Just like how hush-hush RIM has been for the past year over details of their new PlayBook tablet, some of us were rounded up in an (un)marked mini-bus where we got a sneak peek of the device that’s set to ship in the US this coming Tuesday.
Inside, we managed to get a brief presentation of the key features of the PlayBook and, of course, a hands-on experience of it. Before I talk about some of the takeaways, I must qualify that the sets that we got hold of were running beta software and are not the final ones that ship out on the 19th. This means that some problems we experienced at the preview may be fixed by then and stuff that works may just be even more amazing at launch.
The PlayBook measures 130mm x 194mm x 10mm with a 7-inch screen. The front end has a nice glossy finish( at least before your fingerprints get all over it ) with a somewhat rubberised back. To the touch, it feels light but very slick. And, of course, like all BlackBerry devices it’s got a nice BlackBerry logo on the back to subtly tell the people around you that you’re holding on to something that’s not ‘mainstream’.
Its multi-touch capacitative touchscreen has a thick black border that really makes it useful if you’re holding on to the tablet and don’t want to accidentally touch stuff on-screen. But it doesn’t end there because this border also doubles up for certain actions. For example, if you want to bring up the Home screen, you would touch the bottom border and slide your finger up the screen. And if you wanted to close an application, you would touch the application window and flick it up to the top border( as if you were throwing it off the device ). Pretty intuitive.
If you’re familiar with the OS6 interface, it’s actually somewhat similar. You can switch between different views which hold collections of apps by flicking it left and right or tap the ribbon and it’ll expand to take up the entire screen where you can see more application icons at a go.
Like many other smartphones, the PlayBook also sports a notification bar on top where you can access your device settings, see app notifications, etc.
When you’re switching between apps, you can actually see little windows of the running apps ordered from left to right. It’s feel pretty intuitive but I do think if you have like 10 to 15 apps running you might have a problem having to constantly flick it around just trying to get to the window you want. In which case, perhaps something like what’s on the mobile phones would be good – just show a grid of icons. But no biggie here I think.
For some reason, I’m drawn to the camera for the fact that it has both front-facing( 3MP ) and back-facing( 5MP ) cameras capable of taking up to 1080p videos. It has no flash so you will need decent lighting conditions but it’s otherwise really good. Some friends think waving around a 7-inch device to take pictures makes one look stupid…but I don’t really care. I just want the picture.
Now, this is something i’m very impressed with. The PlayBook has a 1GHz dual core processor and runs the apps with real multi-tasking. This means that when you switch between applications, the ones that you switched-out of are actually still running.
Above is video of DK playing Need For Speed while switching to another app
Throughout the whole session, there was no noticeable lag at all while switching between apps and while running HD videos and playing games. I do wonder how this will impact battery life but that brings me to the next point…
There’s no official word on this yet because the set that toyed around with and the sets that the RIM representatives have been testing with are all running beta software so it wouldn’t be fair to assess the final device’s battery life until I get my hands on the release version. One thing’s for sure though – because of how this almost has to be paired with a BlackBerry Smartphone, it had better come close to matching the life of the phone. We’re told that the test sets can last all day but again, I’m going to suspend judgment till I see the final thing. I really want to see how having my phone paired with the PlayBook all day will affect both the life of my phone and the tablet. If they can achieve the performance they’ve demonstrated while maintaining a good battery life, it would be a huge plus point for RIM.
At the end of the day, this is a BlackBerry device which means you’re probably going to need to do things like emailing, scheduling and messaging. All this can done via something RIM’s calling BlackBerry Bridge. Preloaded on the PlayBook, you can pair the PlayBook with your BlackBerry Smartphone via a secure Bluetooth connection and BlackBerry Bridge will bring up a screen where you can see your emails, calendar, etc. Every action you take on your emails are immediately reflected on the phone as well. In fact, it’s only stored on the phone and the BB Bridge is probably just redisplaying it on the PlayBook.
But here’s somewhat of the downside, the calendaring, email and BBM functions are ONLY available on BlackBerry Bridge. This means that if you don’t have a BlackBerry phone, you pretty much have to rely on either web apps or on 3rd party apps like the Gmail app. This dependency on the phone for the basic productivity functions as well as the fact that it is a WIFI only device makes the PlayBook more of a companion device to their smartphones.
( We couldn’t try BlackBerry Bridge at the session but here’s a video to show you how it works )
It does have some shortcomings like not having an autocorrect functionality, and not being to auto-launch a mail client if you click a “mailto” email address while browsing without an active BlackBerry Bridge connection. I’m sure there are others that exists but I think most of it is mostly software and hopefully RIM will fix it through OS updates soon( or that they’re fixed in the final version )
Thoughts for now
It’s a beautiful device that performs amazingly well. Yet there are some critical areas RIM needs to address before the normal users would swoon over this as much me.
Firstly, they need more apps in their eco-system…fast. They’re launching with an amazing offering of over 3000 applications but the truth is people are comparing this number with current app numbers from other platforms. I personally don’t think app numbers is the number one priority for me because I don’t need all the fancy apps. Yes, “there’s an app for everything” but I certain don’t use an app for everything. That said, RIM will need to make it easy for developers to start writing apps. For now, I think developers are somewhat confused as to what to expect with both OS6 and QNX on the table. Oh, and Android apps too.
Next, they need to play the balancing act of watching over the interests of corporate IT and also of the normal consumer. Having the PlayBook tied so closely to their Smartphone does mean that everything remains secure( because all data goes through the phone first and the admins have control over that ) but this really alienates a bulk of non-BlackBerry phone users. Of course, if you really wanted to use a PlayBook with your iPhone or Android, you could just set up a mobile hotspot and get the PlayBook to connect to that too. Just that you wouldn’t get Bridge features. Perhaps RIM could come up with productivity suite where customers could either use with Bridge(where it’ll be secure and leverages RIM’s infrastructure) or simply configure their own mail settings so that it becomes an independent device. They have a great device but it has to be more inclusive.
All that said, at the end of the day, as an existing BlackBerry user, I’m very impressed by the device and I hope RIM keeps working hard at fixing the bugs that people identify, push them out fast and listen to what the people on the ground are saying. I like where this is heading. Now it’s all about whether they can keep up with the pace.
For the full list of specs you can head on to their product page
In the US, the PlayBook will retail for USD499 for the 16GB version, USD599 for 32GB version and USD699 for 64GB.
The release date for Singapore is yet to be announced.