Amazon Fire Phone review: now discontinued, still worth buying for cheap?

Amazon Fire Phone header
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
400
inc VAT SIM-free for 32GB version

A cynical, overpriced phone that's full of adverts and is clunky and difficult to use in almost every way

Specifications

Processor: Quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, Screen Size: 4.7in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 13-megapixel, Storage: 32GB / 64GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 139x66x8.9mm, Weight: 160g, Operating system: Amazon Fire OS 3.6

As smartphones get bigger and bigger, they become increasingly difficult to use one-handed. It's partly why Apple has included its new Reachability feature on both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus to help bring the upper part of the screen within comfortable reaching distance. We applaud Amazon, then, for trying to make a phone that's been specifically designed around single-handed use. With its combination of subtle wrist flicks and twists, the Fire Phone is a bold statement on how phones could function in the future. The only problem is that it just doesn't quite work.

Update: the Fire Phone has now been discontinued, but is it worth buying from other retailers or second-hand? 

For its first phone Amazon has taken its Fire 3.6 OS, designed originally for the company's range of wide, landscape-aspect Kindle Fire tablets, and reworked it for a taller, portrait display. The app carousel has now been shrunk to fit the top half of the screen, and shows just one app at a time. Below sits a scrollable list whose content is dependent on the app currently shown.

For instance, you'll get tailored buying recommendations from Amazon for Books, Music, Video and any games you've used recently, or a list of your most recently visited web pages and emails for the Silk browser and email apps. There's also a quick launcher bar at the bottom of the display that can hold up to four app shortcuts - just like most Android launchers.

^ Instead of buying recommendations, we'd much prefer to see things we already own appear on this list

It's an interesting idea, but splitting the screen into so many distinct sections actually makes it very fiddly to use regardless of whether you're using it with two hands or with one. For instance, you can only scroll through the carousel by swiping the top half of the display, which is already a bit of stretch despite its sensibly-sized 4.7in screen, and you often need to scroll through quite a lot of apps to find what you want as every app you use gets added to the left-hand side of the carousel. Move your thumb anywhere else and you'll be scrolling up and down the recommendations list.

Complicating matters are the menu panels which slide out from the right and left edges of the screen. These can be triggered by swipes from the edge or by tilting the phone sharply left or right. Not only are the movements a little temperamental, but it also leaves a very small amount of room for your thumb to accurately scroll through the carousel, and we were constantly bringing up the additional menus instead of moving through the main menu.

We were also disappointed that the lower list for the Books, Music and Video apps was so consumer-focused. We'd much rather see albums we'd recently listened to or films and TV shows we'd recently watched from our Amazon Prime Instant Video account (which you get free for a year if you buy the Fire Phone before the end of 2014) than meaningless buying recommendations. Instead, anything you do start reading and watching gets added to the carousel as its own shortcut, further clogging up that menu.

Opening Books and Video also takes you straight to the respective storefront instead of your own personal account, bombarding you with yet more things to buy rather than the things you actually own. Luckily, you can turn product recommendations off in the settings menu, but this just leaves a blank space below each app icon in the carousel, which isn't a particularly good use of the space.

Meanwhile, the app tray can be accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the phone, or by pressing the home button. However, swiping upwards is also the same action for going back as there's no physical back button. This is less of a problem as the app tray won't appear when you're using an app, but we'd much prefer a physical button.

^ As well as all the apps installed on the phone, the App Tray also lets you access other Amazon apps you own that are stored in the cloud

Swipe down from the top of the phone (or jerk it 90 degrees to the side) and you'll find quick action buttons for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Sync and Settings as well as a torch and Amazon's Mayday support. Mayday first appeared on the Fire HDX tablet and tapping the button instantly connects you to an Amazon technical support advisor over the internet to help you out with how to use the phone.

However, the notification bar won't actually show you any text describing each setting unless you lightly twist the screen to the side. This is Amazon's Peek feature, which is implemented elsewhere on the phone in a number of different apps. For example, when browsing through photos, Peek will show you when the image was taken, and Maps will show you reviews and rating for restaurants and places nearby.

Amazon Fire Phone quick action bar

^ Text describing each Quick Action won't appear unless you tilt the phone to the side and use Amazon's Peak function

This is a great way to help filter out unnecessary information that you might not want to see all the time, but it's needlessly fussy and means you're hardly ever looking at the screen face on.  This is a shame as the 4.7in screen looks great. Our colour calibrator showed it was displaying 90.5 per cent of the sRGB colour gamut, so colours looked rich and punchy, and the screen's high brightness of 549.54cd/m2 meant it was easy to use both in and out of doors.

Black levels were quite high, measuring 0.55cd/m2, so blacks occasionally appeared slightly grey, but the phone's contrast levels were much more promising, measuring 986:1. This helped the screen show a good level of detail in our high contrast test images, and it also allowed us to see the screen clearly from a variety of angles, which is just as well considering so much of it depends on where you're holding it.

The display only has a 1,280x720 resolution, but this still provides plenty of definition for app icons and Amazon's unique Dynamic Perspective feature. By using the phone's gyroscope sensor and the four sensors built into the front of the handset, the Fire Phone can track the phone's orientation and adjust the onscreen action accordingly. For example, move the phone on the lock screen and the pseudo-3D objects will move and shift with your perspective, letting you see behind different layers of the image and around bends and corners.

^ Even flat text is given a semi-3D makeover using the Fire Phone's Dynamic Perspective feature

It's very clever and it works well, particularly in Maps where buildings appear in semi-3D. This gives you a better idea of where you are in relation to your surroundings, but we often found that tilting the phone to see the screen like this was prone to bringing up the notification bar, which made it quite frustrating to use. Likewise, the Dynamic Perspective isn't really essential for anything else on the Fire Phone apart from a few games that come pre-installed. This leaves it feeling more like a fun novelty than a must-have feature.

Amazon Fire Phone Dynamic Display

^ Maps looked great with the Dynamic Perspective, but it's one of the few apps that actually utilise it

Without these largely frivolous features, the Fire Phone is a rather unspectacular device whose limited array of apps and services just can't compete with other similarly-priced Android handsets.

This is disappointing, as inside, the Fire Phone has all the makings of a high-end handset. Its quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor gives the phone plenty of speed, and Fire OS 3.5 feels snappy and smooth. Its web performance was equally quick, as it scored 884ms in our SunSpider JavaScript benchmarks. This is just a little way behind other flagship phones such as the Sony Xperia Z3, and it we were able to scroll and pan round The Guardian's media-heavy desktop home page with only minimal signs of judder.

It's more difficult to judge the Fire Phone's graphics performance as our normal 3DMark graphics tests aren't compatible with Fire OS. However, we were able to run 3D games such as Ravensword 2 with no problem at all, so the Fire Phone should be more than capable of handling anything in Amazon's app store.

The phone has a decent battery life, too. In our continuous video playback test, the Fire Phone's 2,400mAh battery lasted 9 hours and 50 minutes with the screen set to half brightness, so it should just about get you through the day on a single charge.

On the back is the Fire Phone's 13-megapixel camera. Outdoors, it took some pretty decent shots, but it's not a standout camera. The sky was also a little overexposed and large expanses of sky were susceptible to a lot of noise. Colours looked very natural, though, and they're certainly good enough for uploading to social networks.

^ Outdoors, the camera produced clear, natural-looking photos, but it couldn't cope well with bright sunshine


^ Images also became much noisier toward the outer edges of the frame, which made background objects look quite fuzzy

The camera also has a HDR mode, but we found its effects were far too harsh. In our test shots, images either appeared bright and milky or extremely gloomy, so we'd recommend leaving it switched off.

^ With HDR mode turned on, colours were dramtically altered and looked far more unnatural than our ordinary shots without HDR


^ HDR also had a tendency to make photos look very gloomy, so we'd recommend keeping this switched off

Aside from taking pictures, you can also use the camera's Firefly technology to identify products (which you can then buy through Amazon, naturally), web and email addresses, phone numbers and QR and bar codes. It worked well enough when we tried this out for ourselves, but it was far better at picking up packaged objects than free-standing ones. It also couldn't identify book spines on a shelf. It's primarily designed to find you a cheaper online price when you're standing in a shop, but you're better off using a search engine and checking more than one retailer.

^ It took less than a couple of seconds to identify packaged objects, but it completely failed to recognise most free standing objects such as staplers, watches and tins of soup

Firefly was also prone to making mistakes when it tried to scan for email addresses, telephone numbers and websites. Sometimes it would only pick up half a URL, for example, or muddle up the order of a phone number depending on how far away we were holding the camera. It also identified the Expert Reviews logo as a Panasonic camera as it appeared as an award logo on its Amazon's product page. This isn't particularly helpful, but the real nail in Firefly's coffin is that there are plenty of Android apps available which perform the same function and work much better, such as Google Goggles.

For instance, when we showed Firefly an old business card, it successfully picked out our email address and phone number, but we had to tap each icon to perform an action, such as adding it to our contacts list, calling that number or composing an email. Google Goggles, by comparison, scanned the whole card and let us add all the available information to a completely new contact entry, which is far more useful and less time-consuming.


Amazon Firefly mistakes updated

^ Firefly did eventually get the right information from our business card, but it was prone to making a lot of mistakes as well, including associating the Expert Reviews logo with a Panasonic camera (we blurred out our details)

Firefly also has Amazon's X-Ray technology built-in to help identify music, films and TV shows. It correctly identified almost every music track we threw at it, from popular bands and singers to film and game soundtracks and even the opening theme to Japanese anime Attack on Titan. It also correctly identified tracks that weren't available on Amazon, such as the main theme to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, instead providing a search option in Silk rather than a product page and price.

Films and TV shows proved more difficult. This is powered by IMDB, but while it could identify western films well enough, foreign films were more hit and miss. It correctly identified Amelie and Battle Royale, for instance, but didn't recognise the Japanese film Departures. We also had trouble getting it to recognise popular British TV shows such as Doctor Who of The Thick of It. American shows such as Breaking Bad, on the other hand, it got almost straight away. It wasn't always completely right, though, as when we watched the pilot episode of the first series of The Office (the American version), Firefly thought it was episode 22 of the second series.  

Ultimately, the Amazon Fire Phone is a deeply frustrating and woefully misconceived handset. Apart from being a cynical money-making machine for Amazon, its clunky OS is difficult to use and offers no benefit over Android or iOS. The Dynamic Perspective display is a needless gimmick and its Firefly camera isn't good enough to rival services elsewhere. It's also expensive, even if you do get a free year of Amazon Prime thrown in as a vague sweetener. It's not broken per se, but you should avoid this at all costs.

Discontinued - should you buy the Fire Phone?

Our original scathing review was written when Amazon stocked the Fire Phone in its own store for £400. According to BBC News, the company has stopped selling it, saying it "has no plans" to restock the device. As a result, you can only find the phone second-hand or from some third-party retailers. 

Pricing varies, we've found some new Fire Phones on sale for £100, which is a massive discount. Good deal, yes? No. Even for £100, none of the features on the Fire Phone, including its shopping features and wacky sensors, make it a more appealing smartphone. At this point, phones such as the third-gen Motorola Moto G starting from £159, are much better value. This is a proper, new phone at a proper price. Other reasonable phones at this low price point include the LG Spirit, LG Leon and Acer Liquid Jade Z, which all have their perks. However, at the sub-£130 price point, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is still by far the best buy, as long as you're happy switching to Vodafone. 

Hardware
Processor Quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
RAM 2GB
Screen size 4.7in
Screen resolution 1,280x720
Screen type IPS
Front camera 2.1-megapixel
Rear camera 13-megapixel
Flash LED
GPS Yes
Compass Yes
Storage 32GB / 64GB
Memory card slot (supplied) None
Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0
NFC Yes
Wireless data 3G, 4G
Size 139x66x8.9mm
Weight 160g
Features
Operating system Amazon Fire OS 3.6
Battery size 2,400mAh
Buying information
Warranty One-year RTB
Price SIM-free (inc VAT) N/A
Price on contract (inc VAT) Free on £33-per-month contract
Prepay price (inc VAT) £400
SIM-free supplier N/A
Contract/prepay supplier www.o2.co.uk
Details www.amazon.co.uk
Part code Amazon Fire Phone

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