updated 03:05 pm EST, Fri January 7, 2011
We test the BlackBerry PlayBook as RIM hints sync
We had the opportunity to try the BlackBerry PlayBook at CES on Friday and discovered that it may have sync with more than just the BlackBerry. A representative on the show floor told Electronista that there might be plans to sync some services with the iPhone or other platforms. While there wasn't much definite, it was mainly something that RIM 'hadn't communicated yet,' the staffer said.
It's not clear if this would involve BlackBerry Messenger, BIS-based e-mail or other special services; it may simply sync standard information. Including BBM or BlackBerry e-mail would be a radical break for RIM, which has usually considered both its closest-kept advantages. RIM may not necessarily have anything on launch as it's as little as two days away.
Regardless of the features, the PlayBook itself is impressive in its near-finished form. BlackBerry Tablet OS is superficially related to BlackBerry 6 but is much more intuitive as it was designed much more for touch. As has been seen before, it uses BB6's familiar trays to sort apps but a unique window system for multitasking: when at the home screen, you can always switch to an app or swipe it up to close it. Multi-touch works throughout and is extremely responsive, although it's not as easy as the iPad to pan while zooming.
The OS borrows a few design cues from webOS and uses the bezel to handle features that would normally have been reserved for hardware buttons. A swipe from the bottom up brings you to the home screen and task switching. Swiping from the top down will bring a contextual menu, and swiping from either the left or the right brings an alternate multitasking-only view that dominates the screen. It's not as automatically intuitive as Android or iOS but quickly becomes second nature and makes great use of the small screen area.
Multitasking itself is also more powerful still than we first thought. The dual-core 1GHz chip is combined with modern PowerVR graphics (likely an SGX540 series) and never seems to bog down, even running multiple demanding apps. We ran a game, two 3D tech demos, 1080p video and a browser without any of them appearing to lose significant performance, which itself was very fast. Although it's based on Adobe AIR and Flash, the interface is clearly optimized and juggles tasks very efficiently -- as you'd expect for QNX, whose reputation was built on making the most of limited hardware.
On that subject, RIM might have a port of id Software's Quake 3 Arena. While it was running on a controlled loop and wasn't playable, the first-person shooter was shown running at a near-constant 60 frames per second. That isnt' spectacular compared to the hundreds of frames per second on a modern desktop or notebook, but it's a major leap for tablets. A port of Q3A is likely for the iPad as well given id's stated goals, but it's appreciated to see RIM landing early support.
Many of the apps themselves aren't especially complicated, but they again show that RIM has been eager to avoid some of the mistakes made with its phone OS. The media players are familiar but are much more visual and make good use of the screen for playback. The browser is WebKit based like on the Style or Torch but, thanks to a processor roughly three years newer, is dramatically faster. However, Flash still falls flat here: YouTube is fast because of hardware video acceleration, but sites like TBS.com clearly couldn't draw large Flash animations smoothly. It may be another generation or two before Flash is genuinely ready, although it thankfully didn't hurt the interface itself.
The camera app is simple but loads up quickly and is easy to use for both front and back shooting.
As for the actual hardware, it's definitely well built and surprisingly small. Apple's Steve Jobs has complained about seven-inch tablets being too small, and it did feel slightly cramped, but it was also the perfect size and weight for e-book reading or use on the train. It's about as thick as a CD jewel case and has a reassuring rubberized back texture to keep it steady in your hand.
Our only main worries revolve around BBM and e-mail support. It's implied that you may need to tether with a BlackBerry (or possibly an iPhone) get proper support. If so, that could be a significant liability for the PlayBook. We wouldn't want to have to have a nearby smartphone just to use basic features that every other tablet already handles itself. RIM has argued that it's to keep BlackBerry security intact, but we suspect fully independent messaging might just not be ready in time.
Even with this, the PlayBook is much more impressive to use first-hand than it is to look at from afar. It's evident RIM realized that it needed to not only catch up but possibly leapfrog ahead of others. The PlayBook should ship in March and hasn't received pricing, but should be competitive with similar seven-inch tablets and the iPad. We can only hope that RIM's promises of bringing the OS to its phones is fulfilled as quickly as possible.