Feedback
Tech

Hands-On With Amazon's Fire Phone: Both Ordinary and Remarkable

Devin Coldewey / NBC News

Wednesday's announcement of Amazon's long-rumored smartphone, the Fire, touted a number of high-tech improvements to the average handset. In person, those features are striking, but far from being game-changers.

The flashiest new feature has to be the "Dynamic Perspective," which tracks your face to change the angle from which you seem to view various images and items. But outside of the mesmerizing new lockscreens, which do appear to be portals to tiny worlds, the tech doesn't seem to add much utility.

It was certainly entertaining to be able to tilt the phone a bit to reveal a street in the Maps app, but you can't navigate the city with a gesture or move your face closer to zoom in (how cool would that be?). Little visual flourishes pervade the Amazon Fire's interface, but few apps really take advantage of it. That's strange considering how much research went into the cameras — and how much you're paying for them.

0:42

More successful are the omnipresent gesture controls, which let you snap the phone to the left or right to open up contextual menus — your recent pictures in the camera app, or upcoming appointments when you're in the calendar. They're useful and quickly became second nature to me during the short demo period — but such controls already exist on other phones, and some have gestures that aren't available here.

The tilting feature looks cool - but doesn't seem to enable much other than, well, looking cool. Devin Coldewey / NBC News

The thing that genuinely impressed me was Firefly, an image-recognition feature that identifies products, barcodes, phone numbers and a ton of other things you might want to look up or remember. It was super-fast and highly accurate, and I actually had a lot of fun putting it through its paces, whether looking up the price (or calorie content) of a snack or saving the number on a flier for a dog-sitter for hire.

Firefly works as advertised: it's lightning quick and fun to use. Devin Coldewey / NBC News

With this feature, anyone using this phone will become a heavy Amazon user, and if you already are one, it'll deepen the addiction. It's that easy, and the best may be yet to come as more retailers and apps add ways to order, recommend, and save things you scan.

As for the phone itself, it's much like Amazon's other hardware in a total lack of personality. It's a black slab with a slightly garish "Amazon" emblazoned on the back, and a front panel studded with cameras. I wouldn't say it felt cheap, but there's also no comparison with the sculpted iPhone 5S or substantial HTC One.

The overall impression is that the Fire will be an absolute dream for anyone already familiar with and invested in Amazon's device ecosystem: if you love Prime and you have a Fire tablet, it's a natural fit. But for the millions of people spoiled by massive app stores and 1080p displays, it has a lot more to prove.