Amazon’s first smartphone, the Fire phone, has a few key features that set it apart from its Apple, Google, and Microsoft competitors. None are enough to necessarily sway a committed user to move his phone plan to the Fire, but new or dissatisfied buyers might want to give the phone a look. And anybody deeply committed to Amazon might just love this thing.
1. It’s 3D!
The Fire phone has a feature called “Dynamic Perspective” that gives the interface layers and depth. The phone has four little cameras to track your head and eyes, and it works very well to provide a convincing illusion of dimensionality.
The feature is great for games, useful for maps, and just kind of fun in the general user interface. We expect to see more applications for this technology soon.
In use, it is surprisingly unobtrusive and engaging. It’s not the kind of thing that anyone should give up her current phone for, but it’s a nice parlor trick that probably won’t grow old fast. Gamers will love it.
The phone also scrolls books and webpages when you tilt it forward and backward. That’s useful.
2. It makes the world your mall.
The “Firefly” feature uses the camera and the microphone to recognize real-world objects. Point it at a book or a boxed consumer good, and it will identify it and let you (surprise) buy it on Amazon. It also works to identify phone numbers and Web addresses on signs, and it will link you to Wikipedia if you point it at a work of art it knows about.
Firefly also recognizes songs and audio from TV shows, and will let you buy or stream media from Amazon — or third parties — when it makes an identification.
Amazon has made this functionality available before in standalone apps, but it’s important enough to Amazon that it gave Firefly a dedicated button on the Fire phone (hold down the camera button). The feature worked well in our brief demo, identifying boxes, LPs, books, and the phone numbers on fliers and posters.
Independent physical retailers will hate this feature, because it makes price-shopping against their goods ridiculously easy. However, Amazon is making the Firefly data available to third-party app developers, so one way retail can fight back is with its own apps.
3. Good camera; great storage.
The back camera has decent resolution, 13 megapixels. More importantly, it has optical image stabilization, so it can take longer exposures without blurring.
All photos taken with the phone are stored for free and forever in the Amazon Cloud Drive. That’s a nice bonus. Videos are stored, too, but there’s a cap of 5 GB for free video storage. More space can be purchased.
4. Clever headphones.
The Fire phone comes with tangle-resistant earbuds. They have a flat cable, and the buds snap together magnetically when you’re not using them. We didn’t test the ’phones for audio quality, though.
5. It’s a sweet system for Amazon nuts. Nice price, too.
When you get a Fire phone from Amazon, it’ll come pre-connected to your account, and you’ll have instant access to all your media: videos, books, music, and apps. You also get a year of Amazon Prime with this phone. If you’re going to get Prime anyway, that’s a $99 benefit, and the 32 GB version of the phone is priced fairly at $199 (on a two-year contract with AT&T).
What’s not to like? Well, a few things.
The phone, like Amazon’s tablets, runs a highly custom version of Android, so it won’t work with standard Android apps or connect to the Google Play store. Amazon has its own library of 240,000 apps, we’re told, but to date most of those are tablet apps. We will see if the phone gets developers excited enough to adapt their apps to this platform.
Second, if you don’t like AT&T, you won’t like this phone. It’s just not available on other carriers. To be fair, the first iPhone was AT&T-only as well. Amazon is giving absolutely no indication that it is considering putting the phone on any other network, but the phone hasn’t even shipped yet. It’s early days.
Finally, if you’re not an Amazon aficionado, what you’re really getting here is an Android-like phone with a smaller app library and a really cool 3D user interface. That won’t be enough to sway most people.
The Fire phone is set to ship on July 25. It will be $199 for the 32 GB version, or $299 for the 64 GB model. It’s on the AT&T network only.