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PlayBook 2.0: taking on BlackBerry’s real contender

Gadget wraps up its coverage of BlackBerry DevCon Europe with a hands-on preview of the upcoming PlayBook 2.0. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK had a brief altercation with the beta version.

It is probably the fastest Gadget Ten Question Tablet Test we’ve ever conducted. After a demonstration of a beta version of the PlayBook 2.0 by Vivek Bhardwaj, Research in Motion’s Head of Software Portfolio for Europe, Middle East and Africa (see Playtime at RIM), he allowed Gadget to try it out. In a brief wrestling match with the device, we quickly ran it through as much of the Test as we could.

Bear in mind that this is by its nature not a conclusive review, but rather a foretaste. When the final version is reviewed, it will be given a comprehensive test.

1. General look and feel (aesthetic judgement, differentiation in look and feel)

The PlayBook 2.0 is identical to the first version, which is not in itself a bad thing. The one aspect of the original that received general praise was the build of the device, both in terms of solidity and elegance ‚ a tricky combination. The market was calling for a different software experience: the positive hardware experience remains a differentiator.

Score: 8/10

2. Keep control (How effective are the control buttons ‚ hardware, software, on-off)

As with the original, the round On button is separate from and differentiated from the clustered volume controls and Play/Pause button. However, it is still tiny, and can still be mistaken for a headphone jack in the dark. On the other hand, once you’re used to the idea that it lies alongside the cluster, the fumbling will end. The combination now looks rather elegant.

Score: 6/10

3. The sound of one-hand tapping (Can you comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it in the other? i.e. a weight test)

Again, no change here. A satisfying heft, yet a lightweight device. It’s easy to hold, with enough of a bezel on the edge to accommodate your thumb, and the virtual keyboard remains satisfyingly uncluttered.

Score: 8/10

4. The Angry Birds test (How responsive is the device in interactive tasks?)

The first version failed this test completely. However, 2.0 is fast, responsive and even fun. Angry Birds finally feels as if it is made for the device. The stand-out experience is Need for Speed, ‚Optimised for the PlayBook‚ : it handles twists and turns like a well-oiled machine.

Score: 8/10

5. The tablet gender test (How well does it multi-task?)

The PlayBook allows multiple apps to be opened at the same time, and they can all be displayed ‚ and clicked to open or X’d to close ‚ by a swipe up from the bottom bezel.

However, the device seemed to get confused when too many items were opened simultaneously, switching from landscape to portrait mode, which made it difficult to view open apps. When working properly, the panel displaying apps is still clunky and unappealing.

Score: 6/10

6. One to rule them all (Can it replace a PC or laptop? Does it make your life easier?)

PlayBook 2.0 brings to the BlackBerry user a sense of what the iPad brings to the iPhone user. No, not limitless fitness and food apps, but the ability to match up apps on the phone and tablet. With RIM’s massive push into the developer community, most of the popular apps for other platforms will also be available on the PlayBook.

The device is WiFI-enabled, which raises the question of why 3G is not enabled. Indeed, the 3G chickens came home to roost during the test, when WiFi went down, and it wasn’t possible to access Internet content.

The PlayBook is strongly geared to the enterprise market, and the inclusion of DocumentsToGo, the app that provides Word and Excel functionality on a mobile device, will be a powerful incentive. However, the 2.0 beta was not entirely satisfying on the latter score. For example, in Excel, the virtual keypad that comes up when you are ready to type into a cell defaults to the ABC keys, rather than to 123. It is a timely reminder that the first Windows spreadsheet program was called 1-2-3, and not A-B-C.

However, that is a minor quibble in the context of a device that matches both the consumption needs of the CEO and the productivity needs of middle-management, not to mention the entertainment needs of the kid in all of us.

Score: 7/10

7. Live long and prosper (How’s the battery life?)

It was not possible to test battery life in the time available.

Score: unscored

8. Sound and vision (Video and audio quality?)

Video was one of the strengths of PlayBook 1.0, and 2.0 seems to match up. Audio is also adequate, with dual front speakers still giving a solid stereo experience. It includes a headphone jack and Bluetooth capability for wireless headphones.

Score: 8/10

9. The new new (innovations and unique features)

PlayBook 2.0 offers two powerful differentiators:

Score: 9/10

10. The Price Test (Is it competitively priced?)

Ah, there’s the rub. At $400-$500, they could barely give version 1 away. Now that RIM know they have a contender on their hands, will they succumb to the temptation of premium pricing? In short, will they shoot themselves in the foot just as they catch up in the race? Watch this space.

Score: unscored

In conclusion

Total score: 62/80 – 77%

A brief try-out of the PlayBook 2.0 delivered a score of 77% – substantially higher than that of the first version, close to the high scores achieved by the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and higher than the best 7‚ device we have tried, the HTC Flyer. That isn’t the last world, however. When the final version of PlayBook 2.0 is released, it will be given a thorough testing to see just how nervous the competition needs to be.

* Arthur Goldstuck’s is editor-in-chief of Gadget and heads up World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.

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