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Amazon Fire Phone deep-dive review: Two weeks with a weird device

JR Raphael | Aug. 7, 2014
Do you want Amazon in your pocket? After half a month with the company's first smartphone, this reviewer was left scratching his head.

At the Fire Phone's core is a carousel-based home screen similar to what you'll see on a Kindle Fire tablet, with a series of large icons you can swipe through horizontally. Each icon represents an app or service the system thinks you might want to use.

Beneath each icon is a scrolling list of related content. With certain icons, the list functions as a built-in preview of sorts, showing info like upcoming appointments on your calendar or recent emails from your inbox.

More often, though, it's reminiscent of the "you might also like"-style suggestions peppered throughout Amazon's website. On many icons, in fact, the list actually includes Amazon products — apps you might want to download, music and movies you might want to purchase, and even physical products you might want to order. (You can turn those suggestions off if you dig through the phone's settings, but the option is a bit buried and there's no outward indication to the user that it exists.)

Long-pressing any app will pin it to the front of the carousel, but beyond that, there's no way to organize the items — which makes it rather challenging to find what you want. Using the home screen feels kind of like spinning a wheel on a game show and hoping you land on the right spot. The icons are also unlabeled, so it's often hard to tell what many of them represent.

The Fire Phone's home screen isn't exactly easy on the eyes, either: It uses a dull patterned-gray background and there's no way to swap that out for a more attractive or personalized wallpaper. The same dated-looking motif, complete with heavy drop-shadows all around, carries throughout the entire OS.

There is a customizable dock of four icons at the bottom of the home screen -- and if you want to view your full selection of apps, you can get to a more traditional grid list by swiping upward from the dock area. That gesture is somewhat confusing, as there's no on-screen cue to make you aware of its existence.

More confusing yet is the fact that there's no consistent Back button throughout the system; rather, when you want to move back a step and there's no command on screen to do so, you have to swipe upward from the bottom of the phone's surface (similar to the app list gesture, only starting even lower — with your finger on the bezel beneath the screen). There's no on-screen cue for that, either, and it's not at all intuitive; I've frequently found myself stuck on a screen and trying to remember how to back out.

Confusion seems to be a common theme with the Fire Phone's user interface. The software has two hidden menu panels that are available only sometimes, in certain parts of the system — one that swipes in from the left and includes "quick links" relevant to your current activity, and one that swipes in from the right and includes additional information and options. Again, there are no on-screen cues to indicate when those panels are present, and it's not entirely clear what sorts of options you'll find in either place at any given time.


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