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Fire Phone review: hands on with Amazon's smartphone - a so-sweet gateway drug to Amazon Prime

Amazon yesterday launched its first smartphone. The Fire Phone has a slew of exciting features, including 3D-like visual effects and a semantic visual search app that could revolutionise your weekly shop. Amazon invited only 300 people to its launch event, many of whom were guest Amazon fans and software developers. Fortunately we had in the room Susie Ochs, a senior editor for our US sister publication Tech Hive. And she provides the hands-on info for our first Amazon Fire Phone review. We'll update this piece as we do more testing.

A black slab of glass-covered plastic, the Amazon Fire Phone measures 139.2 x 66.5 and is 8.9 mm thick, according to Amazon. It weighs 160g and has Corning Gorilla Glass 3 on both the front, and the back. There's nothing particularly interesting or outstanding about the design and build. Suffice to say it feels like a basic but well-made 4.7in Android smartphone.

The Amazon Fire Phone is a 4.7in handset. That 4.7in display is an IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen, boasting 16M colours. It has a resulotion of 720 x 1280 pixels, giving it a pixel density of 312ppi. That's good, but not great in the current market.

It pairs a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU with 2GB RAM, so performance should be well looked after. Onboard storage options are 32GB or 64GB, although there is no storage expansion slot. An onboard Adreno 330 GPU takes care of graphics performance.

It's a 4G LTE handset, with GPRS, EDGE, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, NFC and USB connecivity via a microUSB 2.0 charger/connector port.

In terms of media you get stereo speakers, and a 13Mp camera. The latter is a 13Mp camera capturing 4128x3096 pixels, optical image stabilization, autofocus and LED flash. It can capture 1080p video  at 30fps, and there's a front-facing 2.1Mp camera for selfies and video calls.

Other features include Firefly, Dynamic Perspective and gesture navigation. Without having properly tested the Amazon Fire Phone we can't yet judge the performance. We'll update this story as we know more, but in the mean time we'll take a deep dive into some of the key new features of the Amazon Fire Phone.

The Fire Phone is technically an Android phone, in that the Fire OS is based on the Android code base. But it is a very different beast.

Out Android-toting hands on reviewer Susie was impressed:

"You can put your favorite apps in the App Grid, but there are also shortcuts to media like books, magazines, movies, and whatever. The Carousel shows your recently used apps, along with a scrollable pane of contextual information Amazon is calling a widget.

"Your email app, for example, can display previews of your messages, so you can read the first lines and even delete an email without having to open the app. The camera app has its own shortcut—just single-click the button on the side of the Fire Phone to launch the camera, and then again to take a picture."

Our overall impression is of an easy to use, good-looking interface that takes the best aspects of Android. But you should be aware that the Fire Phone cannot access Google Play or install Android apps. It is restricted to Amazon's app- and content stores. That's the point!

Susie was also impressed - more impressed than she expected to be - by Dynamic Perspective. This is the aspect of the Fire Phone that was traile as making it a '3D phone'. It's not that, but it is pretty cool:

"The Fire Phone has five cameras on the front—your basic selfie-cam where you'd expect it to be, as well as four cameras in the corners of the device.

"Those have wide, 120-degree fields of view and infrared sensors so they can track your head, and by determining the X, Y, and Z axes of your head's location in relation to your phone, simply moving your head also triggers the Dynamic Perspective shift. So you can 'tilt' the phone's image even when the phone is completely still. It's really neat - almost spooky."

Thumbs up for Dynamic Perspective, then. But the challenge will be getting third parties to create content that utilise the tech.

"Amazon built in several lock screens to really show this off, but the real magic will likely come when third-party developers leverage this technology for their apps. You'll be able to control games with a head tilt, and even zoom out to see more of a game level by moving the phone a little further from your face.

"Now I am very prone to motion sickness. I have parallax turned off on my iPhone, I don't like 3D movies, and if I try to read anything in the car or on the train, I get nauseated pretty much right away. So I was expecting to hate this motion effect.

"But in my 30 minutes of hands-on time, it was shockingly smooth sailing. It's fun to play with, and produces that delightful feeling of technology magic. But if you really hate it, you can turn it off in Settings - I probably won't want to use it on the bus, for example."

We're excited about Dynamic Perspective, then.

As I think we are about the cool navigation ticks that Amazon has built in to the Fire Phone.

Here's Susie: "The Fire Phone has some built-in gestures to let you more easily navigate it with one hand. Give it a quick tilt to the right or the left to pull in menu panes on either side of the screen. (You can pull them in with your finger, too.) And if you kind of dip your phone, quickly lowering the top-left corner, that shows you the action menu. It's hard to explain without just showing you, so watch this Vine to see it in action.

"These gestures only took me a couple minutes to get used to, and I could see how they might become indispensible once you really get accustomed to them. The Amazon rep who hosted my hands-on time said that when he tries to use his old phone, he winds up jerking it around in midair expecting something to happen."

He would say that, of course. But gestures to which you quickly get used are generally gestures you can utilise over a long time. So although the jury is out until further testing we are optimistic about these features.

Firefly is both the principal reason for the Fire Phone existing, and the reason we can't yet have it in the UK. Firefly has been described as 'Shazam for the real world'. Using Firefly you can take pictures of just about anything, and the Fire Phone will extract the useful information in a semantic style. See a product you like, take a picture, and buy it.

"Scanning barcodes with phones has never been a great experience - you have to open an app that does it, usually tap a button or two, then line up the barcode in a little onscreen box, wait for the camera to refocus itself and lock on to the barcode, and only then is it sent to wherever it's sent to be ID'ed. I start out thinking that I'm going to scan all this food in my pantry and make the Best Shopping List Ever, and after two or three barcodes I give up. It's just not fun.

"Firefly is better. It can scan food packaging (not just barcodes), CDs, movies, books, QR codes, email addresses and phone numbers of fliers, URLs - in other words, tons of stuff. It does this almost instantly, and even getting to the point where you're ready to scan is a simple matter of long-pressing the button on the side of the Fire Phone. It's even got Shazam-like feature that can identify songs and TV shows. It's crazy fast.

"And of course, the Fire Phone makes it easy to buy any of that stuff on Amazon, but third-party devs can use Firefly as well, to provide deep links into their apps from the Firefly search results. Right now you can Firefly a song and then start an iHeartRadio station around it, or search for concert tickets on StubHub. If you Firefly a phone number and then later forget why, you can even call up the original picture. Hopefully that can clue you in."

You can only really test a function such as Firefly in a real world situation. But it's a great idea and - according to Susie's test - one that on the surface at least seems to have been executed well. Here's hoping it comes to the UK.

You can pre-order the Fire Phone right now, and it will be released on July 25th. The bad news is that this is only for US residents, and Amazon has already said that the phone won't come to the UK. As with the original Kindle Fire, this first-generation smartphone - it seems - will be a US-only product, locked to the AT&T network.

Prices range from $199 to $649 depending on the service plan you choose. The price includes a full year of Amazon Prime membership - 12 months is added to your subscription if you're already a member.


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