This afternoon, RIM welcomed us into their CES lair to get some much-anticipated hands-on time with the Playbook. We were able to spend about 15 minutes manhandling the device, and while the software on the machine is a pre-beta build and not final, we came away with some pretty good impressions — for the second time.
First things first… tthe hardware on the BlackBerry PlayBook seems to be incredibly well built. Honestly, it feels super solid, really good in the hand, and definitely has the weight and feel of an upmarket device — not too heavy though, and not too light. As far as the 7-inch screen does, well, it’s a bit too small in this writer’s personal opinion, but the PlayBook comes away feeling way superior to Samsung’s current tablet offering. All hardware controls including the volume keys and even power key seem to be manufactured well even. Hit the break for more!
The screen on the PlayBook is very crisp, rich, and bright, with text showing clearly and very easy to read. We’re not Retina Display crisp, but much sharper and crisper than Apple’s iPad. Now, for what people have been waiting for — touch responsiveness is amazing and anyone concerned that the somewhat dodgy experience of using a BlackBerry Storm or BlackBerry Torch touchscreen would be replicated on a larger scale here shouldn’t worry. The screen reacts beautifully to every input, and given the early nature of the software build, we have no doubt that this tablet will perform wonderfully in customer’s hands as far as touch is concerned. The card / tab interface worked great and is going to feel similar to anyone who has used webOS, but for those who haven’t, it’s pretty intuitive and is a very well put together UI.
The pre-production unit we used didn’t have much in terms of pre-loaded software and apps, and we weren;t able to test any of the multimedia player functions (though we previewed them in our earlier PlayBook demo session), but we did get a chance to dive into the flash-capable browser and poke around on YouTube just enough to tell you that Flash works, and it works quite well. The browser itself is fast, and scales text admirably, with most sites showing up quickly and crisply.
As for overall device strategy, RIM seemed to be pretty clear on their commitment to a well fleshed out ecosystem. While the device we used didn’t have much in the way of apps beyond the basic OEM stuff, they assured us that, come launch time, Blackberry App World will be full of PlayBook-specific apps. We hope they stay firm to this commitment, as while the Playbook hardware is certainly impressive, the stock configuration does leave a bit to be desired in terms of extended functionality.
As has been noted before, none of the messaging-specific applications, including the email app, your calendar, contacts, and BlackBerry Messenger will work without tethering the Playbook to an actual Blackberry handheld device. RIM noted that this was a conscious decision, believing the PlayBook in stand-alone mode to be more oriented towards media and web-specific purposes. That’s all well and good from a marketing standpoint, but in real-life usage, we’re not sure we agree. The case for BBM on a tablet isn’t cut and dry, but a RIM device without default access to the legendary Blackberry push messaging experience seems like sort of a bizarre proposition to us, and the argument that web-based email and applications will supplant the actual on-board messaging system in a pinch is exactly the kind of logic that led Apple to eat their words and launch the App Store.
Don’t get us wrong, the PlayBook has the makings of an incredibly solid platform, we just hope RIM is as attentive to the App ecosystem as they have been to the actual hardware. Check out our hands-on gallery as well as some video, alright?