Dumb Smartphones

Amazon Fire Phone: The Solution to None of Your Problems

Each feature was either not unique, just glitz, or meant to sell you something.
With Amazon Fire Phone, you can perform simple tasks like responding to a text without going in and out of apps. Oh wait, iOS 8 will do that. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

With Amazon Fire Phone, you can perform simple tasks like responding to a text without going in and out of apps. Oh wait, iOS 8 will do that. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

At the Standard Hotel in New York City last night, AT&T held an event where a slew of reporters queued up for a momentary, tightly controlled preview of the Amazon Fire Phone. No videography was allowed, but it was enough time to see what sets the Fire Phone apart from the competition. The verdict is dim, even compared to something as dismal as a Windows Phone.

The front of the phone is surrounded by 3D cameras that track the motion of your face to see how your head orients to the phone. On a map of New York City, moving the gadget around in front of our eyes caused us to peek around the buildings. In order to see into the distance, we tilted the phone like we were searching for something hidden inside the edge of the screen, which was a little cool at first, but was more glitzy then convenient.

For comparison’s sake: the 3D cameras Intel is rolling out can detect your emotions, map a 3D rendering of an entire room, and augment reality itself. Amazon’s phone, on the other hand, allows you to open menus by jerking the phone to the side, which just goes to show how they’re stacking up against the competition. Hint: it’s not good.

As you tilt the phone, you can see all four sides of the Empire State Building, in case that's the function from Google Maps you were missing most. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

As you tilt the phone, you can see all four sides of the Empire State Building, in case that’s the function from Google Maps you were missing most. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

The other thing we got to take a close look at was the infamous “Firefly,” an app that scans objects and helps you instantly buy them off of Amazon — aka the most blatant, desperate ploy at corporate synergy we’ve ever seen in a mobile app.

Often, new key features are designed to address problems: in the case of Firefly, the problem is our inability to buy shit from Amazon quickly and immediately.

Firefly is opened by a dedicated button that opens the app and gets started scanning. Bright dots flit about on screen looking to identify the product you’re looking at. Our demonstrator pointed the phone at various objects on the table — a box of candy, a Justin Bieber CD, a copy of Frozen on DVD — and each one instantly pulled up a link to where we could purchase it online.

Now you can order boxes of candy from Amazon faster than ever before. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

Now you can order individual boxes of candy from an online retailer faster than ever before. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

The app has been criticized as being exploitive toward shopping addiction and impulse buyers, but like the menus that appear when you flip the phone, the feature just doesn’t seem to be very useful. How often does simply Googling something you want to buy not suffice, even if doing it from your phone is clunky? To say that it will seamlessly tie our eyes to our wallets gives the feature way more credit than it deserves.

This is the table full of objects the phone could pretend to shop for in our demonstration. Scanning a CD suggests not just that CD, but also concert tickets and merch. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

This is the table full of objects the phone could pretend to shop for in our demonstration. Scanning a CD suggests not just that CD, but also concert tickets and merch. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

Of the few features we saw, they ultimately amounted to useless wow-factor features, or hackneyed attempts to sell us more products. Maybe they should have just made a sex toy after all.

Follow Jack Smith IV on Twitter or via RSS. jsmith@observer.com