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7/23/2014
11:01 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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Amazon Fire Phone Early Reviews Tepid

Early reviews of Amazon's first smartphone won't send consumers rushing to buy. Did Amazon miscalculate on key features?

Amazon Fire: 6 Key Points
Amazon Fire: 6 Key Points
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Amazon's first smartphone, the Fire Phone, goes on sale Friday for $199. According to the initial wave of reviews, most consumers would be better served buying a different device. The biggest complaints center on the usefulness of Dynamic Perspective and Firefly -- what Amazon considers to be the phone's best traits. Reviewers also dinged the Fire Phone's battery life, user interface, and design. Is the Fire Phone a flop in the making?

Amazon is taking a huge chance with the Fire Phone. At $199 with a contract, it costs the same as the Apple iPhone 5s, Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One, and LG G3 -- all made by established players with years of experience. The full retail price of the Fire Phone is $650, but AT&T is pushing customers to sign contracts. Further, the device is locked to just one carrier and can't be used on competing networks. With premium pricing and limited availability, one would expect the device to at least compete in terms of performance. It doesn't.

[Grab your time machine. See Smartphones Of The Future: 6 Cool Technologies.]

The two big leaps of faith for Amazon are Dynamic Perspective and Firefly. Dynamic Perspective uses four user-facing sensors to track head placement. It uses the data to generate a 3D user interface that requires users to tilt the phone back and forth to see certain aspects of the UI. The problem, say reviewers, is that Dynamic Perspective doesn't always work and is slower than simply touching the screen.

"It's a neat trick, but, in my tests, I found that I tired of it, partly because you have to flick the phone just right to make the panels appear, and then again to dismiss them," wrote Re/Code's Walt Mossberg. "Call me impatient, but after too many frustrating flicks I resorted to swiping the side panels open and closed, even when I was using the phone one-handed, because I found it quicker and surer."

Reviewers found Firefly similarly flawed. Firefly makes use of the Fire Phone's camera to take pictures of physical objects and then search for them. Firefly appears to work well with packages, barcodes, and clear text, but fails often enough to cause frustration. "Firefly can recognize lots of things, but it's incredibly, hilariously inconsistent," said The Verge's David Pierce. "It's not nearly accurate as it needs to be."

Nearly all the reviewers faulted the Fire Phone's blocky, simple design. It doesn't have the elegance or refinement offered by the iPhone 5s or HTC One, nor the killer screens of the Galaxy S5 and G3. The Fire Phone scored points for one-handed use, but the smaller 720p HD screen didn't impress.

Battery life problems plagued The Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey Fowler. Fowler said he couldn't get the Fire Phone's battery to last a single day, despite testing two different review units. "The biggest reason I wouldn't switch to a Fire is its battery, which like the iPhone is sealed inside and can't be replaced," wrote Fowler. "The phone usually died after about three-quarters of a day's ordinary use -- calling, surfing, emailing, mapping, and listening to music -- and often got warm to the touch."

Perhaps the biggest condemnation comes from PCMag's Sascha Segan, who likens the device to a storefront. "Amazon's Fire Phone doesn't solve any real consumer problems. It's fun, well-built, and filled with interesting gimmicks, but it's ultimately designed as a giant Buy Now button for Amazon services."

This is likely the only reason Amazon decided to jump into the smartphone market in the first place. The company has realized a certain degree of success with its Kindle Tablets, which are great for consuming books, music, and movies. Amazon makes it as simple as possible to make those content purchases on its tablets, and the Fire Phone takes it a step further with Firefly. One could make the argument that tablets are used more recreationally and sporadically than smartphones, which accompany us throughout our day. By putting a Buy Now button in our pockets, Amazon has lowered the barriers of consumption even further and clearly hopes device owners will make purchases more frequently.

Based on the first reviews, however, there is little incentive for consumers to make the leap to Amazon's Fire Phone. If the device can't compete in the basics, let alone successfully execute its supposed best features, few people will find Amazon's Fire desirable.

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Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio
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stotheco
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stotheco,
User Rank: Ninja
7/25/2014 | 1:46:29 AM
Re: There's a sucker born every minute
Amazon tried to do too much with the Fire phone. Some of the features are futuristic but they sound half-baked to me, even more so in application when the reviewers found them hard to use or hard to make sense of.
stotheco
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stotheco,
User Rank: Ninja
7/25/2014 | 1:45:31 AM
Re: There's a sucker born every minute
It's laudable that Amazon is taking risks, but the problem I have with what they're doing is that they don't seem to be well-thought out at all.
stotheco
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stotheco,
User Rank: Ninja
7/25/2014 | 1:44:21 AM
Re: Amazon isn't competing for the high-end
This makes me wonder if Amazon ever did any consumer testing with the phone while it was still in the works. The features sound interesting, I won't lie. But are they useful? Are they practical? I would say no, and they aren't what average mobile phone users would look for in a phone.
melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Ninja
7/24/2014 | 8:13:22 AM
Re: Amazon isn't competing for the high-end
But some of the features don't even make any sense, technically, or in user friendliness. The concept of a 3D UI, is already known to not work well. Apple tried with a minor 3D effect in iOS 7, and people said it made them ill, so they had to turn the minor effect down. Nintendo has a failure in 3D with their 3DS. People don't like 3D movies, and some are made ill from that as well. It seems as though Amazon has made a bad bet on this in the chase to have a unique feature. But I don't understand the feature. Apple has shown you can have a 3D effect that moves with movement of the device, without sensors to track your head. There's an app in the store, called Holotoy, that does even more (for free). With the head sensors, the Fire should be able to carry out its functions without needing to move the phone at all. If it really head tracks, that's all it should need. As you move your head, scrolling should start. Move your head again, and it stops, etc. but you need to tilt the phone. That action, which has been done before, elsewhere, uses sensors inside the phone to detect tilt, as iOS 7, and Holotoy does. So what is the head tracking adding to this? Nothing, as far as I can tell.
zaious
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zaious,
User Rank: Ninja
7/23/2014 | 11:59:49 PM
Re: There's a sucker born every minute
Is it priced for a fight? Not likely. I am not sure what Amazon wanted, a rushing sale at a bargain price or a slow and steady growth. Right now we have known about the relaibility/ performance/ service etc for all other brands/platforms. I will not ask, is tha iPhone fast? Is that Lumia reliable? Does that Android have this feature? These questions will be asked for the Fire phone. I guess it should be a tad cheaper. Free prime membership is the icing on the cake, but still a $100 price tag would make more sense (and sell).
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
7/23/2014 | 7:16:54 PM
A hobbled attempt at cool tech
Disagree, Tom. From its pricing and attempted high tech features, Amazon is competing for the high end or else it's got its approach to the market all wrong. Why charge $199 and attempt to implement 3D user interface if you're trying to put a least common denominator device, good mainly for purchasing, in consumer hands?
MDMConsult14
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MDMConsult14,
User Rank: Moderator
7/23/2014 | 6:58:38 PM
Re: There's a sucker born every minute
It does appear risky to take on the other mobile giants and overpriced.  The advantage I see is with leveraging amazon.com's platform for consumers. Amazon has been really pushing consumer technology with its tablets and devices for today.
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
7/23/2014 | 6:44:04 PM
There's a sucker born every minute
A giant, vastly overpriced "buy" button was exacly my perception of the Fire Phone out the gate.  The only consumers who will spend their money on the gimmick in question are those with more disposable income than brain matter.  I see no other compelling reason to spend that kind of jack on such a limited, buggy item.  Nevertheless, society continues to demonstrate P.T. Barnum's best known axiom.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/23/2014 | 2:29:39 PM
Amazon isn't competing for the high-end
Amazon doesn't appear to be aiming for the tech savvy crowd. The phone's most innovative feature, the Mayday button, will appeal to the technically averse. Amazon wants phone buyers who'll push buttons to buy stuff, lots of stuff, without really caring about the technology.
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