If a physical Amazon Store existed, it’d be a Barnes & Noble grafted onto a Best Buy bolted onto a Costco attached to a Wal-Mart soldered to a Sharper Image duct-taped to a Sports Authority glued to whatever store sells a tub filled with 1,500 live ladybugs. It would be bigger than the Mall of America.
Instead of building that store, Amazon has created the Fire Phone (aka AMAFON), which is only available on AT&T and costs $200 with a two-year contract. In the world of AMAFON, everything around you exists to be bought on Amazon. Just point the phone at something that you want to buy, and the phone will do its best to find it in Amazon’s store and dump it into your always-eager virtual shopping cart. The Fire phone essentially decentralizes the entire concept of a retail store. If you’ve ever wondered if Amazon has been planning a brick-and-mortar strategy, well, this is it.
The key is the phone’s marquee app: Firefly, an everything-scanner. You launch Firefly, point the phone’s camera or microphone at something, and wait a couple of seconds. When it works—which you’ll know if it did when a bunch of digital fireflies swarm the object on screen—a pop-up notification appears. If the item is available on Amazon, tapping that notification lets you buy the object ASAP and get it delivered to your house within two days. If you’re more patient than that, you can simply add the item to your cart or a wishlist.
Firefly does incredibly well at identifying book covers with its camera. It’s also very good at recognizing product packages. A jar of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard and a bottle of Tabasco sauce were immediate hits, even when I just held them up and pointed the phone at the front label. It can scan phone numbers, URLs from business cards and signs, QR codes, and bar codes. Point Firefly at a phone number or a link, and it prompts you to call or text the number, save it to your contact list, or visit the URL. When you successfully scan an item, it’s added to a queue in the Firefly app you can revisit later.
The music, movie, and TV-scanning features are excellent as well. In music mode, it provides a link to download recognized songs via Amazon Music or buy the CD or vinyl. You can also scan the audio of a TV show, which brings up the series, episode number, the time code, and the actors appearing in that scene. In the Firefly queue, you get a link to the IMDb entry for that show and, of course, the ability to buy it on Amazon Video or on Blu-ray. Impressively, it can also work for live TV shows (albeit with less info about the program) and during commercial breaks. While scanning the audio for a live baseball game and a live soccer game, Firefly correctly identified the programs as “MLB Baseball” and “Futbol Mexicano Primera Division,” but without team information. It offered to search the Web.If you’ve ever wondered if Amazon has been planning a brick-and-mortar strategy, well, this is it.
Firefly did have trouble recognizing handwritten notes, no matter how neatly written. It also doesn’t get phone numbers right all of the time, so you’ll need to make sure to correct them if you add them to your contacts. Identifying foreign-language dubs of movies was also a weak spot. The Spanish-dubbed version of Snakes on a Plane (¡Serpentes en un Avión!) baffled Firefly.Firefly does incredibly well at identifying book covers with its camera. It’s also very good at recognizing product packages. Ariel Zambelich/WIRED
Most of my Firefly scanning was done at home, but I decided to put it to the test by bringing the phone to Best Buy, scanning a bunch of random stuff, and seeing what the savings would be on Amazon. I found that Firefly had trouble when game boxes, CDs, and Blu-ray discs were in those plastic security containers, or when their covers were obscured by stickers and price tags. Of the ten items I tried to scan in the store—TVs, stereo equipment, games, movies, music, and networking gear—only three were identified by Firefly, and those required scanning the bar codes. Once I manually searched for the non-Firefly-identified items, Amazon’s price was lower for every item. I’d have saved nearly $61 if I’d bought everything on Amazon. That was only about 1 percent savings on the total scan-fest ($4,825 vs. $4,764), but Amazon did have significantly lower prices on all the CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays I checked.
Surprisingly, I didn’t get any strange looks or comments from the Best Buy employees while I was performing my scan-fest. They must have thought I was super-into taking photos of product boxes.
But it’s unfair to peg this phone solely as a device for buying a bunch of shit on Amazon. Even if it’s largely designed for buying things, it doesn’t force you to. At its core, it’s a decent smartphone with a few unique features, some shortcomings, and major deal-sweeteners. Like Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX tablets, the Fire Phone has “Mayday,” a video-chat help service that provides 24/7 assistance. But here’s the big perk: You get a free year’s worth of Amazon Prime—movie streaming, music streaming, some free Kindle books, and two-day shipping—and $10 worth of free apps just for buying it. If you already pay for Prime, Amazon tacks on a free year after your paid subscription expires. That’s a good deal. In fact, it’s one of the best things about this phone.
One of the other unique features on the Fire Phone is “Dynamic Perspective.” Inside certain apps, this visual trick is applied to give onscreen objects a sense of depth and a 3-D look; you can “peer around” onscreen objects and peek around corners in some games without touching the screen. The Fire Phone’s menu icons, lock screens, maps, and a few games support these tricks. To do this, it uses four cameras on the front of the phone to track the position of your face relative to the screen. Tilting the phone has the same effect, and I found myself doing that instead of moving my head. It’s a gimmick now, but there is potential for future games to make better use of Dynamic Perspective’s sorcery. I wasn’t feeling the magic with the launch offerings, but some of the lock screens are pretty cool. You can turn all the effects off in the “Configure Low Motion Settings” menu.
There are gesture controls in the mix that are more useful, designed to make the phone easier to use with one hand without touching the screen. With a quick flip to the left or right, the phone displays context-sensitive menus depending on the app you’re in; the best use of it is in email, where a right-flip lists all the attachments in your inbox or shows a message thread. You can also tilt the phone slightly to surface information in some apps and the home screen: Remaining battery life, star ratings for apps and music, that sort of thing. In fact, the slight tilt is the only way to see the battery life indicator or the connection bars at all, which is odd.The phone’s case is not impressive. It’s just a cheap, black rectangle with an Amazon logo on the back. Ariel Zambelich/WIRED
Its 13-megapixel camera, which has an F2.0 aperture and optical stabilization, is among the best smartphone cameras I’ve used. It excels in low light, its HDR mode is excellent, and its lens captures shallow depth of field. There’s also a “Lenticular” setting that lets you shoot a sequence of photos, and the phone creates an animated GIF out of them. You also get free cloud storage and backup for all photos shot with the phone. Those are great features. Less great is the camera’s minimum focus distance; you’ll need to be at least half a foot away from your subject for the AF system to work. It’s better for landscape shots than it is for extreme close-ups, and the shutter isn’t as fast to fire as it is on the iPhone 5s.
Like the company’s tablets, the Fire Phone runs the Fire OS operating system, which is a heavily customized version of Android. That means it has its own app ecosystem that isn’t as robust as those of iOS or Android. You download everything from the Amazon Appstore, which means you’re missing some of the big titles in the Google Play Store: Google Maps, YouTube, Google Now, and Google Drive, for example. Still, there are 185,000 compatible apps available in Amazon’s own store, and Instagram and Uber were just added to the mix.
No Google Maps means you’ll have to download MapQuest or use the phone’s built-in Maps app, which is solid. It has spoken turn-by-turn directions and public-transportation information, although the latter requires a tap to see the trains or buses that stop at each station. Dynamic Perspective effects are also enabled in the Maps app, with 3D landmarks that appear to pop out of the screen.
The phone’s case is not impressive. It’s just a cheap, black rectangle with an Amazon logo on the back. True to its name, the Fire Phone gets hot. When the battery dipped below 30 percent or I used Firefly a lot, the back of the phone heated up. Also, its side buttons—volume controls and a button to launch the camera (or with a long press, Firefly)—are too close together and similarly shaped. Different textures or shapes for each one would have helped operate the phone by feel.
The included earbuds are more ambitious. They attach together magnetically at the butt end to prevent tangling, and the scheme actually works. The earphones themselves are similar to Apple’s “EarPods” in terms of design and build materials. They sound surprisingly good, but they’re also slick plastic and are less comfortable than rubber-tipped earbuds. The phone’s built-in speakers, on the other hand, were a bit of a disappointment. There are two on the bottom and one on the top, and they get very loud. But describing them as “tinny” is an understatement. The sound like something that comes out of a clock-radio.You can make (and take) calls with the Amazon Fire Phone. Ariel Zambelich/WIRED
AMAFON runs on a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU with 2GB RAM—not the latest components, but plenty fast and fluid. Its 4.7-inch, 1,280 x 720 screen also won’t win any spec battles, but its 315 pixels per inch display looks sharp. Its battery life will get you through the day, but that’s about it. With heavy use, it got me around 8 to 10 hours per charge. For some reason, it does not do Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which is something to keep in mind if you were planning to use it with a fitness tracker. It does support Bluetooth 3.0, however.
As with all Amazon hardware, the Fire Phone is a conduit. That’s not a surprise. What is surprising is the cost: Amazon normally keeps prices low to woo consumers into its ecosystem, and this phone is less of a technological statement than other phones that cost $200 with a two-year contract.
You buy iPhones for the ease-of-use, the app ecosystem, and the design language. You buy Android phones for the freedom of choice and the tinkerability. You’d buy this phone for the free Amazon Prime and a quick fix for shoppin’ fever. It’s not a bad phone, it just isn’t in the same league as a top-tier Android phone or iPhone. When you look past its purchasing powers and its fringe benefits—which can’t be ignored—what you have left is a relatively unexciting handset.