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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

PlayBook scores from various angles for BlackBerry users

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver July 5-11, 2011 issue #1132 High Tech Office column

It’s become fashionable to comment how RIM is caught in a downward spiral. The Ontario-based company, with its BlackBerrys, had several years at the top of the smartphone market where its emphasis on security and IT manageability made it a favourite of large enterprises.

But it hasn’t seemed able to respond to competition from Apple’s iPhone or Android-powered smartphones. RIM’s releases have consisted of small improvements to its Curve and Bold models and awkward attempts at large touchscreen models.

In pre-announcing its PlayBook tablet, RIM promised to do better. A new tablet OS for powerful multitasking. Best-of-show support for Flash. Appeal to both business and home users.

When the PlayBook finally became available, though, reviews were disappointing. Wired, for instance, headlined: “BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet Lacks All the Right Moves.”

Most often commented: no built-in email application. Instead, users can “bridge” their PlayBook to their BlackBerry and read the BlackBerry’s email on the tablet’s larger screen. The new OS means zero compatibility with BlackBerry apps. “There’s an app for that?” Not quite yet – though selection at RIM’s App World is improving.

RIM loaned me a PlayBook for several weeks. Surprise! I like it.

It’s a seven-inch tablet. That makes it easier to tote around, lighter and easier to hold in one hand than 10-inch competitors like iPad and Xoom. The widescreen display (1024 x 600 resolution) is crisp; battery life, at around eight hours, is good.

Like the Xoom, there are micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports for connection to digital cameras and high-res TVs and projectors and front- and rear-facing cameras that far outclass the pitiful resolution of the iPad 2 cameras. Also like the Xoom (at least in Canada) – Wi-Fi only. No 3G options. (PlayBook owners can tether to their BlackBerry’s 3G connection. No extra charge.)

Unlike the Xoom, there are 16- ($499), 32- ($599) or 64- ($699) gigabyte models – priced, in each case, $20 less than the equivalent iPad 2.

You can drag and drop files from a Windows PC or Mac (after installing software) to a PlayBook either connected by
USB or across a Wi-Fi network.
At first glance, the clean, sleek hardware may present a puzzle. How to get to the home screen for program icons? The PlayBook secret? The frame surrounding the display is “live”; swoop from below the screen to return home. Swoop down to display menus and settings. Swoop left or right to move to another running application. Nice, once you know the trick.

The home screen shows the top row of application icons (tap an arrow to see the rest of your icons) – above that is a parade of running applications. This makes it easy to switch to a different (running) app, and there’s a little (x) under each, making it a no-brainer to shut down any you’re no longer needing, freeing up memory – easier than on an iPad or iPhone and much easier than on Android devices like the Xoom.

The browser is fast with (like the Xoom, but not the iPad) convenient tabs. Unlike the Xoom, it usually displays pages laid out like on a “real” computer rather than mobile phone pages. (A very good thing!)

Flash support is the best of any tablet – better than on the Xoom, for instance. Hi-def video watching, both on the PlayBook and connected to a TV, was very good.

About that lack of email/contacts/calendar apps: I didn’t miss them, since I access all of the above via a Gmail webmail account. On the PlayBook that worked just fine, though I missed being able to share documents or photos as attachments.

Reportedly, bridging (via Bluetooth) to a BlackBerry works fine, too, though I couldn’t test it. RIM is promising “real” email (etc.) apps some time this summer, if that’s important to you. Also promised for the summer: 3G versions. And more apps.

PlayBook remains a work in progress, but if you use a browser a lot and especially if you’re a BlackBerry user, it may be the tablet for you.

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