Amazon is at its best when it's either less expensive or simpler than its competitors. Its core Prime delivery service succeeds on both measures: It undercuts many other retailers and makes it effortlessly easy to compare, buy, and receive products quickly. The Kindle focuses on ease, making it simple to buy and easy to carry a library of books. The Kindle Fire costs less than the iPad, and has an simpler interface than its competitors for those focused on media and light gaming.
Amazon's Fire Phone ($199 for 32GB, including a free year of Amazon Prime), on the other hand, 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. As with the company's other devices, it's a no-brainer if you exist entirely in Amazon's digital media world. But I can't recommend it over an iPhone 5s or the LG G3.
Physical Design, Call Quality, and Networking
I'm really happy to see a flagship phone in a one-hand-friendly form factor. The Fire Phone is a rock-solid, black slab at 5.5 by 2.6 by 0.35 inches (HWD) and 5.6 ounces. With a glass back and curved matte plastic bezels, it feels like a cross between an iPhone and a Moto X, and that's a compliment, as both are well-built phones. It's not light, though; there's something leaden about it. There's a single physical Home button below the bright 1,280-by-720, 4.7-inch IPS LCD screen, as well as something peculiar about the front of the phone: Four cameras, one in each corner, to help make the Dynamic Perspective tricks work. Stereo speakers and a standard micro USB port are on the bottom; a side button works both to launch the camera and Amazon's Firefly product-recognition system.
The Fire Phone is an AT&T exclusive; you cannot buy it unlocked, and the carrier is pushing two-year contracts and Next plans over no-contract sales. It doesn't have to be, though. With quad-band GSM, HSPA+ 42 on five bands, and nine bands of LTE, it would work perfectly on T-Mobile. So why the exclusive? I'll explain in a second. First, call quality:
If you like sidetone, the echo of your own voice in your ear, you'll love the Fire Phone's call quality. I love sidetone—if I don't have enough of it, I yell a lot. The earpiece is very loud and full, even a little better than the LG G3. Transmissions through the microphone sound very warm, but intensely noisy situations can cause skips and a computerized-sounding effect as the noise cancellation struggles to catch up. The speakerphone is nice and loud, if a little hollow, both during sending and receiving; it's perfectly usable outdoors.
Wi-Fi performance is awesome at short distances: At up to 25 feet from our Lab's Meraki router running 802.11n, it reliably outperformed a Samsung Galaxy S5 on download speeds. Further out than about 50 feet, though, the S5 showed slightly better performance. We're still testing the battery and will update the review when it's complete.
The Fire Phone runs Fire OS 3.5, which is still the world's most heavily skinned version of Android. Make no mistake, it's Android (4.2.2, to be exact), just with none of Google's consumer-facing features or apps. Yes, you can sideload APK files onto the phone via USB, and they'll run. But really, if you're the APK-sideloading type, just buy a Nexus 5.
Like on Kindle Fire HDX tablets, the Fire Phone starts with a carousel of recently used apps with relevant content below each one. That could be recent emails, recently captured photos, recently viewed Web pages, music to buy, video to buy, apps to buy, or items to buy.
Every screen in the OS has a left panel and a right panel, accessed by tilting or swiping the phone. The left panel tends to contain what you'd find on a menu. In the launcher, that means Amazon's categories: Apps, Games, Web, Music, Photos, Books, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Docs, Shop, and Prime. The right panel has extra information: notifications in the main UI, X-Ray in the music and video players, or a list of file attachments in the email app.
Swipe down from the top and you get a Notifications and Quick Settings pane. Swipe up and you'll see a standard app tray, with icons you can move around. (There's no equivalent of Android's widgets.) Like many built-in apps, it can be set to show the content you have on the device or everything loaded into Amazon's cloud, which you can download on demand.
It's slick and tactile, and it's not quite like any other interface out there right now. But we have a lot of smartphone interfaces out there right now. I'm not convinced we need another one.