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Review roundup: Fire Phone is good for Amazon, but doesn't stack up to competitors

As e-commerce behemoth Amazon gears up for the release of its first-ever smartphone on Friday, technology journalists have begun to weigh in with their thoughts on the device — and the returns don't look good for Jeff Bezos's brainchild.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times

Calling the Fire Phone a "solid device beneath a layer of whiz-bang frippery," Manjoo chides Amazon spending too much time on fanciful features like the head-tracking Dynamic Perspective system, which he argues "rarely makes for a substantive improvement" in daily usage. He goes so far as to call one of Dynamic Perspective's headline use cases — Auto Scroll, which scrolls the content of the display based on the angle at which the user holds the phone — "downright annoying," saying that the "best thing about Auto Scroll is that you can turn it off."

The highly-touted Firefly image and audio recognition functionality works well, he says, but currently serves little purpose other than directing users to Amazon's storefront.

Manjoo also took aim at the hardware itself, saying that it "looks more like a minimalist prototype than a finished product." He did laud Amazon's choice to deliver 32 gigabytes of internal storage for the same price as competitors' 16-gigabyte offerings, however.

Most of Manjoo's praise was reserved for Amazon's Fire OS, which also powers the Kindle Fire line of tablets. The app carousel and Mayday help features alone might make the Fire Phone a favorite of non-techies, he says, if they can get past the "gimmicks" and "3-D heroics."

Walt Mossberg of Re/Code

The Fire Phone is "no more than an interesting first step" toward altering the iPhone-defined touch interaction paradigm, Mossberg writes. While echoing others' sentiments — calling the handset's standout features "less useful than I expected, and sometimes outright frustrating" — his main points of contention are the Fire Phone's exclusivity to wireless provider AT&T and a lack of features offered by competitors.

Amazon is likely to keep the Fire Phone as an AT&T exclusive for a significant period of time, Mossberg says, which he believes will turn off the large portion of consumers who dislike the carrier no matter their opinion on the device. He also found AT&T's network data speed lacking, a potentially limiting factor for a handset that depends on the cloud for so much of its functionality.

In addition, widely-implemented features including Bluetooth Low Energy support and biometrics — similar to Apple's celebrated Touch ID sensor — from other devices are nowhere to be found. Mossberg also misses the app selection of iOS and Android, specifically citing the lack of an official YouTube app for Fire OS as an example of that key difference.

In order "to top Apple and Samsung," Mossberg concludes, "Amazon needs to do better."

Geoffrey Fowler of the Wall Street Journal

Amazon's entry is "full of gimmicks" and "lacking basics," Fowler wrote, comparing the device to "the grown-up equivalent of a 9-year-old riding a bike with his hands in the air." While others focused mainly on the Fire Phone's software, Fowler primarily took its hardware to task.

The Fire Phone's camera, Fowler says, is subpar compared to the iPhone 5s. Low-light shots "lacked the detail and natural color I could pick up with the iPhone."

Battery life was also disappointing, with Fowler reporting a drained unit after only "three-quarters of a day's" use. The Fire Phone lasted 25% less time on battery than an iPhone in Fowler's test and 16% less than a Samsung unit with a larger display.


Ed Baig of USA Today liked the Fire Phone in general, saying it has a "lovely screen," and praised Amazon's inclusion of unlimited cloud hosting for photos. The learning curve is steep, however, and he wished for additional carrier support.

Andrew Cunningham of Ars Technica called Firefly "genuinely cool," but agreed with most others that Dynamic Perspective is "neat technology with few practical uses." The lack of compatibility with the iTunes or Google Play ecosystem is a killer, he feels.

David Pierce of The Verge enjoyed the Fire Phone's camera and battery, but panned the "confusing, complex interface."