiping in from the left (or tilting to the right) brings up a menu for access to all the various content types, as well as the Amazon store, while swiping or tilting the phone in the opposite direction brings up notifications such as weather and calendar entries.
It’s all reasonably straightforward to get to grips with, and for those who aren’t familiar with Fire OS, Amazon’s five-minute introductory video does a thorough job of running through the basics. If you’re really stuck, you can reach for the Mayday button and get support from an Amazon representative in a matter of seconds.
There are some oddities, however. Amazon has entirely done away with the onscreen back button – instead, it’s necessary to swipe downwards on the bottom of the screen to backtrack through apps and menu pages, something that takes some getting used to and, aggravatingly, also results in a fair amount of accidental scrolling. Thankfully, there’s a physical home button: tapping this once drops you back to the home carousel, double-tapping brings up the app switcher, and holding it down activates Amazon’s voice-search function.
If you aren’t already familiar with Amazon’s way of doing things, then it’s worth restating it here: there’s no access to the Google Play Store in Fire OS. Amazon’s Appstore has improved dramatically since Kindle Fire devices first hit the scene, but it still lacks the same breadth of choice of Google Play, and if you’ve already bought plenty of apps from Google then you’ll need to buy them again from Amazon if you want to use them on the Fire Phone. The plus side? If you’ve invested heavily in movies, CDs, music and ebooks, then all your content appears straight away, ready for downloading to local storage or streaming directly from the cloud.
Amazon Fire Phone review: the hardware
Amazon has resolutely ignored the trend for huge-screened smartphones. But despite the relatively small 4.7in, 720 x 1,280 display up-front, the Fire Phone isn’t anywhere near as dainty as rivals such as the 4.6in Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. It weighs in at a comparatively lumpen 160g, and while it’s only a mite thicker than the Sony (8.9mm vs the Sony’s 8.6mm), the chunky bezel around the display makes it the same size as many 5in phones.
Design isn’t the Fire Phone’s forte, either: it looks every inch a dull, budget handset. It feels as solid and sturdy as we’ve come to expect from Amazon’s hardware, but the thick rounded edges and Gorilla Glass 3 rear look resolutely naff, even when the phone’s fresh from its packaging. Give it a few days, and it gets uglier: the glossy rear is soon covered in smears and smudges, and dust and dirt accumulates in the seams between the rubberised edges and the glass.
As we’ve come to expect from Amazon’s tablets, though, the Fire Phone’s LCD panel is a high point. Its 720p resolution and 315ppi pixel density aren’t enough to win any awards, but image quality is good across the board. Brightness soars up to an impressive 529cd/m2, while measured contrast ratio is a creditable 1,045:1. Colours look lifelike and accurate, too, and our X-Rite colorimeter measured the Fire Phone’s LCD as covering 92.4% of the sRGB gamut with an excellent average Delta E of 1.68 – resolution aside, the Fire Phone’s display can go toe to toe with the best out there.
Amazon Fire Phone – performance and battery life
Amazon has equipped the Fire Phone with last year’s chip of choice, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, the matching Adreno 330 GPU and 2GB of RAM. This isn’t a cutting-edge combination, but the pairing is potent enough to keep the phone feeling (mostly) light on its feet, and it’s more than capable of smooth gameplay in the latest titles.
There are some judders and hitches in the Fire OS front-end, though, which are particularly noticeable for some minutes after restarting the phone, but we suspect this is more down to poor software optimisation than the hardware inside. We also encountered one instance where the handset became completely unresponsive. Clearly Amazon has some work to do.
And as if to prove the point, the Snapdragon 800 is still capable of reeling out some decent benchmark numbers. For instance, the Fire Phone’s Geekbench 3 results of 883 and 2,710 in the single- and multi-core tests place it roughly level with the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, which is powered by the newer Snapdragon 801 chip.
Sadly, we couldn’t get GFXBench to sideload successfully onto the Fire Phone, but the results on GFXBench’s online comparator show that several (presumably jailbroken) Fire Phone handsets have scored an average of 33.6fps in the T-Rex onscreen test, which isn’t too far behind the Xperia Z3 Compact’s result of 41.2fps.
Battery life is middling, though. The Fire Phone’s 2,400mAh battery easily lasts a day of regular use, but it isn’t up with the most efficient handsets we’ve tested. During our 4G audio-streaming test, the Fire Phone used 4% of its battery capacity per hour, and with the screen calibrated to a brightness of 120cd/m2 and Flight mode enabled, our 720p video-playback test saw the battery capacity dwindle by 9.7% per hour.
Amazon Fire Phone – cameras and connectivity
On paper, the Fire Phone’s cameras stack up pretty well. The 13-megapixel rear-facing camera sports an f2.0 lens, optical image stabilisation and a single LED flash, and the front-facing 2.1-megapixel camera has more than enough pixels to capture pin-sharp selfies. In practice, though, it’s tough to get too excited about the Fire Phone’s photo and video quality. Videos suffer from distracting brightness shifts as the exposure control yo-yo’s back and forth, and while photographs fare better, with nicely exposed, solid-looking snaps, heavy-handed noise reduction smudges out fine detail in photographs, giving an unnatural posterised effect.
Elsewhere, Amazon has covered all the essentials. 802.11ac and NFC are the least we’d expect for the money, and Miracast wireless video streaming is supported, too. The audio performance isn’t half-bad either: the built-in speaker reaches a decent volume, call quality is crisp and clear and the supplied earbuds sound fine. There are two major things missing, though: a microSD slot, so you’re stuck with the 16GB or 32GB of built-in storage, and currently only Bluetooth 3 is supported, which is bad news for fans of the wearables trend. Apparently there is Bluetooth LE hardware in the Fire Phone, but we’ll just have to wait for a future update for it to be activated.
Amazon Fire Phone – verdict
If it were retailing for nearer £150 SIM-free, the Fire Phone wouldn’t be a bad budget phone – viewed in that context, the combination of decent performance and an excellent screen would make its flaws far easier to forgive.
This isn’t a budget phone, however. Far from it. Considering that the 16GB model retails for £400 SIM-free or £28 a month with zero up-front cost, it has plenty of talented competition on its hands. It gets worse, however; the Fire Phone is locked to O2 – and severely restricted by the Amazon lock-in.
For this kind of money, you could get a Samsung Galaxy S5 on contract, or if the smaller screen size appeals, you could pick up a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact for £23 per month. As it stands, the Amazon Fire Phone leaves us very cold indeed.
|Amazon Fire Phone specifications|
|Processor||2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800|
|Screen resolution||720 x 1,280|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||None|
|Size (WDH)||139.2 x 66.5 x 8.9mm|
|Operating system||Fire OS 3.6|
|Price SIM-free (inc VAT)||16GB, £400; 32GB, £479|
|Price on contract (inc VAT)||£28 a month|
|Prepay price (inc VAT)||Free on contract|