With the launch of the PlayBook, it feels as though Research In Motion has its back to the wall and is under the gun. It has lost share in the critical smartphone market--one it helped define--to competitors Apple and Google. Worse, Apple and Google beat it to market with tablet devices, which fall between the PC and smartphone. RIM needs to reverse its market share slide and show the world that it is still an innovative and relevant player.
The PlayBook tablet, which runs a brand new operating system from RIM, delivers a mixed message.
The PlayBook is a beautifully designed piece of technology. It is simple and lacks flair, but the spartan approach to its appearance is what makes it so classy. It as strong lines, an attractive and comfortable-to-hold matte finish, and has a very good weight and size. It's still not going to fit into your pants pocket, but it will easily slip into a coat or jacket pocket.
The external controls are kept to a bare minimum. On the top rests a power button, volume keys, and a play/pause button. The power button, used to power the device on/off or wake the PlayBook, is practically useless. It is buried too deep into the PlayBook's surface, making it difficult to use. The other three buttons work just fine. A 3.5mm headset jack is also on top, though shoved to the far right side.
On the bottom, RIM has positioned a mini-HDMI port, miniUSB port, and a magnetic port for use with a dock and/or other accessories. This is a pretty typical arrangement for the tablet form factor, and none of the controls (save for the power button) get in the way of using the PlayBook.
The seven-inch display, which RIM believes truly sets the PlayBook apart from its larger competitors, looks fantastic. It is bright, crisp, and colorful. The preloaded images in the gallery look amazing, as do websites and the HD videos on board the tablet. At no time did I feel like the smaller screen got in the way of using the PlayBook's operating system.
QNX, which RIM likes to tell us "runs nuclear power plants," is the underlying base for the operating system. Making use of Adobe's Flash and AIR, RIM has crafted a gorgeous user interface for controlling the PlayBook--even if it borrowed some elements from the competition.
The touch screen doesn't stop once it reaches the bezel of the PlayBook. Nay, the bezel itself is touch sensitive, and is used by the operating system for a number of controls. For example, touch the bottom of the bezel (right where it says "BlackBerry") and swipe up. This motion is used to switch applications. Swiping up while using any app brings up the multitask interface. All the open and/or running apps are placed on cards that float in the upper two-thirds of the display. If the app you want is already floating on one of visible cards, simple tap to open. An application tray is placed in the bottom one-third of the display, and can be used to access more apps.
RIM did itself a favor with the design of this app tray: It mimics exactly the way BlackBerry 6 works on the Torch and other BlackBerry smartphones. There are four segments to help sort through apps (all, favorites, media, games), and pressing any will narrow down the list of visible apps.
How about closing apps? From the multitasking pane, simply flick the application off the top of the screen. That effectively closes the application. This idea was clearly taken from Palm's webOS, which behaves almost exactly the same way.
The top bezel also is touch sensitive. When using any application, swipe from the bezel down to access the controls/settings for that particular application. Some applications have more features and functions that are buried in this part of the OS, so it takes some exploring to find them.