The Fire phone that Amazon.com begins shipping Thursday is an impressive debut with several cool features. But the price is a bit high for a device designed to help you buy more stuff from Amazon.
That the phone is being treated as a major-league gadget is a testament to how far Amazon has come since its first consumer electronics device, the original Kindle, arrived in 2007.
Out of the chute Amazon has produced a handsome, functional phone that works well with its growing array of online services, especially if you’re a paying member of Amazon’s Prime membership program.
Still, it’s surprising that Amazon was bold enough to position the Fire at the top tier of the smartphone market alongside the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy. It’s a fine phone but its hardware isn’t cutting edge and its signature features are so far more novelty than transformative.
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The 4G LTE phone has a 4.7-inch, 720p display powered by a quad-core processor and a custom version of the Android operating system. It has a 13 megapixel camera and a generous 32 gigabytes of storage in the base model.
The Fire starts at $650, or $199 with a two-year contract with AT&T, which for now is the phone’s exclusive carrier. A 64-gigabyte version is $749, or $299 on contract.
Amazon’s temporarily sweetening the deal by bundling a year of Prime, which normally costs $99.
The pricing scheme runs counter to the trend toward unlocked, contract-free phones, not to mention the growth in lower-end smartphones. But Amazon is proud of the Fire and needed a partner like AT&T to quickly get the Fire into stores across the country and supported by a national network.
Prices are likely to come down, especially once the Fire faces competition from new iPhones with larger screens expected to surface in a few months.
The Fire is a bit thicker than the leading phones and feels more solid than you’d expect, especially if you’re used to the surprising lightness of devices, such as the Galaxy S5. Bigger phones generally have better batteries but the Fire was unremarkable in this department and needed a daily charge.
Amazon echoes the iPhone 4 design with the Fire’s glass back, curved corners and details such as the speaker slit and drilled microphone holes. But its rubbery plastic frame is more akin to Fire tablets.
The Fire phone works especially well with the $99 Fire TV wireless device that Amazon began selling in April. You can select and launch a Prime streaming video on the phone, then tap the screen to have it play on TV. Then the phone can be used to peruse annotations, such as trivia and actor biographies provided by its IMDB service. You can also jump to the point where a particular song plays in a movie and, naturally, order the soundtrack from Amazon.
Where the Fire distinguishes itself is with its motion-sensing interface and use of 3D effects that Amazon called “dynamic perspective.”
To surface menus, or additional commands for what’s on screen, you rotate the phone to the right or left. Menu “cards” then slide out from the side. Other phones such as BlackBerries have similar cards summoned with a finger flick, which also works on the Fire. I found myself mostly using flicks, especially if it took a few twists to get the menu to surface.
When reading text on the phone, it senses your gaze moving and automatically scrolls down. Newer Samsung phones also do this trick, which is just imprecise enough to drive you nuts. Especially if it gets stuck and continuously scrolls.
The Fire’s standout feature are 3D screen savers that give you the illusion of depth. When you move the phone around, the display moves with your gaze. I especially like on with a biplane flying through clouds toward other planes that come into view when you look sideways.
But party tricks will only take you so far.
After less than a week of trying two different models, I grew tired of 3D touches that Amazon used elsewhere on the phone.
The screen savers are great. The icons on the Fire’s home screen that tilt from side to side are fine. But when menu text tilts to show off a shadow effect on the lettering, it just looks blurry.
It’s fun to discover 3D renderings of the Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower when perusing maps. You can tilt, zoom and pan around these landmarks. But only a few buildings receive this treatment — only five buildings in downtown Seattle are rendered this way, for instance — so it feels like a gimmick more than a useful evolution of digital maps.
Design of phone interfaces has become flatter and more simplified in recent years, moving away from 3D tricks and semi-realistic icons such as the folded map with a pushpin and 3D shopping cart that Amazon uses on the Fire.
Yet there’s also growing interest in more immersive displays that take advantage of today’s potent graphics hardware, such as virtual-reality headsets and projectors that turn walls and windows into dynamic displays. Maybe that’s where Amazon’s heading; the Fire could be seen as the first step toward creating new digital experiences such as 3D digital storefronts that better compete with the experience of shopping in actual stores.
With our without 3D, shopping is a key feature of the Fire phone. Pressing and holding a shutter button on the case launches an app called Firefly that scans and recognizes some products. It can also identify music that’s playing or shows on a TV set. If the product is recognized, you can immediately order it from Amazon. Either way the scans remain on a shopping list in the app.
Clearly Amazon is trying to enable its best customers — Prime members — to compare in-store prices and buy from Amazon while on the go. But it may be awhile before the Fire phone causes disruption beyond what’s already happened since people began comparison shopping with phones.
Testing Firefly inside stores and other buildings, the app often failed because the wireless signal wasn’t good enough. Error messages were vague, though: it would just say “server is not responding — please try again later.” When scanning packaged foods, it frequently misread the specific label. When it guessed correctly, it tended to suggest buying a large quantity.
Scanning a bag of plain PopChips, it thought I wanted the barbecue flavor, for instance. Flavor aside, the option presented was to order an entire case of chips, not the single bag I scanned.
The device failed to recognize three regularly consumed products randomly taken from my pantry — packages of graham crackers, pepper and bamboo shoots.
“Fireflying” music and TV shows worked much better, at least until I tried to figure out the name of a 1950s era TV show on an obscure, retro channel.
Connecting and reconnecting to wireless networks at home and work was unusually cumbersome and at one point in the process the Fire screen turned all white except for ghostly flickering letters. It flickered back to life a little while later.
The Fire also has a voice-recognition system similar to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. In several tests it worked surprisingly well, except when I tried to send myself a text message and it thought my name was Briard Ugly. I won’t hold that against the Fire — that was almost as fun as showing off the 3D screen savers.
This material has been edited for print publication.Brier Dudley’s blog excerpts appear Thursdays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org