Amazon unveils its first smartphone, the Fire phone
Zero hour has arrived. After quite literally talking about the idea of Amazon releasing its own smartphone for years, the rumors and guesswork have coalesced into this afternoon’s event, where we’ve been looking forward to the company finally confirming its news. Today in Seattle, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took the stage before a room full of both Amazon fans and representatives from the press to draw the curtain back on his company’s first smartphone, the Fire phone.
The handset features a 4.7-inch HD display, a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800, and has 2GB of RAM. There’s a 13MP main camera with f/2.0 aperture and optical image stabilization, and it gets its own hardware shutter button. Cloud Drive will offer Fire owners not just convenient cloud storage for those photos, but unlimited space, as well.
Stereo speakers are present to help Fire deliver a satisfying media playback experience for all the Amazon Prime streaming that’s no doubt going to be taking place – though there’s also support for the likes of Netflix, HBO Go, and Hulu Plus.
Just like with last year’s Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon is bringing its Mayday service to the Fire phone, giving users easy access to 24/7 live technical support.
Amazon makes its money selling shoppers retail goods, so it’s no surprise that the company’s first phone should help connect consumers with buying opportunities. Bezos demoed a new Firefly feature premiering on the Fire phone that quickly identifies products captured with the handset’s camera – and we’re not talking UPC scanning, but just straight-up image recognition. And once it IDs a product, you can order it in just a few taps. There’s also a music- and video-recognition component, letting Firefly similar connect you with media you’d like to buy.
Beyond being used for shopping, Firefly can recognize attractions and connect you with their Wikipedia articles (much like Google Goggles), and uses advanced OCR techniques to semantically read text – pulling off tricks like knowing the difference between a valid phone number and a random series of digits.
OK, interesting stuff so far (and very much what we’d expect from an Amazon product), but what about that… weird stuff? The pseudo-3D effects? The gesture control? The array of front-facing cameras?
We start diving into all that next, and first up is the 3D effect, what Amazon calls “dynamic perspective.” Using visual tricks it creates the illusion of a 3D space within your phone, despite using a standard 2D display. This allows for UI elements to seemingly “float” above content, shifting slightly in response to your interactions with the phone. To pull this off, the phone uses its cameras to keep track of where your head is in real time.
The Fire phone’s UI makes some departures from typical Android fare, using its launcher to not just store apps, but bookmarks and media. There are also separate tabs for seeing on-device content and that which is stored on Amazon’s cloud. The home screen takes heavy inspiration from Fire tablets, letting you scroll through a “carousel” of selections, and delivering previews of apps as you go past them.
So why those four cameras in the phone’s corners? Why so many? As it turns out, for a few reasons. Adding more cameras increases the phone’s field of view, allowing it to pull off that dynamic perspective trick even as your line-of-sight with the phone rapidly shifts. And the sheer number of cameras let others pick up the slack when your fingers are blocking one or more of the lenses due to your grip on the handset (no “you’re holding it wrong” with Amazon).
In a dark room? No problem, as each of the four corner-mounted cameras has its own IR light source. And Amazon’s spent a long time fine-tuning its matching algorithms to help it only recognize real live human heads, and not get distracted by still pictures. Amazon’s making both this dynamic perspective tech and Firefly available to third parties through open SDKs in order to further build off of what can be done with them.
Sold on the phone yet? Interested in getting your hands on one? As rumored, the Fire phone will launch as an AT&T exclusive, selling for just about $200 on contract for the 32GB version, or closer to $300 for the 64GB model. Off contract, those rise to around $650 and $750, respectively. Both will start shipping on July 25, with pre-orders open today. And to help sweeten the deal, Amazon is throwing in a free year of Prime with your purchase – that’s a Fire phone introductory offer, though, so don’t expect it to last.