PlayBook plays in WiFi world

Research in Motion’s PlayBook tablet is primarily intended to connect with a BlackBerry handheld device via Bluetooth in order to present an enhanced display of the BlackBerry’s e-mail, contacts list, calendar and other items.

However the PlayBook is also capable of operating on its own, using a WiFi link to the Internet.

Because both of the smartphones in our 4G phone review can act as mobile hotspots, using them to provide a link to the outside world for the PlayBook was a pretty obvious activity. It’s especially useful because at this point, there are no 4G BlackBerries. The only way to achieve that kind of throughput is to use a 4G hotspot. You can also use your WiFi equipped BlackBerry with a mobile hotspot to get those 4G speeds.

The BlackBerry PlayBook is a 7-inch tablet in which both the screen and the bezel surrounding it are touch sensitive. It includes a pair of cameras, one for photos and one for video chats. It has a 1 GHz dual-core processor, and it runs a version of QNX, an OS that’s in the nether regions between Linux and Android. At some point, the PlayBook is supposed to be able to run Android apps. For now the apps need to come from the BlackBerry App World.

The PlayBook itself is a very well-made tablet. The device works well, the touch screen works perfectly, and the Bluetooth works over surprisingly long distances. The user interface superficially resembles an Android screen, but the operations are different.

You dismiss an application by flicking up from the bottom edge, which brings up the menu and minimizes the application to the top half of the screen. You close the app by touching the “x” beneath the image of the minimized app. It’s easier than it sounds.

The fact that this is a 7-inch tablet has advantages and disadvantages. The smaller screen makes it less useful as an e-reader than a larger tablet. However, the smaller screen has surprisingly little impact on some activities such as handling e-mail. In addition, the smaller screen makes typing on the touch screen easier, especially when the tablet is in portrait mode allowing you to thumb-type as you would on a BlackBerry smartphone.

The PlayBook includes an HDMI port that allows you to connect to a television or to a projector (you may need an adapter for this) which means that you can show presentations on larger screens. The smaller size also means that the PlayBook is significantly more portable than a 10-inch tablet, allowing it to be easily slipped into a shoulder bag or the pocket on some jackets.

The biggest single thing missing from the PlayBook is an e-mail client. RIM has said that a client is going to be released later this year, but hasn’t said specifically when. In the meantime, you must either use the BlackBerry Bridge to do a mind-meld with your BlackBerry handheld device, or you must use Web mail. Links to some of the more popular Web mail sites are delivered with the PlayBook.

The other issue is support for Adobe Flash. Unlike some other tablets that we’ve reviewed, like Motorola Xoom or iPad2, support for Flash was standard on the PlayBook’s browser. Unfortunately, the initial version is pretty buggy, and as a result you can find yourself stuck on a page with Flash, and have no obvious means of continuing. I should note that in some cases, poking around the edge of Flash displays would eventually succeed in making the Flash image go away. Other Flash presentations, including Flash video, worked properly.

In general, the PlayBook worked very nicely with the embedded portable hotspots on each of the 4G smartphones. The fact that the 4G connection was frequently faster than the network behind public hotspots such as those at Starbucks and McDonald’s means that you can get a much better experience this way if you have a good 4G signal.

At this point, the PlayBook is a work in progress that shows significant promise. It would be good, however, if RIM could deliver an e-mail client sooner rather than later. And a cleaner version of Flash would also be a good thing.

Network World (US)

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