Amazon's Fire phone isn't getting much love in its first wave of reviews from the tech press.
Most reviews of Amazon's first smartphone run from negative to lukewarm, with warnings to wait until Amazon refines its software and comes up with better hardware. Still, reviewers weren't totally down on the phone, as they praised its simplicity and its value for Amazon Prime subscribers.
We'll have our own impressions of the Fire Phone soon--TechHive's model has just arrived, and our sister site PCWorld has some initial thoughts one the phone. But to whet your appetite, here are the key takeaways from the people who got earlier access to Amazon's new smartphone.
The Fire Phone won't win any beauty contests
The Fire phone is a simple black slab whose most distinguishing features are the four cameras on the device's front corners. Those cameras allow for Amazon's Dynamic Perspective feature, but they don't make for the sharpest look. "Amazon appears to have put so much effort on the Fire phone's unique features that it didn't focus on making the device attractive," Engadget's Brad Molen wrote.
Gizmodo's Eric Limer at least appreciated how the Fire phone feels, with a 4.7-inch display that's manageable for one-handed use and rubberized sides "for increased grippiness."
The Fire Phone's unique features stand out
To make a mark in the crowded smartphone field, Amazon has included a few features that you can't find on other phones.
Dynamic Perspective makes use of sensors and those four front-facing cameras to track the user's head. This allows for better motion control in games and apps, and for a 3D perspective on certain images that changes as you move around. It's a neat idea, but reviewers felt that execution needs work. "Dynamic Perspective is meant to keep the screen simple, showing you only information when you ask for it, but it mostly just hides useful information," The Verge's David Pierce wrote. "Exposing that information then requires such finesse that for a long time you'll be seeing things rapidly flicker in and out of existence, not knowing how to make them stick around or find them again."
Reviewers had similar gripes with Firefly, which lets users identify bar codes, music, videos, written text and other things from the physical world. It's supposed to be like magic as you can launch the scanner by holding down a button on the side of phone, but it didn't always work flawlessly. "My problem with Firefly was its inconsistency," Re/code's Walt Mossberg wrote. "One morning, it correctly identified Quaker Oats, but not Cheerios. Dial liquid soap was seen as Dial soap bars. And it never could identify the Samsung Galaxy S5 box. It also got the email address wrong when scanning the business card of an Amazon executive."
The one area where the Fire phone earned more praise was its Mayday feature, which lets users call up a friendly tech support agent on video chat just by hitting a button. "I called up Mayday four times to pepper its agents with questions," Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times wrote. "In every case, a person popped up on the screen in under 10 seconds."
The Fire Phone's camera gets a thumbs up
Reviewers were also mostly pleased with the Fire phone's camera, which aims to keep things simple instead of bogging users down with features. "The included camera app is pretty basic and doesn't expose manual controls, but most of the time the camera doesn't need them," Andrew Cunningham of Ars Technica wrote. It's also worth noting that the phone included unlimited cloud photo storage.
Still, the camera isn't head-and-shoulders above Apple's iPhone 5s and Samsung's Galaxy S5, despite Amazon's claims to the contrary. Laptop Mag's Michael Prospero wrote that white objects in bright lighting can get blown out, and nighttime images can be grainy.
Most reviews praised the Fire phone's interface as smooth and responsive, thanks to a 2.2 Ghz quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM, but battery life was a major problem. "The phone usually died after about three-quarters of a day's ordinary use--calling, surfing, emailing, mapping and listening to music--and often got warm to the touch," wrote Geoffrey Fowler at the Wall Street Journal.
There's not a lot of software and services for the Fire Phone
Many reviews pointed out the obvious, that Amazon's app ecosystem is smaller than those of iOS and Android, and doesn't have any apps from Google. But on a more basic level, the Fire phone also lacks a lot of the features you'd expect from a modern phone, like turn-by-turn walking directions, a long list of supported voice commands and more descriptive thumbnails in the multitasking switcher.
Many of the features that are missing are things that are new to FireOS, so it's not totally surprising that they're less refined when compared to what's available on other platforms," Ars Technica's Andrew Cunningham wrote. "That's what you get into when you're launching a new phone platform in 2014, though: your biggest competitors have been doing all of this stuff for at least a few years, and your version 1.0 stuff has to stand up against someone else's version 8.0 stuff."
But for at least one reviewer, the value of Amazon's Prime services trumps those drawbacks for a certain demographic. As Kevin Tofel at GigaOM points out, the phone is easy to operate, and may appeal to heavy Prime users--such as his wife--even if it lacks the features of iOS or Android. "It's not the Dynamic Perspective or one-hand gestures that appeal to my wife, although she did start to like the auto-scrolling for webpages after a while," he wrote. "It's the Apple-like simplicity of the Fire Phone in an ecosystem that she's already embedded in."
How the Fire Phone fares in early reviews
While most reviewers appreciate what Amazon is trying to do, a recurring theme is Amazon's focus on media consumption doesn't translate as wels to smartphones as it does to tablets. "Smartphones are for work, for life. They're not toys, they're tools. Amazon doesn't understand that, and the Fire Phone doesn't reflect it," The Verge's Pierce wrote.
Until Amazon nails that balance between work and play, the consensus is that users should hold out for the inevitable sequel. "By no means is the Fire a horrible phone, but it's a forgettable one," Engadget's Molen wrote. "You might want the eventual Fire Phone 2, perhaps, but for now, you're better off sticking with what you know."