It’s been a bumpy ride for RIM as it ventures into the tablet market. The company’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet hits store shelves Tuesday with some negative buzz based on tales of delay, lukewarm reviews, and a stock price dip.
This contrasts with my initial hands-on experiences with the device at CES and the BlackBerry business event in Boston, where I came away impressed with the PlayBook’s processing power and multitasking functionality. Granted, those experiences were in a controlled setting under the watchful eye of RIM reps, but it was clear that the PlayBook had potential, maybe not to unseat the iPad as tablet king, but to perhaps carve out a niche as the tablet of choice for enterprise users and IT admins.
Is that still the case? Coming out of the official BlackBerry PlayBook launch event in New York (where RIM brought in Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard as well as RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie to mingle with attendees) with the tablet in hand, I have plenty of thoughts to share. With my previous PlayBook experiences in mind, here are my not-so-initial impressions.
BlackBerry Tablet OS
I tried to break the BlackBerry Tablet OS, literally. The first thing I wanted to do with my PlayBook is see if I could crash it, or at least exhaust the available memory. I say this because multitasking in the BlackBerry Tablet OS is a breeze. The system offers true multitasking, in that it keeps the apps running until the user closes them out. All the running apps are easily accessible and obvious from the main screen, and closing them out is simply a matter of tapping the “x” in the corner of the respective thumbnail.
Contrast this with the Android operating system, which buries the list of open apps in the settings menu. I’ve criticized Android for this, but to be fair, Android does a spectacular job of managing apps on its own. It will automatically close down non-essential apps when the system begins to feel strain, almost taking that element of app management out of the user’s hands. As such, users almost never feel the system bog down, with the notable exception of when running Google Maps on top of other apps. Google Maps can slow things down a tad, especially with its new 3D effects.
So the logical conclusion I draw is that because the BlackBerry Tablet OS makes multitasking so easy, it must not do the same job Android does in managing apps on its own. It can probably be overloaded.
So I tried. And succeeded… though only after opening a dozen apps, including a process-intensive game and sample HD video. The tablet didn’t crash and burn once it hit its limit. The PlayBook kept chugging along, only ignoring my attempts to open any other applications.
When not trying to break the OS, I did take the time to enjoy the Web browser. It’s snappy and Flash works great. Overall navigation through the OS is also smooth and responsive to touch. On the downside, the PlayBook does not yet have native email or messaging clients when not tethered to a BlackBerry smartphone. Those two are very basic apps, and the PlayBook should not have shipped without them.
However, PlayBook owners might not have to wait long for these apps, if Balsillie is to be believed. He told Bloomberg, “We’ll have an over the air email client to announce very very soon.” Later he added, “Stay tuned for all capabilities we have coming out on this stuff.”
The PlayBook also features no physical buttons on the display, but the display frame registers touch. To navigate out of an app, users have to swipe up from the bottom of the display, or swipe down from the top to access the application options. That took a few minutes to figure out.
I also like the overall build quality. The PlayBook is solid with a rubberized back that could probably handle a drop or two. I’m not going to test that though, unless it’s by accident. Finally, my PlayBook arrived with a slip cover packaged in the box. That’s a nice touch.
The full and exhaustive BlackBerry PlayBook review is up on TabletPCReview. Unfortunately, some key PlayBook features like BlackBerry Bridge were not ready in time, so we will update the review as soon as they launch.