Last week, the world wide web went wild with the first hands on impressions of the BlackBerry Playbook. This week, Angus from Lifehacker and I debate the merits of RIM's first attempt at the tablet market, from its seven-inch screen size to its bridging technology, to find out whether or not BlackBerry have a hope in the burgeoning tablet market.
NICK: Given you are the obligatory BlackBerry user in the office Gus, I guess the first question I should ask you is whether or not you enjoyed using the PlayBook during your demo?
ANGUS: I did, actually – though it has to be emphasised that the kind of “using” I was doing during the demo does not bear much resemblance to the kind of tasks I regularly put my Torch through on a daily basis. My big four apps on that device are browsing, email, Dropbox and WordPress, and I only got to really test out the former, so final judgement will have to wait. But the browsing and video playback looked grand. Any tablet device which supports Flash goes up in my estimation. And I didn’t get anything to properly crash, which is remarkable.
I did find that swiping on the bezel to access other running applications took a bit of getting used to, but then I really don’t like touchscreen interfaces anyway and think that multi-touch is the work of Beelzebub. You’re an Apple-loving touchscreen whizz; how did you find it?
NICK: I actually really, really enjoyed it. The time I had with it was obviously too short, but it's clear that RIM has put a lot of thought into making the touch experience worthwhile. But while the bezel swiping was both intuitive and clever, I was mostly blown away by how natural the multitasking was.
Given that Apple and Google have been talking about multitasking for what seems like eons, this was really the first time when I found myself satisfied by the implementation. Launching multiple apps at the same time and being able to switch between them effortlessly is going to make the Playbook stand out from other tablets out there. When I compare it to the other 7-inch tablets I've played with, it stands mountains above them.
ANGUS: The implementation on the PlayBook is very smooth, but on one level I actually miss the way multi-tasking works on existing BlackBerry devices by holding down the Berry key – that shows up to a dozen apps without even making you scroll the screen, while the PlayBook actually makes you work a bit harder if you’re running that many things at once. I’ll be interested to see what happens when using BlackBerry Bridge to actually browse phone content on the device, which is another interesting option that the PlayBook offers but which we didn’t get to check out during the demo.
The one thing I really wish was going to be in the PlayBook right from the start was support for running Android apps. This isn’t going to appear until a later update, and it’s going to require apps to be resubmitted to BlackBerry’s own App World, which is potentially a bit of a downer. I guess I can understand BlackBerry wanting to encourage native app development in the initial stages, but being able to boast about a huge mound of Android apps as well seems potentially more valuable to me.
NICK: I agree, the Android implementation sounds like it's going to be more problematic than useful, really. Also problematic from a consumer standpoint will be the BlackBerry Bridge solution. I can understand the reasoning behind keeping your email and contacts on your BlackBerry for security, but there are so many situations where it could be an issue - like if your phone's battery goes flat and you need to access that information urgently through the Playbook. Fortunately, it seems as though webmail and consumer-grade email will be accessible directly from the tablet, so perhaps it won't be too big of an issue - I'll need a lot more time playing with it before I'll know for certain.
ANGUS: Even ahead of the official PlayBook launch, we’re seeing some fairly stupid backlash. One criticism I’ve run into is the idea that the PlayBook makes no sense if you don’t own a BlackBerry. Quite aside from the fact that this often reflects a misunderstanding of how the Bridge technology operates, this strikes me as pretty moronic for two reasons. Firstly, unlike certain “magical” tablets I could mention, as far as I can tell you actually can use the PlayBook as a standalone device without ever having to connect it to a computer. And secondly, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the iPad, it’s that plenty of people love the idea of having a phone and a tablet that duplicate a lot of functionality. We could argue over whether that’s a sensible approach, but it would be hard to deny that it’s a popular one.
NICK: From my time spent playing with tablets of any denomination, "sensible" rarely comes into the equation. I still think that nine times out of ten I'd rather lug a smartphone with a good data plan and my laptop around over a tablet. It may be heavier and less compact, but at least I know that I'll never have any situations where i can't do what I need to do.
That said, The Playbook offered so much more to the seven-inch tablet space. Forgetting about the el-cheapo options from Telstra and Optus, the brief hands on time I had with the Playbook gave me so much more satisfaction than when I was using the Galaxy Tab, for instance. Much of it was software based, admittedly, but I did find myself thinking that the seven inch form factor could be practical after all, regardless of what Steve Jobs says...
ANGUS: I’ve said many times that I think seven inches is a great size for a tablet for travellers —it makes it small enough to be properly portable (and distinct from a netbook), but big enough to do things that don’t work well on a traditional phone. And there’s some neat design touches in the PlayBook that work well for travellers. It’s easy to access settings such as flight mode, and the choice of using either a standard charger or a faster, higher-speed dock offers a good range of options.
There’s no sense in applying Apple as the yardstick for whether the PlayBook is a success – I don’t think it matters how many million sell in the first week, and I hope the coverage we see reflects that (though I fear otherwise). Having solid competition in the tablet space is good for consumers across the board, and the PlayBook definitely makes it a more competitive space.