A little package turned up in the post yesterday - the folks at Blackberry sent me a Playbook to have a little noodle with. Here are some observations from a preliminary noodling.

On the hardware:

  • I rather liked the size and shape. Unlike the Kindle and iPad, the primary orientation for the device seems to be landscape, not portrait. This works quite well; it was good for gaming and when held in two hands, my thumbs could reach pretty well anywhere on-screen.
  • The edge around the screen is touch-sensitive, and the device uses this to have some nice "stroke onto the screen", "push off the screen" interactions. I think RIM may have missed a trick by not making more of these; one big problem with touchscreen UI is that parts of the screen are hidden by your hands. Making more of touch-sensitive areas to the side, or above and below, would allow for perfect selection of specific areas on screen, or easier scrolling actions that don't obscure any pixels.
  • The device is weighted well (it feels balanced) and the back is made of a durable-feeling rubber. Overall it gives a sturdy sensation, unfortunately backed up by a slightly sluggish but reliable UI (I've yet to see a crash).

On the bundled software:

  • Visually the UI feels weak: lots of dark colours (shades of blue) make some of the iconography less visible than it should be, and the screen is lower-than-retina resolution - so the pin-sharp clarity I'm increasingly used to just isn't there.
  • Interaction-wise I felt it was a bit better; there's a nice UI to get across the idea of multitasking apps in the launcher, consistent ways to leave the app you're in and swap to another, good use of animation to emphasise changes in states of applications, and so forth. I think I'd put it ahead of iOS when it comes to app-swapping.
  • However there were plenty of times in use when I felt I needed reassurance - totally blank screens whilst an app loads, or a spinner and no indication of how long I should wait.
  • The email client and calendar are both pretty solid - not amazing, but sturdy-feeling. I've never used a "traditional" Blackberry email client so don't know how it compares. Setting up my GMail account was trivially easy.
  • Bing Maps was, err, quite nice. Less featureful than Google but I like the aerial view with multiple angles, and the maps seemed readable.
  • The browser works quite well: I gave a few of the Google web apps a go. Reader is usable, but the screen size means that tap targets frequently get muddled up, and I wasn't able to up the font size of the browser to compensate for this.

On downloadable apps:

  • App World seems to work OK; there's a reasonable catalogue of apps. Is it my imagination, or is there a tendency towards paid-for downloads on the Blackberry? Angry Birds for a fiver seemed unusually expensive.
  • There's no Kindle app for the Blackberry. That's a massive loss - when I get a new device it's one of the first things I install. The idea of having a portable which I can't read my books on is a bit uncomfortable.
  • I grabbed a free copy of a FPS game: a 400MB download which took some time even over wi-fi, but once downloaded it played well. The Playbook is a good size for a gaming device, fitting comfortably in two hands: I'm not a massive gamer, but I don't think the iPad is quite the right size and shape for that style of play.
  • I visited app.ft.com and after seeing a loading screen, was redirected to a /playbook and a 404 page - looks like something at the FT end of things.

One other nice touch: a "welcome" email from RIM with a few links to help, arriving a day after I set up the tablet. Very sweet.

I'm going to give the device a bit more time over the coming week, and report back here. Overall it seems OK, but not enough wow to compete with the iPad head-to-head (I've not really used Android tablets before so can't provide much of a comparison there). Then again, with a £169 price-point in some stores, it's cheaper than most right now...