Research In Motion will soon launch its PlayBook tablet computer, joining a market dominated by two versions of Apple's iPad and filling quickly with a slew of devices running Google's Android software.
Do I need a BlackBerry to make the most of PlayBook?
In a word, yes. The first version will not have its own cellular connection, instead relying on WiFi to access the Internet for itself.
Using a secure Bluetooth connection, the PlayBook will "bridge" with a BlackBerry to access corporate or consumer email, address book, calendar and other features including BlackBerry Messenger.
When the link is broken, all that data is instantly wiped.
The company has set up this relationship deliberately to pitch PlayBook to corporations and other security-conscious enterprises that will not need to verify the PlayBook's credentials; it will effectively not exist on their radar.
It can also pair with any smartphone able to act as a mobile hotspot; this point has not been heavily advertised.
A software upgrade some time after the launch will add native email, calendar and address book apps for users who do not also own a BlackBerry.
Will it get its own cellular connection later?
Yes. The company will release radio-enabled versions later this year for use on high-speed WiMax, LTE and HSPA+ networks, and these devices will be able to connect directly to RIM's enterprise servers if so desired by the hosting company. The first named carrier is Sprint in the United States. No word yet about Canada.
Worth buying a PlayBook if I do not own a BlackBerry?
Difficult to say. The PlayBook's tech specs are impressive, though some have been matched by other devices in the market since its September unveiling. Price will be a bigger issue for non-BlackBerry types.
The company has not said as much, but packaged PlayBook-plus-BlackBerry sales will likely be a major plank of the sales pitch for carriers, who stand to gain little from selling a tablet without a data plan.
What are the technical specifications? Why should I care?
The PlayBook is powered by a 1 GHz dual-core processor from Texas Instruments (if you really must know, it's their OMAP 4430) and has 1 GB RAM system memory.
It has a 7-inch touchscreen, comes with either 16, 32 or 64 GB of storage, and weighs in at 425g, or just under a pound.
Its two high-def video cameras should make video conferencing and recording momentous occasions a breeze. For stills it's got 3 megapixels up front and 5 megapixels out back.
It runs an all-new BlackBerry Tablet OS, powered by the QNX Neutrino kernel, and multitasks with ease. Numerous demos have shown it playing HD video, running a Quake demo and two or three others applications without a hitch.
Why you would want to do all those things at the same time is another matter.
One reason could be to play a video or presentation on a bigger screen via HDMI cable while doing other tasks on the device.
Oh, and it supports Adobe's Flash, which is prevalent on today's Web, as well as HTML5, which will one day replace it. The iPad does not support Flash, Android tablets do.
In fact, with support for WebKit and HTML5 coding as well as Adobe AIR, web developers should have little trouble making very attractive applications to run on it.
Native applications will be written in C/C++ and it also supports Java, meaning apps designed for BlackBerry smartphones can be ported.
Anything else I should know?
The borders of the screen, known as the bezel, are also touch-sensitive. Swipe up from the bottom to minimize what you're doing, down to access in-app options, and from left or right to toggle between applications. A gesture from the bottom left corner brings up the virtual keyboard.
It comes with a full suite of editable word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software.
So when can I get it and how much will it cost?
Those are some big questions. RIM hasn't been very forthcoming on either point, maintaining a vague "under $500" price tag and a "very soon" launch.
Whether this means the 16 GB WiFi-only PlayBook will be $499, the exact pricing of the cheapest iPad, or the entire fleet is more competitively priced remains an open question.
Initially saying it would launch in the first quarter, then narrowing it to March, the company has lately been hinting at an April start date.
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