Introducing Fire, Amazon's new smartphone

Saturday , June 21, 2014 - 1:11 PM

By LESLIE MEREDITH

Amazon last week unveiled Fire, its first smartphone, at an event in Seattle. The phone could signal a real change in the way people control their phones — if it works as well in real life as it did on the stage.

Fire uses a sophisticated sensor system called Dynamic Perspective that responds to the user's angle of viewing and how the phone is held and moved. The display is three dimensional, but not in the balls-hurled-at-your-face sort of way. Instead, the display adds depth like looking in a shoebox diorama. As you look at the phone from different angles, you'll be able to see behind objects in apps adapted to the new operating system.

The sensors also eliminate the need to swipe as you're viewing a webpage. You simply tilt the phone to scroll or bring up more information such as Yelp restaurant review icons on a map. The idea behind this functionality is to allow one-handed use of the phone for common tasks.

How does it work? Fire has four front-facing cameras equipped with infrared lasers, so the phone can "see" you at all times — even in the dark. The software has been trained to recognize faces, meaning it won't respond to a crowd of people behind you or to a painting of a person.

Dynamic Perspective has reportedly been in the works since 2009 at Amazon's secretive Lab126 in Cambridge, Mass. These are the same folks who designed the Kindle Paperwhite ereader and Amazon's Fire tablet.

There's more to the Fire smartphone than a tricky interface. Amazon also revealed a new app it calls Firefly that can recognize printed web and email addresses, phone numbers, QR and bar codes, artwork, movies, music, and products. To activate Firefly, you point the phone at one of these items and push a button. It can even "listen" to music and identify it, similar to the app Shazam. Firefly will show you a screen with basic information and then, with a tilt, it will take you to shopping links on Amazon, if available.

Already, the press has skewered Amazon for this self-serving feature, and I'd say unfairly. In fact, much of the resulting data may not have a commercial element — you can make calls, save new contacts, send emails, and visit websites without typing long addresses. On the other hand, if you point your phone at a pair of beautiful shoes walking by, you probably want to know how much they cost. (Of course, only products available from Amazon are included in the database.)

The hardware



The Fire is a solid piece of hardware with a 13-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization for photos and 1080p HD video, a 2.2 GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. The 4.7-inch display can be easily read in bright sunlight. Amazon says to expect up to 22 hours of talk time, 11 hours of watching video and 65 hours of listening to music. These figures may be optimistic. We don't yet know how the fancy apps and sensor system will affect battery life.

The bargains

The Fire will cost $199 on a two-year contract, the same price as an iPhone 5S or a Samsung Galaxy S 5. But here's the difference: Fire has twice the storage at 32GB as its top competitors with only 16GB.

Fire includes an always available free help line. Press a button to open a live video window with an Amazon tech support representative. (But don't worry — you can see the rep, but he or she can't see you.)

Amazon has thrown in unlimited free storage for your photos taken on the Fire, a bonus you won't find elsewhere.

Finally, when you purchase a Fire, Amazon will give you a complementary year of its Prime membership, which includes free two-day shipping on most items, on-demand video (comparable to Netflix) and free Kindle ebooks. If you've already paid your $99 annual fee for Amazon Prime, the company will give you the next year for free.

Availability

The Fire will be available on July 25 only through AT&T. If you're not an AT&T customer, it's likely Amazon will increase its distribution to other service providers following its exclusive with AT&T.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. She has designed and manages several international websites. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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