Hands on with the Amazon Fire Phone

Susie Ochs got her hands on the Fire and didn't get burned. Put on some oven mitts and read this.

Amazon's Fire Phone is unlike any other handset I've held. Physically, yeah, it's a slab of glass, and it feels like a basic--but well made--Android phone. The difference happens when you press the wake button, and the Dynamic Perspective effect kicks in.

Calling it the 3D phone is a little misleading, because you aren't going to see things objects flying out of the screen at you. Instead, the image on the screen has depth, and as you tilt the phone you can look around more of the picture--objects in the background will peek out from whatever they're behind, and whatever's in the foreground will move faster, giving the image a very 3D-like effect. Think of iOS 7's parallax effect, only with the knobbed turned up all the way to the right.

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.

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.

Firefly in the sky

The other delightful Fire Phone feature that I actually might use on the bus is Firefly. 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. And 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. And it's crazy fast--check out this Vine I shot.

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.

Handy gestures

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.

Interface in your face

The Fire Phone runs Android, but it's Amazon's own flavor, called Fire OS. You can put your favorite apps in the App Grid, but there are also shortcuts to media like books, magazines, movies, 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. (Long-pressing that same button invokes Firefly.) I didn't have a chance to really test the camera, so that'll have to wait for TechHive's review.

Amazon is going to sell a lot of these phones, especially since it comes with a free year of Amazon Prime, which includes free shipping, streaming media, and other perks. If you wind up ditching Prime or you are just anti-Amazon for whatever reason, this phone probably won't be so attractive to you anyway, and it does seem like it'll be a gateway drug to Prime, which is the gateway drug to Amazon. The built-in apps like Maps (which seems to get its data from Nokia) and the brand-new voice assistant need to take big steps to catch up to what's on stock Android and iOS, but I won't judge those too harshly until I get my final shipping version. (Some of the journalists here saw different features, so either we are all really tired or not all the demo phones had the same builds of the prerelease software.)

Smartphones are a tough market. But I really think the Fire Phone--which ships next month--is going to be hot. We'll have a full review as soon as we can.

This story, "Hands on with the Amazon Fire Phone" was originally published by IDG News Service .

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