How the Amazon Fire Phone Works


The Fire displays an app grid that looks quite similar to other smartphones.
The Fire displays an app grid that looks quite similar to other smartphones.
Image courtesy of Amazon.com

After years in the e-reader market (with Kindle) and tablet market (with Kindle Fire), Amazon has finally released its own smartphone: the Amazon Fire phone. In many ways, including appearance and functionality, it is similar to other popular smartphones already available.

However, Amazon has added some unique features that might be killer apps to some consumers weighing which smartphone to purchase. One of the new features is Dynamic Perspective, which tracks your head and device movements to help simulate 3-D views and provide gesture-based navigation. Another is a 24/7 video support feature called Mayday.

And probably the most remarkable is Firefly, which allows you to scan physical items with the phone's camera, or audio with the microphone, to bring up information about whatever you're scanning, and give action options, including the ability to purchase the item if it's available. Throughout the phone, but especially with Firefly, they've managed to bake in the ability to find and purchase items from Amazon with great ease. To add incentive to buy stuff, for a limited time it also comes with a free year of Amazon Prime membership.

But Amazon Fire phone is more than a pocket purchasing machine. Read on to find out about the impressive technology built into this new device.

Technical Specifications

The carousel app display on the Fire phone.
The carousel app display on the Fire phone.
Image courtesy of Amazon.com

The Amazon Fire phone measures 5.5 by 2.6 by 0.35 inches (139.2 by 66.5 by 8.9 millimeters) and weighs 5.64 ounces (160 grams). It runs a 2.2 GHz (gigahertz) quad-core Snapdragon 800 central processing unit (CPU) and an Adreno 330 graphics processing unit (GPU), and has 2GB (gigabytes) of random access memory (RAM). You can choose a phone with either 32GB or 64GB of storage space.

The phone has a 4.7-inch (11.9-centimeter) IPS LCD high-definition display with a resolution of 1280 by 720 pixels (720p) at 315 pixels per inch (ppi). It is ultra-bright, with a brightness of 590 cd/m2 (or 590 nits), and incorporates a circular polarizer, an ambient light sensor and dynamic image contrast for ease of viewing in all light conditions. The display and back of the phone are reportedly made out of Gorilla Glass 3, and it has a rubberized rim for easy gripping. It is, like the majority of other major smartphones, a touch screen.

The Fire includes a 13 megapixel (MP) rear-facing camera with a five-element wide aperture f/2.0 lens, as well as a 2.1 MP front-facing camera and an LED flash. Both the front and rear facing cameras capture 1080p resolution video at 30 frames per second. A dedicated physical button on the side of the phone launches the camera (and Firefly) so that you can bring it up quickly.

For cellular connectivity, the phone supports nine bands of 4G-LTE, four bands of GSM and five bands of UMTS. For additional connectivity, it also supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, up to 300Mbps WiFi channel bonding, NFC (near field communication) and Bluetooth 3.0.

The phone has a myriad of sensors including four ultra-low power infrared cameras at 120-degree angles on each corner of the phone, four infrared LEDs, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a magnetometer, a barometer, a proximity sensor and the ambient light sensor (mentioned earlier).

Its battery size is 2400mAh, and it's purported to last up to 285 hours on standby, 65 hours while playing audio, 22 hours while talking and 11 hours while running video.

Connection points include a Micro USB 2.0 port and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

The phone has dual stereo speakers and uses Dolby Digital Plus audio processing. It also comes with a custom designed headset with magnetic earbuds that incorporate a remote and microphone and have a flat cable to prevent tangling, as well as a Micro USB to USB charging cable and a USB power adapter.

Dynamic Perspective

Dynamic perspective uses the Fire phone's four ultra-low powered infrared cameras and four infrared LEDs along with other sensors and special algorithms to track your phone movements and your head position in real-time and quickly render graphics from the appropriate perspective. Dynamic perspective works even if you cover up two of the cameras (which is likely when holding the phone), and infrared means it will work even if it is dark. The cool thing is that this in effect lets it show you images in a way that looks like 3-D, even though the display is 2-D. Right off the bat, you will see the 3-D effect on the lock screen and wallpaper images.

The phone's sensors allow for controlling the device with gestures. You can tilt your phone backward and forward to scroll through websites or e-book pages, tilt left to bring up a menu, tilt right to bring up shortcuts and information and swivel to bring up notifications and utilities like Flashlight, Settings and Mayday.

The effect of your gestures will often depend upon context. For instance, in the Messaging app, tilting right brings up photo access so that you can attach and send pictures, and in the Amazon Music app, tilting brings up lyrics to whatever is playing. Moving your head or tilting the phone slightly will change the view on the screen to allow you to "peek" around corners and see things from different angles. In the case of the Maps app, peeking will also bring up more information in the form of Yelp links.

All the gesture controls make it easier to use the phone one handed, but you can also swipe the touch screen to do all of these things, if you prefer.

Third-party developers are already working these features into their apps. Aside from the more utilitarian control uses, there are likely some fun possibilities for dynamic perspective in game apps.

Firefly

Take a picture of a thing, and you’re instantly able to purchase it online.
Take a picture of a thing, and you’re instantly able to purchase it online.
© JASON REDMOND/Reuters/Corbis

The other unique feature is the "Firefly" app. To use it, you press and hold a physical Firefly button (which also serves as the camera button) on the side of the phone while pointing the camera at an item. It lets you scan a wide variety of things with the rear-facing camera, including barcodes, QR codes, URLs, email addresses, phone numbers and real world objects such as games, DVDs, CDs and works of art. The phone sends the gathered information to Amazon's cloud servers to find a match, and if it recognizes the item, it will bring up a link that provides information and lets you take various actions, including purchasing the item from Amazon or sharing it on social media.

Not only does it recognize physical items, but it can also use the microphone to identify songs, movies and TV shows that are playing. It can identify URLs, phone numbers and emails in printed text. Firefly uses image, text and audio recognition tools along with a massive catalog of more than 100 million items in the cloud to identify the things people scan.

Rather than sending an entire picture to Amazon's cloud, it picks out and sends partial images or information that can help identify an object, such as its outline (which can convey shape and size), color and product logo. For music and video, it will send a sound sample. Algorithms go to work to try to quickly match the object with something in Amazon's huge database of items.

With sound, the software can tell what type of thing it is listening to, for instance a song versus dialogue. If it's a TV show, it will identify the episode and the scene or timestamp. It will even recognize a lot of broadcast television that isn't yet for sale at Amazon.

Firefly keeps a viewable history of things you've scanned in the form of a list of image links. The links allow you to perform various actions, including viewing item information, buying the items at Amazon, saving them to watch lists or wish lists, or, in the case of scanned text, calling or texting a phone number, sending an email, adding a contact or going to a website.

Plug-ins created by developers can extend the functionality and allow things like bringing up book reviews for books, starting an iHeartRadio station based on a song or buying concert tickets through StubHub for a group whose song you scanned.

Firefly will also use the items you look up to add to its data to help it learn to identify similar objects more quickly and accurately.

Other Features

Your Amazon support person can’t see you, but you can see her.
Your Amazon support person can’t see you, but you can see her.
Image courtesy of Amazon.com

One major perk of the phone is Mayday, also available on the Kindle Fire HDX tablet. The virtual Mayday button allows you to get 24/7 live video technical support. You can see and hear an Amazon support person, but they can only hear you. They can talk you through problems and even draw on your screen to point you in the right direction. Amazon's goal for Mayday is a response within 15 seconds, much faster than the average telephone support call pickup. You can use Mayday via WiFi or cellular, but the latter will count toward your data usage.

There are also lots of Amazon Fire Phone functionalities that aren't entirely exclusive to the new device, but also work on some Kindle Fire tablets, Kindle e-readers and in apps on other devices, as well. These include the following:

  • Second Screen -- Lets you cast a movie or TV show from your phone to your television, provided you have Amazon Fire TV, a PlayStation 3 or 4 or a compatible recent Samsung smart TV. Once you've sent something to your TV, you can use your phone as the controller, or use it to view information about what's on the screen.
  • X-Ray -- Allows you to easily call up information about books, movies, TV shows or songs as they play, including synopses, character information, trivia and lyrics, and will even let you do things like purchase music that's playing in a show you're watching. "X-Ray" gets the information from IMDb (an Amazon owned company), Shelfari, YouTube and Wikipedia.
  • ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction) -- This cuts down on video buffering time by learning what movies and TV shows you like to watch and getting them ready for you in advance. It's also incorporated into Fire TV.

There are two features that work with the Kindle and Audible apps on multiple devices, including the new Fire Phone, Kindle Fire tablets, certain Kindle e-readers and Android and iOS phones and tablets. Both of the following require that you purchase the e-book and the audio version:

  • Whispersync for Voice -- Allows you to go back and forth between a Kindle e-book and its Audible audiobook counterpart so that you can progress through the book using both formats without losing your place. This will work across multiple devices, so you can switch from phone to computer and back and still keep your place in the narrative.
  • Immersion Reading -- Lets you read an e-book and play the Audible audiobook at the same time by hitting a play button from within the e-book. The appropriate text is highlighted as the audio plays. This is purported to increase reading comprehension and retention. These features are also available on most Kindle Fire tablets, and "Whispersync for Voice" is also available on certain Kindle e-readers.

Audible is also owned by Amazon. These reading features will work for about 15,000 titles to start. Anything that says it supports Whispersync for Voice also supports Immersion Reading.

The Home Button and Camera

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shows off the Fire phone at a news conference in June 2014.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shows off the Fire phone at a news conference in June 2014.
© JASON REDMOND/Reuters/Corbis

Pressing the home button takes you to the home carousel, which lets you flip through recently used or pinned apps. It will display recent activity or other contextual information underneath the the chosen app, such as your last few e-mails, your calendar appointments or your most visited websites. Pressing the home button again takes you to an area that displays all your apps, both on the phone and in the cloud. Holding the home button brings up a voice assistant.

The Firefly button can also be used to bring up and operate the camera. The camera features a High Dynamic Range (HDR) option, which merges multiple exposures into one image for a better quality picture, and will suggest when you might want to turn it on. The camera also has panorama, lenticular and burst modes. In low-light conditions, image stabilization keeps the shutter open longer to compensate. The phone will automatically back up your photos and videos to your Amazon cloud drive, if you wish.

The Fire comes with free unlimited cloud storage for photographs taken with the phone, as well as for any content you purchase from Amazon. You can access your content from the Fire, other Amazon devices or devices with the Amazon cloud drive app. You also get 5GB of free cloud storage for things like videos, documents and other personal digital content. The Fire Phone will automatically backup up your apps, settings, notes and bookmarks to the cloud using Amazon web services.

Operating System and Development Tools

As of mid-2014, the Amazon Fire Phone runs Fire OS 3.5, which is a customized version of Android Jelly Bean with some Android 4.4 KitKat features built in. It's close to, but slightly different from, the Fire OS versions running on Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets and Fire TV.

The Fire Phone comes preloaded with a variety of apps, including Messaging, Email, Calendar, Maps, Weather, Silk Browser, Clock, Calculator, Books (Kindle), Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Music, Audiobooks, Shop, Amazon Appstore and Games. You can also purchase or download lots more from the Amazon Appstore.

Amazon also provides tools for developers so that they can make their apps Fire Phone compatible. Many Android apps will already be compatible with the Fire OS, and others should only require a little tweaking. HTML5 apps should also be easy to port to the Fire.

Developers might want to make changes to existing apps to take advantage of the Fire's Dynamic Perspective and Firefly features. To aid in this, Amazon released two free software development kits (SDKs) for the two major Fire features: Dynamic Perspective SDK and Firefly SDK.

The Dynamic Perspective SDK includes the following APIs (Application Programming Interfaces):

  • Head tracking API
  • Motion gestures API
  • Home API
  • Side panels (Foundation Controls)
  • Euclid controls and UI framework

The Firefly SDK includes just one API:

  • Firefly plugin API

All of the APIs are available in Java, and some are also available in C++, HTML5 or Unity. Custom side panels can be built in Javascript.

In 2014, Amazon had some promotions to encourage developers to build the new functionality (and place ads) into their apps. Developers who build apps that meet certain qualifications will be given 500,000 Amazon coins (the equivalent of $5,000) on up to three apps to give away as promotions to users. Qualified apps are paid or include paid in-app items, implement a widget that brings up contextual information when the app is displayed on the device carousel, and implement left or right panel or both (for non-game apps), or implement head tracking and phone motion to provide in-game experiences relative to the user's perspective (for game apps).

Amazon is also offering developers an above-average guaranteed $6 per thousand impressions for in-app interstitial advertisements on any apps that are new to its mobile ad network during the months of August and September, with a cap of 1 million impressions per app per month.

Developers can also become Mobile Associates and get up to a 6 percent cut (as of this writing) of any items (physical or digital) that they sell via Amazon through their apps.

Comparison to Other Smartphones

The Apple iPhone 5s is one of the Amazon Fire phone’s primary competitors.
The Apple iPhone 5s is one of the Amazon Fire phone’s primary competitors.
© Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Corbis

The most logical devices to compare with the Amazon Fire Phone are the Apple iPhone 5s, the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Google Nexus 5.

At 1280 by 720 pixels with 315 pixels per inch (ppi), the Amazon Fire Phone's display resolution is a little lower than Samsung Galaxy S5's 1920 by 1080 pixel resolution FHD Super AMOLED HD display with 432 ppi, or Google Nexus 5's 1920 by 1080 full HD IPS display with 445 ppi. It's a little closer to iPhone 5s's 1136 by 640 pixel resolution Retina display with 326 ppi. The Fire rests in the middle as far as screen size at 4.7 inches (11.9 centimeters), compared to iPhone's 4 inches (10.2 centimeters), Nexus 5's 4.95 inches (12.6 centimeters) and Galaxy S5's 5.1 inches (12.9 centimeters).

Similarly, the Fire's rear-facing camera, at 13 megapixels, is technically better than iPhone 5s's and Google Nexus 5's 8 megapixels and technically worse than Galaxy S5's 16 megapixels. But picture quality involves other factors like the lens and the software and the lighting, so it's hard to say whether one is really better than the others at this point. However, while all of them can shoot 1080p resolution video, Galaxy S5 is the only one that can do so at 60 frames per second (fps) -- the rest do 30fps -- and the only one that can shoot much higher resolution 4K video. The front-facing cameras are 2 megapixels for Galaxy S5, 1.3 megapixels for the Nexus 5 and 1.2 megapixels for iPhone 5s, compared to Fire Phone's 2.1 megapixels.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is running Qualcomm's faster quad-core Snapdragon 801 CPU with speed of 2.5 GHz, while Fire Phone is running the slightly slower Snapdragon 800 at 2.2 GHz. The Google Nexus 5 is also running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU with a speed of 2.26 GHz. The iPhone 5s runs on Apple's customized Apple A7 processor, so it's a little more difficult to compare. iPhone does run with only 1GB of RAM, while the others all have 2GB RAM.

iPhone runs on Apple's proprietary iOS operating system, whereas the others run versions of the Android operating system. The Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Google Nexus 5 run Android version 4.4 KitKat. Fire's OS is a more customized version of Android. The Galaxy S5 and Nexus 5 will likely be compatible with more apps in the Google Play store since they are running fairly standard Android versions. For apps, iPhone has the Apple App Store, and Fire Phone has the Amazon Appstore. Amazon's Appstore has around 240,000 apps, whereas Apple's App Store and Google Play have over 1 million each.

The Galaxy S5 also has a slightly heftier 2,800 milliampere-hours (mAh) battery compared to Fire Phone's 2,400mAh, Google Nexus 5's 2,300mAh and iPhone 5s's 1,570mAh batteries.

iPhone has WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n, while the others also add ac to that. All four support Bluetooth connectivity, but the Fire uses Bluetooth 3.0 while all others use 4.0, so Fire Phone might not be entirely compatible with all your wearable devices until that functionality is upgraded. The Galaxy, Nexus and Fire all support NFC while iPhone still does not.

Fire Phone, Galaxy S5 and iPhone 5s are all nearly the same price (with some variations in available storage space). Google Nexus 5 is available in 16GB for $349 or 32GB for $399 without a cellular plan, and $99 with a 2-year contract with Sprint at the time of this writing, making it the cheapest choice. Amazon Fire Phone is currently available for AT&T only, while all the others are available for multiple cellular carriers.

Concerns, Availability and Perks

From the product announcement right up to launch, Amazon was heavily promoting its new smartphone on its main site.
From the product announcement right up to launch, Amazon was heavily promoting its new smartphone on its main site.
© Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis

Concern has been voiced that the Firefly feature of the phone will give Amazon loads of information that may violate users' privacy, possibly including GPS data, photos of objects they're interested in and audio of their daily doings, among other things. Big data is already used by many companies to provide insight into people's shopping habits, and can even be used to discern things like income level and health issues. With most companies, the main goal is to target appropriate ads at people to increase sales. We already provide a ton of information to online retailers anytime we buy from them, and even to physical stores if we use credit, debit or reward cards. Using the Fire phone to research and purchase item could increase, possibly substantially, the amount of information one particular retailer will have on you, depending upon how they use the information.

At least as far as GPS data goes, Amazon says that they do not identify the location of products scanned in Firefly, but do identify location of scanned phone numbers for the purpose of adding area code, if the user has location services turned on. They will also use scanned data to improve product identification.

But if you're already a heavy Amazon shopper or app user (say, you already shop with them, use Kindle and have a Prime membership), or even if you just use the website a lot to look up reviews and prices, the Amazon Fire phone might, at the very least, make your online research, comparison shopping and purchasing experiences even more convenient. This may hurt brick-and-mortar stores more than anyone.

There are some limited time offers that might make the phone attractive, too. At the time of this writing, purchasers get a full year of Amazon's Prime membership for free (currently a $99 value), or a year's extension on their existing Prime membership. Prime gives you free two-day shipping on a large number of products. Prime also gives you access to stream lots of free videos and music, and free checkout of up to one book a month through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library.

Fire users will be able to use Amazon Coins to purchase games and other apps, and make in-app purchases, and for a limited time, the Fire comes with 1,000 coins (worth $10).

Amazon Fire phone was released on July 25, 2014 in the United States. The price is $199 with a 2-year service plan for the 32GB model ($649 without a plan), or $299 with a 2-year service plan for the 64GB model ($749 without a plan). You can also get it from around $27 to $38 per month through AT&T's Next Installment program, depending upon your chosen model and number of monthly installments. Like the iPhone when it was initially released, Amazon's Fire Phone will only available for use with AT&T networks at first.

Author's Note: How the Amazon Fire Phone Works

I'm intrigued by the Amazon Fire Phone. I already have a smartphone, nearly every Kindle app and an Amazon Prime membership. Every time I shop in a brick-and-mortar store, I look up everything I'm considering purchasing, usually on Amazon, which has both pricing and user reviews in one convenient place. The ability to hit the Firefly button and scan it all instead of opening a browser, typing product names and numbers and clicking through links until I find what I'm looking for does seem like it would be a time-saver.

And then there's Dynamic Perspective, whose head tracking and perspective changes remind me of an article I researched on virtual windows, one version of which does something similar with a larger monitor. You can move your head or tilt the phone and the images move accordingly, like you are looking through a window. I'm hoping this with be incorporated into a tablet so that one day I can have a little "window" in my cubicle.

And I've already confirmed that my phone's Kindle app does Immersion Reading. Neat! This just gives me one more tempting possibility for the next time I upgrade my phone.

Related Articles

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