Hands on with Kindle Fire: It’s mostly hot for $199

Well that was quick! After debating and deciding if I wanted a Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet(s bks), I pre-ordered Amazon’s(s amzn) tablet just two days ago, and it arrived at my home office Tuesday during lunch. On Monday, we showed off the Kindle Fire on video so you can see what the device looks like for yourself. Now that I have a Kindle Fire in-hand, I’ve wasted no time in playing with it, albeit for only 30 minutes. Still, that gives me plenty of first impressions to share on the hardware, software, features and user experience.

This isn’t a full, long-term review, of course, but should provide potential customers more information to help with a purchase decision. In no particular order, then, here are notes from my short experience with Amazon’s Kindle Fire:

  • The out-of-box experience is pretty solid, since the Fire comes pre-registered to your Amazon account. There were only a few settings to deal with: Wi-Fi connection, time zone, etc. However, there was an immediate software update once past the settings, so it took a good five minutes before I could use the Fire. Without the software update, it would have been usable in under a minute.
  • Because the device is pre-registered, all my prior Amazon content is there — sorta. Music albums stored with Amazon appear in the Music section, and I was able to immediately start streaming or downloading them. My archived Kindle library was there, but none of the books were pre-downloaded. One tap and a few seconds later though, I picked up a Kindle book where I left off reading last night. I have a few dozen apps from Amazon’s AppStore, and shortcuts to all of them appear in the Apps section, but they all need to be downloaded, as evidenced by a small down arrow on each icon.
  • The Fire’s overall hardware appears well-built, but plain. It’s extremely similar in size and weight to my Samsung Galaxy Tab, although it’s slightly thinner. Since I can carry my Tab in a jacket pocket or back pants pocket, I should have no problem doing the same with the Fire if I need to.

  • Unlike my Galaxy Tab, the back of the Fire has a nice, light “grippy” feel.
  • The speakers are mediocre; you’ll want to use headphones, which aren’t included.
  • The email client is basic but will suffice for most people. You can use Gmail (s goog) labels by tapping the Move button on an email, although these are really folders on the Fire. There is support for a Unified Inbox if you have multiple email accounts.

  • Although not superb, the keyboard isn’t bad, and it does have an auto-suggest option. I wish the space bar wasn’t offset, but I’m already getting used to it.
  • I don’t like how Amazon’s AppStore doesn’t have the official Facebook client. Instead, the Fire uses the mobile version of Facebook in the browser.
  • Navigating through the carousel of books, music, apps and such is easy — similar to Apple’s(s aapl) Cover Flow — but the kinetic scrolling is too sensitive. That needs some software tweaking to make it easier to choose an activity.
  • I wish there was a hardware button for volume control, but it’s only one tap away in the top right of the screen. There are actually several settings available from this single tap, but Amazon smartly defaults you to the Volume setting each time you tap this button.

  • There are fewer settings available to tweak than on a traditional Android device: Good for first time Android or tablet users.
  • In the Security setting, there’s a section for Device Administrators, suggesting the Fire can be “locked down” to certain activities before handing it over to the kids. Unfortunately, there’s no way to modify this setting area. Lack of a dedicated hardware home button isn’t really a problem — at least not for me. A software home button (as well as a back button) is readily available on the bottom of every screen as needed.
  • The Notification system is similar to standard Android device, but you don’t pull down a shade. Instead, when notifications come in, a numerical counter at the top left of the display is incremented. Tap the number to see the notifications.
  • The browser may be customized by Amazon, but it looks like a bare-bones Android browser with similar controls. However, it does have true tabbed browsing. It doesn’t seem any faster to me by way of Amazon Silk, but it’s too early to say. Sharing web content is simple, as it is on all Android devices: Tap “share” and you’re provided with options for any sharing apps you have installed; I installed Seesmic, for example, and the Fire will let me share content through it.

  • Video playback wasn’t good at first, but appears to have been related to the content I was viewing: Our video unboxing of the Kindle, which wasn’t mobile-optimized. However, previewing movies and TV shows from Amazon over Wi-Fi showed excellent playback.
  • Overall, performance of the device isn’t quite as good as I had expected for a dual-core processor. However, I’ve seen performance boosts from software updates on prior phones and tablets, so I anticipate Amazon will keep tweaking the Fire’s software. Even if they don’t, the device is quite usable.
  • Running multiple apps doesn’t seem to hinder the device, although I haven’t run dozens at the same time. I was streaming music through Rdio and reading a book while downloading some local music files and browsing the web: No problem.

That’s a whirlwind of my first impressions after just a half-hour with the device. I can’t speak to the battery life claims yet, of course. The Fire did come with about 70 percent of a battery charge, which is appreciated. There’s nothing worse than getting a new gadget and then having to wait for it to charge.

So far, I think many people will find the Fire worth the $199 price-tag, because it offers a simple way to enjoy Amazon’s media on the go, for a relatively small investment as compared to a full-fledged tablet computer.

If you have questions about the device, post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to get you answers.