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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Mayday

The last major Fire Phone feature worth noting is Mayday, which is the on-demand help system first introduced with Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets.

Mayday is a great idea: You simply tap a button on the phone, and -- usually within about 15 seconds, according to Amazon -- see a live person pop up in a video box on your screen. The agent talks to you through your phone to help with any problems you're having and can even remotely take control of your screen to guide you through troubleshooting steps.

Amazon Fire Phone
Mayday provides onscreen help from a real person.

In practice, I've found it to be hit and miss. The first time I tried to place a call to Mayday, I waited for about 30 seconds, then heard someone pick up but never saw her face. A few seconds later, I was disconnected.

My next call went through in about 15 seconds, and the agent popped up on my screen as promised. I asked him how I could change the wallpaper on my home screen -- something that seemed like a simple enough question a regular user might pose.

The agent appeared to look something up on his computer for a couple of minutes, then asked if he could take control of my device. He started poking around the system settings and seemed confused; after another minute or two, he asked if he could place me on a brief hold, after which he came back and finally told me the wallpaper couldn't be changed.

Maybe that was just a fluke, though. I tried a few other Mayday calls and the reps seemed a little more knowledgeable. In any event, it may not be the kind of feature most of us would use often, but it's a smart concept and a nice addition to offer.

The Amazon app problem

No matter what you think of Amazon's Fire OS software, there's one massive failing with the Fire Phone: The availability of apps. Or, to be more accurate, the lack thereof.

Amazon's Fire Phone, you see, connects only to Amazon's own Appstore, not the regular Google Play Store most Android users are accustomed to using. And that means you're extremely limited in what sorts of programs you can get for the phone.

Most notably, no Google services are available; you won't find apps like Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, Google Voice, Hangouts, Chrome or Google Maps. The Google Search app, which includes Android's powerful Voice Search and Google Now functions, is also M.I.A. In some cases, you can use Web-based equivalents, but they're never a very good experience compared to the native apps (and they often border on unusable).

The Fire Phone does come with its own Email application that's capable of connecting to a Gmail account, but to be frank, it's pretty awful. The same goes for Amazon's Maps, Silk Browser and voice control apps. Everything on the phone just feels like an embarrassingly inferior version of what you'd get on an actual Android device.

For me, as someone who relies heavily on Google services, it's been incredibly challenging to even use the Fire Phone as my primary mobile device. Without the Google apps present, there are just too many basic things I need to do but can't on this phone.

To its credit, Amazon's Appstore does have a reasonable number of apps, including many big-name titles. You'll have no problem finding programs like Facebook, Netflix, Twitter and Pandora, for example. But even beyond the Google services, there are a lot of gaps -- things you might be used to relying on that simply aren't available.

Many of the apps that are present are also woefully out of date -- even those by relatively big developers. Some apps I looked at were several versions behind their Google Play equivalents, like the popular news-reading app Feedly -- which was on version 22.0 in Google Play but still on 20.1 in the Amazon Appstore. I can't help but wonder how many of them have been abandoned.

On the plus side, the Fire Phone is built to work seamlessly with Amazon's impressive array of books, movies, TV shows and music (though if you've already purchased or stored multimedia content in Google Play, keep in mind that you won't be able to access any of that from this device). The phone also currently comes with a free year of Amazon Prime service -- an offer that Amazon says will be available for an unspecified "limited" time.

One more thing...

The Fire Phone has one final quirk that warrants mentioning: It doesn't presently support Bluetooth 4.0 (LE). That means it either won't work well or won't work at all with wearables and other devices that require an ongoing low-power connection.

Amazon has said the functionality will be added into the phone at some point in the future, but that doesn't do much good for anyone attempting to use it today.

Bottom line

I could go on and talk about all the standard smartphone measures -- the Fire Phone's performance is somewhat choppy, its battery life is on the lower end of average, its call quality is fine and its camera is pretty decent -- but at this point, all of that seems rather inconsequential. There are just so many fundamental things wrong with this device that, for most people, it's impossible to recommend.

The Fire Phone is ultimately a collection of random ideas that don't come together to create any type of cohesive or compelling user experience. Its operating system is confusing and difficult to use, its Dynamic Perspective feature is gimmicky and counterproductive and its prominent integration with Amazon makes it feel more like a pushy salesperson than a user-focused tool.

Even if all of those factors weren't present, Amazon's limited app selection would be a deal-breaker for most consumers -- as would the fact that phone is available only on a single carrier.

If you're fully committed to Amazon's ecosystem and want a phone that makes it easy to find and order stuff online -- from Amazon and only Amazon -- then maybe the Fire Phone is worth a glance. But if you're looking for a phone that does anything else particularly well, you're better off going with a more versatile device on a more mature platform.

This article, Amazon Fire Phone deep-dive review: Two weeks with a weird device, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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