Amazon Fire Phone deep-dive review: Two weeks with a weird device

amazon fire phone

Do you want Amazon in your pocket? After half a month with the company's first smartphone, this reviewer was left scratching his head.

You can now buy almost anything from Amazon -- including a phone made by the retailer itself.

I'm talking, of course, about the Amazon Fire Phone, Amazon's first attempt at bringing its own operating system into your pocket or purse. Building off the progress of its Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire Phone uses Amazon's custom-made Fire OS and does everything it can to put the company's content front and center.

Amazon Fire Phone
Amazon Fire Phone

The Fire Phone is on sale now for $200 (32GB) or $300 (64GB) with a new two-year contract from AT&T. The phone is not available for use on any other carrier.

From the moment you power up the Fire Phone, you realize it's like no other phone you've used before. But as I've learned while living with the device over the past couple of weeks, different doesn't necessarily mean better.

Form before function

Let's get the basics out of the way first: In terms of physical form, the Fire Phone is a less refined version of something between the Nexus 4 and iPhone 4. The device is boxy and black, with glass on the front and back and a rubberized plastic trim on the perimeter. With its four awkwardly prominent front-facing cameras (more on those in a moment), the phone looks rather odd -- almost more like an unfinished prototype than a polished final product.

At 5.5 x 2.6 x 0.35 in., Amazon's Fire Phone is fairly small by current smartphone standards. It's comfortable to hold, though a bit heavy for its size: At 5.6 oz., it's the same weight as the HTC One (M8), which is significantly larger and made of metal.

Speaking of materials, the Fire Phone's glass casing picks up fingerprint smudges like nobody's business; you'll definitely need to carry around a cloth or be ready to do a lot of subtle shirt wiping if you want to keep the phone looking good. Like most glass-centric gadgets, the Fire Phone is also particularly susceptible to damage. I haven't dropped the device once, but if I look closely, I can already see some small hairline scratches starting to show up on the back panel.

The Fire Phone's 4.7-in. 720p LCD display is decent: It's a lower resolution than the 1080p (and Quad HD) screens gracing most flagship phones these days, but at 315 pixels per inch, it looks crisp and sharp. It's not going to win any awards for "Most Stunning Display on a Smartphone," but it's given me no cause for complaint.

The Fire Phone comes with either 32GB or 64GB of storage, depending on which model you purchase.

The weird and wild world of Fire OS

What really sets the Fire Phone apart from most smartphones is its software. Amazon's Fire OS uses the open-source version of Android as its foundation, but you'd never know it from using the device.

At the Fire Phone's core is a carousel-based home screen similar to what you'll see on a Kindle Fire tablet, with a series of large icons you can swipe through horizontally. Each icon represents an app or service the system thinks you might want to use.

Amazon Fire Phone
At the Fire Phone's core is a carousel-based home screen with a series of large icons you can swipe through horizontally.

Beneath each icon is a scrolling list of related content. With certain icons, the list functions as a built-in preview of sorts, showing info like upcoming appointments on your calendar or recent emails from your inbox.

More often, though, it's reminiscent of the "you might also like"-style suggestions peppered throughout Amazon's website. On many icons, in fact, the list actually includes Amazon products -- apps you might want to download, music and movies you might want to purchase, and even physical products you might want to order. (You can turn those suggestions off if you dig through the phone's settings, but the option is a bit buried and there's no outward indication to the user that it exists.)

Long-pressing any app will pin it to the front of the carousel, but beyond that, there's no way to organize the items -- which makes it rather challenging to find what you want. Using the home screen feels kind of like spinning a wheel on a game show and hoping you land on the right spot. The icons are also unlabeled, so it's often hard to tell what many of them represent.

The Fire Phone's home screen isn't exactly easy on the eyes, either: It uses a dull patterned-gray background and there's no way to swap that out for a more attractive or personalized wallpaper. The same dated-looking motif, complete with heavy drop-shadows all around, carries throughout the entire OS.

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