Amazon’s new Fire phone got us pretty psyched when it was first announced. But now that we've spent some time with it, the Fire phone is a nightmare in the hand. Not every facet is a disaster, but there are enough basic niceties missing that I have a hard time believing for one second that CEO Jeff Bezos uses this phone as his only device. Unless this is his first smartphone.
It does, however, manage to get one thing right. We'll save the plaudits for the end; first, here are the complaints.
Dynamic Perspective is Amazon’s version of 3-D. A feature so important the company decided it was worth four front-facing cameras dedicated to tracking your face. The cameras aren’t subtle and define the look of the phone without much, if any, benefit. Seeing the lock screen move with the device’s rotation garners about enough enthusiasm to make you say "hmm," but little beyond that.
In fact, Dynamic Perspective isn't the only thing that feels superficial. Almost everything on the phone gets a drop shadow and jiggles around, including some text, but I couldn't see any ostensible value to all these embellishments. It’s one thing to have depth in design, but the Dynamic Perspective makes everything faux 3-D for no payoff. It’s not just skeuomorphic overload. It's actually sort of maddening. (This feature isn't the same as auto-scroll, which I'll address later.)
The Carousel might make sense on a Kindle Fire tablet, but it doesn’t work on a phone. For one, it’s confusing. It’s hard to get an overview of your phone. The layout takes up too much space. On any main view of the phone, you can only see four dock icons and one large icon with its recent activity.
This brings up the second issue, privacy. The Carousel is a privacy nightmare. By default, each item on the Carousel displays its recent activity or recommendations from Amazon that still looks like your history. Whatever the last app you’ve used becomes the first Carousel item. It puts things like the last 12 photos you’ve taken, the most visited websites, and dates and times of when you played games on display for anyone who handles the phone to see.
You can turn off Amazon recommendations from showing up, but your photos and other items will always be on display. Good luck making your phone SFW with this feature front-and-center.
Gestures can be great, but they need to be extremely easy to find and use. Instead of making app settings and extra information a software button, Amazon chose a flick of the entire phone to trigger special functions.
IOS has a shake gesture for "undo," which (while annoying) makes sense, because shaking the phone gets out a little of the user's frustration. The Fire phone's flick gesture is similar, but required to navigate your way through the Fire phone. Flicking feels like smacking an old CRT TV, or blowing in a Nintendo cartridge to get them to work. It's an act of frustration. Amazon totally missed this.
Funnier yet: Sometimes the motion doesn’t register the first time, so even if you mean "flick," this gesture often turns out "frustrated."
Auto-scroll is another feature that uses the accelerometer to make things "easier" for the user. Tilting the device makes web pages scroll based on how the sharply phone. It’s on by default and is by far the worst feature on any phone I've used. Pages just start moving as you begin to read, since you're not normally forced to keep a phone at one specific orientation to read.
Reacting to auto-scroll is when things get crazy, though. Here’s an example: You click on a link, begin reading an article, and the page starts moving. That causes you to overcorrect, sending the page too far forward, then too far back. Doing this can also accidentally register the flick gesture, making miscellaneous settings pop onto the screen.
It’s at this point you'll either turn off all the gestures or throw the phone at the wall.
The iPhone’s limited customization looks like "anything goes" compared to the Fire phone. For example, you can’t change the gray, bumpy textured, main wallpaper of the phone. You also can’t change the color or anything else associated with how the software looks.
You can change the lock screen image, but that’s it.
The reason a lack of customization is such a big deal is because the current graphics and visual design are just eye-bleeding bad. I’m not a designer, and I couldn't make something better. But the visual design feels so dated that it's hard to believe Amazon couldn't.
Side note: There’s also no emoji. Let that sink in.
The Fire phone isn’t attractive, but I don’t think it’s particularly ugly. If anything, it’s wildly plain and industrial-looking. If you can get over the looks, including the five cameras staring at your face, it’s still a hard device to use.
The phone isn’t comfortable to hold. The corners are sharp where the back and sides meet. The back glass is also slippery, but worst of all it gets really hot. I played a slot machine game for about eight minutes and Sonic The Hedgehog for about 12 minutes. By the end, I was constantly shifting my grip to keep my fingers on the back from sweating and getting too hot.
The good thing, if there is one, is GIFs.
At this point, the Fire phone should just be advertised as the GIF phone because nothing else garners a positive reaction. Tucked away in the settings of the camera is a feature that will let you shoot lenticular photos--a series of 11 pictures put together--which are native GIFs.
In testing it out, I was able to snap a series of pictures, hit share, and send the moving image in a text message. The file comes out as a .len format, but that’s part of the GIF family and uploaded to Imgur. It also worked natively on iOS and in Google Hangouts.