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Amazon Fire Phone: Firefly shopping, dynamic 3D effects, coming July 25 for $199 (hands-on)

Amazon's smartphone is full of interesting gimmicks, and targeted to Amazon Prime members; find out all the details.

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SEATTLE -- Amazon has a phone. And it is called the Fire Phone.

A portal to Amazon's extensive services -- which range from online shopping and e-books to streaming music and video -- the Fire Phone is, at its heart, meant to do one thing and one thing only: keep people renewing Amazon Prime's yearly subscription membership.

Although US-only for now, the new handset muscles its way into the already-crowded smartphone scene with a higher-than-expected spec sheet and a few innovations that beat other, more established smartphone-makers.

The Fire's quintet of infrared cameras for "3D" tricks, a universal scanning app, and a free year of Amazon Prime are all interesting and compelling, but from what we've seen so far, the Fire Phone may not offer enough of a radically different experience to win over new users. Instead, it will have to claw its way uphill against better-known competitors.

Design and OS

From afar, Amazon's Fire Phone doesn't give us anything we haven't seen before. In fact, it looks a lot like other black smartphones: a Gorilla Glass (3) front and back, rubber-rimmed sides, chamfered edges, and a physical home button. There's a physical camera button as well, which launches both the camera and Firefly, Amazon's new scanning-and-shopping app.

Look closer, and the phone's five front-facing camera lenses peer back at you. Four of these, one in each corner, are infrared eyes that work in service to all the 3D and motion effects. But there's one front-facing camera, too, for selfies.

At the launch event, Amazon emphasized the importance of operating the phone one-handed, and the rubberized spines definitely do that. The corners felt a little sharp where the back of the Fire Phone meets its spines, but the slick glass backing does add a subtle premium feel. Still, the Fire Phone doesn't scream "luxury craftsmanship" the way Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would have you believe when touting touches like steel connectors to prevent USB wobble, magnetic headphones (which we didn't see in our demo), and Dolby Digital Plus virtual surround sound, which we didn't get a chance to hear.

Tilt to scroll, part of Amazon's new dynamic camera-assisted interface, is responsive, but occasionally might be weird if you accidentally make a gesture. Dynamic Perspective on maps seem to work as advertised when we zoomed into the Space Needle on Amazon's Nokia Here-powered maps app.

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Slide or tilt for context menus (L); configure a few '3D' and motion controls.

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Let's jump back to the triple-duty Home key for a second. Press once for start-screen carousel, and again for the app tray, which is divided by what's stored on the device and what's stored in the cloud. Press and hold the Home key, and you get the voice assistant, much the same as what's on Amazon Fire TV. It handles dictation for email, text, and other app functions, but we didn't get much of a chance to test it, and Amazon says that it's still building out functionality.

As with its tablets, Amazon's Fire Phone runs a completely forked version of Android, which means that all you see is the company's extremely custom layer, Fire OS 3.5, and none of Google's usual services -- including the Google Play store. This Amazon Fire OS runs on Android Jelly Bean, but apparently incorporates a few Android 4.4 KitKat features, such as storage compression, for better performance.

Also like Android, you swipe down from the top for system access and notifications, to turn on the flashlight, and for Mayday, Amazon's customer-service access. Menus don't work the same way, though. Swipe (or rotate your wrist) left and right to pull up context menus for each app. For example, if you swipe right from the home screen, you'll see shortcuts for apps, games, the Silk browser, pictures, audiobooks, shopping, and Prime.

Benefits for Prime members will be the phone's real draw: the Fire Phone has unlimited storage for photos via Amazon Prime. And Kindle features like Second Screen and X-Ray will be included, as you'd expect.

Amazon's Fire Phone may not run traditional Android, but we at least know that HBO, Netflix, ESPN ScoreCenter, YouTube, and Showtime Anytime are among the first video apps to be available on the Fire Phone.

Specs: Leaning to high-end

While not at the top of its class on paper, Amazon's Fire Phone still has some fair-to-high-end specs overall. It starts with a 4.7-inch IPS LCD HD display with 590 nits of brightness and a circular polarizer for clear outdoor viewing and reading. Still, the Fire Phone's screen has only a 1,280x720-pixel resolution, lower than recent higher-end smartphones. It's equivalent to the resolution of last year's Moto X from Motorola. Still, when holding the phone in our hands during our demo, text didn't look obviously blurry or pixelated.

Inside is a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor with Adreno 330 graphics (Snapdragon 805 is the company's fastest and most recent), plus 2GB of RAM. That's joined by a 13MP rear-facing camera with an f/2.0 five-element lens and optical image stabilization, and a 2.1-megapixel front-facing lens.

The Fire Phone has NFC but lacks Bluetooth 4.0, which could mean it won't play nicely with wearables -- yet. Amazon said that it will turn this feature on.


Firefly: The killer app?

One area where the Fire Phone stands out is Firefly, a universal visual-scanning app that uses the camera and a huge database to identify items and objects, and then tell you what it is or give you the chance to buy it (through Amazon, naturally). It isn't the first app to recognize QR codes, items, music and audio tracks, and URLs -- most mobile OSes can do some of these, and Microsoft Windows Phone has a similar capability, called Bing Vision.

Still, Amazon's attempt is front-and-center as a secondary camera button function, so it's a lot easier to get going with a long-press. Firefly also goes even further than Bing Vision, recognizing the audio on TV shows -- down to the time stamp -- and pulling up information via IMDB (which Amazon owns). It can also tell you about famous works of art and pull out printed phone numbers and addresses. Yes, other third-party apps attempt to do these things already, on both iOS and Android, but this looks like a universal Amazon reality-scanner...for shopping, or otherwise.

Amazon definitely wants developers on board, so it's created an SDK and already has iHeartRadio, MyFitnessPal, and Vivino, a wine database, taking part.

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The handset's dedicated Firefly button (underneath the volume rocker on the right).

James Martin/CNET

Dynamic Perspective: Fire Phone 3D and magic camera system

Amazon gave the 3D-like effect you see on lock screens, home screen and app tray, and in maps a technical, rather jargon-y name: Dynamic Perspective.

That's handled through all those IR cameras studded on the phone's face. Tilting the phone can zoom in on images, maps will show 3D landmarks that can be tilted and "moved" around, and tilting the phone automatically scrolls it up and down. For books, yes, it means tilting for infinite scrolling under cruise control.

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The 3D interface showcased on the maps app.

James Martin/CNET

Other phones have attempted tilt-to-scroll and a sort of 3D experience, and it hasn't always been so pretty on either count. Amazon's implementation is much better so far, though still at least somewhat gimmicky eye candy. The 3D lock screens look fantastic, but we aren't sold on the need for aggressively tilting the phone away to read deeper into context menus, especially when you could swipe your finger just as easily.

CEO Jeff Bezos did demonstrate what Dynamic Perspective looks like in gaming, one of the more intriguing uses of this type of shifting-perspective control. This is truly unique and over-the-top camera tech, specifically engineered to measure depth and range of motion; a lot like having a Kinect stuck on the front of your phone, even though it isn't particularly useful.

Price and availability

In the US, AT&T will offer the Fire Phone exclusively, for $199 with 32GB storage or $299 with 64GB storage, with a two-year contract. Unsubsidized prices in the US are $649 and $749, respectively, which converts to around £380/AU$690 and £440/AU$795. Amazon did not reveal when, or indeed if, the Fire Phone will go on sale outside the US, but the UK and Australia have in the past seen Kindle Fire tablets several months later.

It'll be available in the US July 25, though you can preorder the phone now. Prime customers won't get any special discounts, but at least you'll get more Prime: a free year is included with purchase, or added to your account if you already subscribe.

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The handset is an AT&T exclusive and starts at $199.

James Martin/CNET

Outlook

Amazon is taking huge risks in going against the big guys like Samsung and Apple. It's done it before, but in a tablet space that isn't as entrenched -- or as vital -- as smartphones.

While the 3D features and Firefly scanning app are both cool and unique (which gives Amazon some brownie points in our book), it's unlikely that people will gravitate toward these additions.

More likely, customers will come for the free year of Amazon Prime, especially if they rely heavily on Amazon's online services, like shopping and music and video streaming, or own a Kindle or Amazon Fire TV.

There's also the price-to-specs ratio to consider. The 32GB versions' $200 on-contract also gets you the Samsung Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8, both full-service Android phones at the top of their game with higher-end listed specs. Still, the difference among them isn't enormous, and Amazon does back its pricing by citing the free year of Prime and unlimited online photo storage.

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