Amazon has been trying to fully break into the hardware scene since the launch of its first Kindle e-reader. Yet, to date, despite the success of the Kindle, and the launch of its subsequent Kindle Fire range of tablets, for years there's been one serious gap in Amazon's portfolio – its lack of a smartphone.
Last night Amazon plugged this gap, unveiling its first-ever smartphone, the Fire Phone. Featuring a number of innovative software and hardware features, including a glasses-free 3D display, the Fire Phone has sparked debate within the smartphone industry, leading many to question how it will fare in the increasingly competitive market.
Apart from the Fire Phone's four front-facing cameras, Amazon's handset is fairly unassuming in its look and features a rubber frame, Gorilla Glass front and anodised aluminium buttons on its sides.
Amazon claims that, while the Fire Phone isn't waterproof and dustproof, like many of the recent IP-certified top-end Android smartphones we've seen this year, it is tougher and significantly more scratch resistant than the average handset. This could prove a key selling point differentiating it from key competitors, such as the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2, which are both prone to picking up marks.
A consequence of the Fire Phone's "tough" design is that it is thicker and heavier than competing handsets in its size bracket, measuring in at 139x67x8.9mm and weighing 160g. The Fire Phone's weight could be an issue for smartphone users who are accustomed to feather-light handsets, such as the 112g iPhone 5S.
The Fire Phone's 4.7in HD LCD 1280x720 315ppi screen is one of its most interesting features, with its custom Dynamic Perspective technology. This is designed to offer users glasses-free 3D viewing experiences in key applications, such as maps, the Fire Phone web browser and e-reader.
Amazon claims it creates the 3D effect by tracking the user's iris and head movements via the four front cameras and adjusting displayed images accordingly. If the technology works as well as Amazon claims, it could prove a key selling point for the Fire Phone when it is released. But its long-term appeal will be decided by how many application developers choose to take advantage of the functionality and use the newly released Amazon Dynamic Perspective software development kit (SDK) to make apps for the phone.
The Fire Phone runs using Fire OS 3.5.0. Fire OS is a heavily customised version of Google's Android operating system (OS) that radically redesigns the menus and pushes Amazon's Video and Music, Kindle Store and Newsstand to the front of the user interface. The OS also adds a number of custom-made Amazon applications, one of the most interesting of which is the Fire Phone's Firefly service.
Firefly is an information-gathering feature that can be activated anytime using a physical shortcut key. At a basic level Firefly uses the Fire Phone's rear camera to recognise and draw information from Amazon's database on a number of sources including books, DVDs, phone numbers, QR codes, CDs, URLS, famous artwork and barcodes. Amazon claims that the feature is so advanced it can also be used for contact-building, as it can obtain information such as phone numbers and email address from business cards, fliers and advertisements.
Firefly can also use the Fire Phone's microphone to access information on music or television shows as they are playing.
While some privacy advocates, such as anonymous communications firm Silent Circle, have questioned Firefly's potential snooping and profiling powers, the feature could be particularly useful for regular networkers, or those who often shop on Amazon.
When it comes to processing power, the Fire Phone does lag slightly behind most other 2014 flagships, coming loaded with last year's 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 CPU and featuring 2GB of RAM. Considering the fact that the newer Snapdragon 801 processor has been out for quite some time now, we're a little disappointed about the Fire Phone's use of an older chip.
Amazon made a big deal about the Fire Phone's 13MP rear-facing camera, claiming its multi-frame HDR, auto-focus, optical image stabilisation, f/2.0 five-element wide aperture lens and LED flash technologies will help it easily outperform competing top-end handsets. This is a pretty big claim considering the wealth of top-end camera phones to arrive this year, which currently include the Sony Xperia Z2 and Samsung Galaxy S5.
The Fire Phone is powered by a 2,400mAh battery, which Amazon lists as offering up to 11 hours of video playback off one charge. If true the Amazon Fire will have above-average battery life compared with most other smartphones, which usually offer between six and seven hours of video playback during our battery burns.
The Fire Phone is available with either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. Most users won't have to worry about running out of space with either option, as Amazon has bundled the Fire Phone with unlimited free space on its Amazon Cloud Drive storage service.
The Amazon Fire is due for release in the US on 25 July, with prices starting at $200 on a two-year contract with AT&T or $649 SIM-free. There is currently no word on when and if it will be released in the UK, but the US price indicates that it will be around £450 SIM-free if it does.
At first look, the Amazon Fire Phone is very interesting. The Fire Phone includes a number of features that have never been seen before on a smartphone, such as its Dynamic Perspective screen technology and Firefly service. But it also features a few flaws that could put off smartphone buyers, such as its slightly heavy, boxy design and use of a previous-generation Qualcomm chip.
This makes it difficult to know how the Fire Phone will fare in its battle to draw interest from more established smartphones. Considering the Kindle Fire tablet's lukewarm reception, the potential privacy issues and the price tag, Amazon is likely to face an uphill struggle to push uptake of its smartphone.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson
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