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BlackBerry PlayBook tries to chart a path between work and fun

Research In Motion's PlayBook.

The Canadian Press/AP-Isaac Brekken

It's there, if you look hard enough.

See for yourself: Take a trip to Research In Motion Ltd.'s cluster of research and development buildings near downtown Waterloo. Take a look over in the corner of the lobby in building Ten - it's a poster from the "RIM Rocks" concert, featuring an autographed photo of some long-haired glam rocker in circulation-killing pants. On another wall, right beside a bulletin explaining RIM's e-mail confidentiality policies, is a list of boardroom names. On one floor, the rooms are named after The Lord of the Rings characters. Undoubtedly, important corporate decisions have been made within the confines of the Frodo Boardroom.

Despite the fact that some people associate the company with corporate stuffiness, RIM has a sense of humour, a capacity for having fun - and they've been trying to inject some of that into their products. Sometimes, the result is a little awkward, akin to the buttoned-up academic who, a few drinks later, is standing on the bar, wearing his tie as a bandana.

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But over the past couple of years, RIM has gotten much better at this sort of thing. The BlackBerry Torch, its latest smart phone offering, is by far its best consumer device. RIM faces a significant challenge trying to appeal equally to the corporation and the couch-surfer, but it's getting there.

The BlackBerry PlayBook, which landed on our desk late last week and goes on sale this Tuesday, is RIM's boldest attempt to speak those two languages fluently. Everything about this 7-inch-screen, 0.9-pound, 10-millimetre-thick device - even its name - is designed to balance business and pleasure. The PlayBook is also the first BlackBerry hardware to run a brand new operating system, designed by a recent RIM acquisition called QNX, that will one day power just about every gadget the company produces. To say the stakes are high for RIM would be an understatement.

The good news for the company is this: all the fundamental components of the PlayBook shine. The bad news is, everything else screams rush job.

The PlayBook comes in three flavours, with 16, 32 or 64 gigabytes of memory. The tablet currently offers only Wi-Fi connectivity, although cellular-ready versions are due out later this year. Pricing starts at $500 for the 16-gigabyte version and increases by $100 for each of the other models - essentially the same pricing as the Wi-Fi-only versions of Apple's iPad2.

The PlayBook is a minimalist flat panel about the height and width of your average paperback. The front is all glass, the back covered in a kind of soft, low-friction rubber. There are no buttons on the front or back, only play/pause, volume and power buttons along the top edge and a couple of USB and HDMI ports along the bottom. Instead of physical buttons, the PlayBook takes advantage of a half-inch touch-sensitive border, called a bezel, that runs around the front screen like a photo frame. For example, to minimize any application, you swipe up from the bottom part of the bezel. To bring up the main menu in any app that has one, you swipe down from the top. After a few minutes, the gestures become second-nature.

In appearance, the QNX-built operating system resembles a hybrid of Apple's iPad operating system and the most recent version of the BlackBerry OS - another touch of business-consumer fusion. Programs are divided into major categories: All, Favourites, Media and Games. As with the iPad, touching and holding an app allows you to move it. Still, there are fewer grouping options here than the iPad offers.

But in terms of how it works, the QNX operating system is a night-and-day improvement over what's running on your BlackBerry right now. There's true multitasking here, and the PlayBook makes good use of it. It's possible to simultaneously run and switch between 10 apps or more. For example, you can switch to a Word document while leaving the Internet radio app running in the background. There are a couple of neat features built around this capability. The video player, for example, has a "presentation mode" function that lets the user output a video stream to another device (like a television) via an HD cable while doing something else on the PlayBook screen.

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The hardware handles these tasks without groaning. In addition, touchscreen responsiveness is as good as or better than any other mobile device out there, and no matter what sort of craziness an app may be suffering from, hitting the Close button always shuts it down. Individual programs may crash, but we couldn't get the operating system itself to do so.

But most average users probably don't care that the software powering their tablets is crash-proof enough to run on the computers at nuclear power plants. The place where the PlayBook's software and hardware do their best work is multimedia.

This isn't surprising, because multimedia is one of the areas where business and consumer needs overlap. The manager making a multimedia presentation and the consumer watching a movie both want higher definition, less lag and the ability to do other things without having to shut the media down first. The PlayBook meets all these needs. In areas that are more consumer-specific, such as the ability to easily share multimedia with friends, the tablet struggles.

Still, the PlayBook does high-definition brilliantly - not only preloaded video, but HD clips streamed straight from YouTube over a Wi-Fi connection. There's no lag, the picture quality is superb and, unlike Apple's mobile gadgets, the PlayBook does Flash, so a massive chunk of Web video becomes accessible. Web browsing in general is a pleasant experience, thanks to the overhauled Torch browser, which comes with tabs and handled all sites we tried out (e.g. Wikipedia, YouTube, globeandmail.com) without trouble.

The built-in multimedia app isn't nearly as robust as iTunes, but there are no Apple-imposed constraints here. Simply install the BlackBerry manager app on your computer and the PlayBook functions like a network folder - dump whatever you want in there and go. In addition, the PlayBook let's you wirelessly share files from your computer over a Wi-Fi connection -- a very neat feature.

The front- and rear-facing HD cameras (five and three megapixel, respectively), are also very well-designed. The video camera can shoot in 480p, 720p or 1080p. The still camera does 4:3 and 16:9 screen ratios.

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And the audio is stellar. Considering most mobile gadgets come with speakers that seem to filter all sound through a walkie-talkie located deep within the Mariana Trench, whoever designed the PlayBook's excellent front-facing speakers deserves a medal. These are the first tablet speakers we've tried that don't feel like an afterthought.

When subjected to horsepower-intensive audio and video work, our PlayBook ran for about six hours, well short of the eight-to-ten-hour battery life ballpark that RIM has hinted at. But battery life numbers tend to be the electronics industry's version of car manufacturer fuel-efficiency claims - broad guesstimates that range from optimistic to completely fantastical.

Indeed, multimedia is RIM's best pitch to the consumer market. A lot of people may prefer a 10-inch screen, but for someone who wants a gadget they can hold in one hand, drop a bunch of their media files on, and just enjoy, the PlayBook makes a compelling case.

Or it would, if the device was actually ready.

The first thing the PlayBook did when we switched it on was download a 300-megabyte software update. That's normal for a lot of hardware and software, but it quickly became clear that RIM had a lot more left to do to the PlayBook than minor polish.

In our PlayBook unit, evidence of a rush job was frequent and disconcerting. At certain points (perhaps when the users runs too many programs at once, or maybe for some other unknown reason), launching new apps has no effect - they simply don't load. Every now and then, a video just won't play. Why? Corrupted file? Not enough memory? Unsupported format? Who knows? The only thing the PlayBook will say is that "a media error has occurred." When playing a song while the tablet's speaker volume is supposed to be on mute, the music is still audible. When the PlayBook is running low on charge, a prompt helpfully lets the user know that "Battery charge is at 0% or lower."

No tech company on Earth gets this kind of stuff right on the first go. These are the kinds of bugs only thorough and pedantic quality testing catches. But thorough and pedantic quality testing takes time - the one thing RIM didn't have.

The PlayBook's app selection, at least for now, is also subject to hiccups, to put it generously. To put it less generously, the PlayBook app store is a strange carnival of buggy, unnecessary or simply non-functioning programs. One of the Internet radio station apps doesn't play any radio stations; a flight distance calculator displays only a white screen; an "Art of War" app - the only free standalone e-book available on the PlayBook app store at the time of testing - fails to load any of the chapters.

Apps have never been RIM's strong suit, mostly because they are a consumer phenomenon. Businesses may create tablet or phone apps, but rarely do they demand a huge app selection as a precondition of corporate purchases.

There are some great PlayBook apps, such as Slacker Radio, the Kobo e-book reader and a game called DoodleBlast. The National Film Board of Canada also has an amazing pre-loaded app. In a few months' time, RIM will release emulators that let users run apps originally designed for BlackBerrys, as well as apps for tablets powered by Google's Android operating system. But for now, the PlayBook app store is terrible, in large part because most developers haven't had enough time to create robust software for the tablet.

Another side effect of RIM's spandex-tight development timeline is that the PlayBook's most important selling point is still a mystery to us - and this review is being written less than 48 hours before the tablet hits store shelves.

RIM is pitching the PlayBook as a cost-saving device, primarily because of the PlayBook's ability to tether to an existing BlackBerry, using something called BlackBerry Bridge.

The idea is that PlayBook users who already have a BlackBerry can simply connect the tablet to the smart phone via Bluetooth and share a single data connection. For both consumers and businesses, the feature has its advantages (added security; no need for a second data plan; the ability to view BlackBerry e-mails and attachments on a larger screen) and its disadvantages (the PlayBook has no e-mail, calendar or contacts tools of its own - all those functions it rents out from the BlackBerry).

But when we first tried to install the BlackBerry Bridge app on Friday, it was nowhere to be found on RIM's website or app store. Over the weekend, it showed up on the BlackBerry app store, with a message saying the app won't be available until launch day. One hopes the reason for this is because of some formality, and not because engineers are still tweaking the software for the most important PlayBook function with less than two days to go before the tablet hits stores.

There's an argument to be made that some of these glitches just come with the territory for folks who want to get their hands on the latest gadgets as soon as those gadgets are available. Maybe RIM has already fixed all the bugs we've addressed. Maybe the app store will be flooded with amazing software and the BlackBerry Bridge will work beautifully come launch day. But that's a lot of maybes, especially for a device that starts at $500.

It's there, if you look hard enough: a tablet that could one day find that elusive balance between serious and fun. The hardware is powerful, the operating system is bomb-proof, all the big stuff works. But the deficiencies are in the details.

This will be frustrating for the company to hear, since it is constantly criticized for being a year behind Apple in the tablet race, but RIM may have brought the PlayBook to market too soon. When there's a cellular-equipped, less-buggy, more-app-friendly version coming in two or three months' time, why would anyone buy what is essentially PlayBook Beta right now?

The prospective buyer is faced with two options: either purchase a PlayBook today and trust RIM to address the many bugs via software patches, or hold off until the summer and see what a polished PlayBook looks like.

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