Amazon Fire Phone

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It may not set the world on fire (ho ho), but Amazon’s debut smartphone has some slick 3D tricks up its display.  Amazon Store  addicts will be enthralled. The rest of us will probably go ‘meh’

Following its launch in the US earlier this year, the Amazon Fire Phone has now made its way to these shores. The device forms part of Amazon’s expansive electronics strategy, as it now manufactures everything from tablets to set-top TV boxes.

In the US, the Fire Phone’s reception was underwhelming to say the least, and Amazon recently cut its price on contract – a sign that perhaps sales of the premium device weren’t as high as it was expecting.

But now that it has graced us Brits with its presence, we shall put its lacklustre backstory behind us and judge the Fire Phone on its merits. Amazon has promised plenty of unique features, including 3D-style visuals and new tilt controls. The biggest obstacle, however, will be converting the Android and iOS masses to Amazon’s retail-centric software environment, which is integral to the device.

Design
Amazon has conservatively stuck to all-black for the Fire Phone. At least the outer edges of the handset contain a continuous rubberised frame, which should mean it can take a tumble or two.

A minimal aesthetic is seen across the device. Although the front houses the five cameras that enable its 3D depth imaging and face-tracking functions, they are so small as to be hardly noticeable.

Additionally, there is a small rectangular speaker on the top bezel and a rectangular home button at the bottom. The glass back of the handset makes it look glossier than the front. It also houses the rear camera and LED flash and the rather prominent Amazon logo.

Although its 4.7-inch display means the Amazon Fire is the same size as an iPhone 6, it’s a bulkier device and weighs a lot more than Apple’s counterpart (160g compared to 129g). Its shape and curved corners bring it closer in design to the affordable Nokia Lumia 630. However, its build definitely looks more premium than the Lumia.

In terms of physical control buttons, where we felt Amazon went wrong was the addition of a camera button next to the volume controls. We aren’t doubting its functionality, the problem lies with usability and human error.

Its resemblance and close proximity mean we kept pressing the camera button when we wanted to lower the volume.

It could be an initial stumbling block for other users too, but you can condition yourself to overcome it over time.

Users of bright, customisable handsets such as the Motorola Moto G or Nokia Lumia range might yearn for replaceable back covers when making the jump to the Fire. The panel cannot be removed, meaning the device does not contain a removable battery.

Purely in terms of looks, we like the minimal design of the Fire Phone. It reminds us that keeping things simple is often the best option.

Usability
As it’s a completely new device, the Amazon Fire Phone will require a bit of getting used to for Android, iOS and Windows users looking to switch.

Make no mistake, underneath its forked user interface beats an Android heart, but significant changes have been made.

Firstly, new users need to keep in mind that you will require an Amazon account to be able to purchase everything from apps to music, films and books. The Fire Phone offers access to the entirety of Amazon’s retail hub, including services such as Kindle, the Appstore, Amazon Prime and Instant Video. It’s a wealth of media and entertainment, but it’s inaccessible without an account.

Luckily, setting up an Amazon account is a quick and simple process. However, Amazon Prime membership – which includes access to the Amazon Instant Video streaming service and the Kindle lending library – comes at a price. If you’re after the full package, it will cost you £79 per year.

If you purchase the Fire Phone before the end of the year, though, you will receive a year’s membership to Amazon Prime for free via the handset’s exclusive UK operator O2.

Aside from purchases, the other factor that may be a hindrance at first is the phone’s controls. We would advise you to accustom yourself with them before getting started.

There is a visual guide that begins at set-up and can also be accessed later from the menu screen, which is an invaluable tool. It will teach you about the tilt controls and various gesture functions. We’ve detailed these controls below.

Dynamic perspective
The feature that Amazon has touted the most on the Fire Phone is its dynamic perspective.

Even the box has those words draped across it.

It basically works by using five cameras on the front of the phone to track the user’s face, then creating 3D images that adapt to your gaze.

Tilt the phone in any direction and you will be able to see more of a dynamic image.

Although, it’s only available on select items at present (ie, the Maps app, Amazon’s app icons, dynamic wallpapers and a select amount of games – mostly developed in-house by Amazon), it really does look impressive.

Having spent a couple of weeks with the handset, we still find ourselves staring at its magic visuals with childlike wonder.

The Maps app, which takes advantage of the dynamic perspective feature, is a useful tool.

It builds upon Nokia’s HERE maps app by using the Fire Phone’s impressive visuals to add 3D icons to significant locations on the map.

Again, tilting the device brings the dynamic images to the fore. As Windows Phone users will no doubt be aware, HERE maps is as good as its rivals from Google and Apple.

The modified Android user interface on the Fire Phone sees Amazon giving Google’s operating system a slick redesign. The main difference is the app carousel located on the home screen. This is a large slider filled with icons of your most recently used apps, along with additional information about them – for example, if you recently read a book on Kindle, it will be displayed here alongside recommendations for similar books.

Full article in Mobile News issue 577 (November 17, 2014).

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