As expected, Amazon launched its first smartphone at an event in Seattle on Wednesday. Amazon is calling its device the Fire Phone, and it will cost $199 for a 32GB model with a 2-year AT&T contract. Without a contract, it will start at $649, bringing it in line with other high-end smartphones. It will launch on July 25 and you can pre-order it from Amazon now.
The physical device
Although Amazon’s not focusing on the specs for this device, instead opting to position it based on its unique 3D interface and the Amazon ecosystem, it’s a very nice phone; with the proper emphasis placed on ergonomics and features like the camera.
In addition to the four infrared cameras on the front, there’s a 13-megapixel shooter in the back paired with a f/2.0 five-element lens. The camera has some interesting features, including a dedicated camera button that not only acts as a shutter trigger, but also as a universal shortcut to bring the Camera app up. The lens is paired with Amazon’s optical image stabilization. Based on the time Amazon spent on the camera during the event, it appears to be one of the major features of the Fire Phone and it will be utilized by some of the phone’s more unique commerce features.
The specs are roughly what we expected, and match up well with last year’s nicest Android smartphones. It’s got a Qualcomm 800 processor with a Adreno 330 graphics processor, 2GB of RAM, and — in good news for small phone fans — a 4.7-inch 720p IPS display. “We picked 4.7 inches as the perfect size for one-handed use,” Bezos said.
The Fire Phone’s industrial design has been well considered: it’s got a Gorilla Glass front and back, with a machined aluminum body with some kind of rubber covering to prevent nasty falls. “We obsessed over the chamfers,” Bezos said. Even the handset’s earbuds got a little bit of attention with flat cables and embedded magnets that should, hopefully, reduce tangling.
Amazon’s phone is a physical one-click shopping tool
What is going to separate the Amazon’s Fire Phone from competitors like Samsung and Apple is its tight integration with Amazon services — not only its ecommerce behemoth, but also its burly cloud services. “Services matter, not just the hardware,” Bezos said.
Amazon introduced a new feature called Firefly, and it works similarly to Amazon Dash, a gadget Amazon introduced to make it easier to buy things on Amazon’s grocery service, Amazon Fresh.
Firefly works by either scanning a barcode or taking a picture of a consumer product. The Fire Phone takes all the data from those scanned goods into a list which allows customers to easily purchase them from — you guessed it — Amazon. Firefly doesn’t just work for physical goods, but can also recognize songs and television shows, similar to Shazam. But not only can it identify products, but Bezos also demonstrated a feature where it can recognize a painting and bring you to the Wikipedia entry.
Firefly’s object recognition takes place in the cloud, but Bezos warned the bottleneck will be the photo upload speed. Third party apps like MyFitnessPal have already signed up to integrate with Firefly.
The Fire Phone will come with Mayday included. Mayday is Amazon’s live video support service, which debuted on the Kindle Fire. On the Fire Phone, it works over Wi-Fi or 4G, and according to Bezos, customers should be talking to a live person within 15 seconds of starting the app.
A new parallax-based gesture interface, powered by four infrared cameras
The Fire Phone’s most important hardware innovation is its unique 3D interface, powered by four infrared cameras mounted on each corner of the front. As had been predicted, the cameras can track the user’s head to produce a 3D effect on a standard screen. Bezos calls it “dynamic perspective.” The feature took a lot of trial-and-error and data to perfect face-tracking, which is an difficult problem to solve. “You have to be patient [developing hardware],” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at the announcement. “You have to work at it and you have to obsess over the smallest of details.”
Currently, the 3D parallax effect has few built-in applications. The lock screen benefits from the camera sensors, with a few cool built-in landscapes. And the Maps app — which appears to be built on Nokia’s technology — can provide a sense of how tall certain skyscrapers are.
But where the four front-facing sensors will find the most use is through tilt gestures. You can tilt the phone to scroll up or down an article on the web or on the Kindle app. However, this feature most likely needs websites that are built for the Fire Phone. We’ll see.
Games, at least, need to be specifically built for Fire Phone. Amazon may have 240,000 apps in the Amazon Appstore, but how many of them support dynamic perspective? One of the biggest challenges facing this device will be developer adoption.
Pricing and perks
Although the Fire Phone will only work with the AT&T network at launch, it appears that it won’t be taking advantage of the Sponsored Data program. However, the device does come with a free year of Amazon Prime, even for current customers, which is a nice perk. Amazon’s not using Prime to sell its device at a discount, it’s using its full-price device to get people to sign up for Amazon Prime. The device also comes with unlimited photo storage through Amazon’s Cloud Drive.