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BlackBerry PlayBook, first impressions

RIM unveiled its PlayBook 7-inch tablet to an enthusiastic crowd at today's DevCon 2010 conference. Unfortunately, in spite of all the impressive specs thrown around, huge, practical questions remain unanswered.

RIM PlayBook

Judging from the number of times the words "professional" and "uncompromising" came up during today's Research In Motion announcement, we think it's fair to say the PlayBook isn't positioned to take on Apple as a budget alternative to the iPad. Instead, RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook is poised to attack the iPad on the basis of specs, such a 1GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, micro-HDMI output, symmetrical dual-core processing, and support for 1080p HD video playback. It also features both rear-facing (5MP) and front-facing (3MP) cameras, capable of HD video recording and still photos.

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The PlayBook also distinguishes itself from other tablets with its size, featuring a 7-inch screen (1,024x600) that falls right between the iPad's 9.7-inch screen and the 5-inch screen of the Dell Streak. In all, the PlayBook's dimensions measure 5.1 inches tall, 7.6 inches wide, and 0.4 inch thick, weighing just under a pound.

On the software end, the PlayBook runs an OS designed from the ground up by BlackBerry, which is compatible with a number of BlackBerry services and apps. The BlackBerry tablet OS also supports Adobe Flash 10.1, WebKit, Java, Open GL, and Adobe Air. Supported video formats include H.264, MPEG4, and WMV, up to 1080p HD resolution (scaled down to the screen's lower native resolution).

Though it seemingly isn't required for users to have a BlackBerry smartphone to use the PlayBook, it certainly doesn't hurt. Existing BlackBerry users can pair with the PlayBook over Bluetooth to provide them with a secure gateway to connect with their BlackBerry e-mail, contacts, calendar, and tasks. In theory, pairing with a BlackBerry phone also allows the PlayBook to take advantage of the phone's cellular data connection for surfing the Web or streaming media, though carriers have yet to weigh in on how far users can take this tethering capability. On its own, the PlayBook features an integrated 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi connection.

With all of these specs, the PlayBook has rocketed to the top of our list of the iPad's most legitimate contenders. Of course, there are a number of details RIM neglected to mention that may make the tablet a nonstarter.

Battery life is going to be an obvious concern, especially considering the powerful dual-core processor and support for Adobe Flash, which Apple famously maligned as a big drain on battery life. Other features, such as multitasking, HD video playback, HDMI output, and HD video recording, are also well known battery-life killers. Currently, we've yet to see a competing tablet match the 10-hour battery time of the iPad, and we think it's fair to say that if RIM could brag about this spec, it would have mentioned it.

We also have no idea how much RIM is expecting to charge for the PlayBook, or if it will be subject to the same contracts and carrier agreements as the company's BlackBerry phones. If we had to guess, based on the pricing of the Dell Streak, the PlayBook will likely cost between $500 and $1,000, unsubsidized.

Other M.I.A. details include storage capacity, memory expansion, and release date--all of which could make or break the PlayBook's viability as a tablet competitor. During our brief time viewing the PlayBook hardware at the BlackBerry DevCon 2010 event, we did note that the hardware was marked with 16GB and 32GB labels, though representatives would not confirm those numbers as final.