We just played with a wonderful tablet, and it wasn't running Android, webOS, iOS, or even Windows. It was running a funky realtime operating system called QNX that RIM bought in April, combined with WebKit and a heaping helping of Flash, and plans on releasing to the world in Q1 of this year. The BlackBerry PlayBook is surprisingly polished and responsive at this stage, even though RIM says it has a lot of work to still left to do. In fact, the only thing frustrating about our roughly 30 minutes with the tablet (under the caring gaze of Mike Lazaridis) was the fact that you can't buy an actual BlackBerry phone right now that's anywhere near this enjoyable to use. Follow after the break as we talk through the product, along with a video walkthrough and stress test of that dual-core proc's multitasking chops.

BlackBerry PlayBook preview

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Hardware


The PlayBook is a lot smaller than it looks in pictures, and certainly smaller than its primary 7-inch tablet competition, the Galaxy Tab. The matte black is flat, and the device looks very "serious" -- sort of the ThinkPad of tablets, if that makes any sense. There's a camera in the center and a classy embossed BlackBerry logo and that's it. On top there are very small but easily pushed buttons (the device's only physical controls): volume, play / pause, and a power / lock button. Along the bottom edge are mini-HDMI, micro USB and charging plugs. The front is free of visible controls, but along the edge of the screen are actually capacitive sensors that let you swipe in from the edge -- much like on Palm's Pre. Right above the screen, centered, is a second camera.

The screen itself is wonderful. It's very bright, colors are pitch-perfect, and the viewing angle is all you could ask for (iPad-level or better). The pixel density is great at 1024 x 600, which generates the same 170 ppi of the Galaxy Tab, versus the iPad's 132 pip. Touch responsiveness is mostly great, though we had a bit of trouble with some smaller controls at times, which could possibly be a software fault at this stage.

We were in an admittedly dark room, but the 5 megapixel rear camera offered up some pretty horribly grainy images -- hopefully it can manage something better under nicer conditions.

A base model will come with only WiFi for connectivity, though there will also be a WiMAX version out on Sprint in the summer. You can also tether with a BlackBerry smartphone over Bluetooth if you've got a hankering to BBM and only 7-inches of keyboard will satisfy. Under the hood is an (unnamed) dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor.

Software



The operating system has a lot of similarities to webOS. Some might say too many, but we're not complaining. The primary innovation is extending the webOS's famed swipe-up motion to all four sides, with a swipe from the top bringing up technical details like battery life, wireless status, and a shortcut to settings; a swipe from the bottom bringing up the main screen with a series of "cards" (our / Palm's word, not RIM's) in the center, showing that same tech detail bar across the top, and access to different categories of apps along the bottom; and swipes from the sides putting the PlayBook into a full screen cards UI for simple switching between applications.

While the cards might not be RIM's most original innovation, they demonstrate the technical prowess of QNX quite well, since they can be set to stay live while you swipe through cards and even when you enter into other applications. Check out our video for a full-on stress test, but basically we weren't able to hit the limit of the machine despite running a 1080p video, a realtime game of Quake III, a song in the music player, and a photo slideshow (though things did get a little laggy near the end, naturally). Luckily, you can configure multitasking to your taste, including pausing apps when you're viewing cards, pausing apps only when you enter into another app, and the "all singing, all dancing" mode of everything live all the time.

When you're in the main screen a swipe up on the apps drawer puts you into full-screen apps browser, which is mainly populated by Adobe Air apps right now. We weren't able to see any of the BlackBerry applications (like BBM, Calendar, and Messages), since they require you to be tethered over Bluetooth to your BlackBerry phone, and RIM wasn't ready for that. Maybe Mike L. didn't want us to see his personal email for some reason.



BlackBerry's own music app looked nice, though we didn't see much functionality to it. The Documents To Go Sheets To Go app seemed pretty full featured, though UI-wise it seems pretty simplistic -- more like a web app than an app app. There's an official Adobe PDF reader, which was pretty speedy, but another yawner in the UI department. Everything looks nice, don't get us wrong, we just don't see any innovation in how you're actually using these apps with all these tablet screen real estate.

The nicest "app" we saw was the browser, which reveals a tab "drawer" of sorts when you swipe down from the top. Performance-wise it was pretty much flawless, including smooth pinch to zoom and scrolling.

The touchscreen keyboard is very nicely laid out and super responsive, with possibly the best fake key tapping sound of all time. Unfortunately there's no word prediction or auto correction right now, but hopefully RIM will port in some of that functionality from its phone OS before launch.

Wrap-up

If you can't tell, we're very impressed. Overall the device is blazingly fast, comfortable to hold, and intuitive to use. Our largest concern is the apps: RIM has a bead on easily ported Adobe Air apps, but as Android has so ably demonstrated, the native SDK is very important for gaming, and we don't know much about RIM's skills there just yet -- though we were assured that QNX is a very easy platform to develop for, one of the reasons RIM itself has been able to turn around this project in such a short time, with the promise of rapid updates in the future as well. If RIM can find an aggressive price, a nice market lull to launch in (before the Xoom and perhaps an iPad 2 launch and grab all the limelight), and smattering of fairy dust, we could be looking at a pretty successful product here.

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