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Will the Amazon Fire Phone Be a Hit or Miss?

Things are heating up again over at Amazon. Today, Jeff Bezos unveiled Amazon Fire, an Amazon-branded Fire smartphone. It goes without saying that if you’re going to jump into the smartphone game at this late stage, you’d better come bringing something new to the table. Well, hat tip to Amazon – they’ve certainly done that, even if that new thing mostly just serves to make it way, way easier to buy things from Amazon. But, there are a few other tricks here that make Amazon Fire an intriguing prospect.

Amazon Fire Phone is a 4.7” smartphone running Fire OS 3.5, Amazon’s forked version of Android. It runs on a 2.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, presumably the Qualcomm 800 SoC with the Adreno 330 GPU, along with 2 GB of RAM. No specifics on display resolution, but it’s being billed by Amazon as an HD display – if they’re going by the usual HD nomenclature, we’re looking at 720p. That might disappoint some, but the cameras at least look to be pretty solid – a 13 MP rear back-illuminated camera with LED flash, a 5-element f/2.0 lens, optical image stabilization, and high dynamic range and a 2.1 MP front camera, both of which can take 1080p video. For connectivity, Fire aims to be a world phone. It works with nine bands of LTE – four GSM and five UMTS. No CDMA, so don’t expect Amazon Fire to hit Verizon or Sprint unless Amazon builds another model just for them – given that Amazon expended the effort to make this build compatible with so many bands of LTE, that seems unlikely. You’ll be able to choose from 32 GB and 64 GB of internal storage, and all of your photos will automatically be backed up to Amazon’s cloud servers.

Build quality looks to be on the premium side, with Amazon throwing in Gorilla Glass 3 – on both the display and the back – aluminum buttons, stainless steel details, and polyurethane grips.

Of course, that’s all standard smartphone stuff. The two terms you’ll hear bounced around most often when the Amazon Fire is discussed are Dynamic Perspective and Firefly. These are what set the Fire apart from other phones.

Dynamic Perspective takes the parallax idea from iOS 7 and makes it useful and much more powerful. The Fire has four front-facing low-power cameras with four infrared LEDs, which are connected to their own system with a dedicated processor and GPU. This allows the phone to change what it shows you based on head tracking. By far the best feature this opens up is one-handed use – you can scroll through web pages by tilting the phone upwards or downwards, or open up new menus by swiveling the phone to the side. Turning the phone changes the perspective in maps, letting you look around the neighborhood and bringing up links to Yelp reviews for businesses in the area. Amazon is also releasing an SDK for Dynamic Perspective, so you can expect this new feature to be implemented in third-party apps and games in the future.

The Firefly button is what truly makes this an Amazon phone. It’s like what Shazam is for identifying music, except it does it for everything. It’ll identify music that’s playing in the background, movies from just a few lines of dialogue, or physical items like books or – well, just about anything. What ties it all together is Amazon’s catalog of stuff for sale – that’s what Firefly bases its searches on, and you can bet that when you use the button, you’ll be provided with a handy shortcut to buy the thing in question from Amazon. Additionally, Firefly can pull information like email addresses, phone numbers, barcodes, and QR codes from printed media, and make that information instantly useable on the phone. A Firefly SDK is also available to developers.

Amazon Fire Phone also works in features you’d find on the Kindle Fire. The Mayday button, which brings on an Amazon rep to help you use your device using voice chat, makes an appearance, as does ASAP, Amazon’s predictive technology for what movies and TV shows you might want to watch. X-Ray brings in-depth extra information about books, music, movies, and TV shows to your device. Second Screen allows you to wirelessly push whatever you’re watching on the Fire to a Miracast-compatible media player like Fire TV or the PlayStation 4, so you can watch something on the big screen while using your phone as a remote.

The Carousel on the home screen now has widgets – what Amazon calls dynamic apps. You’ll be able to do things like sort email straight from the home screen using these.

Bottom line is, if you buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, this is the phone for you. If you haven’t jumped into Amazon’s camp yet, they’d love you to do so – they’re offering 12 months of Amazon Prime for free with purchase of the phone. Firefly is unabashedly all about getting you to buy more stuff from Amazon – if you see something you want in the real world, just use the Firefly button, and you’ll have ordered it on Amazon before your prefrontal cortex can tell you not to. Dynamic Perspective is legitimately excellent – no touch scrolling and menu navigation looks to be very natural in use. Besides, it’ll be the first phone you can actually use with one hand, without having to attempt the awkward thumb scroll.

In the United States, the Amazon Fire Phone will be an AT&T exclusive. The 32 GB model will cost $200, with the 64 GB model coming in at $300, both with two-year contracts. You can also use AT&T Next and pay $27.09 or $31.25, respectively, per month for 18 months. There’s also an option to buy Fire without a service plan for $650. You can pre-order Amazon Fire Phone  starting today, and what the heck, you just might – for a first effort, this looks like a pretty compelling smartphone, we just think that pricing for it is too high to stay truly competitive.  Also, we can’t help but wonder if an AT&T exclusive was such a good idea? If you ask us, exclusives are rarely a good thing for the consumer.