Amazon’s Kindle Fire: Hope or hype?

November 14, 2011, 5:01 AM UTC

FORTUNE — The Kindle Fire isn’t a revolutionary device, but it is Amazon’s most important product ever.

The culmination of 17 years of work, the Kindle Fire is the missing piece of the company’s vast corporate puzzle, bringing into harmony nearly every discordant service the company has built since CEO Jeff Bezos first set up shop in his garage in 1994. The Fire reads e-books, shops online, downloads movies and music. It surfs the Web with a cloud-based web browser. And, true to its maker’s sharp-nosed retail roots, it undercuts its biggest competitor, the Apple (AMZN) iPad, by at least $300.

The big question is, is it any good?

An all-black slab, the Fire’s case resembles the BlackBerry (RIM) PlayBook tablet, only slightly more refined. It’s less wide, has fewer buttons and a thinner black border around the screen. That isn’t a coincidence: they’re manufactured by the same company. Amazon’s (AMZN) Fire won’t turn nearly as many heads as the iPad 2, but you won’t be ashamed to bandy it about either.

Roughly the size of a thin, medium-sized paperback, the Fire is lighter than Barnes & Noble’s (BN) Nook Color and easier to hold for long periods of time without getting tired. A scratch-resistant 7-inch color display takes up the front, while the back is covered in a soft-touch paint that feels almost like rubber. Up top, two small speakers produce solid volume for watching movies (at close range).

Inside, a dual-core 1GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM keep performance snappy. The Fire also comes with 8 GB of built-in storage for books, movies, documents and apps. The company says you’ll get 8 hours of battery life in between charges with WiFi off and 7.5 hours of battery life of straight movie-viewing, which sounds about right. With WiFi on, expect to plug the Fire in more frequently: in my experience, a mix of daily activities like web browsing, movie watching and reading meant recharging every 6.5 hours. That’s acceptable, but not exceptional when compared to the iPad 2’s 10 hours with WiFi on or the Nook Tablet’s touted 11.5 hours with WiFi off.

For its software, Amazon took a version of Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system (for the hardcore, codenamed “Gingerbread”) and built a new user interface dominated by grays and orange. Designed to look like a book shelf, the home screen displays a thin status and notifications bar to display battery life or messages from apps running in the background, a row that categorizes items by media type like books, videos and apps, a virtual Cover Flow-like “carousel” of recently-browsed media to swipe through, and an area where users can bookmark things.

Actually navigating around is a mixed bag. Swiping through some areas of the Fire can be smooth. Other times, it feels like the Fire can’t quite keep up, with a noticeable amount of delay. And just like the iPad, Nook Color, and other tablets before it, you may have trouble reading outdoors thanks to the device’s color screen. On the other hand, photos and other art shine. Reading a photo-friendly periodical like Vanity Fair is a pleasure, and little things like highlighting words for definitions or making notes are faster to perform with the Fire than with previous Kindles.

One of the Fire’s draws is a decent video selection from in-house and third-party services. Amazon breaks up the video section on the Fire into three main categories — Prime Instant Videos, Movies and TV Shows. The company makes the experience easy to stumble upon or search something out, then either rent or purchase it. Though you can rent HD content on it, the Fire only supports standard definition video. So if you rent X-Men: First Class in high definition, it’ll play in HD on other compatible devices, but in standard definition on the Fire. Hulu Plus and Netflix will also be among the thousands of third-party apps available at launch from the Amazon Appstore.

Amazon’s Silk has received a lot of coverage because it works differently from some other web browsers: some of the work of loading web pages is done by Amazon’s EC2 cloud service, and some is handled by the Fire itself. Data is optimized for the tablet, so as the company explains, a 3-megabyte image may be crunched into a 50-kilobyte file. Silk also analyzes how other users typically navigate a particular web site you’re visiting and based on the behavior, tries to predict what you’ll click on next and pre-load it.

The idea itself isn’t new, but Amazon seems to have taken it up a notch. In practice, pages loaded relatively quickly depending on how much Flash a site features. (The more Flash on the site, the longer the load time.) It’s hard to draw a direct comparison to say, usage on the iPad 2 since Apple’s mobile iOS operating system doesn’t support Flash, but in a completely unscientific experiment, I put the two tablets side-by-side and loaded the same Flash-free sites on both simultaneously. Silk loaded several pages a hair quicker, but in some cases, actually rendered other sites slower.

It is worth noting that the Kindle Fire has a neat little perk other tablets don’t. Each new Fire owner receives one free month of Amazon Prime, a taste of the company’s service which offers two-day shipping, free movie streaming and access to the recently-introduced Kindle Owners Lending Library that lets users borrow one book at a time, once a month.

More than any other Kindle before it, the Fire is an initiation into an ecosystem where nearly every service is provided by Amazon. Often a not-so-subtle initiation. When you’re shopping for an e-book, Amazon notes if the title is available to be lent to you. If you’re jonesing for a video, the company points out that its Prime Instant Videos are “$0.00 for Prime members,” while they’re a la carte for everyone else. The Fire can be used without a Prime membership. But the message is clear: you’re missing out if you’re not a member.

The Kindle Fire takes Amazon’s popular services and presents them in a capable piece of hardware with an easy-to-understand, if not always smooth, interface. It doesn’t have nearly the iPad’s extra layer of polish and sheen, but with the Amazon brand, a wide ecosystem of services at its disposal, and that $199 price point, it may not need it. In that sense, it’s possible Apple’s tablet just met its first real competitor.