So yesterday I went by the future shop to get a first hand look on RIM’s playbook, which became available on that day. Just want to record my thoughts here, coming from an average iPad user.
The first thing I notice is that the back of the device is covered with rubber. It feels really sturdy. Even though it is not shining and metallic like the iPad 2, I find Playbook appears to cater to those who are on the go and can handle being thrown around without the worries of scratches. And I read some review that the power button is too small to press. It is not too bad actually. The button may be small, but it presses nicely. However, I can see the wear and tear over time could make pressing this button quite a nuisance.
It has a 7” LCD screen. I think whether this form factor is better than the iPad or not remains to be seen. But it is certainly convenient to be able to handle this device effortlessly with one hands. It reminds me of a Kindle. Being at that size though, i would say a lot of standard landscape layout that we see on iPad, in which there is a vertical panel to the left side for navigation and the rest of the area for displaying contents, would not translate nicely to this screen size. IMO, it would just be too crammed. I think the app developers would have to get pretty creative about their layout for this device as oppose to resorting to a straight out copying the existing layout out there. I think in terms of the UI, it is more appropriate for the developer to follow a single context paradigm, similar to a typical smartphone UI, where every screen serves a single purpose to avoid distraction.
I like how the OS seems as solid as the hardware. It uses an industrial grade OS - QNX - used in many control systems that have really high reliability requirements , such as nuclear plant, cars, and trains. So it is fair to say the software is built on a rock. And it handles the multitasking beautifully. It is a true multitasking OS. A little test showed how good it is: I was in the middle of a race in Need for Speed when I switch to the view for multitasking (by swiping my finger from the bottom bevel up), the game app itself shrinks into a thumbnail while the race in the thumbnail continues to receive input and render smoothly. That is very impressive.
While the multitasking capability is great, I wonder what kind of impact of being able to allow the software to execute in the background in its full capability have the the usability of the system. I think a large factor that simplifies tablets from the PCs is ridding the need to do program management. It makes the device much less mysterious. What you see running is what is running. You don’t have to worry about computer doing something in the back and potentially blow up on you without you knowing. It definitely removes a lot of fear from using the computer.
Of course, I am not advocating that the computer should do away from multitasking, but at the same time I don’t think a system should take a complete laissez faire approach to program management and leave all the work to the users. For mobile device in particular, it is important to open only as many apps as you need in order to preserve the speed and battery life. And when an user has to constantly worry about what is wasting the CPU cycles and electron charges, it takes away from the experience of the tablet. So yes, while a true multitasking is a feature that takes using a tablet closer to using a computer, we need to ask ourselves whether we are bringing back some old bad habits.
Next I want to talk about Adobe Flash. I was excited to see how Flash would performs after reading some very positive reviews about Playbook’s Flash support. I decided to try to something that I can never do on my iPad - going on CTV.com and watch Amazing Race. So I merrily put in the URL and wait patiently for the webpage to load up. So most of the page loaded up except for this big portion of Flash-based banner. This banner occupied about 80% of the screen given Playbook’s smaller screen. Another 30 seconds passed, and the banner finally loaded. In the banner, it is like a cover-flow-esque slide deck of TV shows. Seeing that, I follow my instinct try to browse through it with a horizon swipe, the Flash misinterpreted my gesture as a click and let me into a link. So I realize that was a mistake and quickly hit the back button. So I am back at this page, trying to scroll the page, by flicking my finger up the screen, and the big fat Flash banner again think that it is being clicked on, and took me to another page. And I click back again and attempt to navigate through this for the third time. This time, I try to dance around the big banner and get to the other feature of the website, and as I was trying to pinch zoom, and what happen next? Did it take me to the next page again? Actually, no it didn’t this time. The browser crashed! The entire browser stop responding to the any inputs and just suspends there totally inanimated. And there is no indicator that the program has crashed - windows doesn’t close on its own, or error message, nothing - it just waits there impassively. I think many people would just hit the power button at this point and hard boot this thing out of its misery. Well, I decided to try going into multitasking menu, and swiftly Playbook came alive again and I was able to close the browser.
Well, at least it shows that the OS is stable enough to stand on its own against whatever crap the application puts it through. That is definitely an encouraging note. But it confirms what I has suspected earlier about Flash. The technical problem with Flash was never about watching YouTube or illegal shows on Mega Upload. Even though I never actually got to watch the video in my short-lived test, I trust the reviews when they say that Playbook can handily handle video playback. But the Flash comes with too much other stuffs that are just inadequate for tablets, especially for a small device like Playbook. This is just the tip of the iceberg. And it is not just the fault of the Adobe. The whole world who uses Flash to develop content are still trapped in the mindset of designing for a computer that comes with mouse and keyboard. So those who are counting on Flash support to skip the work of redesigning their website for the tablets need to revisit their decision. And Adobe needs to realize that Flash just too heavy and clunky for the mobile Internet, and what is considered Flash’s strength in the early days - one stop shop for packaging and delivery of interactive multimedia contents - have become its very weakness because it cannot shed extra weight to be optimized. I say that is the final straw for Flash, even if everything about Flash runs perfectly on the tablet, it still would not be good for the touch based interface that the world is migrating to. It is time to move on.
I guess I am not really offering anything new here by agreeing with the review. But I have to say what I was reading is true, the system (hardware+OS) was definitely job well done, and I can see the choice if the 7” size can put Playbook in a different space. But i wonder if its support for Flash would offer more values than it has sacrificed.