Amazon.com has sold a gazillion phones through the years, but until now, the e-commerce giant has never had to sell an Amazon phone. That changes with this week's release of Fire, the first smartphone designed by Amazon.
To contend with Apple, Samsung and myriad other smartphone rivals, an Amazon phone would have to be markedly better — or at least markedly different — what with Amazon coming at this so late.
Fire is different, thanks to an inventive take on 3-D and other new features, but it's also an attractive and solidly built quad-core 5.6-ounce phone with stereo speakers, a lovely 4.7-inch display and a high-quality camera. And sure, you gotta love shopping on Amazon. The device is designed to draw and keep Amazon.com customers inside a digital ecosystem that numbers 33 million songs, apps, games, TV shows, movies, books and then some.
But there's also a considerable learning curve, and I'm not ready to declare that the Fire phone is better than other premium-price handsets — this one starts at $199.99 with AT&T. Still, I like this phone and expect many features to light your fire, if not immediately, then in the future.
The innovation starts with a head-spinning 3-D-like feature Amazon refers to as Dynamic Perspective, made possible through the use of four ultra-low-power specialized cameras and four infrared LEDs. It's dripping with potential, though Amazon says a scant few of the 185,000 apps available for the Fire phone can exploit the new feature at launch. You can see where developers will be able to make good use of Dynamic Perspective in immersive gaming environments and other apps.
Your first glimpse at Dynamic Perspective comes on the lock screen. With the phone stationary, as you move your head, the foreground and background change perspective accordingly. It's a neat special effect that, unlike other 3-D displays I've encountered, didn't induce nausea.
Depending on the app or screen, as you go on to tilt, twist, swivel or move the phone from side to side or up and down, icons subtly move, scrolling happens, panels of menus, notifications and information appear and disappear again. This takes getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, the gestures mean you can often navigate with one hand.
In the USA TODAY app, for example, a flick of the wrist summons menus for News, Sports, Life, Money, Tech and other sections, and shortcuts to top stories. A similar gesture in Yelp brings up a menu from which you can search or check into eateries.
If you're listening to a song, lyrics can appear in a right panel.
In an app called Clay Doodle, the clay that you're trying to mold into an object moves and gets bigger or smaller as you approach or retreat.
As you navigate the phone, however, there are times you'll miss the absence of a dedicated "back" button, at least until you figure out the "swipe up" alternative.
Amazon has improved the home screen "carousel" interface of recently used apps familiar to Kindle Fire tablet users. (Amazon layers its own interface on top of Android.) There are now real-time updates you can act on immediately. Under a carousel icon for the Zillow real estate app, for example, you can see listings of homes for sale in the area.
Equally interesting is a new Firefly feature. By long-pressing a button on the edge of the phone, the rear camera becomes a souped-up scanner, capable of reading bar codes, QR codes, physical products, printed Web addresses, URLs, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and much more — more than 100 million items, Amazon claims.
I like that you can use Firefly to leverage the Amazon-owned IMDb X-Ray feature to not only recognize 245,000 movies and TV shows, but to deliver information on the plot or the actors in the precise scene you're watching. Firefly can also recognize 35 million songs, then create an instant custom radio station inside the iHeart Radio app. Or you can order concert tickets via StubHub.
Of course, Firefly is also a great big shortcut to the Amazon storefront. If a book is recognized, you can purchase the physical book, Kindle book, or audio book from the phone.
Firefly didn't work every time — you need decent connectivity — but I got it to recognize a Smucker's Apple Butter container, Poland Spring water and phone numbers in newspapers, posters, even on the side of a truck. You can instantly call, text or add the number to your contacts.
Alas, only 150 to 175 apps can take advantage of one or more of the new features (Dynamic Perspective, Firefly or the enhanced carousel view.)
When I wasn't using Firefly, the (13-megapixel) rear camera got good results shooting pictures and video.
Fire also incorporates the live 24-by-7 video support Mayday feature. I was a fan when it was introduced on the Kindle Fire HDX tablet; it's great for learning how to tackle an obscure feature. It's welcome on the phone, too, but I ran into connectivity problems at times trying to reach Mayday staffers.
Where does Fire lack a spark? A voice-assistant feature for making calls, sending messages or surfing by voice is weak compared with Apple's Siri, Google Now and Windows Phone's Cortana.
There's no fingerprint scanner as on the iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S5, and Fire isn't water resistant, as is the Galaxy and some phones. The screen froze once. The glass back is prone to smudges. The battery is sealed.
You're limited to AT&T for now as Amazon's exclusive Fire partner. At $199, Fire isn't cheap, though it does come with 32 gigabytes of internal storage, 12 months of Amazon Prime (on-demand movies and TV shows, Kindle lending library access, two-day free shipping) and unlimited storage for your photos on Amazon's Cloud Drive.
There are reminders as you use the phone that this is Amazon's first go at it. But it's a strong first effort. Expect Fire to fire up the smartphone market.
The bottom line
$199 on two-year AT&T contract (32 GB) or $299.99 (64 GB). No-contract price is $649.99.
Pro. Solid and attractive phone has lovely screen. Dynamic Perspective has 3-D-like effect. Firefly. Mayday live tech support. Tangle-free ear buds. 12 months of Amazon. Unlimited cloud storage for photos.
Con. Learning curve. Voice assistant not as good as rivals. Fewer apps, too. Limited to one carrier (AT&T).