If a physical Amazon Store existed, itâd be a Barnes & Noble grafted onto a Best Buy bolted onto a Costco attached to a Wal-Mart soldered to a Sharper Image duct-taped to a Sports Authority glued to whatever store sells a tub filled with 1,500 live ladybugs. It would be bigger than the Mall of America.
Instead of building that store, Amazon has created the Fire Phone (aka AMAFÅN), which is only available on AT&T and costs $200 with a two-year contract. In the world of AMAFÅN, everything around you exists to be bought on Amazon. Just point the phone at something that you want to buy, and the phone will do its best to find it in Amazon’s store and dump it into your always-eager virtual shopping cart. The Fire phone essentially decentralizes the entire concept of a retail store. If you’ve ever wondered if Amazon has been planning a brick-and-mortar strategy, well, this is it.
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The key is the phone’s marquee app: Firefly, an everything-scanner. You launch Firefly, point the phoneâs camera or microphone at something, and wait a couple of seconds. When it works—which you’ll know if it did when a bunch of digital fireflies swarm the object on screen—a pop-up notification appears. If the item is available on Amazon, tapping that notification lets you buy the object ASAP and get it delivered to your house within two days. If you’re more patient than that, you can simply add the item to your cart or a wishlist.
Firefly does incredibly well at identifying book covers with its camera. Itâs also very good at recognizing product packages. A jar of Guldenâs spicy brown mustard and a bottle of Tabasco sauce were immediate hits, even when I just held them up and pointed the phone at the front label. It can scan phone numbers, URLs from business cards and signs, QR codes, and bar codes. Point Firefly at a phone number or a link, and it prompts you to call or text the number, save it to your contact list, or visit the URL. When you successfully scan an item, itâs added to a queue in the Firefly app you can revisit later.
The music, movie, and TV-scanning features are excellent as well. In music mode, it provides a link to download recognized songs via Amazon Music or buy the CD or vinyl. You can also scan the audio of a TV show, which brings up the series, episode number, the time code, and the actors appearing in that scene. In the Firefly queue, you get a link to the IMDb entry for that show and, of course, the ability to buy it on Amazon Video or on Blu-ray. Impressively, it can also work for live TV shows (albeit with less info about the program) and during commercial breaks. While scanning the audio for a live baseball game and a live soccer game, Firefly correctly identified the programs as âMLB Baseballâ and âFutbol Mexicano Primera Division,â but without team information. It offered to search the Web.
If you’ve ever wondered if Amazon has been planning a brick-and-mortar strategy, well, this is it.
Firefly did have trouble recognizing handwritten notes, no matter how neatly written. It also doesnât get phone numbers right all of the time, so youâll need to make sure to correct them if you add them to your contacts. Identifying foreign-language dubs of movies was also a weak spot. The Spanish-dubbed version of Snakes on a Plane (Â¡Serpentes en un AviÃ³n!) baffled Firefly.
AMAFÅN runs on a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU with 2GB RAM—not the latest components, but plenty fast and fluid. Its 4.7-inch, 1,280 x 720 screen also wonât win any spec battles, but its 315 pixels per inch display looks sharp. Its battery life will get you through the day, but that’s about it. With heavy use, it got me around 8 to 10 hours per charge. For some reason, it does not do Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which is something to keep in mind if you were planning to use it with a fitness tracker. It does support Bluetooth 3.0, however.
As with all Amazon hardware, the Fire Phone is a conduit. That’s not a surprise. What is surprising is the cost: Amazon normally keeps prices low to woo consumers into its ecosystem, and this phone is less of a technological statement than other phones that cost $200 with a two-year contract.
You buy iPhones for the ease-of-use, the app ecosystem, and the design language. You buy Android phones for the freedom of choice and the tinkerability. You’d buy this phone for the free Amazon Prime and a quick fix for shoppin’ fever. It’s not a bad phone, it just isn’t in the same league as a top-tier Android phone or iPhone. When you look past its purchasing powers and its fringe benefits—which can’t be ignored—what you have left is a relatively unexciting handset.