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Amazon Fire review: In Depth


The Good

  • Reasonable battery life
  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • 24/7 help is unrivalled

The Bad

  • No back button
  • Fewer apps
  • Overpriced
  • No Full HD

Ben Griffin checks out the £400 Amazon blower, the Fire phone, sporting a strange 3D interface and 24-hour live help.

Amazon has seen great success with the Kindle ebook reader, plus the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HDX tablets, for a good while now. However, the Amazon Fire phone is pretty late to the smartphone party, basically arriving while all the vomit's being mopped up. We've had so many good handsets this year, from the HTC One M8 to the Sony Xperia Z3 and LG's immense G3, that Amazon really has its work cut out to make an impression.

So, has it succeeded?

Amazon Fire review: Design

The Amazon Fire is undoubtedly a stylish phone. A gloss black design with squared-off edges that slope inwards give it a mix of pleasing lines and ergonomics. It's a bit like the Nexus 5, only heavier at 160g. 

Look more closely, however, and the veil of sensible design begins to unravel. For some reason there's a top-mounted lock/power button, which is a pain to reach when using the phone one-handed.

Not only that, the volume rocker and camera button are on the left, which is great news for the minority of lefties out there and annoying for everyone else. To make matters worse, it's all too easy to press the camera button by accident, instead of turning the volume up and down.

Our biggest gripe is the complete lack of a back button. While there's a physical home button for taking you back to the home screen, you can't just pop back a step. This means you have to start every task from scratch, which is tedious and unnecessary. The usual Android approach makes more sense.

The oddities continue with four infrared cameras, located in each corner for something called Dynamic Perspective. We'll get to what that does later.

In day-to-day use, the Amazon Fire is bearable. It's comfortable to hold, albeit way more slippery than we would like (yes, 'that's what she said'). The button layout is a bit alien at first but not so frustrating that it ruins the experience.

Amazon Fire review: Screen

The Amazon Fire has a pretty solid display, if brightness and colour are a chief concern. Its 4.7-inch size is enough for most users, too, but comapct enough to keep the Fire pocketable.

Where the display falls down is detail - 1,280x720 pixels makes for reasonably crisp images, but it's effortlessly overshadowed by much of the compeitition. Stick it side-by-side with the Sony Xperia Z3, LG G3 or the LG-built Nexus 5 and you can clearly see a difference. There are plenty of cheaper phones out there with a Full HD 1080p display, to the point where it's almost standard.

Amazon Fire review: OS

Amazon has given the Fire phone its own custom user-interface, and even though it's built on top of Android, it's such a radical departure from the norm that Google's OS is unrecognisable. Let's start with the good. 

Amazon's Fire OS is much less cluttered than Android and in many ways easier to use. Rather than loads of screens and displays and menus, you get a carousel of your most recent tasks, an area with all your apps and then a notifaction bar that you drag down from the top. Nice and simple.

A swipe in from the right or left brings up two more menus, one for contextual information and the other for various options. And that's really it. It's a simple system that makes some sense, but the aforementioned lack of a back button really dents the usability. 

At least the whole shebang looks presentable. The clean layout, icon design and general presentation is better than you get on many Android devices. A simple approach is one we rather liked in the case of Asus and its recently launched Zen 4, 5 and 6 devices.

A unique feature of Amazon Fire OS is the previously mentioned Dynamic Perspective. Basically, the four corner cameras track your head movement so you can control games just by looking and bobbing your head. Alternatively, tilting the phone adjusts the perspective of the lock screen and icons, turning them from flat to three-dimensional in a second. Utterly pointless, but it looks good and can prove a bit handy when viewing a 3D map.

There's also something called FireFly. This shopping-based feature lets you point the Amazon Fire camera at a range of items, allowing you to buy them online with just a tap or two. At first it's kind of fun, but the novelty wears off and we're still quite happy simply entering a product name into the Amazon search bar.

If Firefly worked with more products, it might be more appealing - particularly if you are in a shop and want to see if you can nab it on Amazon for less. Welcome to 21st century shopping, folks.

The last standout feature is Mayday, a video call service for troubleshooting any problems you might have 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The response time is measured in seconds, which makes it very handy if you find yourself a bit stuck. In case you were wondering, you can see the customer service adviser, but they can't see you. So feel free to call while slobbing about your house in just your pants.

That and the free year of Amazon Prime (worth £79) - or an extra year if you already use it - add some value to the Fire Phone, especially if you are a bit of an avid online shopper.

Now for the bad. Fire OS lacks access to Google Play, so there are less apps to choose from. While we can survive without the latest mobile games, the lack of Google Maps, Google Mail and various other Android heavy-hitters is a pain.

Arguably it's the biggest problem with the Fire phone and one that really limits its functionality compared with a 'proper' Android device.

Amazon Fire review: Performance

Inside the Amazon Fire are a solid set of mid-range internals. A 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM proves plenty for Fire OS and most games and apps. Everything shifts along nicely and without too much hesitation. Further proof can be found in how quickly the camera loads up. 

You get the Amazon Fire in two storage forms, 32 and 64GB. So there's no piddly entry-level version you can fill up in five seconds, which is reassuring when you are unable to expand the memory with a micro SD card. 

A really strong aspect of the Amazon Fire is its WiFi hotspot feature, which seemed to magic a data connection out of nowhere. It was unusually reliable and worked with just about any device we threw at it. Call quality is good, too. Voices come across loud and clear.

The start-up time is a bit slow, but it's really only an issue if you are micro-managing the battery and there's no real need to unless you are really play a lot of mobile games or stream YouTube videos.

Amazon Fire review: Camera

There are two cameras on the Amazon Fire, a rear-facing 13-megapixel and a front-facing 2.1-megapixel snapper. The front camera is easily up to the job of video calls, plus the odd selfie if you so desire. 

The main camera, meanwhile, is far better than we thought it would be. There are very few settings to adjust so it's just a point and shoot affair, which is great because the image quality is above average. No faffing, just a strong level of detail and fairly snappy focussing times.

You may want to enable the HDR setting in all lighting conditions if you crave warmer colours, but doing so does seem to slow down capture. You may also dislike the slightly oversaturated colours, but we think it's a fair trade-off as the murkier parts of a scene are brought to life. 

Low-light photography is also relatively good, with noise and blur kept to a bearable level.

Rounding off the package is unlimited cloud storage for photos. Live safe in the knowledge that all of your shots of crap you've eaten will always be stored digitally, for all of eternity. Well, until the Amazon servers keel over and die at least.

Amazon's Fire phone boasts an unusual 3D interface which extends to some apps
Amazon's Fire phone boasts an unusual 3D interface which extends to some apps

Amazon Fire review: Battery life

Inside the Amazon Fire is a 2,400mAh battery. You can't remove it, but that's not too much of an issue because we got a day to a day and a half of use per charge. Not too shabby. Obviously this depends on your usage, but we were fairly impressed.

Amazon Fire review: Verdict

Amazon has had plenty of time to bring out a decent smartphone and certainly deep enough pockets to do its research. In many ways, the Fire phone is likable. The camera and hardware are solid and there are elements of the OS we started to appreciate. Android could do with a bit of streamlining in places.

But it's hard to step away from the fact the unique selling points are gimmicky and add no real value. It also sometimes feels like a shopping tool with phone aspects. That in itself would be okay, were it not for the £400 price tag if you buy it SIM-free from O2. Even with a free year of Amazon Prime, it still seems expensive.

You could buy the Amazon Fire phone if you love online shopping, but you would be better served by the cheaper Sony Xperia Z3 Compact or the Motorola Moto G if you need to go cheaper, again. Unless you want to get burned.

Key Specs

  • 4.7 inches
  • 1,280x720-pixel
  • 160g
  • Fire OS
  • 13-megapixel
  • 2.1-megapixel
  • 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 32 or 64GB
  • Yes
  • Amazon Mayday, Firefly, Amazon Prime subscription

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