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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 18, 2014 at 5:24 PM

Hands-on: Amazon’s Fire Phone

After spending a half-hour or so playing with Amazon’s Fire Phone, I think I found the killer feature.

It’s not the parallax, 3-D effect of the 4.7-inch display, although that feature will be fun for users and app developers to play with. Games and special images used for the lock screen have a depth similar to what you see on Nintendo’s 3DS game player.

Receiving unlimited, perpetual, online storage for every photo taken with the phone is a generous offer.

The phone’s “Firefly” scanning system is also pretty neat. When you press and hold a shutter button on the side of the case, it can recognize objects such as books, barcodes and text.

Amazon has been tinkering with this sort of scanning system for a while in shopping apps you can download and use free on other phones. This will be convenient for regular Amazon shoppers — it quickly figures out what you’re shopping for and lets you immediately place an order — but it could infuriate other retailers, because people can use the app to compare in-store prices with Amazon’s offer.

Firefly has taken this pattern-recognition several steps further and integrated it into other apps on the Fire Phone. It’s also letting app developers plug in to the system.

Altogether these capabilities create what I think is the Fire Phone’s most compelling feature — the ability to become a sort of supercharged digital diary. People already use their smartphones to take and save notes, capture contacts, bookmark websites and even take pictures of things they want to remember, share and perhaps purchase at some point.

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Firefly automatically compiles a searchable list of things you’ve captured with the phone’s cameras. Then it guesses why you’re interested in these things and connects each one to a relevant service.

It mostly works like an intelligent, dynamic shopping list. When you’ve scanned a product, you’re presented with ways to act on that information. Scan a box of granola bars, and the first option you’ll see is a way to buy a case of them from Amazon. But the scan is also shared with a health app that may provide nutritional information about that product.

If Amazon and app developers continue expanding this beyond simply shopping for stuff, it will be exciting. But even if it ends up being just the ultimate shopping list tool, it would be a most-used app and distinguishing feature, particularly for the Amazon devotees most likely to buy a Fire Phone.

Still, there’s more work to be done. Firefly quickly recognized packaged foods, books and DVDs in a collection that Amazon provided in a demonstration area at its headquarters. But the recognition sometimes took longer for me than it did for Jeff Bezos during his morning press conference, when the phone was unveiled.

Firefly failed to recognize the digital voice recorder I brought from work, but it wasn’t in a package with a flat surface to scan.

The phone itself is handsome and feels solid and well-built, though its black case is conservative in its appearance and borrows design cues from Apple’s iPhone, such as the glass back and minimal face. There’s a prominent, physical “home” button in front, volume buttons and a dedicated shutter button for the camera and the Firefly scanning system.

Where the phone differentiates mostly is in its software interface. When using an app, you can tilt the phone to the side to call up panels from the left or right. The right panel includes information relevant to the app you are using. If it’s a website, the panel will list the site’s directory. The left panel calls up a list of app controls.

amzzzscreen

This reminded me a bit of the “charms” menu that surfaces on the right side of the screen in Microsoft’s Windows 8, though the Amazon developer showing me the phone said he wasn’t familiar with that operating system.

It’s fun and convenient to tilt the phone side to side to call these panels up, though it wasn’t always perfectly responsive. A few times I couldn’t get the panels up quickly and had to revert to a sideways swipe of the thumb.

There’s no “back” button but you can navigate backwards or to a previous screen by swiping a finger upward from the bezel around the “home” button.

Users can also swipe down to call up a list of system controls, such as wireless options and the Mayday customer-service feature. These aren’t customizable.

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Also not customizable are the wireless calling plans you can use with the phone. The phones are locked to AT&T, so you can’t buy one and switch to a cheaper provider.

It’s surprising that Amazon didn’t give customers more options to use different carriers. But by cutting an exclusive deal with AT&T, it received a big, national network with stores across the country to support and distribute its first phone.

My Fire Phone Firefly shopping list would include an unlocked model that could be used on different carriers, especially since wireless customers are getting used to the flexibility and bargain-hunting that this approach enables. But maybe that will have to wait for the Fire Phone 2.0.

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