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Amazon Fire Phone Hands-On: A Spark of Innovation

 After much speculation, Amazon announced its Fire smartphone, which features a comfortable and durable design, innovative 3D-like display and a new way of using the camera to identify--and then purchase--anything from armoires to zucchini. We went hands-on with the Fire, which will be available for $199 on AT&T, to test out its new features, and see if it has the potential to unseat Apple and Samsung.

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Similar to the iPhone 4S, the front and back of the Fire phone is swathed in Gorilla Glass 3. The sides, though, are covered in a soft-touch material, and are angled at the corners, which makes the phone comfortable to hold. Measuring 5.5 x 2.6 x 0.35 inches, the Fire is skinnier than the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5, which are 2.8 and 2.9 inches wide, respectively. We found it much easier to reach our thumb across the display without having the shift the phone in our hand, which we appreciate. At 5.64 ounces, though, the Fire is heavier than the S5 (5.1 ounces) and the One M8's 5.6 ounce design, but the added weight wasn't overly noticeable, at least not in our few minutes with the phone. 


The 4.7-inch display on the Fire may only be 720p--below that of the 1080p panels found on other flagship devices--but it's exceptionally bright. If it lives up to Amazon's claim of 590 nits, the Fire would be more than 200 nits brighter than our smartphone average (352 nits), as well as the iPhone 5s (470 nits) and the HTC One M8 (402 nits). 

Dynamic Perspective Display

It's something that you need to see to believe. Amazon took the parallax feature on the iPhone 5s  to a whole new level. Using four cameras on each corner of the phone, the Fire tracks your head and eye movements to re-draw images and icons on the display, so images really shift around when you move the phone. Amazon wants to make this more than just a gimmick, though.

This feature also lets you change the view of landmarks in the maps app, to give people a better sense of what a city they're unfamiliar with looks like. Ultimately, the success of this feature will depend on how many third-party developers use it in innovative ways.

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Used in conjunction with the Dynamic Perspective display, you can tilt and twist the phone certain ways to bring up different menus. For instance, rotating the phone quickly to the left will bring up quick settings, while angling it to the right or left will cause side menus to appear. Perhaps the most useful, though, is being able to scroll through long documents by tilting the phone up or down.

The more you tilt, the faster it scrolls. We found this feature worked fairly well, and responded quickly to subtle movements. Yes, you can also swipe on the screen to perform all these actions as well, but Amazon's hope is that the gestures will seem more natural. 

User Interface

Based on Android 4.2.2, Fire OS 3.5  has some nice features that set it apart from iOS and Android. The UI has a three-panel philosophy; at any time, you can flick (or gesture) in from the right or left to open contextual menus. For instance, in the mail app, the right menu will show attachments from an individual email, and the left menu will display the folders within your account. It's a good way to make the most of the screen's real estate. 

We also like the Smart Widgets, which let you view pertinent information from an app without opening it. For example, if the icon for the camera app is at the top of the screen, small thumbnails for recent photos appear below. Select one, and the app will open. The Calendar app shows upcoming appointments, while the Mail app displays recent messages, which you can delete with a swipe. Smart. 


Like all of Amazon's hardware, the Fire is designed to help you buy stuff more easily from the company, and Firefly is a new and novel way of making that happen. Long-press the camera button, and the Firefly app will open.  Point it at pretty much any object, and little stars will appear on screen--it's a kind of magic, you see--and Firefly will not only identify the object, but provide links to buy it from, you guessed it, Amazon. However, Amazon is letting other developers in on the action. If you use Firefly on a CD, for example, you might get an option to stream one of its songs from iHeartRadio.

The coolest part of Firefly is its music and movie recognition. Not only did it correctly identify a song, but it also recognized dialogue from "The Lord of the Rings" and brought up its IMDB page on the phone. 

Bottom Line

In general, we were impressed with the innovations in the Amazon Fire phone. The Dynamic Perspective display feels a bit like a work in progress; until there are a ton of apps that can take advantage of it, this feature will be little more than something cool to show your friends. Will the Fire convert customers from other Android devices? Most likely, it will depend on how invested that person is in Amazon's ecosystem. Firefly is interesting in that it will identify most anything you point it at, but will it result in a more savvy shopper, or just one prone to making more impulse buys? 

Like any smartphone, though, the success of the Fire will ride on two things: apps and battery life. Amazon has the first down, but will the Fire's 2,400-mAh battery stand up to the rigors of an ultra-bright display, four cameras constantly in use, and streaming audio? For Amazon's sake, we hope so.