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Amazon Launches the Fire Phone, Its First Smartphone

Rafe Needleman

Amazon Launches the Fire Phone, Its First Smartphone

Amazon is launching its own smartphone. The new phone, called the Fire phone, will ship July 25 and cost $199 on a two-year contract. It’s available for preorder now.

The phone’s most visible feature is its 3D display, called Dynamic Perspective. The Fire phone has four user-facing infrared cameras that it uses to gauge the location of your face and eyes. As you move in relation to the phone, the image shifts on the screen to give you the convincing illusion that the interface or object you’re viewing has depth and layers.

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The Amazon Fire phone. (Associated Press)

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The lock screen of the new Amazon phone. (Getty Images)

In the phone’s Maps app, labels and the map itself are on different layers, so you can tilt the phone to peek underneath labels or icons that may be blocking parts of the map you want to see.

The browser and the Kindle reader on the phone can use tilting to control scrolling. It looks like a natural user experience.

And, of course, it works in games written for the phone. You can tilt the phone or move your head to see parts of the game space, like down a corridor.

It’s a Prime phone
The Fire phone is part of the Amazon media ecosystem. It’s designed to be great for video, music, and reading. It has features like dual speakers and Dolby surround sound, and tangle-resistant earbuds (with a flat cable). It has all the features of a Kindle e-reader, as well as most of the features of a Fire TV.

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The top of the Fire phone. (Associated Press)

The phone’s Firefly feature lets it recognize text and objects in the real world, like books, boxes of consumer goods, and phone numbers and URLs from physical signs. It can also recognize music and TV shows from listening to their audio. Of course, once the phone has identified an item, it can take action, like letting you buy the item on Amazon (or dialing the phone, or going to the website).

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says the Firefly system will be open to third parties, so a media company can also get the data, allowing you to stream an item, for example.

Yes, it’s still a smartphone
The Fire phone, Bezos says, is a beautiful device. It’s got a 4.7-inch screen (the iPhone 5s is 4 inches), and the phone is made from aluminum, with rubber casing to make it easy to hold. The Fire phone has 32 GB of memory.

The phone’s camera has a good pixel density — 13 megapixels on the rear camera — but more importantly it has optical image stabilization, which Bezos says allows for much longer exposures without blurring. The phone will store photos to the Amazon Cloud Drive and comes with unlimited storage for photos.

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The back of the Fire phone. (Associated Press)

The phone will run on the AT&T network, the same carrier Amazon uses in its tablets and its Kindle e-readers. It won’t be available on other carriers.

Why a phone?
Amazon is a media powerhouse. The company got its media start selling electronic books, and then videos, and more recently music. Its devices (e-readers, tablets, and its TV set-top box) are all media consumption boxes.

And Amazon is not just a store. Rather, the company is pushing people to become “members” of the Amazon retail club it calls Amazon Prime. Paid Prime customers get free shipping, a million or so tracks of free music, access to videos that other customers have to pay for, and a few other perks. Putting a Prime machine in people’s pockets is a big bet that they will simply turn to their Amazon devices whenever they want to buy or use a product, a piece of media, or a service — from a book to a bag of groceries to a music track to a Lego set.

The Fire phone comes with 12 months of Prime membership. Existing Prime customers get extensions on their current memberships.

But for this phone project to work for consumers, it has to work primarily as a phone. It has to serve as a communications and apps device above all else. For consumers, the commerce side of the device will be secondary. (Even if for Amazon the commerce is what will matter most.)

So how is the Amazon phone, as a phone? Check back later today for our hands-on!

Rafe Needleman can be reached at rafeneedleman@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @rafe​.