The Amazon Fire Phone was garbage when it was released five years ago in July 2014. At its announcement, Jeff Bezos stood on stage and called the device “gorgeous,” “elegant,” and “refined.” It’s none of those things. I spent a few weeks revisiting Amazon’s phone failure, and to be sure, reviewers were not wrong when it was released - It’s still a terrible gadget. To my surprise, though, it’s evident that Amazon had a few good ideas that were way ahead of their time.
The hardware itself is perhaps the least embarrassing part of the Fire Phone. With a 13cm HD display and a Snapdragon 800 processor, the device’s specs were competitive with other phones on the market at the time. The glass back also makes it look and feel a little bit like an iPhone 4, although the iPhone 5s was the phone to beat back then.
There’s a rubberised grip around the Fire Phone’s edge, and this is where Amazon starts to lose me. Although the device sold at a premium price of $US600 ($860) (unlocked), this rubber manages to make the thing feel a bit cheap. It didn’t help that the Fire Phone we bought off eBay arrived with a broken back glass, which makes me suspect it isn’t very durable either.
What makes the Fire Phone hardware unique, however, are the six cameras crammed into every corner of the device. There’s a 13MP camera in the back for taking pictures of your dog and a selfie camera on the front. Then there are four more cameras on the front that work together to create something called Dynamic Perspective. By tracking the position and movement of your face, this feature creates a sort of parallax effect that makes images on the screen look three-dimensional.
You can see Dynamic Perspective at work almost as soon as you turn on the phone because Amazon preloaded a variety of lock screen images that show off the feature. For instance, there’s one lock screen that’s a beach scene, and when you look at it from different angles, you can see a boat from different angles.
Dynamic Perspective also works in the maps app, which makes some landmarks like the Empire State Building 3D on the screen so you can kind of look at it from different angles. In his 2014 review of the Fire Phone, former Gizmodo writer Eric Limer said that Dynamic Perspective was “impressive tech... also pretty useless.” Five years later, I would argue that it’s deeply useless.
Things really fall apart once you start trying to use the Fire Phone like an actual phone. It runs Fire OS 3.5, a highly modified version of Android that has its roots in Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets. The home screen features a carousel of big, detailed icons of the apps you’ve used most recently as well as a little dock with your favourite apps. It looks and works just like iOS and Android, where you can drag up to four icons of your most used apps and access them directly from the home screen.
In the first minute of using the Fire Phone, I realised that Amazon did an awful job in trying to retrofit its tablet software for a smartphone. While the dock is fine and familiar, the huge carousel typically pointed me towards a bunch of apps and recommendations that didn’t make sense for what I was trying to do. Most people know what they want to do when they take out their phone. They don’t need to see a list of recommended books to buy on Amazon, which is what that app carousel shows you if the last app you used was the Kindle app.
Amazon’s tendency to point you towards its store seems inescapable on the Fire Phone. Another flagship feature on the phone is an app called Firefly that lets you take pictures of things in the real world - namely covers of books or barcodes - and then Amazon will show you how to buy that thing on Amazon.
You can also get the device’s microphone to listen to music or movies, and then Amazon will show you how to buy those things. The concept itself resembles Google Lens, which has been in development for the past couple of years, except instead of trying to give you useful functionality, Amazon just wants you to buy things.
Firefly is hard to avoid sometimes, too, since there’s a dedicated button on the side of the phone that brings up the feature with a long press. (A short press pulls up the camera, but it’s easy to mistake the two.) I don’t know anyone who wants to buy stuff so immediately on Amazon.
This is a theme when using the Fire Phone: things you don’t want. Dynamic Perspective feels gimmicky when you look at the lock screen. Then, it feels foreign and bad when you realise that the app icons on the home screen also shift when you move your head.
And then, it’s utterly annoying when you realise that tilting your head even further will cause the Fire Phone to spit new menus out the side of the screen, showing you more information that you probably didn’t want to see. A flick to the right, for instance, pulls out an almost nonsensical list of options to look at “Apps” or “Games” or “Web” - all things that most people would expect to find on the home screen. Those options are on the home screen, too. It’s almost as if the Fire Phone is convoluting the user experience on purpose.
I did say that there were a couple of good things about the Fire Phone, though. I’m going to whittle that down to a single interesting idea that Amazon screwed up. The concept of adding multiple cameras with multiple uses onto a phone was ahead of its time.
While Dynamic Perspective ends up being a useless feature on the Fire Phone, it does seem slightly prescient in retrospect. In the months and years that followed the Fire Phone’s release, pretty much every phone maker added a second camera to create depth effects in photographs. Apple’s Portrait Mode appeared with the iPhone 7 Plus in 2016.
The following year saw the debut of Face ID which used multiple sensors on the front of the iPhone X for facial recognition. The Fire Phone had the cameras. It just failed to make them useful.
Because of all its flaws, it’s unsurprising that no one wanted to buy the Fire phone. Two months after its release, Amazon slashed the promotional price from $US200 ($287) with a contract down to 99 cents ($1.42) in the lead up to Apple’s iPhone event in September.
By October, Amazon announced in its quarterly earnings report that it was sitting on $US83 ($119) million worth of unsold Fire Phones, and by September 2015, the company pulled the plug on the device completely.