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Troy Wolverton: Amazon's Fire phone good for a first effort

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Amazon may be new to the smartphone business, but its Fire phone doesn't feel like a first effort.

The device, which Amazon started shipping on Friday, offers many of the features you'll find on other smartphones. But the Fire goes beyond the basics. It has features that make it stand out from the crowd.

For one thing, Amazon offers Fire buyers a free year of its Prime service, which provides streaming videos and discounted shipping. That's a $100 value and makes the phone a more interesting proposition if you are a big Amazon customer.

At the top of the screen, you'll find a virtual carousel filled with large icons representing apps you've recently used, books you've recently read or movies you've recently watched. Underneath the carousel, you'll find items related to the highlighted app or piece of content. When the camera app is front and center, you'll see your recent pictures. When the maps app is highlighted, you'll find links to recent locations for which you've searched.

Fire offers a visual and audio search app called Firefly and something called Dynamic Perspective, which, by tracking the orientation of the device and users' line of vision, can adjust what the Fire displays on its screen.

Firefly uses the Fire's rear camera to identify products by their cover, packaging or barcodes. It can identify songs or TV shows by simply listening to them. And it can pick out telephone numbers, email and websites from business cards, posters and other printed materials.

The biggest shortcoming of the Fire is its lack of apps. Because the device runs a custom version of Android rather than the Google-approved version, it can't link to the Google Play store. Users have access to Amazon's Appstore instead, which offers only a fraction of the apps available in Google Play.

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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