An iPhone Veteran Evaluates an Amazon Fire Phone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the Fire Phone on June 18 with several novel features and a 4.7-inch display. This TMO review takes a close look at the Fire Phone from a technical perspective that steers away from politics and towards what the iPhone or any potential owner would want to know about this very good smartphone.

Android

As I've said before, if there's one thing I have learned from the evaluation of different Android devices, like the Kindle Fire HD, the Google Nexus, and the Galaxy Note II, it's that the Android 4.x OS is a technical, pleasantly geeky, often beautiful OS that will appeal to many different people.

When combined with Amazon's modifications, called Fire OS 3.5.1 (based on JellyBean 4.2.2), and good manufacturing methods, it's possible to create a highly functional, handsome smartphone that can, at least, open the eyes of an iPhone owner.

L: Amazon Fire Phone, R: my iPhone 5s.

The Ground Rules

First, let's be clear. This is a TMO product review. It is:

  • ... NOT an editorial on Amazon’s desire to prod you into buying things you don't need. But, it's helpful to analyze how easy it is to purchase things you do need.
  • ... NOT an editorial on the pricing and timing of the product—or whether Amazon should make any money on the hardware. But pricing can be assessed in relation to the perceived quality of the product.
  • ... NOT an analysis of the Fire Phone's market prospects, a market dominated by Apple and Samsung. But a few of Amazon's product decisions will likely affect its popularity.
  • ... NOT an instruction manual with details on the operation of every feature. But some interesting functions are discussed.

With that in mind, I'll look at the Fire Phone from the viewpoint of a veteran iPhone user.

Next: First Impressions

Page 2 - First Impressions

 

The Fire Phone started shipping on July 25. I received mine on Aug 5th with an AT&T nanoSIM and two weeks of unlimited use. The package included a well crafted, informative 27 page "Product Reviewer's Guide."

Upfront, I can say that I like this smartphone, and I won't be shy about telling you why. However, just because I like it a lot doesn't mean that I think it's in the same class as the iPhone 5s. That may not matter to every potential customer.

Out of the box, the Amazon Fire Phone makes a great first impression. It's nicely packaged. The Fire Phone has a 4.7-inch display, and I think that's where Apple is going. The case is a dark beauty with the back and display both made of Gorilla Glass combined with aluminum buttons, stainless steel details, and a polyurethane grip area all around. The grip is excellent.

What's in the box: charger cable, Fire Phone, earphones, charger, quick ref. card.

The package includes the Fire Phone, a charger, a USB-microUSB cable (hidden under the phone), and tangle proof headphone/microphone combo—which has music controls. The earphones are held together magnetically. There is a quick reference card in English and Spanish that explains the phone's exterior controls.

Those who are familiar with an iPhone will be immediately comfortable with the Amazon Fire Phone. It has a sleep/wake/power button on the top, volume controls on the side, and a home button that acts in similar ways to the iPhone's. There is a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the top where it belongs in my opinion.

Here and there, in small instances, you see the theme of fire—as it boots up and in the Settings. The lock screen images are nicely animated and the overall theme consists of a handsome black and grays, as Android tends to be, and it looks great.

Overall, this is a good-looking, easy-to-handle smartphone that's nicely designed, easy to hold, and will be easy for anyone to use out of the box.

I noted in my testing that the Fire Phone has some features the iPhone does not, and I liked most of them. However, the reverse is true. The iPhone has notable features the Fire Phone lacks. As always, however, the true test is in the details—which I'll get to next.

Next: Features I Liked

Page 3 - Features I Liked

 

The Display. This smartphone has a standard high-definition format, 720p, on a pleasing 4.7-inch display with 315 pixels per inch (ppi). The iPhone is a very similar 326 ppi.  After using this size for two weeks, it's really hard to go back to a 4-inch display. Everything was easy to read, and Netflix was a pleasure.

Firefly. The most important thing to know about this smartphone is that it's a good-looking, functional, well-thought-out device. It doesn't try to trick you into buying things, but it does have a nice facility to help you when you're ready, called Firefly.

Firefly has its own dedicated button on the side (press and hold) and it turns the camera into a scanner. It can recognize movies, music, phone numbers, QR codes, bar codes, and so on. It's something like the Walgreens app that allows you to point the smartphone camera at a prescription label to refill it.

I pointed Firefly at a bar code on a dishwasher aid that I use, and it came right up, ready for me to tap it and drop the item in my shopping cart. Any time you can make it easy to purchase an item, without hassle, that's good. However, when I pointed it at text document on my Mac's display with a phone number in a very large font, Firefly interpreted the slashed zero in my phone number as an 8. So it's not perfect.

Sample Firefly process: scan, identify, purchase.

Amazon has millions of items in its warehouse, so the ability to scan, say, a barcode, is a time saver. Scanning a phone number or QR code in a store window with a single button seems eminently sensible.

As a test, I pointed Firefly at a few things on my desk, my iPhone, a Logitech mouse, a Yeti Blue microphone and a keyboard, and it didn't know what to make of them. The same with my TV setup. I asked the Amazon technical representative assigned to me for this review if all that video data is captured even if no specific item is recognized. Amazon said:

We will process and retain Firefly images and audio data in the cloud to provide and improve our services. If Firefly can't recognize the product, Fire customers can send feedback (built in to the application) .... We leverage the cloud for processing, and in order to do so we do send images to the cloud but we don't ever store 'source data' (non-identified images) tied to a customer account."

In other words, as I understand it, everything the camera sees while Firefly is activated is sent back to Amazon whether or not it recognizes an item. But, it seems nothing is done that ties the unidentified video/audio to a user. That's still a mild caution to keep in mind, not as bad as some have feared, but it may dissuade you from using that feature. In any case, it seems sensible to control where you point the camera.

Carousel. Another feature I liked is the Carousel. Swipe down from the top of the display and you get a Carousel (similar to Apple's Cover Flow) that presents each app in a sideways list. Below each app is a list of relevant things done recently with that app. For example, Firefly shows a list of what it scanned. The phone app shows the recent phone numbers. Swipe back up to get back to the home page of icons/apps.

Each app in Carousel shows recent, related items.

This is inventive and handy (and unobtrusive if you don't want to use it) and shows me that other companies besides Apple can indeed be innovative and come up with their own stuff.

Mayday. I tried out Mayday out of curiosity and because I was having a problem with Wi-Fi being turned off every time I rebooted the phone. "James" answered in less than 10 seconds, spoke perfect, understandable English, and we had a very helpful conversation.

As an aside, he explained that he could take control of the Fire Phone if needed, (and look at photos if that's where the problem lie) but he'd have to ask for my explicit permission. He could also draw on the screen in order to instruct or clarify. When I called, the Mayday system put my phone and account info right in front of him on his display.

My Mayday conversation with James as he drew on my display.

This was a unique and helpful experience, and I think customers will like it. I did.

Second Screen . I didn't get a chance to check this feature because I don't have a Fire TV. But, like AirPlay, I think it's a great idea and suggests that Amazon, like Apple, is thinking about how its hardware products can work together.

Next: Features I Didn't Like

Page 4 - Features I Didn't Like

 

One Handed Gestures. Think of the Fire Phone in your hand as an airplane with the top of the phone as the cockpit. Amazon calls pitch "tilt." Yaw is "swivel," and roll is "peek." There are some things you can do with these motions, and I didn't like any of them.

Tilt. With a strong motion in pitch, up and down, you can scroll, say, a web page up or down without using a second hand. What I don't like about this is that it's hard to control initially, and that means the feature will fall out of use for me. I prefer to touch and control the scroll myself.

Swivel. With a sharp yaw motion, right and left, you can bring up the Quick Actions display. That is like the iPhone Control Center, which includes Airplane Mode, Flashlight, and Settings. The problem there is that it doesn't always come up right away, and I felt as if I might strain my wrist, trying over and over.

Peek. A rolling motion of the Fire Phone brings up context sensitive panels on the right and left.  I found this to be an aggravating strain on the wrist. (With the right touch, you can swipe from the side to bring out the panels.) In one situation, in the music player, I saw no control to get me out of a blank albums page, and I had to be reminded to roll the Fire Phone. A brisk or sharp movement of a smartphone shouldn't be the only alternative available in some app modes.

In another situation, using the Kindle Books app, swiping from the left both brings up a panel and turns the page. If you can't develop the right differentiating technique, you're forced to sharply roll the phone to bring up the left navigation panel in that app. It's a bad choice to have to make.

Dynamic Perspective. This feature is managed by a group of four small cameras and infrared LEDs that can determine your view of the Fire Phone and create 3-D effects. It's snazzy, and it didn't make me dizzy. But didn't like it because I don't like things changing perspective on me in response to how I hold the phone, and I didn't see how it adds any real value to the GUI.

The Music app. I bought a test song last week in order to test out the player and the headphones. On Monday the song was gone, and even though a store search showed that I purchased it, I could not bring up the song in either my cloud or on the device. I was frustrated because after I pay for a song, I don't want anything to ever prevent me from immediately playing it when I want to. Later, Amazon supplied me with a procedure to fix the music app and recover the song I paid for. All's well now, including audio indistinguishable from the iPhone's (for that song), but it wasn't a great user experience.

Next: Look and Feel

Page 5 - Look and Feel

 

One of the strengths of this phone is that everything on the screen is tastefully designed. The lock screen graphics are gorgeous. The 4.7-inch display is bright and crisp. The icons are well designed. Text, for example, on the phone dialer is large and easy to read. The black and grey theme is low key and mature. I've included lots of screen shots so you get a feel for all that.

Best of all, when a Setting is changed, the explanatory text also changes to reflect the sense of the current setting. (This is a Fire OS feature.) That's something Apple probably didn't have room for on its 3.5 and 4.0 inch displays. Apple should add that to iOS.

The Silk browser, unlike Mobile Safari, always shows the full URL and, unlike Safari, has a sane and sensible "Find in page" menu item that is vastly superior to Apple's. Support for the 802.11ac Wi-Fi protocol, something the iPhone 5s doesn't have, seemed to bring up web pages just a tad faster on my home's 5 GHz Wi-Fi network.

SIlk Browser shows full URL.

Overall, I prefer the look of the Fire OS 3.5 to iOS 7. The home page icons are spaced farther apart and the annotations in the Settings give themselves more room for explanation. However, my sense is that iOS provides finer control and more extensive settings overall, especially with apps like email.

In general, iOS tends to be sparse with surfacing information that it certainly knows about. One of the things I appreciate about Android and Fire OS is that useful information tends to be judiciously revealed rather than suppressed for the sake of simplicity. A good example is the email app which shows the user's account name and also leaves the full email address in plain sight after you select it on the "To:" line so you can check for a mistake. Lots of people have one name but multiple email addresses, and selecting the right one can often be important.

Next: Miscellaneous Observations

Page 6 - Miscellaneous Observations

 

1. The Wi-Fi setting after being set to on kept being set to off every time I shut the phone down and rebooted. I reported this via Mayday, also as a test of Mayday, described above.

2. There is a nifty app Mac owners should know about. Android File Transfer app. When you plug Fire Phone into the USB port of a Mac, the AFT app shows you either 1) Photos only. They're displayed by the default app you have on the Mac for a camera being plugged in or 2) User accessible folders in a Finder-like view.

 

Options for USB connection to Mac.

Amazon has a helpful page on where to get this app and how to use it.

3. The iPhone has hardware encryption, and it's so fast that it's transparent to the user. Amazon told me: "The Fire Phone does not support hardware encryption. Fire supports AES 128 bit key software encryption." The Fire Phone in Settings > Device > Manage enterprise security features warns that full encryption can take an hour or more.

4. The Firefly button on the side can be confusing. Press it briefly to bring up the camera. Hold it down to bring up Firefly.

5. Mute is achieved by holding the Volume Down button down for a bit. This brings up a slider of options and saves on having a mechanical mute button. It makes great sense and seems superior to iOS.

6. Heat. This phone can get very warm to the touch after it's been on a while and depending on how the CPU is loaded. I have never felt that much heat from an iPhone I've ever used. But then Apple has great expertise in low power ARM.

7. Stopwatch. The action of the Clock app's Stopwatch function was sketchy when I tested it. I almost always couldn't stop it when I tapped the Stop button. The iPhone's stopwatch, in contrast, has a consistent, excellent response in that regard.

8. The Fire Phone's native weather app properly shows today's sunrise and sunset times. In iOS, it figures if sunrise is behind you, you only need to know tomorrow's sunrise time. iOS is being obtuse about that in my opinion.

All the sunrise/sunset data for today.

9. No native compass app. Curiously, even though the Fire Phone has a magnetometer, there is no native compass app and no way that I found to display your latitude and longitude. There are many compass apps in the Appstore, but you'll take your chances. I didn't see many with a five star rating. Amazon recommends "Swiss Army Knife."

10. As with all versions of Android, the keyboard is superb. It actually changes from displaying lower to upper case, which I appreciate. iOS got behind on sensible keyboard design, and is fixing it in iOS 8 with the option to install 3rd party keyboards.

11. Out of box, Fire Phone asks for my Amazon credentials, then discovered it didn't have either a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. (I don't get good AT&T reception where I live.) iOS, sensibly, gets you onto Wi-Fi first.

12. Once I entered the Fire Phone's number into my AT&T Microcell authorization list, it immediately recognized the Microcell and I was able to make phone calls. The Microcell indicator appears at the top of my screen shots.

13. At no time did I feel particularly strong-armed into buying anything—something many people were concerned about when Amazon announced the Fire Phone. The facility is there if you want it, but if it pleases you, you can use the Fire Phone just like any other modern smartphone to place calls, text, navigate and browse the Internet. The 4.7-inch display, which I can span with my thumb, makes all that so much easier. See, for example, "Looking Back at Our Ridiculous 3.5-inch iPhone Displays."

14. Because the AT&T network is used, one can transmit and receive data while talking.  The operation is very similar to the iPhone's.

Next: Applications, Help and Documentation

Page 7 - Applications, Help and Documentation

 

One of the first things I wondered about is whether the Fire Phone has the same control over apps knowing your location as the iPhone. For example, you may wish not to have your latitude and longitude dropped into the EXIF part of your camera photos. The answer is that you can. Amazon says:

"Enhanced Location Services are default disabled.  Customers may enable Enhanced Location Services in Settings > Location Services > Disable Enhanced Location Services—and then select which applications they want to enable or disable."

Another thing that interested me is the scope of the Amazon Appstore. For competitive reasons (and perhaps for security reasons) Amazon won't let you access the (Android) Google Play Store. Fortunately, the Amazon Appstore seems to have most of the apps that are critical to the modern smartphone user.

The first thing I did was download Netflix and the Weather Channel apps, and they work just like their counterparts from Apple's App Store. I read that many of the popular apps like Facebook, Pandora, Twitter and Yelp are also available. Amazon also includes the myAT&T app. Regarding the number of apps, Amazon said:

The Appstore currently offers over 240,000 apps and games already available globally, many of which are already compatible with Fire. [Emphasis mine.]

Netflix app was as expected, fast and sharp at 720p.

That's far less than the million plus apps in Google Play and Apple's App Store, but what good are all those apps if a significant fraction aren't of interest? So long as you have the core, important apps every smartphone owner needs, you're good to go. However....

The exclusion of Google products means that good Google apps are not available, like Google maps, which is virtually a standard. You'll have to use Amazon's maps app, and that may be a critical, disqualifying issue for some customers. Even Apple recognizes the excellence of Google maps and allows its customers to make a choice in the heat of competition with its own Maps app. This was a mistake on Amazon's part, even if the company hates to let Google know what you've been up to. The customer has to come first.

By the way, you quit an app in the same fashion as the iPhone: double-click the home button to bring up a list of running apps. Swipe the icon upwards to kill the app. (That might be a good thing to do after you run Firefly and are done with it.)

Help and Documentation

There is a nice help section that includes an eight chapter User Guide and also a separate Wi-Fi help. An introductory Quick Start video is always available as an app. Then there is Mayday which I described above, and it's very good.

Screen shot from Amazon's intro video on the Fire Phone.

There is built-in email feedback and trouble shooting. Finally, there's a page that affords a request to be called by Amazon customer service.

Next: Closing Thoughts and Rating

Page 8 - Closing Thoughts

 

This is a very good (and good looking) smartphone considering that it's Amazon's first attempt. Of course, a lot of technology and ideas were gleaned from the iPhone's seven year head start. I like most of its features, and I liked the tasteful GUI.

It has some innovative features like Firefly and Carousel. I didn't start a checkbox list, but the Fire Phone appears to have many features that a modern user would want: control over location services, encryption of the contents, a full-featured 13 megapixel rear camera with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), 802.11ac, a pleasing 4.7-inch display and a Snapdragon quad core processor.

Amazon doesn't even offer a 16 GB version, and its low end model with 32 GB is priced roughly the same as the iPhone with 16 GB. I think the Fire Phone is fairly priced. Also the customer service and documentation are very good. They have to be. Amazon doesn't have Apple's global network of retail stores where customers can walk in and get help.

In comparison, the Fire Phone is missing the most advanced features of the iPhone 5s: hardware encryption, Touch ID, the formidable aluminum machining, the Motion Coprocessor, the 64-bit A7 chip, and Apple's legendary expertise with power management. I anticipate that the Fire Phone will fall even further behind when Apple's iPhone 6 is announced, we think, in September.

Also, Apple is less restrictive with apps. For example, Apple doesn't try to block any of the fine Google apps available for the iPhone. If you want the Barnes & Noble Nook reader, you can have that too. Plus, even though Firefly is helpful when it comes to shopping, Apple in contrast, has no interest in scanning your surroundings with video and audio.

The Fire Phone is a better product than I expected it to be, but it's not in the same league as the iPhone 5s. It's unlikely to lure Apple customers away. On the other hand, if a customer isn't inclined to engage Apple and its ecosystem but they appreciate a well crafted, tastefully designed, convenient smartphone with a generous display that's also a nifty Amazon shopping tool, then Amazon has much to be proud of in this first effort.

Because it has many strengths, is well supported, is well designed and fun to use, it can earn a 3.5/5 rating. (Solid+). But it can't be great because of the app restrictions Amazon puts in place (no Google Maps) and the absence of the very advanced technical features found by comparison in the Apple iPhone 5s.

Comparison Chart

A review has to have a comparison chart, but this one needs explanation. First, it's only for some selected items I consider of interest. Also, it compares shipping products only. If you're interested in more complete technical details see:

 

Brief Spec Comparison
 Amazon Fire PhoneApple iPhone 5s
Size (in.)5.5 x 2.6 x 0.354.87 x 2.31 x 0.30
Weight (oz.)5.643.95
Display size (in.)4.74.0
Display Res (pix)1280 x 7201136 x 640
CPU32-bit quad core
Snapdragon
64-bit dual core
A7
Wi-Fi802.11a/b/g/n/ac802.11a/b/g/n
Storage (GB)32, 6416, 32, 64
U.S. CarriersAT&TAT&T, Verizon
Sprint, T-Mobile

Product: Amazon Fire Phone

Company: Amazon

List Price: Varies: See Amazon product page.

Rating:

Pros:

Includes a year of Amazon Prime, 4.7-inch display, Firefly, Carousel, 13 megapixel camera with OIS, 802.11ac, Mayday, very good documentation, 4G-LTE, easy Amazon shopping, user file system mountable on Mac (with AFT app).

Cons:

Not as technically advanced as iPhone 5s (no fingerprint authentication), restricted to Amazon Appstore (Google maps prohibited), Firefly, no hardware encryption, can get very warm, Gorilla Glass back may concern some.