Until this week, the Apple iPad largely defined the emergent tablet market. Starting this week, however, that is almost certainly going to change, with the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which arrives on the scene at less than half the cost of the iPad 2.

The $199 device, which I’ve tested for a few days, isn’t the iPad killer many expected when it was unveiled in late September. Still, it is a good product with plenty of features. As such, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it surpasses iPad 2 sales during the holiday season and perhaps into 2012.

To be clear, the Kindle Fire offers much less than even the least expensive iPad 2 model. It doesn’t include a camera, a microphone or even a very inspiring Web browser. Plus, no one will mistake its built-in Appstore for Android with Apple’s own App Store, which looks bare by comparison.

Still, the Kindle Fire will still make a splash, beginning with its $199 price tag and extending to its extraordinary list of content that is available.

Hardware

Don’t worry; Apple’s own Jonathan Ive was definitely not moonlighting at Amazon during the Kindle Fire’s development stage. Think bulky and plain and you’ll get the idea just how boring the Kindle Fire looks. More irritating, it doesn’t contain physical volume controls nor what we’d consider an actual Home button. Instead, the device has a small button on its bottom edge that is only used as an on/off switch.

Also missing are GPS capabilities, Bluetooth for accessories, and an included set of earbuds.

Lastly, the Kindle Fire contains only 8 GB of memory, half that of the least expensive iPad.

On the plus side, the Kindle Fire’s rubbery plastic backside is quite nice and not cold to the touch like the iPad 2’s aluminum backing.

The Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire

The Interface

The Kindle Fire is said to cost more to produce than what Amazon charges for it and with good reason. In the end, the device’s primary purpose is for you to spend money (and lots of it) in the Amazon ecosystem. Therefore, its interface is formatted to achieve this purpose.

Unlike Apple, which went the folder and icon route, the Kindle Fire is arranged by two huge virtual shelves that work in portrait and landscape view.

The first and largest shelf contains a carousel of sorts that include books, magazines, apps, recent websites visited, music, TV shows and the like. The second contain links to your favorite items.

The carousel is a nice feature, but one that is flawed and much more difficult to use that it should be. One quick swipe of the finger causes the carousel to move much too quickly. In addition, the only way to open an item here is to stop it in the carousel’s primary position. Unfortunately, because the carousel is much too trigger-happy stopping the item in this position is often a challenge.

The favorites shelf (which may be expanded, depending on the number of items you list here) is much more stable. Here, each item is static so clicking on each item is much easier.

The Kindle Fire’s main screen also contains a workable search function as well as links to each of its primary features. It is here where the Kindle Fire’s strengths as a media-consumption device begins to come into focus.

Content

At the top of the Kindle’s main screen are links to Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web.

Magazines

The Kindle Fire contains most of the magazines and newspapers you’d expect in a newsstand. As a good rule of thumb, if the item is available through Apple’s Newsstand, it is almost certainly available here too.

Despite offering a nice selection of titles, however, the Kindle Fire’s seven-inch size makes magazine reading almost impossible. As such, the only comfortable way to read magazine articles here is through the tablet’s “text view” feature. Yet, that won’t give you a true magazine reading experience, so be warned.

Still, Amazon wants your business and is currently offering Condè Nast titles (like Detail, Bon Appetit and Vanity Fair) free for 90 days, which is a super deal.

Books and Music

Amazon has been quite successful in selling books and music through its website. Not surprisingly, the company makes it very easy to do the same on the Kindle Fire. Books and music are arranged exactly the same with links to a user’s content divided between those on the Cloud and those on the device.

To read a book, it must first be downloaded to the device. However, music may be streamed directly from the Cloud. Both sections also contain links to Amazon’s storefront. Here, you’ll find the latest and most popular releases arranged by genre as well as items recommended to you based on your past purchases.

Under Books, you’re given the option to download a book from Amazon’s new Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. This service is reserved for Amazon Prime Members and lets you download one book a month for free with no return date.

Video

If you already aren’t a Prime Member, you really shouldn’t own a Kindle Fire. For $79 per year, Prime members get free two-day shipping on any item purchased at Amazon.com, are enrolled in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library mentioned previously, and have access to thousands of free movies and TV shows. For new users, Amazon is offering Prime Membership for free for one month.

Under Video, these Prime Instant Videos are at the top of the screen, followed by links to Movies and TV Shows.

Prime Videos are available only through streaming only. However, you can also rent or buy other titles.

It is here where Amazon is light-years ahead of Apple. Once you select an item (and make a one-click purchase), you have the choice of downloading the item to your Kindle Fire for offline viewing or you can watch it immediately through streaming.

Sure, the Kindle Fire only has 8GB of space, but with streaming, this is less of a problem.

Docs

Important documents (such as .pdfs) are stored here. To get them here, simply send them by email to the user’s Kindle address (which is assigned the first time you purchase a Kindle device).

Apps

Apps, well, work like apps. While there is no question the Appstore for Android lacks most of the titles available in Apple’s own App Store, most of the more mainstream titles are here. Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Hulu Plus, and Netflix are just four examples of the titles available right now and more it appears are added each day.

Web

Finally, we’re left with Amazon’s new browser, Silk, which was advertised as one of the tablet’s most important selling points. Unfortunately, Silk is a dud. The browser is supposed to be superfast since it pulls static data from Amazon’s cloud computers. In other words, Amazon caches the information from the most popular websites meaning getting them to you is to be quicker. So far, this isn’t the case. In fact, during my unscientific test, Silk ran much slower than Mobile Safari did on my iPad 2.

The Price Is Right!

The Price Is Right!

The Big Picture

As a media-consumption device, the Kindle Fire is impressive even with its limitations. For those users looking for a relatively inexpensive tablet to access and purchase books, videos and music, the Kindle Fire works just fine, thank you very much. However, this is only true if the user is committed to sticking with the Amazon ecosystem (and millions are) and becoming an Amazon Prime Member.

However, the Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad 2 with its vast collection of third-party apps. Therefore, while I expect millions to purchase the Kindle Fire, these users are almost certainly those that will be joining the tablet revolution for the first time. In other words, not the type of users Apple is going after or has already convinced to purchase an iPad.

Still, Amazon’s tablet could eventually become the market leader, which is not something Apple should discount.

In the future, because of Amazon, Apple might at least toy with the idea of a releasing a smaller iPad (the iPad Mini?) and perhaps lower the price of its entire tablet line. Plus, Amazon’s streaming capabilities might finally convince the folks in Cupertino, California to bring a similar service to its own iTunes owners.