The long-in-development BlackBerry PlayBook is out in the US next week, and should hit Australia before the end of June. Lifehacker got a chance to sit down and play with a close-to-final version of the device yesterday. It's not news that I'm a big BlackBerry fan, so how did I react to a BlackBerry in tablet form?First off: this was only a brief 30-minute test session, so there's obviously a lot of stuff I didn't get to check out thoroughly, such as the claimed 10 hour battery life for the device. Support for Android apps -- one of the potentially most interesting features of the PlayBook -- also won't be included in the initial version, so I didn't get a chance to check that out either. Android apps will need to be submitted to BlackBerry's App World marketplace -- you won't just be able to grab them from the Marketplace, at least officially -- and there's no timeframe attached to when that feature will be enabled other than "this year".
I've mentioned in the past that I tend to prefer 7-inch tablets because they retain a degree of jacket-pocket portability, unlike the 10-inch form factor which has become the de facto standard since the arrival of the iPad. One notable strategy which the PlayBook uses to maximise that screen area is to make the bezel active as well; for instance, you flick up from the bottom of the screen to go into the app-switching view, which is derived from the touchscreen look seen on the BlackBerry Torch but takes better advantage of the bigger screen area.
Using the bezel this way took a bit of getting used to, but nearly every touch interface requires a bit of retraining -- the idea that anything you can do on a touchscreen is automatically "intuitive" has always struck me as one of the less justified beliefs of the modern age.
BlackBerry's big pitch for the PlayBook is that it's a "professional grade" tablet, though the emphasis is as much on the dual-core 1GHz processor as on its ability to tie-in with existing business BlackBerry infrastructures. It did a neat job of sliding between multiple applications, and the larger screen does make it much more appealing for playing back video (one of the most obvious markets for a tablet device, and unsurprisingly virtually the first feature I got shown). The on-screen keyboard also worked fairly well -- it certainly seemed comparable to the experience on Android tablets or the iPad, although I suspect I'd want a Bluetooth keyboard for extended typing sessions (something I'd say about any tablet).
Existing BlackBerry users can take advantage of the BlackBerry Bridge software to hook their current device up to the PlayBook via BlueTooth, and will have access to any of the resources and apps available on that device. This is effectively done by treating the PlayBook as a thin client; no data is actually retained on the device. The appeal of this from a corporate security perspective is that there's no sensititve data on the tablet -- if it gets stolen or left behind in an airport lounge, there's not much in the way of compromised data to be had.
Given my Road Worrier proclivities, I was pleased to see that the interface includes easy one-touch access to flight mode. There's also an easy-to-access orientation lock control. The device can be charged through either a special dock connection or a micro-USB port; the former is said to be faster, but the latter means you can use the same charger for both your PlayBook and your BlackBerry (or most any other phone).
I'm not going to pass final judgement on the PlayBook until I've had a proper chance to play with it and take it on the road, but I like what I've seen so far. Tablets are a competitive field, but as always that's a good thing: if millions of us are going to buy one, it makes sense that there should be different choices to appeal to different needs.
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