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Amazon recently launched its own smartphone, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, and it has some interesting features that might catch the eye of the consumer.
It has 3D, for starters. Of course, that’s nothing new. Others have tried 3D screens before, and these didn’t really change the world . But maybe the Fire Phone is the device that will make the difference, and Amazon’s taken a novel approach to it. It has “head sensors” and uses accelerometer technology to shift the view on the screen in order to match how you’re holding it and looking at it. Swanky.
But no amount of marketing hype or shiny new features is going to make me buy one, and here’s why.
1. It doesn’t do anything you can’t already do with a stock Android device
The FireFly button — which you would think might take you straight to reruns of Joss Whedon’s much-loved “space Western” — recognizes products by taking a photo of them. But this isn’t new. If you want that capability to recognize books, movies, music, and other real-world objects, Google Goggles is available to all Android users and has been doing so for years. But that’s the thing with Amazon’s device — it’s not true Android.
The Fire Phone runs a “skinned” version of Android called Fire OS that, while good-looking, is not as useful as having native Android at your fingertips. Features such as the “tilt to open a menu,” “tilt to scroll,” and “flick to open a sidebar” are all available on Android by downloading an app or by using an alternative launcher that provides that functionality. And if you get bored of that, you can change launcher or uninstall the app, something you’ll find impossible on the Amazon device. Why?
2. You’re stuck with the apps Amazon wants you to use
You won’t find any of the usual Google apps on Amazon’s device. Want the standard Gmail client? Tough — you’ll get Amazon’s email client instead. Want Chrome, the Play Store, Google Play Music or Google Drive? You’ll get Silk Browser, Amazon Appstore, Cloud Player, and Cloud Drive.
And, of course, it means you miss out on the ever-awesome Google Now.
In fact, instead of 1,261,000-plus apps at your fingertips, you’ll be stuck with Amazon’s choice of the “best” 240,000. “That’s a lot of apps,” I hear you cry. Yes, it is. But it’s Amazon’s choice of apps. It has 15 of the top 20 free Android apps and games on its books and just nine of the top 20 paid apps and games. That’s a far higher level of control over what you use on your phone than even Apple insists on, and I don’t like it.
3. It is stupidly expensive
The Google Nexus 5 is a comparable quad-core phone that, for the 32Gb model, costs £340/$400 to buy outright — ”off contract,” if you will. Sure, it doesn’t have 3D, but more on that later.
In the U.K., I’d pair it with a rolling monthly SIM-only contract from Three UK for £12.90 per month that gives me totally unlimited 3G/4G data. And I mean that — no caps at all. The plan comes with 200 minutes and 5,000 texts per month, and there are no lengthy contracts; I can cancel any time without charge.
Over a year, that’s a total of £493.80 and the freedom to do what I want, when I want to. Over two years, it comes to £648.60.
The Amazon Fire Phone is launching at $200 exclusively on AT&T with a two-year contract. If you want to buy it off-contract, giving you a direct comparison with the Nexus 5, it’ll cost you an incredible $649.
It’s hard to work out exactly how much you’ll pay in the U.S. for the AT&T contract because their schemes are so complex and convoluted, but it is around $27.09 a month depending on a number of factors. According to their terms, there appears to be a $40 connection/upgrade fee on top of the regular monthly costs. With the plan I was looking at, you get zero data; data plans are something you have to add on top. Just 2GB per month is an extra $40.
That makes the Fire Phone, over two years, an incredible $1,849.16, which is £1084.34 at the time of writing. That’s a whopping £435.74 more than the Nexus 5/Three combo across the life of the contract, and with only 2GB of data per month instead of unlimited use. It is also the “best case scenario” — you don’t want to even look at AT&T’s overage charges, early cancellation fees, or “extras,” trust me. Sure, you get a free year of Amazon Prime (a $100 value) and the equivalent of $10 to spend in the Appstore, but that’s not going to make a dent in the overall bill.
4. It has 3D but without a 3D screen
I remember being all excited about 3D. It was going to change everything. I waited until both the PS3 and my Sky TV box were patched or updated to support 3D output, and then I waited until Sky actually started broadcasting 3D content. Once all those planets had aligned, I went off to my local store and bought a shiny new 3D TV.
And it was fun for the first few weeks. Watching sports in 3D was particularly satisfying. But then we got bored of putting on the special glasses. The batteries that powered them ran out, and we didn’t feel the urge or need to replace them. They’re probably just full of battery acid at this point, but I wouldn’t know because we don’t go anywhere near them.
The Fire Phone uses a 3D-like technology without using an actual 3D screen, and that might be an amazing, awesome thing, but we’re back to the reason why I waited until the content delivery systems were in place. As everyone discovered with the LG 3D phone (which had an actual, lenticular 3D screen), most app developers don’t care about 3D. If the only 3D apps you ever see are the ones that shipped with the phone, there’s a problem. And I’m not going to get excited, ever, about watching a blockbuster movie in pretend-3D on a screen the size of my palm.
5. It forces you down an anti-choice path
While shiny, powerful and good-ish looking, the Fire Phone really only exists to sell you more Amazon products.
Now don’t get me wrong; I like Amazon. I think it’s an amazing company, and I use it all of the time. I’m a happy customer. But sometimes, I want to use someone else’s service or store because it has a better deal. For example, before switching recently to Google Play Music’s subscription service, I was on Sony Music Unlimited for my streaming pleasure. You might be using Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, or another service. It’s all about choice.
On the Fire Phone, you just won’t have that amount of choice.
The FireFly button will push you toward Amazon links for the product you just took a photo of, whereas something like Google Goggles delivers results across a range of suppliers (including Amazon). You want music that you find via the “sound search” feature? Cool. Unlike readily available apps such as Shazam, you’ll only see links to buy the tune from Amazon Music. While other apps — like Shazam — are available in the Appstore, this all smacks of the “IE as standard” debacle that caused Microsoft so many problems in the EU.
Across the phone and the default apps, Amazon will serve you links that drive you to purchase from Amazon. And, of course, everything I’ve already said about its heavily curated Appstore further reduces the choices you can make as a Fire Phone user.
6. Bonus reason
The Amazon Fire Phone has a lot of things to love. It has some truly awesome features and a great specification, but the lack of choice and the fact that — pseudo-3D aside — I can already do everything it offers on my current phone (a Google Nexus 5) means that I could never justify the ridiculous price. But then there’s a bonus reason I won’t buy it anyway.
It isn’t available in the U.K.
And if the massive transatlantic time lag that featured as part of the Kindle Fire rollout is anything to go by (it took 10 months for it to appear here after being launched in the U.S.), by the time the Fire Phone is available on these shores (or anywhere else outside the States), nobody will care, because all the other phone manufacturers will have launched their “next big things” worldwide.
A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.
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