For the last week, I’ve been using a Fire Phone exclusively because my normal phone – a pixel 2XL had to be sent in while I waited for my new Pixel 3. When it launched in 2014, it had a few innovative features, but never gained traction as it failed to compete with iOS and Android in app selection and struggled to find distribution channels. I’ve had mine since then, and while I never used it extensively at launch, it was interesting to see what still worked and what didn’t. Some of it was far better than I remembered, while some just didn’t work at all any more. A lot has changed in the mobile phone space since 2014 for sure.
In 2014, phones were seeking to differentiate themselves however they could on features and different experiences because the hardware and platforms were all fairly similar. The Fire Phone used a “3d” screen, using an array of 5 cameras positioned around the front of the screen to simulate depth information. Other than the lock screen, nothing really still utilized this functionality. Several of the app icons which looked to be designed to move around didn’t actually move around.
Surprisingly, most of the core features, even those requiring data updates still worked. It took a solid hour of installing updates to get to the latest version, but once on it, functionality did actually work. Maps, weather, and other data all continued to work and seemed to be getting live data. Identifying items with another distinguishing feature, Firefly, where one could point the camera at an object to search for it on Amazon or the wider web, also worked. It’s interesting to note how ahead of the times this feature was.
Sadly, pretty much everything not a core part of the phone didn’t really work. The Audible app, likely because of my peculiar setup where I have two accounts sharing data in a weirdly synced way, was unable to download any books. The appstore was pretty much deserted and I couldn’t find apps for most of the services I use today, especially the social networks. The Twitter app, the only one I could find, wouldn’t authenticate. The amazing pictures I could take with the 2014 era camera couldn’t get uploaded.
But, this lack of app support turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Unable to check work email, IMS, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or even LinkedIn, I felt much more connected to the actual world. I wasn’t constantly looking down at my phone while in conversation. I wasn’t disconnected from the other people in an elevator while checking my notifications. All I could get were phone calls and texts, resulting in so many fewer notifications and interruptions during my day.
It’s hard to realize how often our phones interrupt us today. Sure, efforts like Google and Apple’s wellbeing features are meant to reduce our reliance on our phones, especially social networks, but I realized just how often I was getting pinged for meaningless notifications after even just a day with this phone. Unencumbered by distractions, I felt more connected to the world around me. I didn’t have notifications every 30 seconds for emails, app updates I never wanted but had no easy way of disabling, or “helpful” reminders of features I never intended to use. It was a refreshing reminder of how much less interruption there was before smartphones.
Of course some aspects haven’t aged well. The camera produces pictures that I remember being fairly good in 2014, but in 2018, look like something viewed through a slide of cheese. Phone cameras have evolved consderably even in the past couple of years. The difference is stark.
Having a headphone jack again was nice, even if I couldn’t listen to Spotify, Audible, or my podcasts. At least the Amazon. Music app still worked so I could play Baby Shark for my boys in the car. The Bluetooth even seemed to work better in the car than it does with my current Pixel.
The size was also a shock. Even at what in 2014 was a fairly large size, the Fire is absolutely dwarfed by the size of the Pixel 2 XL. The screen density is also lower, so less fits on the screen. However, I found I didn’t mind this as much as I thought I might and the phone fit much more easily in my hand and pocket. As a result, it’s screens are far easier to navigate. I also started liking the swipe up to go back gesture and started missing it when I went back to a modern smartphone.
Yes, after a week with the Fire Phone, I gave up and borrowed an iPhone XS until I could get my new Pixel. I found it just too difficult to be so disconnected from family and co-workers, even if I did learn to appreciate the Fire more. Even with it’s hang ups, the Fire reminded me of how much life has changed with smart phones and how interrupt-driven our days have become and how far disconnected we’ve become from each other. Taking a break from notifications and messages for a week was a great break and has me reconsidering what information I’ll allow my phone to send me in the future. However, I found I just couldn’t live without them, mostly because everyone’s expectations about being connected have changed with our phones. I’d love to go back to a time when our phones were just phones, but I can’t ignore the benefits we’ve received from the amazing advances of mobile technology. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade this connectivity for all the great things we get with our modern phones. It’s time for the Fire Phone to go back into the desk, at least until the next phone upgrade I innevitably do next year.