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Summary:

In a short private session with Research In Motion, I finally got a hands-on look at the BlackBerry PlayBook. It’s better than I expected: elegant, intuitive and speedy when running multiple apps. I finally found out why Flash runs well on the PlayBook. Hint: think cars.

playbook-demo

Research In Motion is showing off its PlayBook tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and I was able to spend a few minutes with the device last night, just as the company announced a 4G version of the tablet. Most of my time was a bit of show-and-tell with RIM representatives, but I was able to handle the tablet and was more impressed than I expected.

Here’s a short demo of the interface and PlayBook’s ability to browse the web, play Adobe Flash video and multitask while running a Quake video demo at 60 frames per second. Flash on other devices has been a hit or miss experience; after watching it perform well in the video, see my observations below on why it does so well. The answer is surprising.

Some impressions and thoughts from my brief session with the PlayBook:

  • Physically, the 7-inch tablet is similar to my Samsung Galaxy Tab and uses the same 1024 x 600 resolution. Weight was close as well, but the PlayBook appears to be a few millimeters thinner.
  • Although PlayBook will auto-rotate the screen when turned, the device is really geared to primarily be used in landscape mode. The front-facing video camera is only atop the device in landscape for example, and the two stereo speakers are only on the side of the Playbook in landscape; that is, they’re on the left and right. When you hold the device in portrait mode, the speakers are at the top and bottom.
  • The interface, built on the QNX platform, is fluid, elegant and intuitive. It’s similar to webOS in design and function, as well as in how it multitasks.
  • Since much of the PlayBook is tied to Adobe Flash and Air, I asked how RIM is getting Flash to work on mobile devices seemingly better than competitors. A dual-core processor helps, but QNX’s history may have more to do with it. Flash on QNX was previously used in automobiles for digital instrumentation, entertainment and navigation systems, and in cars, having those kinds of apps crash isn’t good. So the company invested a lot of effort to get Flash nearly bulletproof on its QNX platform, which Research In Motion purchased last year.

As nice as PlayBook looks for both consumer and enterprise users, I’m still not sold on how dependent the device will be on a BlackBerry handset. Until the 4G model on Sprint arrives this summer, a Wi-Fi PlayBook can only go mobile by tethering with a 3G BlackBerry. The core apps like mail, contacts and such won’t work in standalone mode with just the tablet, meaning you’ll essentially need a BlackBerry to use the PlayBook. I’m sure RIM hopes that PlayBook sales will drive BlackBerry sales, but given other tablet options out there that aren’t tied to any specific phone, new customers may balk; even if it runs Flash well.

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  1. I’m sure third-parties will be able to fill the Mail application hole pretty quickly.

    1. Good point, but I’m not sure folks want to buy and bet on that. Tough call.

    2. Doesn’t that depend on how tightly RIM controls the app store for the PlayBook? As I recall, Apple’s been criticized in the past for rejecting iOS apps that “duplicate native functionality;” if RIM’s trying to leverage the PlayBook to drive BlackBerry sales, this is an obvious tactic.

  2. I dont quite understand this comment you make at the end of your article. I see it mentioned in other articles as well. I for one need a cel phone and would like to purchase a tablet but I can not afford two data plans given that one alone is already expensive. Tethering seems to be the way I would want to go unless I could get a nice bonus like those bankers are getting every year to financing two plans…

    1. Because there are many of us out here, like me, who don’t bother with a cell phone.

  3. “Although PlayBook will auto-rotate the screen when turned, the device is really geared to primarily be used in landscape mode.”

    – That is a real downer. No wonder all preview video’s are in landscape mode. If you have any chance to play with one more could you make some pics in portrait mode?

    ” The core apps like mail, contacts and such won’t work in standalone mode with just the tablet, meaning, you’ll essentially need a BlackBerry to use the PlayBook. … even if it runs Flash well.”

    – I am wondering if companies still fall for this device if there are no basic functions without tethering with a BB. Also do you have seen any software for enterprises on the playbook? Would be nice to show it next time :)

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  5. Question on your last sentence Kevin, so with the WIFI model, the mail, web and internet based apps won’t run without having BB phone around (even we have a WIFI available)?

    1. The browser will certainly work without a BlackBerry, as should most apps. But apps that depend on BlackBerry security, Mail, for example, won’t run without a BB handset as far as I know. That could change before launch, but that’s my understanding at this point.

  6. it´s a nice start first targets the BB market (currently about 50 million users), as the playbook gets deployed it´s likely that the OS will be upgraded to add such features, after all unlike Droid and more like Apple, this OS is for BB devices so upgrades should be easily available eventually, let´s see how it goes, so far as a BB user this tablet is a must.

  7. It does somewhat seem unusual that there is currently no way to take advantage of BBIM, the BlackBerry Calendar, BlackBerry’s Mail, et al other service that were usually native to BlackBerry phones. BlackBerry’s press releases are intimating that this is due to security limitations. However, it could be due to fact that BlackBerry is yet to these services to work on the PlayBook independently of a BlackBerry phone. It could also be due to the fact that Blackberry did not want to invest in a 3G technology that will soon be supplanted by LTE and WiMax.
    I have a 9700 Bold and I am pleased to know that I will be able to—by means of tethering—use my phone’s 3G data services as an Internet source for my PlayBook. This means that I will be able to save money that would otherwise be used to pay for a capped data service from AT&T. Yes the PlayBook is definitely geared toward individual who already own BlackBerry smartphones and I am sure that the necessary provision will be made to accommodate non-BlackBerry smartphones owners.
    Focus on the many strengths of this device and you will find that based on its merits, this device will be a force to be reckoned with…

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