Thursday, May 5, 2011

RIM's PlayBook hopes to steal iPad's thunder

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Research In Motion the powerhouse that brought us BlackBerry smartphones earned a loyal following in the business world before it started to woo consumers. Yet, recently, most of the attention has been showered on sexier Android devices and the iPhone.

  • BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is just getting started in touchpads with the release of its tablet computer, the PlayBook.

    Research in Motion via AP

    BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is just getting started in touchpads with the release of its tablet computer, the PlayBook.

Research in Motion via AP

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is just getting started in touchpads with the release of its tablet computer, the PlayBook.

With suitors now vying for customer affections in the sizzling marketplace for tablet computers, the heat is on RIM as it contends against Apple and Google in a new space. On Tuesday, the highly anticipated BlackBerry PlayBook tablet goes on sale at more than 20,000 retail outlets in North America, with RIM aggressively matching the $499 starting price of the market-leading iPad for a version with 16 gigabytes of storage. As with the iPad, prices go up from there: $599 and $699, respectively, for models with 32 GB or 64 GB.

Ive been testing PlayBook for about a week, and for the most part like it a lot, though the not-quite-final software in my evaluation unit got a little cranky at times. And PlayBook has far fewer third-party apps than its rivals. RIM says there will be thousands at launch in the BlackBerry App World store (developers have already submitted 3,000). That pales next to the 65,000-plus apps available specifically for the iPad. The numbers could rise dramatically this summer with the arrival of optional players that promise PlayBook support for new and existing BlackBerry Java apps and Android (version 2.3) apps.

The paperback-size device weighs less than a pound and is sleek and attractive, with an appealing 7-inch high-resolution display that, unlike the iPad, delivers Adobe Flash. Thats a big deal to those of us frustrated when we come across video or other content that wont play on the iPad. You do miss the iPads larger 10-inch screen at times when viewing videos or surfing. But you also appreciate PlayBooks compact design. And you can connect PlayBook to a larger-screen TV monitor using an optional HDMI cable, handy for business presentations or to take a spin through Electronic Arts Need For Speed Undercover game, which is preloaded on PlayBook, along with Tetris.

In fact, you can set PlayBook up to mirror content, so that what you see on the TV screen is what is also visible on the device. Or you can connect PlayBook via HDMI to a stereo system to listen to the Slacker radio app while, say, simultaneously editing a Word, Excel or PowerPoint file through the supplied Documents To Go app.

RIM seems to be treading a fine line between a product true to its business roots and a multimedia tablet that might appeal to the iPad crowd. By calling PlayBook the worlds first professional-grade tablet, the company is playing up traditional strengths as a secure enterprise-friendly device that is a multitasking marvel for running numerous apps at the same time. PlayBook has a robust dual-core processor and a flexible gesture-based operating system based on technology by QNX, a fellow Canadian company RIM bought about a year ago.

Open apps appear in a carousel view. Tap the one you want to work in at the moment. The software brings to mind Palms well-received WebOS operating system, now owned by Hewlett-Packard and expected to be at the core of an upcoming tablet from that company.

By using the BlackBerry Bridge software, folks with a BlackBerry smartphone can pair the devices via Bluetooth. That means you can wirelessly access data that reside on the phone and your corporate network, such as BlackBerry Messenger, e-mail, contacts, calendars and memos. An added bonus: While PlayBook models have built-in Wi-Fi but no cellular access, BlackBerry phone owners can leverage their data plan while surfing via the PlayBook browser at no extra cost. They can also tether from other smartphones via Bluetooth, likely for a fee. Sprint and others promise 4G models of the PlayBook later this year.

On the fun-and-games side, the device has stereo speakers and a music store app run by 7digital. In some cases, songs that fetch $1.29 a pop in Apples iTunes Store command $1.49 each in 7digitals store. But I also found examples where 7digital charges less than iTunes does.

PlayBook includes a podcast app, too. And, of course, you can stream video from YouTube and other sites. But theres no included movie alternative for renting or buying flicks, as in iTunes.

You can shop for and read e-books through a Kobo Books app, but it sometimes crashed.

PlayBook has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera (no flash) and a 3-megapixel front-facing camera. Neither camera shoots great in low light, and I noticed momentary shutter lag when snapping a still. PlayBook cameras can capture video up to the 1080p high-definition standard. But theres no video chat option out of the gate.

The PlayBook browser crashed a few times. And when I tried to log into Gmail, I received a notice that said I had an error with my cookies settings.

RIM says PlayBook delivers battery life of about eight to 10 hours, in line with my mixed usage. And it is a good-looking and solid newcomer that should appeal especially to BlackBerry loyalists. Whether RIM can steal hearts (and market share) from the iPad is another question entirely.


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