The Fire phone that Amazon.com began shipping last week is an impressive debut with several cool features. It's a handsome, functional phone that works well with the company's growing array of online services, especially if you're an Amazon's Prime member. Still, its signature features are so far more novelty than transformative.
The 4G LTE phone has a 4.7-inch, 720p display with a 13 megapixel camera and a generous 32 gigabytes of storage in the base model. The Fire starts at $650, or $199 with a two-year contract with AT&T, which for now is the phone's exclusive carrier. A 64-gigabyte version is $749, or $299 on contract.
The Fire phone works especially well with the $99 Fire TV wireless device that Amazon began selling in April. You can select and launch a Prime streaming video on the phone, then tap the screen to have it play on TV. Then the phone can be used to peruse annotations, such as actor biographies. You can also jump to the point where a particular song plays in a movie and, naturally, order the soundtrack from Amazon.
Where the Fire distinguishes itself is with its motion-sensing interface and use of 3D effects. To surface menus, or additional commands for what's on screen, you rotate the phone to the right or left. Menu "cards" then slide out from the side. Other phones such as BlackBerries have similar cards summoned with a finger flick, which also works on the Fire. I found myself mostly using flicks.
The Fire's standout feature are 3D screen savers that give you the illusion of depth. When you move the phone around, the display moves with your gaze. But party tricks will only take you so far. After less than a week of trying two different models, I grew tired of 3D touches that Amazon used elsewhere on the phone. The screen savers are great. The icons on the Fire's home screen that tilt from side to side are fine. But when menu text tilts to show off a shadow effect on the lettering, it just looks blurry.
Shopping is a key feature of the Fire phone. Pressing and holding a shutter button on the case launches an app called Firefly that scans and recognizes many products. It can also identify music that's playing or shows on a TV set. If the product is recognized, you can immediately order it from Amazon. Either way the scans remain on a shopping list in the app.
Testing Firefly inside stores, the app often failed because the wireless signal wasn't good enough. When scanning packaged foods, it frequently misread the specific label.
The Fire also has a voice-recognition system similar to Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana. In several tests it worked surprisingly well, except when I tried to send myself a text message and it thought my name was Briard Ugly. I won't hold that against the Fire — that was almost as fun as showing off the 3D screen savers.