BlackBerry PlayBook: A Few Kind Words for a Forgotten Tablet

A year ago the BlackBerry PlayBook could have been a contender. The seven-inch tablet from Research in Motion could have carved out a nice market niche for itself if RIM could have delivered useful apps to go with the PlayBook’s sleek hardware and user-friendly operating system (OS) software in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that RIM finally delivered the PlayBook 2.0 OS, which included top-notch e-mail, calendar and contacts apps. Unfortunately it all comes very late in the game, maybe too late. Now we have a brand new, hot-selling iPad from Apple and a raft of new, powerful Android tablets. The PlayBook is now deeply discounted, and is not exactly on the top of most tablet buyers’ wish lists.

Still there are some good things to say about the BlackBerry PlayBook and in a recent interview with radio host Mark Laiosa on WBAI-FM in New York, I go over some of the aspects of the new apps and the new PlayBook 2.0 operating system.

Link to audio clip:

Text Copyright 2012 Stadium Circle Features
Audio clip courtesy of WBAI-FM

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: RIM’s Last Shot?

PlayBook OS 2.0 download in progress

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 is finally here. At long last PlayBook owners have a reason to crow about their units–instead of quietly sliding them away each time someone nearby pulls out an iPad.
But OS 2.0 is late–possibly too late to save the PlayBook.

From the moment it debuted last April, the BlackBerry PlayBook has been a heartbreaking disappointment. While its hardware and sleek design have garnered kudos for the seven-inch tablet, it unfortunately debuted without essentials like e-mail or contact-management software or a calendar. It also had an app store with a selection which made the worst of the Android Market seem like the Works of William Shakespeare.

At that time Research In Motion promised that a new PlayBook OS with e-mail, contact and calendar clients and an Android emulator that would allow the PlayBook to run popular Android apps would be ready by last June. Then it was October. We’ve been waiting ever since. Now it’s here.

Today BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0, with all of the above trimmings, finally becomes available as a free over-the-air download. And it’s about darn time.

If you were lucky enough to preview PlayBook OS 2.0 at the 2012 International CES in Las Vegas in January, you already know that this upgrade is a must download. The new OS is a head-and-shoulders improvement to the original quirky, limited-use operating system.

BlackBerry booth at 2012 CES

The new PlayBook e-mail, contact and calendar clients shown at CES are things of beauty. They have easy-to-use interfaces and smooth integration with social media services. The versions shown at CES looked like finished products even then–not just prototypes.

In terms of productivity, the new software offers a high level of cross-app integration, thus eliminating steps in doing basic tasks like setting up a meeting and inviting attendees. PlayBook OS 2.0 will also be more manageable than the previous version and will allow users to create their own folders.

One area where the PlayBook has always outdone other tablets like the iPad is in its still camera and video capabilities. For example, the video below was shot at the 2011 New York International Auto Show with the PlayBook’s five-megapixel rear-facing camera.

This video was shot at 720p resolution, which is not even the best the PlayBook can do: It also supports recording at 1080p and 480p.

The BlackBerry PlayBook also has a three-megapixel front-facing camera, which, combined with its microphone and stereo speakers, would make it a terrific videoconferencing solution–if it could only run Skype in addition to the little-known tablet videoconferencing apps in BlackBerry App World. But that may change soon.

As far as PlayBook-compatible Android apps are concerned, don’t expect to get access to the Android Market. Android apps need a little tweaking as well as approval from RIM before they will work on the PlayBook.

These PlayBook-approved Android apps will show up in BlackBerry App World along with those designed specifically for the QNX-based PlayBook OS. Thus, installing an Android app on the PlayBook will be no different from the process currently used. Right now only a handful of the most popular mobile apps are available as native apps for the PlayBook. This short list includes Facebook, Groupon, Evernote, Kobo and YouTube.

As of today, suggested pricing for the BlackBerry PlayBook is significantly reduced from the original levels, which ranged from $499 to $699. A PlayBook with 16GB of internal storage now retails for $199, the 32GB version is $249 and a 64GB unit is $299.

BlackBerry PlayBook tablet running PlayBook OS 1.0

If you’ll be upgrading a PlayBook as soon as OS 2.0 is available, keep in mind that an OS update is a serious upgrade. Before you start, back up important data elsewhere, make sure your unit is charged, keep it plugged in to an AC adapter during the upgrade process and make sure you have a reliable data connection. Once you start, follow the instructions to the letter. An aborted OS upgrade could chew up your data and turn your PlayBook into an expensive paperweight.

So how did your unit survive the OS 2.0 upgrade? Let’s hear about it.

Text and videos Copyright 2012, Robert S. Anthony, Stadium Circle Features

Swype for Windows 7 Debuts in New HP Slate 2 Tablet PC

The Swype technology that makes it possible to type without lifting your finger from your Android smartphone or tablet screen has cracked the Windows barrier and is included in the new Windows 7 powered HP Slate 2 Tablet PC.

A small, but significant logo sits at the bottom of the screen on the new Windows-powered HP Slate 2 Tablet PC announced today: Swype. Yes, the same Swype utility that lets you type by sliding your finger across your Android smartphone or tablet screen without lifting it has come to Windows 7.

The 1.5-pound Windows 7-powered HP Slate 2 Tablet PC (starts at $699) has an 8.9-inch capacitive multitouch display which supports both pen and finger input, a 1.5 GHz Intel Atom Z670 CPU and a preinstalled copy of Swype, which up until now had only been seen on Android, Windows Mobile and Symbian devices.

HP Slate 2 Tablet PC with optional HP Slate Bluetooth Keyboard and Case

The unit is meant for business and will not be marketed as a consumer device, said Kyle Thornton, category manager for HP Emerging Products at a recent HP press preview in New York. It’s meant for retail and other business uses where full access to Windows applications is needed. It has an SD Card slot for storage in addition to an internal solid state drive and a 3-megapixel digital camera on the rear and a front-facing VGA webcam.

According to HP, the battery should last up to six hours on a charge and the unit offers a number of built-in security features, including a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip. A dock adds two USB 2.0 ports and a single HDMI port to the unit.

Business-friendly options include the HP Retail Mobile Point of Sale Case, which has a magnetic stripe reader and barcode scanner and the $79 HP Slate Bluetooth Keyboard and Case (above), which folds out to support the slate as if it were a notebook and closes up to protect both the keyboard and the HP Slate 2 Tablet PC.

Note that while Swype comes preinstalled on many Android devices, it can also be added to Android devices that didn’t ship with it. Swype Beta is available for download at no charge but does not work on all Android devices, especially those with older versions of Android or have relatively low-resolution displays. (Don’t install Swype Beta on a unit which came with Swype. It won’t work.) Swype is not available as an separate installable Windows application for other Windows tablets.

The HP Slate 2 Tablet PC will ship later this month and will be available from the HP website.

Text and photos Copyright 2011 Robert S. Anthony, Stadium Circle Features
Video courtesy of HP

Will Amazon Silk Stoke Kindle Fire?

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire Android color tablet succeeds at shaking up the tablet and eBook reader market with its powerful processor, sharp display and affordable $199 price tag, but don’t be fooled: It’s what’s going on in the background that’s more interesting than the tablet itself.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shows off Kindle Fire tablet

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shows off Kindle Fire tablet

What may make or break the Kindle Fire is Amazon Silk, a new generation of mobile Web browser that’s indeed different from what you’re using now, but more on that in a second.

The Kindle Fire has a sharp, 7-inch, 1024-by-600 dot-per inch color display with a pixel density of 169 pixels per inch, which is significantly denser than the 132ppi screen on the market-leading Apple iPad 2. It also has a dual-core, but unnamed 1GHz processor, which is good news for video-heavy and otherwise sophisticated Android apps.

But don’t mistake this for an iPad 2 killer. It has only 8GB of storage, uses Android 2.3 instead of the tablet-friendlier Android 3.x and has no camera. It’s not a pure Android tablet either, which means that getting new apps won’t be as simple as pulling them off of the Android Market.

However, looming ominously behind the Kindle Fire is Amazon’s massive collection of text and video content, its vast Web services and almost unlimited online storage capacity.

Like the other Kindles, everything you put on your Kindle Fire is backed up on Amazon’s cloud. Unlike any Kindle or any other tablet before it, however, the Kindle Fire has Amazon Silk, a new, forward-thinking Web browser that splits the Web surfing work between the tablet and the many servers that make up the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, otherwise known as Amazon EC2.

So what does that mean? It means that the Kindle Fire’s Web browser can potentially speed through the Web much faster than other tablets with similar hardware simply because it has less work to do.

When you access a web page with a conventional Web browser, it often has to make multiple requests to multiple points in the Internet for things like images, video streams, Twitter feeds and other content that appears on a single page. Waiting for all of these requests to be fulfilled can make a Web browser seem sluggish.

What Amazon Silk does is analyze the “aggregate behavior” of Kindle Fire Web users to determine what Web content is in heavy demand. That content is then cached on Amazon’s servers and, if needed, rendered into a form more suitable for the Kindle Fire’s screen. The result is that when a Kindle Fire user hits a popular website, much of the data needed can be retrieved at once from Amazon’s cache, thus speeding up the loading of the page.

If the website has a multi-megabyte image that would look just as well on the Kindle Fire’s screen if it were compressed, Amazon’s servers could intelligently scale the photo down.

For example, if Amazon Silk had detected that a lot of Web traffic was being aimed at web pages covering the heated Major League Baseball battle between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays for the last American League playoff spot, that content could have been cached by Silk for fast access by Kindle Fire users.

Journalists at the unveiling of the Kindle Fire weren’t allowed to touch them.

Journalists at the unveiling of the Kindle Fire weren’t allowed to touch them.

So does Amazon Silk work as smooth as silk? It’s much too early to say since the journalists at Wednesday’s unveiling of the Kindle Fire in New York weren’t allowed to touch the units.

To be sure, Amazon Silk is a ground-breaking concept which could potentially allow a tablet—or other device—with modest hardware to perform like it had higher-end components inside. The proof is in the pudding, but we haven’t seen it yet.

So what do you think? Chime in if you like.

Text and images Copyright 2011
Robert S. Anthony
Stadium Circle Features

No Keyboard? No Problem: Acer’s Dual-Touchscreen Iconia Oozes Coolness

Acer Iconia with dual 14-inch touchscreens

Is the Acer Iconia the opening salvo of a new generation of keyboard-free notebooks or just a grand experiment doomed to be a footnote in the annals of PC history? It’s certainly too early to tell, but there’s one thing that can be said about the new dual-touchscreen unit: It’s just darn cool.

With no visible moving parts other than the hinge connecting the two bright 14-inch touchscreens, the Iconia is a sleek, clean-looking computing machine with nifty enhancements to the standard Windows interface.

You can navigate through your browser, word processor and other software with your finger as you would on an Apple iPad or other tablet, but if you lay both palms upon the lower touch screen, a full size keyboard appears, including a virtual touchpad, thus allowing you to work as if it were a conventional notebook.

Acer Iconia with virtual keyboard

The unit, and a handful of other new mobile devices, was introduced by Acer Tuesday at a spiffy New York press event which included a white runway more suited for fashion models than computer company executives.

Both of the LED-backlit14-inch LCD touchscreens offer a resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels and come with a protective layer of Gorilla Glass, a scratch and crack-resistant composite glass developed by Corning, which is based appropriately enough in Corning, New York.

Acer Groups Senior Corp. VP Jim Wong watches demo 

The full-size keyboard not only offers all of the keys of a standard keyboard, but can do some tricks that a hardware keyboard can’t. For example, once you touch the virtual touchpad below the virtual keyboard, the entire bottom screen becomes your touchpad as long as you don’t lift your finger. Instead of dragging your finger in short bursts across a two-inch square, you can use the entire real estate of the 14-inch display to propel the cursor around the top screen.

The Paper PC on the Iconia

Touching the keyboard with five fingers and then giving the screen a twist causes the Acer Ring, a circular, scrollable group of one-touch application cards, to appear.

In practice the keyboard worked fairly well, requiring no more practice than one would need to use the virtual keyboard on an iPad or other tablet. The lower section can be used for generously sized system configuration screens–a boon for those with aging eyes.

The lack of a hardware keyboard allows for a very slim profile and of course, a very quiet notebook. The unit will be built with Intel’s i5 family of processors, but other configuration information wasn’t immediately announced.

A key question went unanswered Tuesday: The price. Acer officials said it had not been finalized yet. While Acer said that the unit may be available as soon as late this year, no sale date was given.

So is this the beginning of the end of the keyboard as we know it? Not quite. The lack of haptic feedback or the reassuring bounce-back of a physical keyboard may cause even good touch-typers to constantly look at the virtual keyboard instead of the screen. However the Iconia’s dual screens brings the concept of a lightweight, but very rugged notebook with a weatherproof display and keyboard closer to reality.

So the question is: Would you buy something like this as your primary laptop? Chime in.

Top two product photos courtesy of Acer
Text and other photos and video Copyright 2010 Stadium Circle Features

HP Photosmart eStation: Take One ‘Tablet’ and Call Me When My Boarding Pass is Ready

All-in-one inkjet printer has a detachable Android-based color control panel which looks and acts like a tablet, but isn’t.

So what can you get in a $399 all-in-one printer in 2010? Answer: The HP Photosmart eStation, a unit with a detachable, wireless Android-based control panel. The seven-inch color touch screen offers a full Web browser and a selection of HP Web apps, including an airline app that will print your boarding pass in four clicks.
At the HP Imaging and Printing Group Innovation Summit in New York Monday, HP showed how the eStation’s panel can surf the Web without a PC and can download and print out online documents. Like other printers announced this year, the Photosmart eStation supports HP’s ePrint feature, which allows you to e-mail print jobs to the printer from any Web-connected device.
The control panel is similar in size and shape to many of the new Android-based tablets like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, but even though it’s based on the Android 2.1 operating system, it’s not configured to act an independent tablet. 
While it does have a solid Web browser, supports multi-touch image resizing and rotates the image from portrait to landscape orientation as needed, it doesn’t have a memory card slot and it doesn’t have access to the apps in Android Market. It does, however, function as an ebook reader and to that end has access to the Barnes & Noble eBookstore. The control panel has a little more heft than some of the newer tablets but has a solid feel and proved very responsive.

Already installed in the control panel are apps for Facebook, Yahoo, the Snapfish online photo service and other websites. Also installed is a Delta Airlines app, the first of what HP representatives said would be a handful of links to airline ticketing systems. The app will allow users to print out their board passes in four clicks, HP said. The control panel will evolve over time and more apps may be added in the future, HP representatives said.
The eStation can send faxes over the Internet, thus negating the need for a telephone line, and supports two-sided printing. According to HP, the unit can generate up to 33 black and white pages or 32 color pages per minute, its scanner tops out at 1,200 by 2,400 dots per inch and the unit supports the 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi standards.

Video, photo and text Copyright 2010 Stadium Circle Features

Samsung Galaxy Tab Does Adobe Flash

During a press conference last week for the newly announced Samsung Galaxy Tab, Kevin Lynch, chief technology officer at Adobe, showed off how the Android-based tablet can do something Apple’s iPad can’t: Play videos, games, web tools and other online content created with Adobe Flash.

The Galaxy Tab comes with the Android 2.2 operating system–the same used on popular Android smartphones–and comes with support for Adobe Flash 10.1.

During the Samsung press event in New York, Lynch showed how the tablet handled the video-heavy Major League Baseball website and a couple of Harry Potter online games.

The Galaxy Tab will debut with AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon and a Wi-Fi-only version will be available later. The unit weighs well under a pound, has a 1GHz Hummingbird processor, 16GB of internal memory (expandable with memory cards), and a 7-inch screen.

Want to see more? My video of the Galaxy Tab in action is available at PC World.

Video and text Copyright 2010 Stadium Circle Features