Amazon Fire Phone deep-dive review: Two weeks with a weird device

Do you want Amazon in your pocket? After half a month with the company's first smartphone, this reviewer was left scratching his head.

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There is a customizable dock of four icons at the bottom of the home screen -- and if you want to view your full selection of apps, you can get to a more traditional grid list by swiping upward from the dock area. That gesture is somewhat confusing, as there's no on-screen cue to make you aware of its existence.

More confusing yet is the fact that there's no consistent Back button throughout the system; rather, when you want to move back a step and there's no command on screen to do so, you have to swipe upward from the bottom of the phone's surface (similar to the app list gesture, only starting even lower -- with your finger on the bezel beneath the screen). There's no on-screen cue for that, either, and it's not at all intuitive; I've frequently found myself stuck on a screen and trying to remember how to back out.

Confusion seems to be a common theme with the Fire Phone's user interface. The software has two hidden menu panels that are available only sometimes, in certain parts of the system -- one that swipes in from the left and includes "quick links" relevant to your current activity, and one that swipes in from the right and includes additional information and options. Again, there are no on-screen cues to indicate when those panels are present, and it's not entirely clear what sorts of options you'll find in either place at any given time.

Other tasks are similarly convoluted -- like playing music on the phone. Once you start audio from an app like Pandora or Amazon's Music app, there's no easy way to skip through tracks or pause playback; since the system doesn't support widgets, you have to awkwardly navigate back into the main app in order to access those basic controls.

There are plenty more examples -- like the fact that the Fire Phone's app grid is split into two confusingly overlapping tabs labeled "Cloud" and "Device" without any explanation -- but you get the point. All in all, the software feels very much like what it is: a rough and messy first-gen OS trying to compete with far more polished platforms.

Basic environment aside, Amazon's Fire Phone has three distinguishing software features: Dynamic Perspective, Firefly and Mayday.

Dynamic Perspective

Dynamic Perspective may be the most ambitious of the three: It taps into four special front-facing cameras to monitor your movements and adjust on-screen elements accordingly.

The effect is mildly novel in certain contexts. When you view the phone's lock screen, for instance, the graphic on the screen appears to shift around as you tilt the phone or your head, making it feel like you're looking around a three-dimensional space. It's neat at first, but the novelty wears off quickly and there's no real value provided.

And that's the problem: By and large, Dynamic Perspective feels like a gimmick -- and one that delivers flash at the expense of function. Within the main UI, for example, elements like menu subtext and the status bar aren't usually visible; you have to tilt the phone at just the right angle to get them to appear. And with the status bar invisible so much of the time, there's no easy way to see pending notifications for things like missed calls or new messages (not to mention the clock or your battery level).

At the same time, visual elements will randomly flicker on the screen for a split second here and there when you inadvertently move your head or hand -- both in the main phone UI and even in some apps, like Amazon's own storefront, in which the tiniest tilting causes images to zoom in and take over your display. It's disorienting and irritating, to say the least, and makes the phone difficult to use.

Dynamic Perspective can also let you do things like open menus or scroll down Web pages by tilting or pivoting the phone in a particular way, but that feature seems like a solution in search of a problem. If you're anything like me, you'll try it once or twice and then go back to the far easier, more consistent and more natural method of swiping on the screen to accomplish those same tasks.

The one area where Dynamic Perspective may hold some actual value is in games -- at least, those that have built-in support for the system. Even there, though, it strikes me as more of a novelty than anything transformative. I actually found I got dizzy from the Dynamic Perspective effects after a while and ultimately preferred playing the games in their regular modes, with Dynamic Perspective disabled.

Firefly

The next feature Amazon has added into its Fire Phone is something called Firefly. It's an all-purpose product and content scanner that aims to make it easy for you to identify any object, song, movie or TV show -- and then go buy it from Amazon.

You launch Firefly by pressing and holding the phone's physical camera button. From there, you simply point the phone at anything -- a book, a DVD cover, even a can of beans -- and if Amazon recognizes it, the phone will tell you what you're seeing and give you a link to the corresponding Amazon product page. It can also recognize info like phone numbers, email addresses and URLs, which it can then extract as text and make actionable on the phone.

Amazon Fire Phone
Firefly lets you identify any object, song, movie or TV show -- and then go buy it from Amazon.

If that all sounds somewhat familiar, it should: Existing apps, like Google Goggles on Android, perform similar functions. Firefly is a bit faster, though -- it recognizes visuals on the fly as it sees them, without the need for any button-pressing -- and it seems to be able to identify a broader range of household-style items. It's also able to identify multimedia content if you press the music or TV buttons at the top of the Firefly screen (something Goggles itself can't do but other existing apps can).

Where Firefly really differs from other apps of its nature, however, is in the fact that its primary purpose is quite clearly to direct you to Amazon -- and Amazon alone -- for the purchasing of anything you identify. It could certainly be useful in that regard, but it's also rather limiting and almost makes you feel like Amazon should be paying you to carry this phone around.

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