Review: Amazon Fire phone
The first time I used Amazon’s mobile application I was flabbergasted.
I used the app to scan a bar code at Wal-Mart. Not only did it properly identify the toy in my hand, I was able to order it for overnight delivery with a few more taps. Oh, and I saved $8. With order confirmation in hand, I immediately ran over to my wife, who was a few aisles away. I picked up another product to demonstrate. She shared in my amazement. From that point forward, our approach to shopping was forever changed.
The impact that Amazon (AMZN) has had on the way people buy things is difficult to overstate. According to ComScore, 73.3 percent of smartphone users in the U.S. accessed Amazon’s mobile websites in December 2013, the height of the winter holiday shopping season. That’s more than 114 million people.
Here’s the rub: according to the same report, Amazon’s dedicated app—the one with the barcode scanning feature, which isn’t available on the company’s website—was only used by 22.6 percent of smartphone users in the U.S. That’s still a lot of people, and it all results in revenue for Amazon. But people made 17.6 billion trips to U.S. stores in November and December 2013, according to ShopperTrak, suggesting that there is plenty of money still on the table and, for an e-tailer like Amazon, ample opportunity to turn the world into a giant showroom.
Amazon’s first smartphone, which it calls simply “Fire,” is the company’s latest physical device to help it reach this quasi-digital nirvana. The handset, which will begin shipping on Friday and which the company announced with much fanfare in June, is loaded with Amazon’s own applications and services—taking a page from Google’s Android playbook, or perhaps its own Kindle one—to entice people to embrace a world where Amazon rules.
On the hardware front, the phone keeps up with its peers. It has a 4.7-inch high-definition display, a 13-megapixel camera, 32 or 64 gigabytes of storage and two gigabytes of memory. It will retail for $199 or $299, based on storage selection, with a two-year AT&T service contract. (When I pressed Amazon regarding the length of the U.S. carrier’s exclusivity, I was met with annoyed smiles and “no comment.”)
Nonetheless, today’s smartphones are most differentiated by their software, and the Fire’s operating system, a stripped version of Google’s Android dubbed FireOS, comes loaded with access to Amazon’s Instant Video, Kindle books, and Prime Music marketplaces, courtesy of a clever promotion that gives every new Fire owner a free one-year membership to Amazon’s Prime service. Still, a phone packed with Amazon services isn’t enough to turn the world into a show floor. That’s where Firefly comes in.
The phone’s flagship feature is a scanning application that can identify more than 100 million different products, from food to household items to media such as music, movies and games. It can scan physical items using the phone’s camera and pinpoint more slippery products—think music, television shows, or movies—using the phone’s microphone.
In my experience testing the app, I found that Firefly was flawless in zeroing in on book or video game covers, but struggled when tasked with identifying common items such as food or cleaning supplies. When I scanned the front of a box of Kellogg’s Special K Cracker Chips, the app identified it as a box of Blueberry Special K Bars. (A second attempt did the trick.) When I tried to scan a Microsoft Xbox One game controller or an Apple iPhone 5S, Firefly didn’t recognize them at all. (Message received, Jeff Bezos.)
After Firefly identifies an item, it presents you with the option to purchase it directly from Amazon. The company also allows third-party developers to integrate with Firefly—for example, iHeartRadio will create a radio station based off of a song identified by the app—extending its role beyond that of a point-of-sale system.
During the phone’s debut, Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, worked to paint the Fire as a different kind of smartphone. Firefly helps, but the “unique user experience” he alluded to comes from a feature called Dynamic Perspective—in essence a three-dimensional interface that Amazon has been working on for four years.
The use of “3D” on phones isn’t new—see the sleight-of-hand employed by HTC’s Evo 3D, or the parallax effect in Apple’s iOS. The Fire approaches it differently by using the phone’s four front-facing cameras to track the location of your face relative to the screen. Instead of moving your hand to shift the perspective of the items on the phone’s display, you can move your head.
It’s impressive the first time you experience it; a few days later, the feeling wears off, and you’ll notice information slipping off the display in odd ways. (Getting the status bar to remain on screen long enough to view battery percentage was a balancing act worthy of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. Before anyone writes in, yes, there is a setting for making the status bar a permanent fixture, but critically, it’s disabled by default.)
And here’s the kicker: After I disabled Dynamic Perspective, the overall performance of the phone vastly improved. The stuttering behavior I experienced as I whizzed through the app carousel? The delay in how quickly the lock screen appeared after I pushed the phone’s wake button? Essentially gone. (The camera’s sluggish burst mode still left me wanting.) I suspect I’ll find the phone’s battery life improved as well, though it’s difficult to tell —it varied wildly during my testing, from 11 hours parked in my car’s cup holder to a full day that included streaming cartoons for my kids.
If you’re wondering, Amazon’s App Store carries most of the big-name apps we’ve come to expect such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Notably missing: Starbucks and Foursquare, two staples on my home screen. (Your mileage in this highly personal area may vary.)
The moment you pick up Amazon’s Fire, it’s clear that the phone’s primary reason to exist is to sell Amazon’s products and services. In truth, that’s hardly different from the smartphone in your pocket today—but the Fire is less subtle about it. Will people be put-off by that harsh reality? Beats me. I’m too busy thinking about the day when I’ll be able to scan an item and have it delivered to my exact location by Amazon drone. I can’t wait to share that amazement with my wife.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.