Amazon's Fire smartphone dinged by reviewers as gimmicky

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) unveiled its first smartphone last month with much fanfare, promising to shake up a market that it argued has grown stale by introducing new technologies and ways of interacting with mobile devices. Based on early reviews of the Fire phone though, Amazon has a long way to go in convincing consumers that it's worth it to switch from another smartphone platform.

A general consensus among reviewers seems to be that the phone's headline features--including a 3D user interface called Dynamic Perspective and a service called Firefly that lets users identify and buy things--are interesting but gimmicky. Further, the phone's drawbacks, including poor battery life and a lack of a standout design, make the $199 cost seem less palatable.

The Fire phone officially goes on sale Friday, exclusively through AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) for $199 with a two-year contract or for 24 monthly payments of $27.09 through AT&T's Next handset upgrade program. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has left open the door of bringing the phone to international carriers, but nothing has been announced yet.

The Fire phone also comes bundled for a limited time with 12 months of Amazon Prime service, which typically costs $99 annually. Prime includes free, two-day shipping from Amazon, unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Prime Instant Video, unlimited, ad-free streaming and downloading of over 1 million songs and hundreds of playlists, and more. Amazon said existing Prime members who purchase a Fire will get an additional 12 months added to their account for free.

One of the phone's standout features is Dynamic Perspective, which is intended to make navigation easier; the UI also recognizes where a user's head is relative to the device and lets users tilt the phone to scroll through information or get more details in apps. The technology uses four cameras on the front of the Fire Phone to constantly track the user's head. Yet reviewers found the feature to be mostly pointless.

"But in reality, the Fire is the grown-up equivalent of a 9-year-old riding a bike with his hands in the air," Geoffrey Fowler wrote in his Wall Street Journal review. "'Look, Ma, no hands!' It's a neat gimmick, but it won't get you very far."

Fowler added: "The $199 phone is packed with a number of such technological bells and whistles that seem clever, for about a day. Amazon has taken worthwhile steps to simplify using the Android operating system, but on the smartphone fundamentals, the Fire stumbles."

Firefly is another key feature that identifies more than 100 million different items, including books, music and TV episodes, and lets users purchase them with the click of a button. The feature has interesting functionality--letting users go to the StubHub app to buy tickets to a concert based on a  song that is playing, for instance. However, reviewers found Firefly can't consistently recognize what's in front the phone's camera.

"It identified my Dove deodorant as the wrong scent; it turned green tea into citrus; it logged the wrong kind of Trident gum," David Pierce wrote in The Verge. "It identified Michael Lewis' The New New Thing by its large, title-driven cover, but couldn't figure out the small type and barren green cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower."

Pierce noted that "developers have complete access to Firefly's identification abilities--there's lots of potential here. At least, there will be once Amazon gets a whole lot better at figuring out what it is you're looking at."

Pierce also was not high on Dynamic Perspective, noting that "it's cool to have icons move when I move my head, but it serves no real purpose. Even in Amazon's most-advertised use case, in which you look at a map and tilt the phone slightly to see more information about a location, it's only slightly more efficient than just tapping and zooming."

Farhad Manjoo, reviewing the phone in the New York Times, praised the phone's general usability. He wrote that what the Fire phone "lacks in aesthetics and breadth of capabilities, it makes up for in ease of use. Consider the phone's main app-launching interface, the 'carousel,' which should be familiar to people who've used Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets. The interface constantly sorts your apps according to how recently you've used them. This let me navigate my phone very efficiently, often saving me from getting lost in a sea of app--a common occurrence on most other phones."

Manjoo also had kind words for the phone's Mayday button, which connects users to live, human technical support. "Because the agent can see your screen (not your face), the calls were often productive," he noted.

"As a bare-bones smartphone, it should prove especially attractive to people who find themselves overwhelmed by today's crop of do-it-all superphones," he wrote. "When you forget about its whiz-bang marketing, the Fire begins to stand out as something much more interesting: a phone for the rest of us."

In his Re/code review, Walt Mossberg noted that because the Fire Phone runs on a modified version of Android, "there are only about 185,000 apps available for the Fire, less than 20 percent of what's available for Apple and Android phones. Amazon has added a bunch of key apps, but some, like an official YouTube app, are still missing."

He wrote that he considers the phone "no more than an interesting first step. In my tests, I found its big new features less useful than I expected, and sometimes outright frustrating. And, arriving seven years after the debut of the first modern smartphone, Amazon's new entry lacks some key functions both Apple and Samsung include."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this NYT article
- see this Re/code article
- see this The Verge article
- see this Engadget article

Related Articles:
Amazon's Bezos open to paying for Fire phone data through AT&T's Sponsored Data program
Amazon Fire smartphone gives users access to more TV
Amazon debuts shopping-savvy Fire smartphone exclusive to AT&T
BlackBerry strikes deal with Amazon for Appstore access