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By Dan Seifert

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Usability, Data/Messaging


Usability

The PlayBook runs RIM's brand-new BlackBerry Tablet OS, which is based on the QNX OS that it purchased last year. Keen-eyed users will notice similarities to a number of other mobile operating systems - especially webOS.

The application tray offers up crisp icons floating above the wallpaper much like iOS. The tray scrolls smoothly and quickly and has a kinetic bouncing effect when the end of the list is reached. Users can categorize their applications into Favorites, Media, and Games tabs within the app tray, as well as rearrange their placement. Unfortunately, there was not a way to create custom categories as far as we could tell.

The upper right corner of the main screen is home to information such as battery status and Wi-Fi connections, as well as toggles for orientation lock and Bluetooth. There is also a cog icon that is used to access the settings menu. The left corner is home to the notifications system for when the PlayBook is connected to a BlackBerry smartphone. Front and center on the top bar is the current date and time.

One of the highlight features of the new BlackBerry Tablet OS is the way it handles multi-tasking. The PlayBook is capable of running more than one application at a time, in fact, it can run many applications at once. When an app is opened, it shoots to full screen when it is in focus. Users can swipe up from the bottom bezel of the screen and the app will shrink back to the desktop, just like on webOS. Then, more apps can be opened while the first apps remain open and active. Users can easily switch between open applications by swiping in from the left or right side of the screen, again much like the way application switching works with webOS. Once an app has been shrunk back to the desktop, it can be closed by swiping it up towards the top of the screen. Similarities to other systems aside, multitasking works very well and the gesture based controls are very easy to learn.

Part of the reason multitasking works so well is because the UI on the PlayBook is very responsive and snappy. RIM was smart about equipping the PlayBook with a dual-core 1GHz processor and a full 1GB of RAM, and the effect of having such powerful hardware is quite obvious. Apps open quickly and lists and menus are very responsive. All of that adds up to an easy-to-use tablet that does what is expected most of the time.

The PlayBook provides an on-screen keyboard that can be used in both portrait and landscape orientations. It has multitouch capabilities and is quite responsive. Typing is fast, although it can be rather cramped for touch-typists in landscape orientation. The portrait keyboard is great for typing with two thumbs, almost like typing on a giant smartphone. The downside of the keyboard is that RIM offers no auto-correct features whatsoever, and that can turn out to be maddening at times. Any on-screen keyboard worth its salt is backed up by a great auto-correct/prediction system, and not having one is a real detriment. There were numerous times where we were typing away furiously only to find out that our text was littered with typos.

There are many little touches and attention to detail scattered throughout the OS that shows that RIM's designers have really put an effort into polishing the user experience. The way the icons shrink back into the background when switching tabs in the app launcher and the generous use of transparencies and gradients are perfect examples of this. There are some inconsistencies, but for the most part, the underlying OS is quite solid. The fact that all of the functions work in any orientation, forwards, sideways, or upside-down is a nice touch that lets the user just get on with doing a task instead of trying to figure out if they are holding the device properly.


Data

The PlayBook version that is available now is a Wi-Fi-only model, so there is no cellular radio within the device. The PlayBook support 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, but we found it to be very flaky at times (in fact, it would not work with our wireless N router at all, we had to switch back to an old G router to get the PlayBook to connect). When it did hold a connection, the speeds were acceptable and it appeared that we were able to take advantage of most of the bandwidth that was available to us.

The PlayBook does support Bluetooth, which is how the BlackBerry Bridge application connects to a BlackBerry smartphone for features like email and calendaring. This also allows you to tether the smartphone's internet connection to the PlayBook, so that is an option to get connectivity on the go. We also appreciate that the PlayBook's storage can be accessed as a network drive over the Wi-Fi connection, even when the screen has been blanked. This makes it convenient to grab a random photo or something off of the tablet when it is not at your side.


Messaging

Despite all of the great qualities of the PlayBook, the device has some serious Achilles heels, and messaging is one. Out of the box, the PlayBook has no form of messaging whatsoever. There is no email client, no IM client, no video chat client, and certainly no SMS client. RIM's famed BlackBerry Messenger platform is nowhere to be seen. There are pre-loaded shortcuts to webmail versions of popular email providers such as Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, and AOL Mail, but those are a poor substitute for a native email client. Not having any form of communication app available out of the box is a huge detriment and quite frustrating in our opinion. The webmail options have their own limitations thanks in no small part to the browser, which we will see later.

As mentioned before, for now the Playbook depends on the Bluetooth bridge that establishes a connection with a BlackBerry smartphone to inherit the phone's access to email accounts and messaging apps. And while this may be convenient to BlackBerry users, it limits the appeal of the Playbook as a lone tablet device.