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Hands on: Amazon's Fire Phone makes a strange first impression

As I hold Amazon's heavily hyped Fire Phone, I find myself struggling to come up with words to describe my initial impressions.

I think a single syllable may be the best way to sum up my thoughts on the phone so far -- and that syllable is "odd."

In a world inundated with increasingly similar smartphones, Amazon's Fire Phone is decidedly different. It's like no other phone you've used before. The question is whether that's actually a good thing -- and after my first 24 hours with the device, I'm honestly not so sure.

Amazon Fire Phone

The Fire Phone -- which is available now for $200 to $300 with a two-year contract from AT&T (yes, only AT&T) -- runs Amazon's custom Fire OS software. Fire OS uses the open source version of Android as its foundation, but you'd never realize that as a consumer. For all intents and purposes, this is an Amazon -- not an Android -- phone.

That's apparent from the second you power up the device. Rather than any traditional type of home screen, the Fire Phone uses a carousel-centric setup similar to what Amazon introduced on its Kindle Fire tablets. Basically, it's a bunch of big icons you can swipe through horizontally, each representing an app or service the phone thinks you might want to use.

Beneath each app is a scrolling list of related content, which frequently brings to mind the "you might also like"-style suggestions peppered throughout Amazon's website.

Amazon Fire Phone Carousel

The Fire Phone's marquee feature is something called Dynamic Perspective. It's a system in which four front-facing cameras monitor your movements and then adjust on-screen elements accordingly.

It sounds a little strange -- and it is. In the demo provided during the phone's initial setup, I found it to be mildly novel: A planet appeared on the screen and moved with a 3D-like effect as I tilted the phone or moved my head. Kinda neat, right?

Amazon File Phone

Unfortunately, "mildly novel" turns to "moderately irritating" pretty quickly. Dynamic Perspective is built into the Fire Phone's main interface, so parts of the UI flicker in and out of view with the most subtle movements of your head or hand.

That means elements I'd like to see, like the main status bar with the time and battery level, aren't usually visible and I have to tilt the phone at just the right angle to get them to appear. At the same time, elements like subtitles on menus show up for a split second here and there when I'm inadvertently moving my head or hand. It's all a little disorienting and feels like flash for the sake of flash -- and at the expense of function.

Amazon File Phone

The whole Fire Phone UI is going to take some getting used to -- which is okay, but I'm just not convinced yet that it's actually sensible or intuitive. There's no consistent Back button, for instance; instead, when you want to move back a step and there's no command on screen to do so, you have to swipe upward from the bottom of the phone's surface, with your finger starting on the bezel beneath the screen. When you want to view your full selection of apps, you also swipe upward on the screen -- only then you start at the edge of the display instead of beneath it.

Confused? Me, too. And there are no on-screen cues for any of this stuff.

Amazon Fire Phone - Back

Confusion 101: The case of the hidden Back command

Similarly, the Fire Phone has two hidden panels that are available in some parts of the system: one that swipes in from the left and includes "quick links" relevant to your current activity, and one that swipes in from the right and includes additional information and options. Again, there are no on-screen cues to indicate when those panels are present, and it's not entirely clear what sorts of options you'll find in either place at any given time.

(You can also get to those panels by tilting the phone, incidentally -- when they're available, that is -- but like many features along those lines, that strikes me as a concept that's cooler on paper than in practice. More often than not, I'm finding it's far easier just to swipe on the screen to get where I want to go.)

Amazon File Phone

As for the phone itself, it feels kind of like a less refined version of something between the Nexus 4 and iPhone 4. The device is boxy and black, with glass on its front and back and a rubberized plastic trim on the perimeter. The Dynamic Perspective cameras stick out like exposed screws on its face -- one in each corner, on what can only be described as generously sized bezels -- creating a design that almost feels more like a prototype than a polished product.

Amazon Fire Phone (front)

So, yeah: I think it's safe to say my first day with the Fire Phone has left me feeling more baffled than anything. But I firmly believe that the true test of a product is what it's like to use in the real world, over the course of several days -- and that's true more than ever for a product so new and so different from the norm. So we'll see how my impressions evolve.

There's a lot more to explore with the Fire Phone, too, ranging from its Firefly feature -- which promises to identify any movie, music, or physical product and provide you with detailed info on the spot -- to the ins and outs of the Amazon ecosystem (remember, this phone uses Amazon's own services and can't connect to the regular Google Play Store for apps, so the selection's significantly more limited than what most of us are used to).

Speaking of ecosystem, I'm curious to see how the tight integration with Amazon's storefront affects the day-to-day usage experience. Right now, I can see it being both a positive and a negative: On the one hand, it's easier than ever to pull up streaming videos or to order products that'll land at your doorstep a day later (especially since the Fire Phone includes a free year of Amazon Prime service). On the other hand, I'm not sure how I feel about my phone acting like a pushy salesman. Do I really want Amazon-centric purchasing suggestions in my face all the time?

Beyond those questions, I'm looking forward to spending more time with Dynamic Perspective to see what (if any) kind of meaningful value it adds to the user experience -- especially when it comes to third-party apps that are integrating it into their own interfaces.

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All in all, this isn't your average phone -- and it's not the kind of device I can fully assess with just a few days of use. So I'll be living with the Fire Phone for a while before sharing any final thoughts.

Stay tuned for my in-depth review.

UPDATE: Fire Phone deep-dive review: 2 weeks with a weird device

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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