Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced his company’s first smartphone in Seattle on Wednesday, the Fire Phone, by first turning to a curiously ironic metaphor: a bucket of water. “You can fill a bucket with an eyedropper, if the bucket doesn’t leak,” Bezos said, striving to convey Amazon’s success at getting and keeping customers for its Prime subscription service. Now those Prime customers have a new reason to immerse themselves deeper into Amazon’s bucket of devices and services: a smartphone designed just for them.
The Fire Phone is designed for Amazon’s “most engaged customers,” Bezos said, and it shows. Like Amazon’s other devices in the Kindle family, the Fire Phone’s plain-looking body and sharp screen hide some decent — if not quite industry-leading — computing hardware. But it’s in the mix of the phone’s hardware and software that Amazon tries to stand apart, offering subtle 3D effects, unique gestures for using the phone, and gallons of Amazon-branded video and music features that work with its other devices. Starting at $199.99 on AT&T with a free year of Prime membership, it’s clear that Amazon wants the Fire Phone to rise to the top of an already crowded sea of competitors.
Bezos introduced the Amazon Fire Phone by listing its hardware specs and some unique Amazon software twists. The Fire Phone has a 4.7-inch display, which Bezos claims is "perfect" for one-handed use and came after trying smaller and larger sizes. Amazon says its new phone is bright — and bright enough to read books outside. The Fire Phone body has Gorilla Glass on both sides; aluminum buttons, including a dedicated camera button; and a USB connector that Bezos said Amazon "obsessed" over, to avoid wobbling when connecting. Inside is a quad-core 2.2 GHZ processor with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 graphics processor. The 13-megapixel rear camera includes built-in optical image stabilization, and the phone has two dual-stereo speakers arranged in landscape mode.
Yes, but how much?
When Amazon makes any hardware, there’s speculation that it will undercut competitors to get its services into users’ hands. This doesn’t seem to be the case with the Fire Phone: a 32GB model is selling at the standard $199.99 on contract with AT&T. $299.99 will get you a 64GB phone, but if you want to buy any model outright, you’ll pay at least $649. If you do buy one, though, you’ll get 12 free months of Prime, whether or not you’re an existing Prime customer. As rumored, it’s also exclusive to AT&T, a decision that will either be great for AT&T or terrible for the Fire Phone. Either way, you can pre-order the phone right now, but it won’t be shipping until July 25th.
Sharp camera, unlimited storage
The Fire Phone doesn’t skimp in the camera department, and it even has its own dedicated camera button. The Fire boasts a 13 MP camera sensor, and a fast f/2 aperture lens. There’s also optical image stabilization, like you might expect. Test photos shown onstage looked impressive, though we’ll reserve judgment until we can test the Fire’s camera ourselves. Setting aside the device’s camera, viewing photos should also be a good experience. Amazon’s claiming that its phone is the brightest phone ever. And don’t worry about photo storage. Amazon’s offering to store all of your photos and videos for free in Amazon Cloud Drive. It’s not yet clear if the Fire will store your photos in full resolution once they’ve been uploaded to the cloud, however.
Amazon has stressed the sound quality of the Fire Phone, though we obviously haven’t heard it for ourselves. It contains two stereo speakers with Dolby Digital, plus surround sound. And like Apple, Amazon is hoping you’ll use its peripherals along with its hardware. The Fire Phone is paired with earbuds that are supposedly tangle-proof, with flat cables and magnetic buds that stick together.
Flinging and X-Raying videos with your Second Screen
The Fire Phone’s Second Screen feature allows you to "fling" any video you’re watching from the phone’s display to your Amazon FireTV. It’s a clear counter to Apple’s AirPlay. Meanwhile, Amazon has also brought its X-Ray feature from its Kindle Fire tablets to its phone, letting you click on an actor to learn more about them from their IMDB page (Amazon also owns IMDB). Finally, Amazon’s ASAP feature attempts to predict what videos you’ll watch next on Prime Instant and pre-caches them for you, so a video plays immediately if you choose it.
Instant tech support
As part of its mission to pack every single Amazon feature into the Fire Phone, the company is adding a feature from its Kindle Fire HDX tablets: Mayday. Mayday, launched last year, is a free 24 / 7 support line that Amazon promises can be reached within 15 seconds from the device. On the Fire Phone, it’s available over both Wi-Fi and 3G / 4G connections. Amazon is trying to create a seamless experience for its products, but the infomercial-like demo video beforehand drove home one idea: using a phone is really, really hard, and you’re going to need someone to hold your hand.
Firefly recognizes everything
Firefly is so important that it gets its own button on the Fire phone. With one press, the Fire phone boots up its camera to see what you’re seeing and listen to what you’re listening to. If Firefly sees a barcode, it will pop up a button to buy the item on Amazon. If Firefly hears a song Shazam, it will prompt you to check it out on Amazon Music or buy tickets on Stubhub. If Firefly hears Game of Thrones, it will show you the show’s IMDB entry, and then of course offer options to buy or rent more episodes. Firefly even recognizes book covers and art. The service recognizes 100 million items.
Dynamic Perspective, like 3D but not quite
Amazon’s long-rumored 3D phone display is actually not quite as eye-popping as leaks suggested. Instead, Dynamic Perspective is more of a motion-control system for the Fire Phone, with some added visual effects. Dynamic Perspective lets you tilt the Fire Phone in different directions to see more information from apps, play games, resize images, scroll through webpages without using your fingertips, and most impressively, move various "layers" of the user interface around as though they were physical objects in front of you. The effect, which varies in intensity depending on the app, relies on motion sensors and cameras that track your head in real-time to serve up the correct viewing angles.
Fire Phone tracks your head
So, how does that sort-of-3D display work? By putting cameras all over the phone to figure out where your head is, basically. Bezos described a long process of building a camera setup that would be able to reliably recognize a head and sense its depth in order to redraw images quickly and deliver something akin to glasses-free 3D. In addition to the main front-facing camera, four more depth-sensing cameras ended up on the front corners of the phone. Only two of those are required to actually produce a 3D image — the extras are for when your hand covers one or two of them. These cameras are also equipped with infrared light, which means they’re supposed to still watch you in complete darkness. And the final step was a long process of machine learning, so the phone can tell your real face from, say, a portrait on the wall. So, to sum up, Fire Phone is always watching. Let’s at least hope we get a cool new feature, and not just a gimmick, from it.
Amazon’s new phone OS lets you pin apps and other content to your home screen, like a book or calendar app. But there’s also a carousel of apps you can swipe to, like on the Kindle Fire, that shows a tiny preview of each app underneath its icon. These tiny snippets are interactive — a calendar app would let you see events at a glance, and an email app might let you dive in and triage a few emails without having to open the email app. Amazon demoed a Zillow widget that showed nearby homes. The company is letting developers build their own Active Widgets, so expect to see a lot more of these bite-sized interactive app snapshots soon.