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Research In Motion's PlayBook. (The Canadian Press/AP-Isaac Brekken)
Research In Motion's PlayBook. (The Canadian Press/AP-Isaac Brekken)


BlackBerry PlayBook tries to chart a path between work and fun Add to ...

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.

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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