I bought an Amazon Fire Phone on Friday, July 25th. This was the launch day for the phone. I’ve got a lot of questions at work on the phone, on Monday, and I got to talk to a coworker who also bought a Fire Phone (for her mom).
I read a lot of reviews of the phone before I bought it. Many were negative, for different reasons. Here are some of the negative reviews - HERE and HERE. The main reason in the reviews for a negative rating were “It doesn’t have Google services - no Gmail app, no Google Docs, no Google Maps!" Others were that the main advertised features - Firefly and Dynamic perspective, were gimmicky. Also the battery life was mentioned in several reviews. I’ll talk about that.
Some reviews were a better, such as the one HERE.
But as I kept reading, I started to come to a conclusion. When the iPad was first announced in January 2010, I remember iJustine (Justine Ezarik) mentioning that the iPad was an iPod Touch, just blown up bigger, and that the extra screen-space gives you the ability to do much cooler apps (I agree).
The Fire Phone is pretty much Amazon’s latest tablet technology (the Kindle Fire HDX), drilled down into the size of a phone with a 4.7-inch screen, with a phone added. Plus FireFly and Dynamic Perspective. If you like the Kindle Fire (Fire, Fire HD, Fire HDX), and would like to have that technology in a phone-sized package, then this might be the phone for you.
I did not order the phone directly from Amazon’s website. I wanted to get my hands on the device first, play with it a bit, and then decide. This is what I did on Friday. I actually went to the local AT&T store on Thursday and talked with a sales rep, to get his impressions on the phone. He started out explaining the Fire Phone at a very basic level. I started asking about comparisons to features in the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C, and mentioned that I am an iOS programmer, he became more animated and started talking at a higher “tech level”. He seemed to have a passion for mobile tech, and mentioned the different phones in his house - he’s Android, his wife is iOS, so he has personal experience with both technologies. It was a cool conversation.
Side note: Yes it is a bit uncommon for an iOS programmer to buy and Android based phone :) But it does happen :P Since I work with iPhones and iPads five days a week (and often more), this time I wanted to play with other tech on my “off time”. This did not stop the teasing from some of my coworkers on Monday!
I returned Friday to actually play with the phone. I liked it. I was in the market for a new phone, and wanted something a bit different, so I bought it. I bought it outright, as I do not like contracts :)
Okay, my initial impression is that this is a good Android handset, but that in many ways the tech is at an iPhone 4S level, so a couple of years back when compared to the iPhone (about 2011). I would not know what Android handsets to compare it to. I will leave that to my coworker from the Android team, who mentioned she may blog about the phone as well. If she does I will link to her blog post :)
The FireFly technology and the Dynamic Perspective are cool. I will talk about Dynamic Perspective first.
Dynamic Perspective is part of the phone, and is used throughout the OS. The Fire Phone has four front-facing infrared cameras that track your eye movement, and will adjust the display depending on how you move the phone. This gives the phone’s display a cool 3-D effect.
The built-in lock screens all use dynamic perspective, and I like looking at them. My younger kids REALLY like looking at them, and insisted that we look at every one. William particularly likes the one where an astronaut lands on the moon, and is chased away by a space monster.
The icons on the home screen also adjust depending on how you are looking at the phone. So the camera icon, when you look straight at it, looks like a regular icon. But if you tilt the phone slightly left or right, you will see the lens at an angle, giving it depth.
I downloaded some of the games that use Dynamic Perspective, including Tofu Fury and Lili (I normally don’t spend much on games, but I got 1000 Amazon Coins when I bought the phone, which translates into a $10 credit, so it gave me something to spend it on). I haven’t spent a ton of time with the games yet, but they are both fun. Tofu Fury seems to utilize the technology a bit better, allowing you to turn the phone and view the levels you play from different angles.
So far with Lili, the Dynamic Perspective seem to be a way to move around, and to look around the world. Lili takes place in a cool 3-D world, and the Dynamic Perspective gives you a way to look around the world that is fairly immersive. I will play it more as I get a chance. I think other, existing phones could replicate the experience of Lili, though, using the accelerometer. There are plenty of games out there where you can tilt your phone (or tablet) to control your character (or car, motor boat, whatever) such as racing games.
Firefly is the Amazon technology that allowed you to scan devices, and look them up in Amazon’s database. Plus, if Amazon is lucky, you will then buy that item from them :) It also recognizes phone numbers and email addresses, and allows you to scan them. Plus, Amazon opened this technology up to developers as well, so in the future we should see other cool apps (art apps, music apps, whatever) employing this technology in cool ways.
How well does it work? Pretty well, for anything in a package or with a bar-code. It even recognized my Mystic Monk Tea. It did think, however, that my Divine Mercy painting I have hanging on the wall was a CD for the Divine Mercy. At least it was close :) And it shows that it recognized the painting, and was able to able to match it with the CD cover.
For recognizing television shows and music, it also did fairly well. For music, it recognizes everything from Elvis to Gregorian - Masters of Chant. We played a number of TV shows for it to listen to, from Hulu and such, and it also did a good job recognizing those. But my teenage daughter was able to stump it with Anime that uses the original Japanese!
FireFly is not perfect, but is not bad. And while right now it is a portal into buying content from Amazon, I am hoping 3rd-party developers can come up with creative uses for it. Firefly is a technology that helps your phone become aware of the environment around it, and that may open up interesting uses going into the future.
I won’t go into too many details on the photos. The camera is good - a decent 13-megapixel camera. Everyone with a smartphone is now carrying around a camera in their pocket, and any new smartphones - from the iPhone 5S 8-megapixel camera (which takes gorgeous photos) to those of Google Nexus to Amazon’s Fire Phone - get the job done. The pictures I took with the Fire Phone, of my family at the park, came out great. Amazon is giving unlimited cloud storage for photos you take, which you can then download to your laptop or whatever. The photos are BIG, the jpegs being from 3 megabytes to over 5 megabytes, so you will be able to eat up hard-drive space quickly if you love to take a lot of pictures. The unlimited cloud storage is a good thing :)
To be honest, while I love taking lots of pictures, I am not a professional photographer, and do not have an eye for subtle differences. For me, the Amazon Fire Phone gets the job done as far as pictures are concerned.
One of the negative aspects of the reviews I have read is that the battery life of the Fire Phone is not up to par with its competitors. I have to agree with this. This is especially true if you use any 3-D intensive games, such as those that use the Dynamic Perspective tech. If you normally just make calls or listen to music, you should be able to make it comfortably through your workday. But if you do more - videos, browsing, games, and need to make it 8 hours, it would be good to have a place where you can plug it. I have a desk job, and have an outlet close by, so it is not much of an issue. But competitors do have an edge on battery life.
Whenever smart-phones are discussed, one of the things that comes up is “What apps does it have?” Amazon has a good app store. According to Wikipedia is has, as of June 2014, 240,000 apps. That’s plenty. It has the favorites - Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds, etc. It may not match up to Google Play or those for iOS, but once you reach a certain level, you get a lot of duplication in apps anyways. So Amazon passes on the standard apps.
Google services - No, it doesn’t have them. It doesn’t have a Gmail client or Google Docs or Google Maps. If you need those, and need them on your phone, you will likely want to look elsewhere for your phone. I don’t need them, and am not concerned about it.
Of course, this is not iOS, so if you want something that can download iTunes-type content, buy from Apple :)
If you have a lot of Amazon content - movies, music, Kindle books, Audible books, etc - then this is a good phone to have. It isn’t necessary to have this phone to enjoy Amazon content. Amazon has apps for Android and iOS (and PC and Mac), and you can pretty much buy any phone you want and enjoy that content. But the Fire Phone (or the Kindle Fire HDX, etc) are good ways to enjoy it as well.
I like buying stuff from Amazon - music, movies, Kindle books - so I have a strong ecosystem that is supported. There are other ecosystems out there - Google has theirs, Apple has theirs, Microsoft has theirs - and depending on whose you primarily buy from will likely, and should, way into your decisions on what phones and tablets you buy.
Bugs - Rough Around the Edges
I pretty quickly ran into a bug in the Fire Phone’s operating system, that revolved around the Visual Voicemail feature. Whether Visual Voicemail works or not would not be a deal-breaker (I could always call to get my messages), but it would be an irritant. Basically, what happened is that my phone got in a state, where even after I called into my voice mail and set a pin up, and then set the pin on the Fire Phone, the voicemail screen kept saying that Visual Voicemail was not configured. I called the Fire Phone from another cell phone and left a couple of messages, and I got notifications that I had messages, but they were not showing up on the Voicemail screen (in the phone app).
There was an upside to this - I got to test out the Mayday button :) My Kindle Fire HD does not have it - my Fire HD is the 2012 model. I do not have an HDX. So this was my first experience with that.
I got help fast. I think it was about 5 seconds before someone from Amazon appeared on my screen. Amazon is investing heavily into customer support, and it shows. The guy I got over Mayday tried very hard to help, talking about the settings, setting up the greeting and pin with AT&T, etc. I think he did everything he could, but could not come up with a solution. He transferred me to someone on their technical team (who could not use the Mayday features - being able to see my phone or have video), who came to the conclusion that AT&T might not have my flag set up indicating that I had Visual Voicemail. She gave me a number for AT&T support.
I then called AT&T. The guy I got on the phone tried very hard (kudos) to solve the problem, and also consulted with his coworkers. In the end, I do not think it was an AT&T problem, so he couldn’t have solved it anyway. But he did say that I should download a Visual Voicemail app called, appropriately enough, Visual Voicemail. The Fire Phone does not need that app, as it has access to Visual Voicemail through the phone app. I did download the Visual Voicemail app, and started it, and immediately stopped. Something about “If you uninstall this app without deactivating it first then your voicemail will break” was a deal-breaker. Anyways, I got some incorrect advice from AT&T on this phone, but the Fire Phone is was a phone that had just come out, and the guy on the phone mentioned that it was the first call he’d gotten on the Fire Phone. I will give them a pass on this one :) Both the Amazon and AT&T folks tried hard to fix the issue.
Okay, well, I gave up for that day, and figured I would have to call in the old-fashioned way to get my voicemail (so 1990’s). Then on Monday, at work, when I was talking to the Android coworker that bought the Fire Phone for her mom, we were discussing the different difficulties we had getting different things set up. I mentioned the Voicemail bug, and showed it to her on my phone, and… it was gone. Kind of. The warning message was gone. She said it was her presence that fixed it. Maybe it was :) I called my Fire Phone from my another cell, and left a couple of messages, and they showed up on the Visual Voicemail screen. But, at the same time, the message (You have to call in to set up Visual Voicemail) was still displaying.
So the setup message was displaying, along with a couple of voicemail messages. Weird.
I played the messages, and they worked. Then the setup message went away, and has stayed off since. So my Visual Voicemail is working. Strange, but I will take it.
So what is the point of the Visual Voicemail story? Just this - the Fire Phone is a brand new phone. It is Android-based (based on 4.2.2 Jellybean) Though it is a fork of Android - Fire OS 3.5. And it still has some bugs in it, that you will likely have to work through. Honestly, ALL phone OS’s have bugs in them. I love iOS (I do program for it, after all, both personally and professionally), but the OS is not perfect. Fire OS is more rough around the edges though. It will improve with time, and any of the Fire Phone software will improve rapidly. There is nothing like finding all the bugs missed in test, once you release it to production! Though hopefully, they are minimal.
Which brings me to…
There is none! This is a brand new phone, from a company that has not released a phone before. And if you have questions (how do I add photos next to the built in screen savers, how do I turn on scrolling for books, how do I fix my voicemail!) then you have to go to Amazon, and if they do not have the answer, then you will have to figure it out.
This will change. I hope to post more about my experiences with the Fire Phone, and give some posts about how to do tasks that are not documented. It is up to the community on the web, those who own Fire Phones, to create the help. And that will come. Hopefully quickly :)
The Amazon Fire Phone is a perfectly good Android-based phone. It is a good way to listen to or watch content you own from Amazon. The smart phone features - calling, voicemail (despite my initial trouble), email, web browsing - are all there, usable, and equivalent to other phones. You have plenty of apps to download to expand and customize your phone experience, and a lot of content that you can buy.
The special, touted features of Firefly and Dynamic Perspective gives the Fire Phone an interesting twist. It is different. Dynamic Perspective makes using the phone pretty neat. Firefly may become a very interesting feature, if it is adopted and expanded by developers.
How does it compare to other phones? It may or may not be the phone for you. There are plenty to choose from. I love Apple tech, and Apple makes beautiful phones and tablets. There are a ton of Android phones out there as well. And, of course, Microsoft. Microsoft was late to the game of the modern smart-phone, and has as yet a small market-share (it is growing though, slowly). But if Microsoft and Windows is your thing, Microsoft is in the game too.
Personally, I like the Fire Phone. It has the features I need in a phone, plenty of apps, and a way for me to use Amazon content. It has a good camera, and the Dynamic Perspective makes it different. People like checking it out :)
The OS is not perfect. Honestly, OS’s are never perfect, but Fire OS, on the Fire Phone, feels a bit rough yet. There will be updates, though, and it is not something I am worried about.
Would I recommend it? Yes, it is a good phone, and especially if Amazon is where you get your media. But it is not for everyone. The iPhone and other Android phones are more polished, and you get other ecosystems with other phones.