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Hands-on With RIM Playbook at CES

After months of waiting, RIM finally let us touch, feel and use its Playbook tablet at CES; its first foray into the tablet market. As tablet hardware goes, this one stacks up nicely.

Finally Research In Motion's Playbook tablet is imminent enough that we finally got to experience it first hand, as will perhaps thousands of others when CES officially opens on Thursday in Las Vegas. The device is, as advertised, fast and flexible, even if it's slightly hobbled by beta builds, and the absence of meaningful applications; RIM representatives said many applications will be on display in the company's exhibit space.

A quick rundown of the hardware reveals dual core 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processors (the company would not specify whose), a 7-inch multitouch screen, 1 GB of RAM, a 3 megapixel front-facing camera, and a 5 megapixel rear-facing one (this can capture 1080p). All of this packed into a device that's 10 mm thick, weighs less than a pound and fits comfortably in one hand. Of those -- the 1 GHz processors -- surprised me given the somewhat underpowered Torch and the fact that this is a dual core unit. No compromising on that part of the hardware, although there are several similarly powered Android-based tablets coming out as well.

The Playbook comes with WiFi and Bluetooth, the latter used to tether the device to a regular Blackberry Smartphone for 3G connections and taking advantage of the Blackberry communication architecture (BES and its offspring). Many of the forthcoming Android tablets also start life as WiFi only.

Editors Note. Shortly after this piece was published, RIM and Sprint announced a 4G version of the Playbook. Sprint would only say that the offering would be available by Summer, and pricing for the unit is unknown. The rest of the device specifications remain the same.

There's HDMI out, capable of 1080p streaming. And there are apparently lots of other doo-dads buried inside for later revelation; the most I could ferret out of RIM was an accelerometer (obviously) but there must be more -- perhaps a gyro or other sensors. Screen resolution is 1024x600.

With all of that hardware, battery life becomes a concern (although without the 3G radio, a little less so). Product manager Ryan Bidan says the target is 8 hours of running battery life. Clearly this will be a source of evaluation for all products this year. RIM has taken a bit of a beating on this topic, but Bidan says that in its beta release the power management software is absent, or hasn't been tuned or optimized.

One of my big complaints with Samsung's Galaxy Tab is that it comes with front and rear-facing cameras but few options to exploit them; a tablet all dressed up with nowhere to go (Tango's video chat app is nice but you need others to have it as well). RIM said it has published the API to access the camera, and expects developers to take advantage of it. We shall see.

RIM has been filming demonstration and instruction videos for the Playbook ever since it announced the device last September, and the focus of those videos has been to showcase the Playbook's performance and to show its versatility, especially where developers are concerned. Company executives continue to pound home the message that web access to applications and data will be the near-term future of mobile devices.

To that end, the company's latest video shows how easy it is to take existing Adobe AIR and Flash applications and turn them into Playbook apps. The demonstration involves wrapping the app, running it on a simulator and voila; RIM assures me that most developer experiences have been that simple, and in particular said that a developer converted an AIR-based browser to a Playbook app in less than three hours.

All of the applications RIM let me play with were AIR applications, including it's docs-to-go spreadsheet app and Kobo book reader. The AIR SDK has been available for a while and RIM has been on the road helping train developers in it. The second beta version of that SDK is now available, RIM said. The company would not say when its WebWorks SDK would be available (just "soon"), and it also said there would be various SDKs for things like java virtual machines.

There will be a version of the BlackBerry App World specific to the tablet, Bidan said. I find this particularly useful for the iPad; and the lack of a specific Android tablet app store has been a little confusing, at least for Android applications that don't work so well on a tablet.

Bidan made a point of differentiating the Playbook's multitasking, noting that it keeps apps running actively, not just suspending them (apparently a knock on Apple).

The Playbook's user interface is interesting, in that there are no hardware buttons on the device's front bezel. Swiping from the bottom up minimizes the app; swiping from the top down will bring up an app's menu. Swiping side to side navigates through open apps. The whole point, Bidan said, is not to clutter the screen -- especially since real estate is at a premium.

We ran through a few media rich sites, like YouTube and ABC News, and performance was fantastic, even on a challenged WiFi network. Our own site was a bit challenged; Bidan said that since the Playbook browser isn't out yet, there's no ID string for publishers to target.

So far, we've seen tablets from Lenovo, Motion Computing, NEC, Asus, Samsung and Acer, with many more to come. When they're all finally shipping, it will be interesting to see which rise the top, and why; it will be even more interesting to see which ones buyers flock to. The Playbook will be a strong challenger.

To see the rest of InformationWeek's articles, videos and image galleries covering the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, be sure to visit our CES 2011 Special Report. Also, be sure to sign-up to be notified when TechWeb launches all of its consumer tech coverage on BYTE.com, led by BYTE editor Gina Smith.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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