SEATTLE — On Wednesday, Amazon rolled out its new phone, the Fire Phone, and the device contains some innovations we haven’t seen before.
I went hands-on with the new phone after the company’s presentation and got a first-hand look at the some of the main features.
The Fire Phone’s “app grid” isn’t so different from app screens on other phones except that the icons have a 3D quality and move slightly as your head moves. This is because the sensors at all four corners of the front of the phone are detecting the relation of your head to the device and changing the perspective of objects on the screen accordingly.
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If you flip up, you arrive at a navigation feature called “the carousel,” which is useful. The carousel takes up the top part of the screen, where you can flip back and forth between the large icons of your go-to apps. When you reach the “mail” icon, for instance, several recent emails are listed in the bottom part of the screen. The feature is meant to give you a look at some information from the app without actually launching it.
Another nice navigation feature is the two panels that are always available to pull out from either side of the main screen. From the app grid, for instance, you can swipe to the right to open up a side panel containing links to your most frequently used content, like music, games, and a web browser. Swiping the other way will open up another side panel that contains things like your daily agenda and current weather.
One of the most compelling uses of the head-scanning sensors and 3D graphics is in maps. Here I am zooming in on the Empire State Building, and as I move my head, I see the landmark from different perspectives.
When you reach a certain level of zoom in the maps, you begin activating different views and place labels with the movements of your head. For instance, after searching for “coffee” and moving my head slightly to the right, a series of labels shows up listing names of coffee shops and their Yelp ratings.
Using the “Firefly” functionality, the phone can detect objects like food products or books through its rear-facing camera. Once it recognizes the object — here, a box of Excedrin — it offers links at the bottom of the page leading to more information about the product and a link to buy it on Amazon.
Firefly can also recognize music and video. When you point the rear camera at a TV monitor, the phone watches the show for a few seconds and then detects what show and even what episode is playing. Firefly then provides links to more information about the show as well as a link to the specific episode on Amazon for streaming or download.
If you point the phone at a poster on the wall, Firefly detects important information like email addresses or phone numbers and stores them for later use. In fact, Firefly keeps a full list of every book, product, song, or flyer you scan throughout the day (which raises questions about privacy, as my colleague John Koetsier points out).
One of the best uses for the head-movement detecting sensors of the phone is, not surprisingly, games. In this game, you are looking down on a little snow skier who veers right or left with the motions of your head. Move your head backward and the little guy does a flip and lands perfectly on the slope.
The Fire Phone comes with a number of 3D home screens to choose from. In this one, you can see the palm trees languidly waving in the wind behind the neon sign in the foreground.
In one of Amazon’s shopping apps, a presentation of women’s dresses reacts to head movements or to the tilting of the phone. The shopper can scroll through the dresses by dragging the ones at the right side of the screen to left.
Finally, the Fire Phone ships with headphones that look very similar in shape to the Apple EarPods. Like the EarPods, the Fire earphones have a volume rocker and call-taker button on the cable. They’re also magnetized so that the backs of the earphones stick together when not in use.
That was a look at just the main parts of the Fire Phone’s features and functions. To see everything else — like the music player, the newsstand, and the games — we’ll have to wait until late July, when the phone finally hits the shelves.