Amazon made a big splash in unveiling a smartphone on Wednesday that it hopes will challenge Apple and Samsung’s years-long dominance. The device is packed with an arsenal of futuristic features that are intended to make it easier for people to navigate apps, shop and use Amazon services like video and music streaming.
But after a half-hour using the phone, called Fire, I didn’t really find that it lived up to the hype. While clever, those futuristic features didn’t entirely convince me that I absolutely needed the phone – or that it is better than the iPhone I already own.
Fire felt light but solid as I held it just hours after watching from the audience as Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, showed the phone in public for the first time. It seemed well-built and had an understated look that contrasted with Apple’s (AAPL) rigorously polished aesthetic.
Tilting to the left brings up a window with categories like “apps,” “games,” and Amazon Prime. Photo by JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com
What sets the Fire Phone apart are several new features, starting with “Dynamic Perspective,” Amazon’s take on 3-D. To be clear, it’s not the kind of 3-D most people are used to. Images and video don’t pop off the screen. Instead, the phone has four cameras built into it that keep track of a person’s head movements and adjusts the angle of what ever is on the screen accordingly. Tilt your head a few degrees to the left or right, and the phone subtly angles what’s onscreen to create the illusion that you’re peering around it.
Indeed, Amazon (AMZN) wants users to do less finger swiping and a lot more tilting to navigate around the device’s menus and apps. Tilting the phone left brings up a pane of shortcuts to categories like apps, games, photos and the Web browser. A tilt to the right summons another pane that displays different functions based on what you’re doing, like email attachments in the email app. If surfing the Web or reading a book, you can tilt the phone down to slowly scroll down the page. The phone also recognizes subtle flicks of the wrist, or gestures the company calls “peeks.” A peek to the left or right in the Maps app while searching for nearby restaurants brings up small pop-up windows with restaurant names and Yelp ratings.
Tilting is something users will have to get used to. The learning curve isn’t steep – it took me 5 minutes to get the hang of it – but tilting doesn’t come as naturally as learning to swipe when the iPhone launched in 2007 or or when Android devices arrived the following year. I’m not convinced tilting accomplishes anything materially better or feels any more comfortable than a finger swipe or tap. And I can’t shake the feeling that after a few days, I’d want to go back to swiping instead of tilting my phone every which way.
A photo taken with the Fire’s 13 megapixel camera is above average, but not stellar. Photo by JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com
More than anything, Fire is intended as another window into Amazon’s vast book, music and video business. It comes with technology, called Firefly, that can automatically identify over 1 million songs, movies, TV episodes and even products like Nutella jars. I tested it out on an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Firefly “listened” to several lines of dialogue, and within five seconds, listed the correct scene, episode and television season, as well as the scene’s actors, courtesy of the movie and television database IMDB.
If Firefly is as fast and accurate identifying other items, it could give digital and physical retail competition serious problems. Why bother buying that box of Nature Valley granola bars from the local Safeway (SWY) if you can quickly check the price from your smartphones and buy it cheaper from Amazon? Not everything the phone recognizes is for sale on Amazon, I was told. But much of it is. Every item I checked during my brief test — a DVD, a physical book, that box of granola bars — could be bought directly from Amazon.
While every smartphone pushes its owners to buy from a particular market like Apple’s iTunes or Google (GOOG) Play, the Fire’s objective is particularly obvious. Sure, that’s good business for Amazon, and millions of its users may welcome that. But for others not wedded to the company’s myriad of services, Amazon’s come on may be simply annoying. Faux 3-D and tilting features aside, the Fire, for better or worse, is a fast and light mobile shopping machine. Again, this was all based on first impressions following a half-hour test. After a longer trial, I may reconsider my assessment, but, for now, I think Fire is a perfectly fine phone for Amazon loyalists – just not a great one.
Screen: 4.7 inch HD
Camera: 13 megapixel
Chips: 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, with 2GB of RAMQuad core
Operating System: Fire OS, software based on Google’s Android
Price: 32G $199 (or $649 without a tw0-year contract); 64G $299 (or $749 without a two-year contract)
For a limited time, buyers get a free year of Amazon Prime, which includes two-day shipping along with music and video streaming.
Fire will be available starting July 25.