The View from Mudsock Heights: The Wonderful, Tiny, Quirky Tablet Computer that Has Won My Heart

By Dennis Dennis | Posted at 8:57

If one were to do a survey of the next tablet computer from a major manufacturer likely to disappear — the HP TouchPad now being gone — the near-unanimous choice would very likely be Research In Motion's Blackberry Playbook. And that's too bad. The little 7-inch Playbook is a really cool machine, a Mercedes to HP's Ford F-150.

When RIM released the Playbook earlier this year, they marketed it as the tablet for grownups. I think it is exactly that. It is solid, reliable, festooned with applications — and an app catalog — of businesslike programs. It feels professional. It comes with the Docs To Go suite of applications for editing Word, Excel, and Powerpoint files, and it is as good as the absurd QuickOffice (and its counterpart, QuickFiring of anyone who attempts to do work with it) on the TouchPad is bad.

Even the little keyclicks of the onscreen virtual keyboard are muted, like the door latch on a luxury car.

You might conclude that I've fallen in love with the Playbook and thrown over the TouchPad. Well, yes, and no. I love them both.

Which is a thing easily done. If you love one, you're very likely to love the other. In use, they're very much alike in some important respects — so much so that when the Playbook was unveiled, HP accused RIM of copying the user interface. Both of them, for instance, multitask superbly. The Playbook does in a lot of ways resemble a smaller, better-built TouchPad, and one wonders what might have been had they joined forces (a dream that does not include HP buying RIM then putting it to sleep, as it did with Palm).

Both have truly weird connectivity issues, too. With the TouchPad, HP crowed about its really nifty pairing with the new Pre 3 phone. Just bang 'em together, said HP, and you can make a Web page being viewed on the phone jump to the pad. In what was probably an attempt to further induce people to buy HP nee Palm phones, they also made it impossible to tether with other phones, to set up a PAN or DUN or ad hoc network with the TouchPad, and were generally a pain about it.

Oh, and then HP discontinued all those Pre phones without ever releasing them.

RIM made tethering easy, even with non-Blackberry phones. They made it simple to set up a DUN connection, to get Internet via bluetooth from a laptop connected to a wired network. But then they removed many of the reasons you might want to.

That's because the Playbook has no native email application. The famous Blackberry messaging system? Nowhere to be found. (Nor is there a calendar or addressbook. It's really kind of weird.)

It makes a little more sense if you have a Blackberry and acquire and install something called Blackberry Bridge. As I understand it, some carriers do not want you to have the Bridge, because then you might actually use that bandwidth you've been paying for. But if you poke around, you can find it. Blackberry Bridge is installed on the Blackberry phone, not the Playbook. It has been reported (and I have not independently verified it, so if you try it and it isn't so, do not send me the bill) that the Bridge connects invisibly, so carriers do not know you have it, so there's no tethering charge. On the other hand, you cannot use such things as the app store over a tethered connection.

Anyway, when the Bridge is installed and configured, which is no more difficult than configuring any other bluetooth device, amazing things happen. A whole new directory of applications appears: Messages, BBM, Calendar, Contacts, Memopad, and something called “Bridge Browser,” about which more in a minute. These look and act like native Playbook applications … but they're not. They are just cool remote controls for the corresponding applications on your Blackberry phone.

You would almost forget that they're not natively running on the Playbook. Almost, but not quite. First, if you wander too far from your Blackberry phone, the application icons get you a black screen with a picture of a padlock. None of the data reside on your Playbook. (This obviates the need for synchronizing, though, because there's nothing to synchronize!) If you delete an email message, you're asked if you want to delete it from just the handset or the server, too. And if you seek to attach a file to a message, you'll need to specify whether the file resides on the phone or the Playbook. I thought it was pretty nutty at first, but I've come to have some affection for it. Things such as setting up email accounts must be done on the phone itself. But it's fun to make the new message light on the Blackberry go out by opening an email message on a tablet across the room from it.

The bundled native applications are impressive. There is, first and foremost, the Docs To Go suite, which in this iteration is so good that I wish I had a version of it for my notebook machine. It is a superb little group of applications, seriously usable. For instance, I'm writing this in the Word To Go program and, even with the limitations of the fairly good but quirky onscreen keyboard (no tab key, but a key that pops up a choice of international keyboard layouts, something few people need to change mid-document) it's not taking much longer than it would to write on my beloved desktop machine with its familiar IBM Model M keyboard. And Word To Go even gives you a word count!

The Playbook has some fairly predictable and easy to learn “gestures,” and one that's unpredictable and easy to forget, but there is reason to remember it for there lies riches. It is to swipe down from the top of the screen. For instance, there is the Calculator application. Poke its icon and up comes a perfectly normal calculator, albeit one with a “paper tape” that records the numbers entered and functions performed. Ah, but swipe down and you get choices: a scientific calculator, a tip calculator (I know, but people seem to like them) and the coolest and most complete conversions calculator I've ever seen. It makes me wish I had more units of measure to convert.

There is a movie player application that comes with a short, high-definition demonstration movie. It is impressive, even for a little 7-inch screen. I wouldn't want it alone if I were having friends over for a S*p*rB*wl party, but I can see watching an occasional movie or something on it, on an airplane, say. The YouTube app serves up that site's little clips entirely satisfactorily.

The Touchpad, left, and the Playbook. (CREDIT: Dennis E. Powell)

The browser has received much praise, but I'm not sure why. It is wont to disappear unexpectedly — not often, but when it does, it is so sudden, complete, and devoid of any error messages that you're startled into wondering if it was ever actually open. Still, it renders pages well.

What I cannot figure out is why browsers on tablets are such utter rubbish in their storage and display of bookmarks. Bookmarks are not a complicated thing. In their simplest (and in my estimation best) form, they're html pages with the site name and the URL. Neither the TouchPad nor the Playbook has figured this out, and the result is a system where a bookmark takes up lots of screen space, can't be sorted or even moved, and is just a mess.

I mentioned the “Bridge Browser.” This resembles the standard browser in every fashion, but it does its browsing over the Blackberry phone connection instead of wifi. Oddly, though the email and other applications channeled from the phone contain data, the Bridge Browser does not bring along any bookmarks you might have saved on the phone.

The Playbook application store seems fairly well populated, though I've limited my downloads to free apps so far. There is, however, no version of “Angry Birds” for the Playbook, which is a bad sign — I think that out there there's even an Angry Birds for parking meters. Worse from a business standpoint, there is no native Skype application, only a superfluous video conferencing app that limits your communications, letting you connect only with other Playbook owners.

Much has been made of the tiny, recessed on/off switch. I do not know why, because there are very few times you'd ever use it. It seems to sleep well with little battery drain (and less if you turn off the radios). I'm not sure why you'd turn it off more than rarely, in which case the tiny power button isn't much of a bother.

As with the TouchPad, the Playbook has a charging stand, but it is nowhere near as cool as the HP one. The TouchPad stand uses induction to charge the device, which means it works even if the tablet is in a portfolio case. The Playbook version uses a direct connection. To use it, one must remove the tablet from any of the many cases available, including the impressive but complicated Otter case, the thinnest of the “skin” covers, or the several offered by RIM itself. This has proved a quandary for many Playbook owners.

Well, to the extent that they can be described as “many.” Reports late in the summer were that RIM had sold far fewer of the tablets than they had projected. Prices were reduced. In early October, several big stores cut their price by $200 across the board, making the cheapest one, with 16 gigabytes of storage, $299. (The 32- and 64-gig versions were $399 and $499 respectively.) This all led to speculation that RIM was for sale, was dropping the Playbook, take your pick. RIM announced that it would soon deliver an over-the-air update with native email and PIM applications. Also promised is a translation layer that will run some Android applications. (This is possibly a very bad thing. Yes, it would increase the number of programs available for the Playbook. But it's unlikely they would run quite as well as they do on an Android device, and the fact that they would run at all would just about guarantee that no one would write any more apps for the Playbook. Why write for one when you can write for both? Ask IBM how many native OS/2 applications got written after the Windows support was complete!)

Atop all this, the improvements were first promised in early spring, for summer delivery. Summer has been and gone. The promise got renewed a few weeks ago, and the current thinking is that it will get rolled out right before, or during, or right after RIM's developer conference in San Francisco October 18 - 20. I hope so, but we'll see.

Still, one oughtn't base equipment choices on hopes that shortcomings will oneday be fixed. Even without the promised improvements, the Playbook is a very impressive gadget, and a powerful and useful one, too — moreso, of course, if you have a Blackberry phone, in which case it's remarkable. At its original price it was worth it. At current prices, it's a steal. Maybe not the steal that the 16-gig TouchPad was at $99, but unlike the Playbook, I don't think the TouchPad ever was or ever would have been worth its original asking price.

Using both, I find that the TouchPad most often stays at home, because of its flaky connectivity issues, while the Playbook is never more than arm's reach away. It has entirely replaced my netbook.

But as I said, I have come to love them both.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.


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