When Amazon dropped the no-contract, unlocked version of its Fire Phone to just $200, I figured the handset required a second chance. But now that I actually have the device, the value is less clear. On the one hand, yeah, Fire Phone is only $200. But it is also crippled by a gimmicky and non-intuitive user experience that only adds to my doubts about the viability of this non-standard sort-of Android device.
And that's too bad. If one were able to strip away Amazon's Fire OS—made all the more bizarre on this device by its reliance on the user physically tilting the phone in the air in order to display and hide on-screen menus—and replace it with stock Android 5.0, you'd probably arrive at a pretty decent upper-mid-level handset. But we'll never know for sure.
To be clear, the issues I'm presenting here as reason to avoid Fire Phone have nothing to do with my initial concerns with the handset. You can check out my Amazon Fire Phone Preview for those complaints, which amounted to the Fire Phone being more of a portable doorway into Amazon.com than it is a smart phone. But I got a little excited when Amazon introduced an unlocked version of the device and then dropped the price to just $200 (from $650). I mean, how bad could it be?
It's pretty bad.
I've used Fire OS on a variety of Kindle Fire tablets, so I get the whole carousel thing, and while I'm no fan of that UI, I figured I could get used to it on a phone. But that's not the problem. In addition to having a non-standard user interface, and no support for the Google Play ecosystem, the Fire Phone version of Fire OS also adds what Amazon calls "one-handed shortcuts," ways to access menus by tilting or swiveling the phone in the air in front of you. And I'm sorry, but they're a dumb way to interact with your phone.
For example, on Android, iOS and Windows Phone, you can swipe down from the top of the screen at any time to display a system menu of sorts. Fire Phone does support such a gesture. But you are taught in a Setup-based interactive video tutorial to display this menu by swiveling the phone physically in space. Then you do it again to dismiss that menu. Awful.
Ditto for Fire Phone's unique side menus, which appear on the left and right edges of the screen. A swipe works—so normal!—but you can also tilt the phone to make them appear (and disappear) and if you move the phone at all while you're viewing them—the left one, anyway, which is all text—there's a weird, blurry 3D-type effect on the text that is absolutely horrible. It's like your vision is going bad.
I know what you're thinking: Just use the swipe gestures and don't worry about it. The problem with that approach is that these edge UIs appear if you move the phone just the right way. And then there's that blurriness on the left-sided menu.
Fortunately, you can turn this junk off, though you really have to look for the settings. (Hint: They're in Settings, Manage Accessibility, Low Motion. Your eyes—and your sanity—will thank me.)
OK, so I don't usually focus on something so specific in a first impressions article. But that's ultimately what my first impression was: This thing is just ... weird. And even when you disable all those terrible gesture-based options, it's still ... weird. I'm not sure the carousel UI works, period, but it seems to make even less sense on a phone because a phone isn't used like a tablet, where always wanting new or recently-used content to surface right at the front arguably makes sense. This is an odd thing to admit, but a grid of icons actually makes more sense than this mess.
Physically, the Fire Phone is also a bit weird. It has Gorilla Glass on both the front and the back, which means it will always be smudged, and the hard edge of the glass on the back seems unrefined. The sides of the device are a very pleasant and grippy rubber, and that would have made a fine choice for the whole body. Fire Phone is also thick and heavy, and weighted ... wrong.
The Fire Phone has physical power, volume and camera buttons, which I like, but they're all in the wrong places, so no matter what phone you're coming from, you'll find the button placements off. There is a physical home button, and I'm surprised Amazon didn't stick that in some non-standard place, like the back or something.
I haven't tested the camera yet, but I'm of course curious about that. The screen seems fine, and the speakers are loud and clear: I got caught up testing an episode of The League while taking notes and ended up watching the entire episode, which was hilarious, but more important was gorgeous looking and sounded great.
The Fire Phone does come with what appears to be a nice pair of non-twistable headphones, always appreciated, and of course you do get one year of Amazon Prime, which is worth $100, further adding to the value here.
But neither of these niceties of course outweighs the burden of having to use this phone every day, but I suppose at this price you could consider it a low-cost media player. But on that note, why not just grab a Kindle Fire HD 7 tablet for just $109? Or a Kindle Fire HD 6 for just $99? (Storage. If you're wondering: Both devices only have 8 GB of storage compared to 32 GB in the Fire Phone. And slower processors.)
I don't know.
I'll try to give this thing more time, but my initial reaction to the Fire Phone can be summed up by a story I told long ago on Windows Weekly about a bizarre fast food restaurant in France called Quick Burger. Everything in Quick Burger was so weird, so off, that it was as if the owner had visited the United States once, loved McDonalds, and decided to copy it when he got home. But instead of really researching what made McDonalds work, this guy instead just went by his memory of visiting McDonalds only once. So everything was ... off. Wrong. Weird.
The Fire Phone is like that. It's like some guy at Amazon said, hey, smart phones are popular. I saw a smart phone once. Let's make a smart phone based on this fleeting experience, but never once go and look at the competing platforms to find out what works and what doesn't. Like Quick Burger, the Fire Phone is off. Wrong. Weird.
You can pick up a 32 GB unlocked and contract-free version of Amazon Fire Phone for just $199 right now. Should you? I'm honestly not sure.