BlackBerry PlayBook Hands-On: Slick OS, Solid Build, Plenty of Power

RIM’s 7-inch BlackBerry PlayBook tablet is one of the most anticipated devices of 2011, having won the reader vote in our 2010 Tablet World Series before anyone  even had a chance to play with one. Today,  RIM announced that the Wi-Fi only version of the slate will start selling sometime this spring through a number of leading retailers, including carriers at an undisclosed price that RIM says will be “competitive” with other devices. No word yet on which retailers or carriers will sell the Wi-Fi only PlayBook.

While details about pricing and availability remain scarce, we finally had a chance to look at one of these slates in person and get a demonstration of its unique BlackBerry Tablet OS in action. We also got some interesting details about the hardware itself and were able to film a video of the device in action, which you’ll see below.

Known Specs

  • 1-GHz Cortex A9 CPU (manufacturer unknown)
  • 7-inch capacitive touch screen with 1024 x 600 resolution
  • Estimating about 8 hours of battery life
  • BlackBerry Tablet OS
  • Front and Rear-facing 1080p webcams
  • Available in 16, 32 or 64GB internal storage with no microSD slot
  • 1GB of RAM for enhanced multitasking
  • MicroUSB connector for synching and charging (more on that below)
  • Docking connector for peripherals and fast-charging dock

Hardware Impressions

The PlayBook felt really good in our hands. Though we were unable to place it side-by-side with a Galaxy Tab it seemed lighter and a little more solidly built. The rubberized back, emblazoned with a BlackBerry Logo, makes the slate comfortable to grip. The bright, glossy screen had strong viewing angles and colors looked extremely vibrant as a RIM rep navigating us around the OS. We did not get to see gaming or video playback in our demo.

Unique among color tablets we’ve seen, the PlayBook can actually charge using a standard microUSB cable. However, RIM told us that it will include a special USB charging cable and plug, because the amount of power you get over a standard USB connection from your PC may not be enough to both charge and operate the PlayBook at the same time. We’ll test this out when we finally get a PlayBook in to review, but even if you can only charge or use your device while connected to a PC, it will be incredibly convenient to be able to use a standard microUSB cable. The tiny docking port also allows  you to connect to an optional rapid-charging dock accessory.

RIM couldn’t tell us yet what kind of video chat software it plans to include on the PlayBook. However, the company said it planned to ship the device with a working solution. That would be a welcome change over devices like the Galaxy Tab, which either came with a barely-working version of Qik or none at all.

Software Impressions

BlackBerry envisions its new tablet OS as the centerpiece of an entire line of tablets, which is only beginning with the PlayBook. What’s clear is that the company has really focused on multi-tasking, because it’s incredibly easy to switch between tasks by simply swiping up to minimize your application and then swipe side to side to scroll between apps. Unlike Android, the BlackBerry Tablet OS has task-closing built in. To close an app, you simply swipe it up and off the screen. If all of this sounds like webOS, you’re right, but the software also borrows some features from BlackBerry OS 6.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the BlackBerry Tablet OS and the touchscreen itself is that the bezel is actually part of the touch-sensitive area. So when you swipe from the bottom of the screen, you actually swipe up from the bottom bezel.

Apps and App Store

BlackBerry is keeping its list of preloaded apps close to the vest. However, the slate will include a Webkit browser, which supports Flash and BlackBerry messenger. Beyond that, we don’t know much about what they’ll include. RIM says that the Flash implementation on the PlayBook will provide better performance in Flash apps (videos, games) than you see on most Android devices today.

As for new apps, the device will launch with BlackBerry App World, which will have a section just for PlayBook apps. The OS will support Adobe Air applications and HTML 5 apps. Developers may also be able to create Unix apps that work in QNX, but it wasn’t immediately clear how they would do that or if BlackBerry plans to encourage that effort.

Outlook

The BlackBerry PlayBook has serious potential for mobile professionals looking for an easily portable device with dual-core power. The OS is fairly intuitive, once you get the hang of the gestures, and the build quality of this slate is top-notch. We think a lot of users would also like to see a 10-inch option, but the current 7-inch PlayBook is an impressive combination of hardware and software in a very competitive category.

Video


AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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