Amazon looks to take on Samsung, Apple with Fire Phone

Amazon jumped into the smartphone fray Wednesday, unveiling the Fire Phone at a press event in Seattle.

Amazon’s phone will be available exclusively through AT&T, mirroring an arrangement that Apple had with the carrier with the iPhone’s 2007 debut. The 32GB Fire Phone will cost $199 with a two-year contract. You can preorder it now, with the phone arriving on July 25. For a limited time, the phone comes with a full year of Amazon Prime service (which normally costs $99 a year), for both new and current Prime subscribers.

amazon event att Image: Susie Ochs

AT&T’s Ralph De La Vega (left) greets Jeff Bezos at the Fire Phone unveiling. Amazon’s phone is available exclusively through AT&T.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that he’s been asked about an Amazon-built phone more frequently than anything else. Inside the company, though, Bezos told event attendees there’s a different question being asked: “Can we build a better phone for Amazon Prime members? Well, I’m excited to tell you that the answer is yes.”

In taking the wraps off the much-anticipated phone, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said it was built out of premium materials. The Fire Phone features Gorilla Glass 3 on both sides, along with a 4.7-inch LCD screen. The phone has a rubberized frame and aluminum buttons.

On the audio side, the Fire Phone boasts dual stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus virtual surround sound. The phone’s magnetic earbuds come with a flat cable that doesn’t tangle easily, according to Bezos.

Perhaps the phone’s most headline-grabbing feature is the one rumored long before Wednesday’s press event: a 3D interface. The Fire Phone isn’t exactly 3D—Bezos called it Dynamic Perspective, and it works more like a hyped-up version of the parallax effect found in Apple’s iOS 7 operating system.

Four 120-degree cameras on the front of the phone track your head position on the X, Y, and Z axes, which lets images on the Fire Phone’s screen move as you move the phone or reposition your head. Amazon built custom lock screens to show off the Dynamic Perspective effect, and even provided an SDK for developers to build the technology into their own apps.

amazon event photo Image: Susie Ochs

The display on the Fire Phone features a Dynamic Perspective effect in which images move as you move your view.

But the Fire Phone’s calling card looks to be its software and services. Because this is an Amazon device, you can expect lots of access to content, such as the Kindle Store for buying books as well as the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, in which Amazon Prime members can share books. The phone will also have access to hundreds of magazines and newspapers as well as Amazon’s recently purchased Comixology digital comics reader and storefront. Apps such as Netflix, HBO Go, and ESPN’s sports content will also be available on the phone.

If the ability to download content directly from Amazon wasn’t enough of an incentive to keep you buying things from the e-commerce giant, Amazon is also including a feature called Firefly, a scanning service that can recognize products, DVD and book covers, CDs, games, QR codes, email address, phone numbers, and barcodes.

In the onstage demo, it seemed to work so much faster than typical barcode scanning with a smartphone’s camera—no need to carefully line up the camera or wait for it to focus. Firefly also boasts the ability to identify music, similar to the Shazam app, and even TV shows. Bezos demoed this by Firefly-ing Game of Thrones, and the phone knew the episode and even the scene, and Amazon’s X-Ray feature immediately returned a list of the actors in that scene.

The idea is you’ll be able to point your Fire Phone at just about anything, scanning it, and quickly identify it—especially helpful for impulse buys. Firefly’s features go beyond just commerce, though; for instance, it’s able to recognize phone numbers for quicker dialing. The Fire Phone includes a dedicated Firefly button so you can use the feature even if your phone is locked, and developers will be able to build Firefly actions into their apps thanks to an open SDK.

amazon event fireflyinfo Image: Susie Ochs

The Fire Phone will sport a dedicated Firefly button to help you identify products, DVD and book covers, barcodes, and even phone numbers just by scanning them.

As you would expect with an Amazon-branded device, the Fire Phone includes features aimed at readers. An immersion reading feature lets you read the story and listen to narration at the same time, while WhisperSync for Voice lets you switch between text and audio without losing your place in the book.

The Mayday customer service feature—a popular addition to the Kindle Fire HDX tablet—makes its way over to the Fire Phone as well. It’ll be a free feature with 24-hour support and—Bezos added in a clear dig at Apple’s Genius Bar—no need to make appointments or go to a store. The Mayday features extend beyond just questions for Amazon: If you have a problem with your AT&T service, Mayday will take you to AT&T’s tech support.

Other Amazon-driven features in the Fire Phone included unlimited cloud photo storage via Amazon Cloud Drive and an adaptation of the Fire TV’s ASAP feature that uses predictive caching and prebuffering for streams that start instantly.

The Fire Phone’s rear-facing camera takes 13-megapixel stills, with a 5-element f/2.0 lens and optical image stabilization. That’s supposed to let it keep the shutter open longer to help you take photos in low-light, without them winding up all shaky and blurred. Both the front- and rear-facing cameras take 1080p video at 30fps—videos and photos are auto-saved to Cloud Drive, so they’re always backed up. While your photos don’t count against your storage limit, your videos do, so once you hit the ceiling, you can buy more storage or your videos will just stop uploading.

amazon event interface Image: Susie Ochs

The Fire Phone runs Android, but it’s the customized version similar to what power Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets.

The Fire Phone runs Android, but with a similar interface to the Kindle Fire tablets. The App Grid can be customized however you like, and you can add media to your grid as well as apps—think of it like bookmarking the book you’re reading or your favorite magazine right to your home screen. The Carousel view has a preview pane below each app’s icon; for example you can see previews of new email messages in the Carousel, and even delete them from there without having to open the email app.

Updated at 11:27 a.m. PT with more Fire Phone features.
Updated at 11:47 a.m. PT with information on the Dynamic Perspective and Firefly features.
Updated at 12:04 p.m. PT with information on pricing and AT&T exclusivity.
Updated at 2:15 p.m. PT Wednesday with more details about the phone.
Updated at 3:45 p.m. PT with a video report from IDG News Service.

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