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New Amazon Fire Phone is 'primed' for the company's services

The phone’s superb shopping skills eclipse its cheesy 3D display effects

Published: June 18, 2014 05:30 PM
Photo: Amazon

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The new Amazon Fire Phone is a stunningly sophisticated device with a simple purpose: to serve as a convenient portal into Amazon’s immense retail and content-streaming services. That begins with the phone’s 4.7-inch display, which can make flat images appear three-dimensional so you can “peek” around the sides of shopping-cart candidates. And the phone itself is easy to use with one hand, just by tilting it, rather than touching the screen.

The phone’s rear-facing 13-megapixel camera has a dedicated launch button and some nice touches. When paired with the on-board Firefly app, it will scan objects and try to find them in Amazon’s inventory or marketplace. Firefly can also listen to songs or videos playing in the background for a quick matchup to the content in Amazon’s library.

You’ll have lots of room to store what you capture with the camera since the phone comes with unlimited photo and video storage on Amazon’s Cloud Drive. For early Fire buyers, Amazon will waive the $99 annual fee for Prime service for the first year.

The Fire is available for preorder from AT&T today, for $200 with a two-year contract. Here’s a quick overview of some of the Fire’s most compelling features.

3D effects on a 2D screen

The Fire smart phone uses an interesting technology to simulate 3D effects of still images. It trains its four front-facing cameras (one on each corner) so that when you move it, onboard technology called Dynamic Perspective will alter the onscreen image so it looks like you can peek around it. Amazon said the effect can be achieved with just two cameras, but all four are available in case your fingers block any of them.

The audience at Amazon’s demonstration in Seattle seemed impressed with the demonstration, though it wasn’t clear if the images used (screen wallpapers, maps, and video games) need to be prepared ahead of time. More gimmicky than useful, the 3D effect is likely to leave users flat in short order.

3D selfies

When used for selfies or videoconferencing, the front-facing cameras will record you in genuine 3D—even in the dark, thanks to infrared technology. What’s not clear is which, if any, non-Fire devices will be able to play them.

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Can I be of service?

The Fire ports some “helpful” apps popular on late-model Kindle tablets. These include Mayday, Amazon’s video-chat tech support available on the Kindle since 2013. Also on board is X-Ray, which feeds you details on videos you’re watching, such as the actors in the film or the music playing in the background. Another feature that’s simultaneously creepy and convenient is ASAP, which not only suggests videos you may want to watch based on your viewing habits, but pre-caches them so they’ll start instantly if you click on them.

It’s a shopping bloodhound

The Firefly feature scans objects or listens to music or movie dialog to help you identify and, Amazon hopes, buy the product or content. What it finds is stored in a list, so you can always come back later to something when your wife’s not looking. Amazon says Firefly recognizes 100 million items.

Firefly’s scanner employs a technology called semantic boosting to help the camera sniff out words and numbers that may otherwise be missed by traditional optical character reader apps. It works by scanning or “scraping” the item in layers, so that the OCR isn’t overwhelmed with non-essential and confusing elements. Firefly has a dedicated button for launching it. There’s also Vino, a popular app for scanning wine labels.

Tilt me

If you’re thumb-tied, you can tilt the Fire rather than touch the screen to scroll up and down Web or e-book pages or to see different product views in Amazon’s shopping app. Another flick of your wrist calls up several menu options, including shopping cart (no surprise there).

A better camera, too?

While the 13-megapixel camera doesn’t have the highest resolution we’ve seen, Amazon says photos won’t suffer from the blurriness or noisiness of other smart phone cameras. Our engineers will test that claim. But at least it has a dedicated button so that you can launch the camera even if your screen has timed out.

Other nice features: The phone supports Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and ESPN, and the wires of the included earbuds are flat, which Amazon says will minimize tangles.

We’ll have more on the Fire when we get it into our labs within the next few weeks.

—Mike Gikas

   

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