Amazon has worked hard to establish itself as one of America’s most-loved and well-recognized brands. The number of Amazon Prime subscriptions is growing exponentially and Kindle Fires and Paperwhites are flying off the (virtual) shelves. In lieu of taking a break to bask in their recent success, the Amazon crew has decided to make a foray into yet another market with their new Fire smartphone. Jeff Bezos donned his best CEO blazer and jeans ensemble to show off the new device in a 90-minute presentation on June 17.
Bezos and his team were acutely aware of the crowded smartphone landscape during development of the Fire Phone. In addition to the giants Samsung and Apple, Amazon will have to contend with the likes of LG, Google, Motorola, and Nokia, all whom have had several generations to perfect their software and hardware platforms. Amazon hopes to overcome these obstacles with two innovative features never before seen in a smartphone to date: Firefly and Dynamic Perspective.
Firefly can be best described as a visual and audio search engine that allows users to seamlessly scan and recognize products, text, phone numbers, QR codes, videos, and music in their immediate environment. Firefly can recognize over 100 million different items within a few seconds and instantly offer up a list of actions relevant to the particular item or content.
Dynamic Perspective is a feature that is best understood when it is seen in action, but nonetheless, here’s a description. Dynamic Perspective uses four of the five (that’s right: five) front-facing cameras on the Fire Phone to accurately track the position and depth of the user’s face relative to the device. This allows developers to create apps and experiences that can respond to head movements almost instantaneously. The end result is akin to looking through a 4.7-inch window into a virtual world. Dynamic Perspective realistically changes the user’s vantage point as they turn the device or their head, to mimic the change of perspective that we experience when moving about the real world.
These new features are complemented by the universally lauded Mayday feature already available on Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets. Within 10 seconds of tapping the Mayday button, a friendly Amazon tech will appear via video chat to answer any phone-related query that you may have. For the especially tech averse, Amazon representatives can navigate the labyrinthine menus for you and even virtually draw instructions on your screen to save you the time of fumbling through them yourself.
The Fire Phone eschews the traditional Android interface for Fire OS, a custom Android build that features a large icon carousel, allowing users to quickly interact with apps without opening them. For example, scrolling to the email app will allow you to compose, send, and read messages directly from the home screen.
The Fire Phone and Fire OS are both designed with one-handed operation in mind. Many apps feature Amazon’s “three-panel design,” which displays main content in the center, with extra options and menus available by “flicking” the device quickly to the right or to the left. Scrolling can be done with the traditional touch, or you can set the device to scroll when you tilt it up or down. Even the size of the device itself was chosen to enhance the one-handed experience. The Fire Phone team extensively tested a variety of screen sizes ranging from 4.0 – 5.5 inches before deciding on the “perfect” 4.7 inch one-handed design.
So far the tech community has been decidedly circumspect on predicting the Fire Phone’s future. Most agree that Firefly and Dynamic Perspective are innovations the likes of which we have not seen in the past few smartphone generations. Unfortunately, all the bells and whistles come with a of couple caveats that may prove challenging in the long run. First off, when the Fire Phone debuts, it will be available on one carrier only, AT&T. This limits Amazon’s potential user base to current AT&T customers and those willing to abandon their carriers to get their hands on the latest tech. Secondly, the Fire Phone starts at a wallet-crushing $650 off contract or $199 with a two-year agreement. The Fire Phone is decently equipped with a 2.2 GHZ Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of memory, plus an Adreno 330 GPU for added gaming and video capability. While the hardware is impressive, it still doesn’t match that of other similarly priced smartphones like the Galaxy S5.
It’s still too early to see if these caveats will outweigh buyers’ enthusiasm for the new features Amazon is offering. Perhaps anticipating some apprehension, Amazon is sweetening the deal with a free year of their excellent Amazon Prime service with every Fire Phone purchase (a $99 value). The Fire Phone will be officially released on July 25 but can be pre-ordered now on both Amazon and AT&T’s websites for $650 and $750 for the 32 and 64 GB varieties.