On the eve of the iPad 2 launch, RIM previewed a feature-complete version of the PlayBook tablet to the press, and it looks smart and extremely powerful. But will their efforts be nearly enough?
It was certainly an odd and auspicious evening. On the eve of Apple launching their iPad 2 to the fawning masses, Research In Motion invited a group of select journalists to have a up close and personal look at a near-feature complete version of the BlackBerry PlayBook, their 7" tablet that is sure to be the subject of a great deal of comparison with Apple's latest offering in the coming year.
Indeed, it was a weird scene. RIM held its press event at a club lounge named "Provocateur" in downtown Chelsea in New York City, which is only a block away from Apple's 14th street retail location and Google's East Coast offices. It was if all the energy in the tablet world was being concentrated in one place, at one time.
The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Unlike other events where the PlayBook was closely guarded and we were only allowed to see guided demos (such as a developer preview I attended a few months earlier) we were actually allowed to handle and play with the device for extended periods of time. And this time, the PlayBook was sporting its brand new Webkit-based browser, which was previously missing from earlier versions of the PlayBook SDK.
There's no doubt that the PlayBook is one very smart device. It's light, very well constructed, with a solid and well-engineered feel to it. It's extremely fast -- and I'd even say it's considerably faster than the current generation iPad and even the Motorola XOOM. And at seven inches, it fits quite nicely in a jacket pocket or a ladies' small pocketbook -- something that the iPad can't do.
Additionally, I'd have to say I actually prefer the PlayBook UI to both iOS 4.2.x and Android Honeycomb -- it has this really slick, high-performance feel about the whole thing that's difficult for me to quantify. You really have to experience it to believe it.
Much of this I think can be attributed to QNX's breeding as a Real-Time OS with a highly-efficient microkernel that runs extremely fast on the metal, with nearly 30 years of development behind the OS core itself.
While I think RIM may have gambled a great deal on QNX versus going with an established mobile OS with a large developer ecosystem such as Google's Android, I certainly understand their choices. QNX is a thoroughbred, built for high performance and reliability, which has proven itself in the field with extremely demanding applications since 1982. Yep, you got that right -- QNX has been around even longer than Linux.
In terms of raw OS performance, I believe iOS 4.x and Android 3 have met their match, and then some with PlayBook's implementation of QNX.
The multitasking in the PlayBook UI is extremely impressive -- it's very easy and quick to navigate between running tasks, and you can see everything running in the background as you move between running apps. HP has made recent allegations that the PlayBook's QNX user interface resembles their own WebOS which runs on their 10" TouchPad device, which is due to launch sometime this summer.
I'm not sure I agree with HP that PlayBook's UI is an "imitation", but I can see where they might get that impression. Like WebOS, PlayBook's UI uses a similar "card" paradigm, which allows you to change context between apps by using flipping gestures across the device's 7" 1024x600 capacitive touchscreen, which uses the same ultra-strong Gorilla Glass made by Corning used on the iPad.
The browser engineering team that RIM acquired out of the Torch Mobile purchase has done a real phenomenal job with the PlayBook's browser. It's fast, renders pages beautifully and responds in a fluid fashion to multi-touch gestures.
Like Apple's own Mobile Safari browser on the iPad, the PlayBook also uses a Webkit-based system and it is compatible with modern HTML5 standards, including HTML5 video and the latest features of CSS3. Fonts resize and render very sharply, and the experience using the browser is extremely pleasurable.
In terms of actual apps, I was able to observe the performance of Adobe Air as well as native QNX C++ applications, all of which ran extremely smoothly and very fast on the device. The PlayBook uses a variant of Texas Instruments' dual-core OMAP 4430 ARM Cortex A9 SoC running at 1Ghz, with 1GB of onboard RAM and an integrated POWERVR SGX540 GPU that can render fast 3D OpenGL graphics and decode full 1080p HD video, and I saw a few movies play on the brilliant color screen. It works as well as you could possibly expect.
And yes, it has dual HD video cameras, with 3MP on the front and 5MP the back, with an HDMI port for video output, just like its high-end Android tablet cousins.
Nobody is going to be disappointed with the performance or the overall build quality of the PlayBook. That much is without question.
So what's not to like?
Well, for starters, RIM refused to talk pricing or availability with anyone. That alone sets off alarms. If it costs considerably more than an iPad 2, then I think we can say that it's probably game over for this device in terms of it being able to eat up significant tablet market share.
(UPDATE: A post from the BlackBerry insider site Boy Genius Report indicates a possible April 10 release date. I'll believe it when I see it. RIM told me they might have a pre-release model available for me to review within 3-4 weeks.)
If the base model PlayBook ends up being another $700+ carrier-tied 4G device stuck to a monthly data plan and two year contract commitment, then you can count a lot of consumers out.
They also refused to talk about battery life in terms of finite, measurable numbers. The PlayBook sports a 5000 mAh Lithium-Ion battery, but we have to remember that this is a 7" device, not a 10" device like an iPad, so it's not as big a battery, and thus can't hold as much charge.
The battery also isn't user-serviceable or removable, so it's not like there's a chance of there being an after-market bigger battery pack for the thing. If it doesn't get at least six or seven hours of use out of a single charge, then I suspect that Apple also is going to win this round by a considerable margin.
There's another thing I noticed about this device which also concerned me. In the various demo units I got to play with, I felt that the back of each tablet was giving off a good amount of heat. Not enough to burn my hands, but enough to make my palms pretty sweaty.
To be fair, the RIM reps told me that they were charging the things constantly all day and some of them had been in use for about twelve hours straight, so this wasn't a realistic use case scenario. And these aren't the final production devices.
However, in all honesty, i've never noticed ANY kind of heat coming off the back of my iPad, and there have been times when I've used it with the protective Otterbox case off for over four hours straight when watching movies and playing 3D games with no noticeable heat coming off the back of the casing whatsoever.
I'm sure the A4 on the iPad generates some sort of heat, but the aluminum casing dissipates it extremely well as to be completely unnoticeable. I will add that the Playbook is considerably thinner than the Generation 1 iPad, and the the higher-power SoC is probably a lot closer to the casing than on Apple's device, so that might account for it.
Still, if the iPad 2 turns out to clock out at similar speeds with a dual core, similar thickness and no heat issues, the RIM engineering team might want to consider putting in some more hours working on thermal management.
And while the UI was fast and fluid, I did observe a number of software crashes with the units I played with, but the OS handled them well, allowing me to close errant programs without compromising the rest of the UI. Again, these were pre-production devices, so I'm willing to be pretty forgiving until I get to see the final versions.
While I came off very impressed with the device, I did very much get the feeling that the PlayBook really wasn't fully-baked, and even RIM's head of browser engineering told me that "we're not done."
All this technical stuff aside, the biggest negative about the PlayBook and one which I really hope RIM reconsiders is the need to Bluetooth tether to an actual BlackBerry with a connected BIS or BES account in order to access the onboard email and calendaring application.
Effectively, this excludes a very large consumer market segment of people who use cloud-based email services such as GMail/Gcalendar and hosted Exchange or IMAP accounts. Unless you have web-based access via the PlayBook browser, you can't use email without owning a RIM handset as well.
I can't stress enough how many users are just going to take this thing back to the store when they find out they can't get to their email or compose/read messages offline because they don't own a BlackBerry. I urge Research in Motion to include a native QNX mail client that works with hosted email services without a tethered device.
I'm impressed with the PlayBook. I really am. But the success of this product hinges on a great number of things. Cost, Availability, and how well it stacks up against iPad 2 tomorrow being the primary contributing factors.
Last minute scuttlebutt suggests that the iPad 2 is more of an incremental upgrade than a watershed release, but I also cannot stress enough the value of how strong Apple's ecosystem is relative to RIMs, which is developers, developers, developers, and hundreds of thousands of apps.
Sure, I can see the 7" versus 10" form factor differentiation coming into play, especially for women that might prefer a lighter device, but at the end of the day, it's not important enough to weigh against the fact that RIM is juggling AIR, native QNX code, legacy BlackBerry OS Java apps, a web SDK and possibly even Android applications as developer programming targets.
And it sounds like RIM is frustrating the hell out of their developer base very early on, including throwing their traditional Java developers under the bus in favor of an initial crop of Adobe AIR, Flash and a few native QNX C++ applications. Java support isn't expected until well after product launch, as I have been told.
Still, on the eve of the iPad 2 launch, the PlayBook shined. I just hope that what I observed wasn't a swan song.
Are you going to purchase a PlayBook when it launches? Or is the iPad 2's lure too strong? Talk Back and Let Me Know.