One of the best things that the BlackBerry PlayBook has going for it is low expectations. While the Apple iPad 2 selling faster than stores can stock it, the first big Android Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom has done a belly-flop, which has opened the door for BlackBerry and HP's forthcoming WebOS tablet as iPad challengers. However, most of the technology world has already written off the PlayBook before it's even available to the public.
After having demos and Q&A with Research in Motion's reps at the BlackBerry PlayBook's official launch event on Thursday in New York City, and walking away with a review unit of the final hardware, I think it's a mistake to completely dismiss the PlayBook. While it is still incomplete from an app perspective (which is what most reviewers have latched onto), I was surprised to find that RIM has done a nice job with the overall experience of the product. It has none of the labored complexity of the BlackBerry OS. The experience is simple, intuitive, and ultra-responsive. It's much more like a one-button Apple solution than the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach in Android.
So, my first impression with the PlayBook was a lot better than expected. I think RIM may have nailed the overall experience aspect of the tablet. That's the really tough part, and if you don't get it right -- like Google with the first version of Android Honeycomb -- then nothing else matters. The app issue is the second hurdle, but it's easier to get over. RIM can quickly overcome that just by building some of its own key apps and getting a few key partners to participate (Amazon, Cisco, Citrix, EA Sports, etc.). Then, it can pitch ambititous app builders to get in on the ground floor on PlayBook
The PlayBook still has some work to do, and I'll talk more about that in my full review, but for now I'll give you four things have made the PlayBook a pleasant surprise and given it a chance to compete in the tablet race.
1. The word processor is superior
My favorite app/feature on the PlayBook is Word To Go, a mobile version of Microsoft Word for viewing, editing, and creating simple word processing documents (here's a quick screenshot). I immediately started toying around with this and loved it. I've never found a great word processor on the iPad (Pages and iA Writer are acceptable) and it doesn't have anything that matches the straight-forward usability of this app on the PlayBook. In fact, it's so good I thought it might have been made by Microsoft. It turns out that it was built by the Dataviz team (creator of Docs to Go), which RIM acquired and which licenses Microsoft technology. I could easily see myself writing longer documents and taking notes with this app. The 7-inch form factor of the PlayBook makes thumb-typing a little easier than the iPad and that is factor as well (although the iPad is still better for typing when you can set it on a flat surface).
2. Performance and responsiveness are excellent
So far, I've found that the PlayBook whips through almost every task with speed and smoothness. Even with a bunch of apps open, I've never seen it lag or freeze, yet. In terms of performance and responsiveness, the closest mobile device I can compare it to is the HTC ThunderBolt, which zooms through opening apps and Web pages at near desktop speeds. The PlayBook might be even faster than the ThunderBolt. It's exciting to see mobile devices gearing up to these kinds of speeds.
3. The UI is remarkably simple and self-evident
From a larger perspective, the PlayBook's most important asset is that it's UI is well-conceived, approachable, and easy for a new user to figure out within seconds and without a manual. This was the biggest surprise for me, since RIM has struggled badly in recent years to overhaul the BlackBerry OS. Starting from scratch with QNX and using it to build the BlackBerry Tablet OS has delivered the goods. The PlayBook is a zero button solution that uses two simple gestures for navigation. Swiping up from the bottom of the bezel serves as a home/back button and swiping down from the top of the bezel serves as a menu button. It felt natural within a couple minutes.
4. The Web browsing experience rocks
While the PlayBook lacks the massive app catalog of the iPad -- and is unlikely to ever catch up -- it does offer a better Web browsing experience compared to the iPad (other than the iPad's screen size advantage). The PlayBook browser is more customizable, handles tabs better, allows you to quickly hide/show the menu bar, and is bolstered by the beautifully sharp and bright display on the PlayBook. Of course, the other thing the PlayBook does better is displaying Flash. I don't like Flash and avoid whenever possible, but Flash is still a big part of today's Web and will be for years. BlackBerry's Flash implementation on the PlayBook is excellent, much better than the inconsistent, sometimes-buggy experience of Flash in Android. To give you an example, I loaded my review of Game of Thrones on the PlayBook and started playing the embedded video preview from HBO at the bottom of the post. The PlayBook never missed a beat. I even clicked the full-screen button and it looked terrific on the PlayBook's display.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.