Well, we knew that it was coming: Amazon has now increased its very own Android-powered device lineup by one, count ‘em, one new smartphone, and it’s called the Fire phone.
Like the company’s Kindle Fire tablet, the newly-announced Fire phone is built on a modified version of Android; this new phone runs Fire OS 3.5.0, which is customized specifically for the handset. Almost certainly, the customization is as much for the software (which allows you to buy items from Amazon’s digital or physical library wherever you happen to be) as it is to power up the new phone’s hardware wingding. And fancy little wingdings they are.
The first hardware feature is called Dynamic Perspective. It uses four low-powered cameras (located in the corners on the front of your phone) to sense where you are in relation to the phone, and it adjusts the perspective of menus and other on-screen items giving your phone’s display the illusion of three dimensions. (Take that, iOS with your new ultra-flat makeover!) But it also theoretically allows for a more immersive gaming or shopping experience, too, should developers tap into that functionality.
In conjunction with the usual accelerometers and gyros, this also helps enable one-handed operation: flip the phone over quickly and then back, and a menu will fly onto your screen from the flip direction. You can also tilt the phone to scroll through web pages, articles, and other long-form onscreen text, instead of constantly dragging a finger off the screen.
Sounds nifty, right? While I can definitely see many great uses for this – peeking around a corner to see a menu item sitting just below another onscreen item, perhaps – but it’s not all happy fun time. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole concept of having five cameras staring back at me every time I use phone seems a little bit creepy. Yeah, I know it only takes one camera to spy on you, and pretty much every phone has a front-facing camera these day, but psychologically having that many cameras in my face would seem a bit unsettling.
Another new hardware feature is a dedicated button on the side of the phone, dubbed the “Firefly Button”. When pressed, the phone helps you identify music, movies, products, what have you. At its most benign, it can identify a phone number on a sheet of paper and allow you to dial it, or navigate directly to a web page on a poster (take THAT, QR codes! Boom!)
Stepping up a notch, it can also identify music that’s playing – something that apps like Shazam and SoundHound have been able to do for a while. But it can also identify movies and TV shows that are playing, based on their audio track. And it can tell you what book you’re looking at, by looing at its cover. Magic!
While there are always situations where you may want to identify an unknown song (at a club or coffee shop) or movie (onscreen at the local electronics shop), you may have been asking yourself, “Hey, wait…if I’m scanning the front cover of a book, don’t I already know what it is just by reading the title?” And yes…yes, you would. But that particular piece of identification magic gives away the game: it’s about selling you things.
Amazon is now about to do all this ID magic thanks to the fact that it’s built up a huge library of digital content, from music and movies to TV shows and ebooks. By having all of the source material onhand in the company servers, Amazon is able to match what you’re seeing in the wild and give you a quick way to buy it yourself. From Amazon, of course. You have now become the Ubiquitous Consumer™.
The new Fire phone will also come with an app called Mayday, which is essentially a video hotline to an Amazon customer support rep. After launching the app, you can have a live video chat with someone, and tell them your problem or question. The rep will be able to take control of your phone or draw on the screen to show you what you should be doing.
Okay wait, back up a second – take control of the phone. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t worry me a bit; even though we know that there’s always been some ability for manufacturers to remotely do things to your phone, this is the first time I can recall that a company has come right out and said it.
Of course, Amazon had its brush with this kind of thing already when it removed George Orwell’s 1984 from people’s Kindles back in 2009. Hopefully it’s learned from this past mistake and gotten this new feature locked down to prevent rogue operators, either inside the company or out, from abusing this capability.
So, a few specs before we go: the Fire phone features a 4.7-inch screen with a 1280×720 resolution (big, but a bit low-res, considering). There’s a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor, and it comes in 32GB and 64 GB varieties (though you can supplement that with Amazon’s cloud storage). The rear camera is 13 megapixels, with built-in optical stabilization for better-quality images; there’s also a 2.1 megapixel front-facing camera. It comes with the usual alphanumeric soup of WiFi, LTE cellular data and Bluetooth capabilities (full specs on the Amazon site).
As is often the case for Amazon’s new hardware products during launch, there’s little information about Canadian availability at this point; in the US it will launch exclusively with AT&T, and pricing will range from $199 through $749 depending on your contract and whether you choose the 32 or 64 GB model.