Look closely at Amazon’s new Fire phone and you’ll notice four sensors, one in each corner on the front of the device. These are cameras and infrared LEDs that detect the position of your head relative to the phone in real time.
This lets the Fire phone pull off some pretty amazing technological tricks. Move the phone around in your hand to view different parts of a 3D scene from various angles. Tilt the device to bring up different menus. Swivel to access a set of quick commands. And slightly angle the device to reveal extra tidbits of information on the screen.
But do these high-tech features actually make the Fire a better phone?
I’ve been testing one of the devices on loan from Amazon over the past five days, and my answer is decidedly mixed. The special effects are fun and even innovative in apps and games, and in other cases like automatically scrolling down a web page.
But when it comes to using them for basic navigation of the phone, I’ve found that these tricks can get in the way of the experience as much as they enhance it.
In fact, at times I’ve found myself wishing that Amazon had done less with the phone — skipping the advanced 3D interface and gesture-based navigation. These features can be turned off in the settings, but that’s not exactly a victory for Amazon, which is counting on them as a selling point in a crowded smartphone market.
Overall, however, Amazon has done a solid job with its first foray into the smartphone market. The Fire phone will be released on Thursday, July 24, available for $199 with a two-year contract on AT&T. (Note: Release date corrected.)
Based on my experience, the phone will mostly appeal to tech enthusiasts, and to heavy Amazon shoppers. I don’t see it reaching a wide audience yet, but the potential is there if Amazon keeps improving the product line over the long haul.
Key facts to know about the Fire phone
Amazon’s ability to leverage 186,000 Android apps through the Amazon Appstore gives the company a big advantage over others — namely, Microsoft — as it tries to build momentum for this new device. All or most of the most popular apps are represented, including the basics like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Dropbox and many more. I was also able to download personal favorites, such as Stitcher Radio.
Some of the apps have been optimized for the Fire phone, with integration of content into the carousel on the phone’s home screen. The Zillow app is a good example, showing the latest open houses and nearby homes for sale in a list under the Zillow icon.
The no-tangle earbuds are really smart, using flat cords and magnetic earbuds to avoid becoming a frustrating mess. The 13 megapixel camera takes high-quality pictures.
Amazon includes unlimited cloud storage for pictures taken with the phone, and the Fire phone also comes with 32 GB of storage, double the amount in the comparably priced iPhone 5S.
The battery life seems solid, lasting a full day with moderate usage — in line with other premium smartphones, as Amazon promises. Phone calls on AT&T’s network were comparable in quality to those on my iPhone, also on AT&T’s network.
The device integrates seamlessly with an Amazon account, of course, but I also found the integration with third-party email services (such as Gmail) to be simple and effective. The native email and messaging apps work well in my experience.
In terms of its basic specs, Amazon’s Fire phone is noticeably heavier than the most popular smartphones on the market — weighing 5.64 ounces, compared with 5.11 ounces for the Samsung Galaxy S5, despite the fact that the Galaxy S5 has a larger screen (5 inches, compared with 4.7 inches for Fire phone). The Fire phone is the same weight as the HTC One M8, which also has a 5-inch screen.
The iPhone 5S, with its smaller form factor, is less than 4 ounces, with a 4-inch screen.
The placement of the power button on the left side of the top of the Fire phone, combined with the size of the device, requires a bit of an adjustment for right-handed users.
Unlike many standard Android devices, the Fire phone doesn’t have a back button. Instead, a double-tap on the home button brings up the “Quick Switch” feature, a mini-carousel for switching among different apps.
Showrooming with Firefly
The dedicated “Firefly” button on the side of the phone launches a special interface that recognizes all sorts of products not just by barcode but also by sight.
Amazon is offering a free one-year Amazon Prime subscription to Fire phone buyers, which means not only free two-day shipping but also the ability to access a big library of movies, TV shows and music.
Combine Firefly with Amazon Prime, and you’ve got a potentially disruptive experience for retail. We took the Fire Phone to our local Fred Meyer to demonstrate the possibilities, as you can see in the video above.
Getting to know the 3D interface
After picking up the phone, the first thing you’ll notice is the ability to move the device around in your hand to look at different parts of a 3D scene, from various angles. This is “Dynamic Perspective,” and it’s a jaw-dropping effect on images and interactive maps.
Then there are the “One-Handed Gestures.” You can tilt the phone to the right side to bring up a menu panel, or tilt it to the left side to bring up a panel of content. “Swivel” the device to the left or right to bring up a set of quick commands. And if you slightly angle the device, you can bring up what Amazon calls the “peek” — extra tidbits of information on a map or menu, or inside an app.
Or, when reading a long story in the device’s browser, just tilt the phone forward or backward to scroll automatically.
This auto-scroll feature will also be a core feature of the Kindle reading app, but not at launch. Amazon says it will add this feature with a software update currently slated for the end of September, to give itself time to reformat the Kindle catalog and finish software development.
A UI learning curve
Overall I like the concept and the technical ingenuity of these features. But in many cases they seem to be more trouble than they’re worth.
Sometimes I inadvertently activated the gesture-based commands when I was moving the phone around, not intending to activate them. The Amazon shopping app, in particular, kept interpreting my random motions as a “peek” gesture and enlarging the product image to fill the screen, for example. In other situations, the “tilt” commands wouldn’t activate when I was trying to get them to work.
(Update: Amazon acknowledged the issue with the peek gesture inadvertently triggering the zoom effect in the shopping app, and the company says it’s working on a fix.)
Amazon says a slight learning curve is to be expected, based on its consumer research. The “quick start” interactive guide on the phone will help, but even with that, it can take a little time for users to find their groove with these features, mastering the tilts and twists and swivels.
But more than that, the 3D effects feel extraneous in the basic navigation of the device.
OK, so the app icons in the carousel move and rotate with a cool 3D effect, but how does that help me as a user? Yes, the menu titles look like they’re popping out of the screen, but half the time they just end up looking blurry. And why do I have to ‘peek’ to see details, like an app rating, that probably should have been visible to begin with?
Jeff Bezos and other Amazon executives say people who use the Fire phone for extended periods miss the gesture-based features if they go back to a phone without them. Maybe I just haven’t had enough time to adjust to them. And to be clear, you can opt to just use your fingers to activate menus and navigate the device, rather than tilting and swiveling and peeking.
The potential in apps and games
The possibilities for Dynamic Perspective is much more evident in games. In the game To-Fu Fury (above) you can tilt and move the phone to look around a scene, supplementing your fingers as a way of controlling the game. In a Rubik’s Cube game, you can look at different sides of the cube by moving the device in your hand, while using your fingers to rearrange the cube and solve the puzzle.
This speaks to the need for third-party apps to leverage the sensors to fully realize the potential of Amazon’s new phone. The company has released a software development kit for Dynamic Perspective, and this week pointed to strong early momentum among developers.
But these 3D navigational features feel more like gimmicks in the Fire phone’s basic user interface — not yet compelling enough to warrant a fundamental change in the way we interact with our devices.
It is possible to turn the features off in the settings, and you can even turn off individual aspects (tilt, peek, swivel, Dynamic Perspective, etc.) selectively. But that won’t be satisfying to someone who bought the phone for these features.
As a longtime Amazon customer, what I’d really like to see is innovation in the economics of the smartphone business — offering the device with included wireless service as part of a souped-up Amazon Prime subscription, for example.
Hopefully that will come someday. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to get a handle on that “peek” maneuver.