Fire Phone from Amazon
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, unveiling the Fire Phone in an event in Seattle on Wednesday, 18 June 2014

At an event in Seattle, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of the retail giant Amazon, unveiled the Fire Phone, a high-end smartphone. It is the first smartphone Amazon has produced on its own.

The device is exclusive to AT&T and will set you back $199 (32GB) or $299 (64GB) on a two-year contract. Pre-orders start today and according to Amazon’s product listing, it’ll be available to purchase online or in AT&T stores from July 25.

The device has a 4.7 inch IPS LCD HD display, made of Corning Gorilla Glass 3. It displays at 590 nits of brightness, and sports a circular polarizer to improve outdoor viewing. The smartphone itself is black and surrounded by a rubberized frame. Similar to the Nexus 4, the device also has a glass panel on the back – if you’re accident-prone you might want to look elsewhere.

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The Fire Phone supports 4G LTE and runs on a quad-core 2.2 GHz processor, as well as an Adreno 330 graphics processor and 2GB of RAM. Shutterbugs will have a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera to experiment with – it comes with Optical Image Stabilization (IOS) and an f/2.0 five element lens. There’s also a dedicated camera shutter button that launches the Fire Phone’s camera app, which could prove useful for ‘spur-of-the-moment’ type shots.

Fire Phone from Amazon

To combat Google and its evolving Google+ photo-storage service, Amazon is also offering free, unlimited storage on Amazon Cloud Drive. For a limited time, Amazon will also pack in a year of free Prime membership.

On the audio side, the Fire Phone boasts dual-stereo speakers with Dolby Digital plus. Amazon says it boasts stereo audio in landscape, as well as virtual surround sound. They’ll need to be something special to beat the excellent front-facing ‘BoomSound’ speakers that HTC ships with its Android smartphones.

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Apple is known for offering decent headphones with all of its products, including the iPhone. Amazon is taking the company head on with its own “tangle-free” design, which features flat cables and magnetic earbuds. Amazon describes them as “comfortable and ergonomic,” although we’ll reserve judgment until we’ve had some hands-on time.

Like the device, they’re black and fairly unobtrusive. The slick earbuds also sport volume controls near the top of the cable, which is a nice touch.

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Next, we have an entirely new software feature called Firefly. Using the smartphone rear-facing camera, it can be used to identify 100 million different items. That could be a number, a DVD, a QR code or a video game. It compensates for glare, wrinkles and curves, and will store all of your previous searches in a handy list. As you might expect, from here it’s then possible to purchase the object from Amazon, Audible and the Kindle Bookstore.

Similar to Shazam, Firefly can also identify music. Wait for a moment and the Fire Phone will tell you the track name and artist, before giving you a shortcut for – yes, you guessed it – its product page on Amazon. The same also applies for TV shows, so if you’re watching an episode of Game of Thrones – it’ll be able to identify that too based on the audio alone.

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Underneath the volume rocker, you’ll also find a dedicated Firefly button. Clearly, this is a feature Amazon wants to push as one of the Fire Phone’s defining features, similar to what Google, Microsoft and Apple already do for Google Now, Cortana and Siri respectively.

There’s also a Firefly SDK, allowing third-party developers to fully integrate their services – in one example, CEO Jeff Bezos took a picture of a painting and was instantly greeted with its relevant Wikipedia entry. Amazon also mentioned using Firefly to scan foods you eat into the MyFitnessPal app, or using Vivino to scan a wine label and learn what it tastes like.

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As expected, the Fire Phone also offers some 3D trickery. In short, the display elements move as you tilt the phone from side-to-side. This can give the impression of depth to a 3D-rendered map, or quickly bring up a navigation drawer in the OS. This motion control can also be used to scroll through pages in the web browser, or through an ebook – Amazon will also allow you to lock the scroll speed so you can read without pawing the screen.

To create this sensation, Amazon developed special cameras with a 120-degree field of view. For comparison, most front-facing smartphone cameras only offer a 72-degree field of view, which is usually fine for selfies and video calls. To understand how far your face is from the display, Amazon needed at least two cameras for the Fire Phone. The final number was bumped up to four, however, so that Amazon can quickly alternate between the best two at all times.

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For those moments when you’re in total darkness – say at the cinema, a concert, or when you’re watching a film in your living room – Amazon has also fitted each camera with an infrared light. With all of this technology combined, Amazon can accurately identify where you face is in relation to the smartphone. It might sound a little creepy, but it’s a similar approach to what Microsoft took with its Kinect peripheral for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

On the software side, the Fire Phone uses a fairly conventional grid of apps. While the iconography for its stock apps is completely new, the overall look and feel should feel familiar. If you’ve used Fire OS in any of its Kindle Fire tablets, you’ll have a good idea of the general look and feel.

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Amazon is entering a fiercely competitive space, however, currently dominated by Apple and Samsung. The company’s focus around services could be a key differentiator though – if Amazon can use the device to promote Prime and its e-commerce site, it can justify lowering the price of the device later on.

Admittedly, $199 (32GB) and $299 (64GB) is already quite a deal – but like its $99 Fire TV, some had hoped Amazon would go for an even lower price-point to truly make an impact in the US.

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