One of the most obvious pushes at this year's CES was evident from the plenitude of tablet devices from just about any and every company exhibiting. To be frank, most of the tablets failed to impress, with a majority appearing to be a rushed out afterthought, with companies hoping to cash in on the hype and popularity solidified by the iPad. But there was one tablet whose performance, user interface and polish did impress: the Blackberry PlayBook.
Germaphobes, turn away from the smudgefest above. Hand sanitizer was a must after handling the demo model.
Let's get to the things we didn't like about RIM's Blackberry PlayBook out of the way first: the 7" display feels a tiny bit limiting after our long personal stint with the iPad. But we'd follow up by noting RIM has done a fine job of making the smaller screen real estate feel uncluttered or ragtag like many of the Android tablet devices. Also, RIM has limited the usability of the Playbook by requiring pairing up their tablet with a Blackberry smartphone via their Bridge connection for native/out of the box personal info management and for 3G access (4G access via RIM's partnership with Sprint was announced, so this softens this limitation). Of course, 3rd party solutions will likely fill-in for this strange limitation, but it does hamper the device's marketability toward non-Blackberry users. The Playbook will also be a wi-fi only device initially, probably in hopes of not cannibalizing sales of their smartphone division. Finally, one last (albeit, short term) weakness was the modest amount of apps that will be available for the Playbook. Our RIM representative noted many apps and partnerships are in development, but what was shown was mostly RIM's own work.
Now for the good stuff: the RIM Blackberry PlayBook is the first new tablet we could imagine ourselves using and enjoying. Unlike most, if not all, Android tablets we got to play around with at the show, the PlayBook's user interface proved for easy navigation, with gesture response immediate and smooth upon its bright 7" 1024x600 display. Thanks to the 1GHz dual-core Cortex A9 processor inside, the tablet can multitask in ways that shames the iPad, with no notable slowdown while streaming HD video from YouTube, browsing online and showcasing Quake III running in real time. In many ways, the PlayBook is what the Samsung Galaxy should have been. HTML 5 and Flash 10.1 content, alongside quick orientation switching were all showcased to flex the devices muscles, and it seemed to have horsepower in excess thanks to its 1GB of RAM and dual-core processor.
In hand, the Blackberry PlayBook feels comfortably substantial, well constructed, with a non-slip back and balanced for easy one or two hand use (we got only a couple seconds of it in our hands before the RIM rep politely nabbed it back for a scripted presentation). The tastefully designed back side is adorned with a single and subtle logo and the back-facing HD camera, which is a 5MP affair, with a 3MP front facing camera. This simplicity is evident from both a hardware and software point, a cue the Android platform should note.
The user interface most resembles Apple's Coverflow, with easy window changing via swipe/touch. The PlayBook's operating system is their very own ("…everyone asks if it's Android…it is not!"), and probably the reason everything works as smoothly as it did. It's the first device in which the UI didn't feel overly redundant from Apple's iPad, and if priced more competitively than the $399 price we were quoted for one of three models (only differentiated by the amount of onboard memory, 16, 32 and 64GB, and initially offered via Sprint), we think RIM might have a fair chance of becoming a player in the burgeoning market of tablet computing. The big wait and see will be finalized pricing and how many useful 3rd party apps are available upon launch.