Amazon’s habit for gadget-making now seems like a full-blown addiction—and its latest fix is the all-new Fire Phone.
Since the company first got into hardware in 2007, it has debuted a range of gadgets, starting with a varied line of Kindle e-readers, expanding to its Kindle Fire tablets in 2011 and then to its Kindle Fire TV streaming box earlier this year. Now it can scratch “smartphone” off its list.
But the big question facing this $199 handset (with two-year contract) is whether it kept up with what users want. We have some doubts. While the Fire Phone packs a lot of features, they seem like novelties that could wear out as quickly as the dismal battery life.
Amazon Brings The Fire; Don’t Get Burned
It’s hard for consumers to go wrong with a smartphone these days. Mobile technology has matured to the point that practically any device from a reputable brand will have decent enough quality and enough processing power to run apps. That’s encouraging for shoppers. But it can also be rough for tech companies trying to stand out from the crowd.
Amazon has never had a problem distinguishing itself from other hardware makers. Its Kindle line set a standard for e-readers, its Fire HD tablet offers onscreen human help as a feature, and its Fire TV brought voice control to TV streaming before even Google.
But in the case of the company’s first smartphone—which the company reportedly worked on for four years—some of those differences may not be for the better.
1. The Android Fire phone has a 4.7-inch touchscreen, generous storage and nifty accessories.
The device, which comes with magnetic, tangle-free earbuds, features a well-sized (but not over-sized) display and 32 GB of memory. A lot of that, though, gets hogged by Amazon’s own apps and features.
2. Firefly scans the real world, so you can buy stuff.
For obvious reasons, the e-commerce giant’s smartphone puts shopping front and center, recommending physical and digital products to you while you use the device. To make buying things even easier, the company came up with Firefly. The smart recognition feature can scan images, videos, audio and even text you encounter in the real world, so you can identify (and purchase) things like films, music, novels or other stuff more easily. It even has a dedicated button on the side, to make Amazon shopping—er, Firefly access—more convenient.
Of course, that’s not all it can recognize. You can scan website and email addresses, phone numbers and barcodes. You can point it at TV shows or even obscure fruits or vegetables to get details about them. Really, though, the point is for you to buy things. Hopefully on Amazon.
3. The Fire phone’s Dynamic Perspective is really cool—at first.
Dynamic Perspective offers head- and eye-tracking features, courtesy of the phone’s four front-facing cameras. This gives users a 3D-like experience that changes the onscreen visuals as your head and perspective move, even if you’re just holding the handset still.
App developers seem to be excited about the new things they might do with Firefly and Dynamic Perspective (just imagine it for gaming). But for now, these features aren’t much more than novelties that hit the battery. Hard.
4. Battery life is pathetic.
Flashy features like Firefly and Dynamic Perspective don’t run on unicorn blood. They run on battery power. The Fire phone comes with a respectable 2,400 milliampere-hour (mAh) power cell—it’s even larger than the 1570 mAh pack that runs the iPhone 5S.
In the real world, though, the Fire Phone’s battery can’t keep pace with the iPhone. Granted, that depends on how individual people use the device. But a quick Google search reveals that numerous early testers/reviewers are all saying the same thing: The juice won’t last a day. In fact, if you charge it at breakfast, it may die before lunch is even over.
Also like the iPhone, the Fire Phone seals in the battery. So forget about stashing extras; its battery is not swappable. That’s a tremendous fail.
5. Like the Fire tablet, the phone comes with Mayday.
If you’re acquainted with Amazon’s Fire HD tablet, then you’ll feel right at home with Mayday, a help feature that lets users conjure live onscreen technical support with the tap of a finger.
6. It runs on Android, but you can’t use just any Android app—or Google service.
Amazon’s special version of Android ties the Fire Phone to its own app store, cutting out Google and its Play Store. So if you’re an Android user with paid apps from Google Play, you can’t just load them on the Fire Phone. What’s worse, in some cases, you may not even be able to re-download some of your favorites. Popular apps—like Google Maps and Google Drive—aren’t even available. It’s Amazon’s way of saying, fork you.
7. The phone is only available on AT&T.
In other words, if you’re a T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint subscriber, you’ll have to switch.
8. Amazon’s smartphone customers get a free year of Prime.
That’s $99 saved. Factor that in, and the phone’s price actually comes down to $100. Plus, you get free shipping and media streaming for a year.
The Amazon Fire phone looks like a decent handset with a lot of interesting (if gimmicky) features. But its downsides make it a tough sell, especially at that $200 contract price. The free year of Prime helps soften the blow, but even that can’t make up for things like bad battery life—or having Amazon push its shopping options in your face at every turn.
The Fire might still be of interest to people who like unique features or plan to “root” their devices, so they can run a different version of Android. But everyone else should note that they have plenty of options for their money.
Amazon itself is offering the Samsung Galaxy S5 for $99 right now. And with the iPhone 6 expected this fall, the current iPhone 5S will likely get a price cut within the next couple of months. With all that heat, Amazon Fire’s offering may not wind up looking so hot.
Photos by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite