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Amazon Announces Its Smartphone, Simply Called Fire

By Norman Chan

Priced like your typical high-end smartphone, exclusive on AT&T.

So here it is, Amazon's first smartphone. It's called Fire (big surprise there), and it'll be released on July 25th. Here's what you should know about it. It's been designed as a high-end device, and priced that way. Partnering with AT&T as the exclusive US carrier, the Fire will cost $200 on contract (32GB) and $650 off contract. That's a different strategy from Amazon's previous Fire products, the Kindle Fire tablet and Fire TV set-top box, both of which where priced close to cost (ie. very little profit just on the hardware) to get user on board Amazon's Fire OS platform and ecosystem. So Fire is going to have to be competitive with the likes of iPhone and flagship smartphones like the Nexus 5, Galaxy S5, and HTC One. To that end, it has some pretty familiar specifications.

We'll get to the Fire-unique features in just a second, but let's run through its core specs. It's a 4.7-inch phone with a 720p screen. Size-wise, it's about the size of the Nexus 5 (though just a little taller and not as wide), but also 30 grams heavier. That's probably due to its additional cameras and the 2400mAh battery. Fire runs Fire OS 3.5 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU with Adreno 330 graphics and 2GB of on-board memory.

Those are pretty high specs for a 720p display, especially on the GPU side. That's because Fire has the rumored 3D interface--one that tracks your face and eyes with four front-mounted cameras and infrared LEDs to shift the UI's perspective and give the illusion of depth. Called Dynamic Perspective, it's basically the head-tracking experience that Johnny Chung-Lee hacked together in his Wii hacks demo. The camera uses two of its four 120-degree FOV cameras to guess the position of your head, and renders a skewed version to simulate the parallax effects of depth "beneath" the screen.

That gee-whiz feature is neat (and likely battery-intensive), but the big flagship feature for Fire is an object-recognition system called Firefly. Activated with a native camera app or the dedicated FireFly button, the phone can send photos of objects for Amazon's servers to identify and direct you to the shopping page. Whether it's text, barcodes, movies, music, or other physical products, as long as it's in the database, FireFly will want you to be buy it from Amazon. The point, obviously, is to make the "showrooming" of brick & mortar stories that much easier. It's something retailers have feared for a while, and is difficult to stop.

Other than the Dynamic Perspective feature, there's little in Fire that makes its hardware unique from any other smartphone. Fire is going to have to compete not only with established flagships, but also a new crop of affordable high-end smartphones--Nexus 5, Motorola G LTE, OnePlus One, for example. I'd be really surprised if the FireFly feature wasn't released as an iPhone or Android app in the future, too. Amazon isn't in the business of making its profits from hardware; they want to get their services and platform on the most mobile devices as possible. Fire may get a lot of headlines, but isn't a big step in that direction.

Amazon's Fire smartphone is available for pre-order now, and for a limited time includes a full year of Amazon Prime membership (basically $100 credit). Is this a phone you're interested in, and would like to see us test?