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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Amazon Fire Phone 10 Months Later

Upon hearing the news that the Fire Phone was receiving an update that updated the Fire OS base to Kitkat, I figured I'd check out more to see what all the hubbub was about. It currently runns for 189 on Amazon itself for an unlocked 32gb model. For me, it is essentially an upgrade from my iPhone 4/Samsung Captive to a moderately "modern" phone. The only drawback  I figured was the reputation associated with the device. Upon doing some research I found two things. The specs on the device are quite modern with a 2.26ghz quad-core processor, 2gb ram, 32gb of storage, NFC and the standard array of sensors. The device itself is at 4.7" which puts it on par with most devices by not being too big (think phablet size) or not too small (think iPhone 4 and prior). I ended up ordering the device and sharing my findings.

Table of Contents
  1. Unboxing
  2. Initial Setup  System Update
  3. UI Navigation and Contacts
  4. Google Play Services
(1) Unboxing
My impression on receiving the box is that this phone is either something fantastic or that marketing went a bit over the top. I'm glad to say that it is more fantastic but I will say that I am impressed with the presentation as the Fire Phone is something that does actually stand apart from other smartphones. The phone sits on one side on top of the USB cable with the power box on the top right and the headphones on the right. Underneath the phone itself is the pin to open the SIM card slot and instructions on inserting the card. Of particular note are the nice flat design of the power box and the tangle free headphones. The headphones part that goes into the phone has a nice round-to-flat design to lay as flat as possible. The headphones themselves can magnetically attach to each other to easily wrap them up and put them away. The earbuds feel good in the ear with their cushions but that can be a matter of preference and how they stand use over time. Finally, the cord has a tangle free design to easily wrap and unwrap (which will require testing to see how long that lasts).

(2) Initial Setup
Once powered on (I left the device off and plugged in until 100% charge to get the most life since I knew I would want to start installing apps and playing with the device right away), the setup process is quite engaging and user friendly. The setup process shows some of the features of the Fire Phone including but not limited to the carousel view with detailed info under Amazon apps, and dynamic perspective which is most easily seen on the lockscreen but is very subtle in UI interactions. Depending on when the device ships, a system update may be available. I was on the prior version when I received it (v 3.6.x or so with v4.6.1 available). Before I started installing apps and setting up contacts, I ran the update to ensure I have the latest version to test the device and play with various apps.

(3) UI Navigation and Contacts
By far, the Fire Phone's biggest advantage is it's navigation system which is a big leap over iOS and a smaller jump from Android if customer launchers are used (i.e. Action Launcher, Nova Launcher Prime). The easiest feature that can be tricky to get used to is the ability to swipe up to go back. This gesture is definitely a feature that would make iOS more powerful and keep with the simplicity of one button. This also helps in not having a row of on-screen buttons take up screen real estate like we see on Android. Amazon solves the recent apps switching need by having the double tap to open recently used apps from any screen. The other main navigation feature is twisting the user's wrist to get to Amazon's suite of apps and the "useful info" on the right pane. The alternative is being able to swipe right and left if one has wrist issues or the user finds swiping to be easier. For myself, either works so it is more of a matter of convenience. Upon opening the left panel, there is not much to say about the Amazon app listings other than they are nicely tucked away on the side so they're only visible when needed and easy to get to for what Amazon offers. On the right panel, we get Amazon's variant of Google Now for select items (i.e. weather, calendear events, traffic to/from home and work, tracking info, etc) as a means of accessing key information. Finally, the center screen is the most customizable of the three panes with the most information. The dock handles app shortcuts and/or folders for quick access to apps. The carousel shows recently viewed items with related apps for apps available in the Amazon AppStore or key information for other apps (i.e. email, settings, video, etc.).

(4) Google Play Services
 Now you might be wondering how I am able to get Gmail and the Google app itself on the Fire Phone, especially since they are not available in the Amazon Appstore or pre-installed on the device. This is where xda comes into play. This section may seem techy but is more about following an order and should work fine. To start, install a file explorer from the Amazon Appstore (ES File Explorer works well and is the one I used). Then, you can use the web browser on your device or desktop and download the files for the Google Play Services and Play Store (4 files total). Unzip the files and install them in the following order - (1) Account Manager (2) Play Services (3) Services Framework (4) Play Store. As you install them, if the open option is available, select open then exit so make the process smoother for the Play Store. At the point of installing Play Services or Services Framework, you'll be able to sign into your Google account so when you open the Play STore, it will just load. If you have issues loading the Play Store (and your internet connection is working), reboot your device and it should work from there. If issues persist, clearing data and cache should work. Rebooting my device worked for me as the box for accepting the Google Play TOS didn't come up prior to rebooting. Once that was accepted I was able to install apps from Google Play at will. The only thing that won't work directly is syncing contacts. I tried a couple of apps to load my Google Contacts which didn't work so my work around was to setup my Gmail account in the Fire Phone Mail app and disable notifications. This workaround works for the moment so my contacts show up in the Phone app and in Google's own Messenger app.

In short, the Amazon Fire Phone does not seem to be a phone aimed at changing or disrupting the market but a device that brings the best of the iOS and Android world. From the iOS side, they present their features that they excel at, notably shopping, video, music, books). From the Android side, they take a next step for UI interaction and features, noteably, swipying to access features, Google Now features that work for them (i.e. weather, traffic, calendar events, etc.) and general use of additional information so the user doesn't have to open the app to get that info. While Google apps may not be easily available, an extra 10 minutes will allow access to Google Play if the Amazon Appstore doesn't have what the user wants. While this may not be ideal for everyone, the setup is straightforward enough to the point where it can be setup.

My recommendation for the Fire Phone is simple in that side by side with an iPhone, it is an equivalent phone with a similar featureset where it is worth its price, especially since $189 off contract and unloacked makes it easier to use on compatible GSM carriers.

Google App recommendations
If you've got the Google Play suite of apps installed, you may wonder if you can get the android look and feel rather than the Amazon provided UI, and the simple answer is yes. The slightly more detailed answer is yes but not all launcher seem to work well, especially on the widget side. While launchers like Action Launcher and Nova Launcher seem to work well, widgets still create an issue (and for Action Launcher, the jump-to app doesn't work quite right in the app quick drawer). For me, the Google Now Launcher seems to be the best bet. All items work well including but not limited to Google Now swiping, adding/removing homescreens as icons and widgets are added and removed and the creation for widgets. From here, you should be able setup your icons, folders and widgets as you wold on any Android device. While I don't use live wallpapers, I did try one weather live wallpaper which didn't work on any launcher so I will say proceed with caution as some may work and others may not.