5 ways Amazon's Fire Phone could sizzle or fizzle

amazon fire phone carousel
Image: Susie Ochs

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Amazon’s Fire Phone arrived a little over halfway into my summer vacation, which is a fun time to test out a smartphone. In the last couple days, I’ve had tons of chances to capture memories with the phone’s 13-megapixel camera, and test the turn-by-turn navigation while steering a rental car around unfamiliar streets. But I’m still in the process of working out who, if anyone, should pull the trigger on Amazon’s very first foray into the crowded smartphone market.

TechHive’s full review will post early next week, but for now, these are some of the things I’m most focused on while testing the Fire Phone. Got any burning questions of your own? Please let me know in the comments.

Can I handle the reduced set of apps?

The thing I’m the most worried about is having to buy all my Fire Phone apps from the Amazon Appstore. Amazon’s Fire OS is based on Android but it’s been changed enough that Google does not allow Amazon to use stock Android apps like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Hangouts. It doesn’t even have an official YouTube client, or the Google Play Store. And of the dozen apps I use the most on my iPhone, how many will be available, or with close-enough equivalents?

appstore paypal firephone

PayPal is on the way, but some of the other apps I use constantly (Timehop, YouTube, and RunKeeper among them) are still missing. 

So far it’s like shopping in a little convenience store instead of a supermarket—most of the staple categories are represented, but you’re not going to get a lot of choice within those smaller aisles, and they might not have your brand. Email is a great example. Amazon’s Email app handles my Gmail account more or less OK. But even on my iPhone I use the Gmail app because it’s the absolute best at doing Gmail, and so far I haven’t come to terms with not having it here. I haven’t gotten my Exchange account working, since I’m actually on vacation this week so the only thing I tried is just copying the same settings I use on my other phone. When that didn’t work, I wanted to try the OWA app that I’ve used on both Android and iOS before I submit a helpdesk ticket, but it’s not in the store.

So I’m really going to be paying attention to what I’m giving up app-wise if I go with the Fire Phone. Amazon’s timing is really bad here—anyone switching to this from Android or iOS is going to be voluntarily limiting their app choice pretty severely. For a tablet like the Kindle Fire HDX, not having access to your core suite of apps could be forgivable, since a lot of people use their tablets for entertainment. But a phone you carry with you every day is different.

Will the Maps app be better than Apple’s?

After all the crap Apple got when iOS 6’s brand-new Maps app was kind of broken at launch, Amazon has to get this right.

appstore firephone maps

Driving directions have been great so far. (Click to enlarge.)

The maps themselves, with data from Nokia, look just fine, and so far I’ve gotten good driving directions around Milwaukee and its many fine suburbs. The voice is clear and tells me exactly what streets to turn on, and it readjusts the route quickly every time I veer off the path.

Of course, driving directions aren’t the only things we use maps on our cell phones for, so over the next couple days, I’ll also take some time to drill into public transportation and walking options. They’re both present, but they need to work, ideally as well as Google Maps. You can't ask the voice-activated digital assistant to get you directions somewhere, which is a strike against Amazon's app already.

Is Dynamic Perspective awesome or just a gimmick?

I like reading while lying down (OK, I just like lying down), so I often have to lock the orientation to keep my iPhone in portrait mode. The Fire Phone tracks your head’s location on X, Y, and Z axes with infrared cameras in all four corners of the screen, and once the novelty wears off, I can’t wait to see if Dynamic Perspective can solve these little problems, or if it’s just a pretty gimmick.

So far I’m still getting used to the fact that Dynamic Perspective is only used by some apps, and I probably look weird tilting my phone or craning my head around to see if anything happens onscreen. All for the science, my friends.

How does the camera stack up to the iPhone?

Amazon didn’t skimp out on the Fire Phone’s camera. The app is a little bare bones, but the pictures seem great. And you can snap away knowing all the photos are backed up to your Amazon account. I haven’t tested it everywhere I want to test it yet, but for low-light photos at the Milwaukee Public Museum, it performed admirably, and gave me helpful pointers on when I might want to use HDR.

firephone dinosaur hdr Susie Ochs

The Fire Phone suggested I use HDR to capture this gruesome carnage at the museum's dinosaur exhibit. 

I tried pressing the shutter buttons on the Fire Phone and my iPhone 5c at the same time, and the iPhone shot a little faster. But pressing the button on the side of the Fire Phone to launch the camera is downright decadent. Having to press the iPhone’s home button and then swipe up on the camera icon feels so slow in comparison.

Taking pictures is one of the things I absolutely use my cell phone for the most, so I can’t wait to finish putting the Fire Phone’s camera to the test.

Are the bonuses worth the trade-offs?

My colleague Jared Newman mentioned in his first impressions that it took him a while to realize that since the Fire Phone doesn’t have Android’s back button, you have to swipe up from the bottom edge of the screen to go back. I smiled when I read that, because that was the first thing I asked Mayday, and I had an answer in seconds. Mayday is great for getting to know Fire OS’s quirks, and will absolutely save me some Googling.

firephone hand email carousel

The way the carousel shows message previews is neat, but the actual Email app isn't anything to write home about. 

And Mayday is just one of the bonuses Amazon packed into the Fire Phone. I used Firefly to identify a scene in the movie Cars, and I got not only a list of the actors in the scene and the name of the song playing in the background, but also trivia about how Pixar wanted to license Chuck Berry’s version of “Route 66” for the film, but the track was so obscure that Berry’s own record label didn’t know it existed. This is far more delightful than having one-tap access to adding a DVD of Cars to my Amazon cart, and it’s something that’s going to keep me Firefly-ing everything I can. (And eventually I’m sure I’ll add at least some of it to my Amazon cart.)

The free year of Prime, the free music and TV shows you can stream right out of the box, the Kindle lending library, even the high-quality camera—those are all nice, but I’m not sure they’ll be enough to make up for the Appstore’s weaker selection, or to attract enough customers that developers will make Fire OS a priority. Kickstarting a phone ecosystem from nothing is both amazing and probably too tall an order, but Amazon’s already taken some big steps.

This story, "5 ways Amazon's Fire Phone could sizzle or fizzle" was originally published by TechHive.

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