SmartHouse got its hands on a PlayBook tablet running a recently-updated version of the BlackBerry Tablet OS almost a week before its US debut – here are our impressions.

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With tablets running on Google’s tablet-optimised ‘Honeycomb’ operating system set to hit the Australian market soon and the iPad 2 already out, it looks as though Research In Motion (RIM) is behind in the tablet game. A play with the tablet shows quite the opposite though – the PlayBook is one strong contender. Though the look was brief, here’s what stood out.

The 7.5 inch wide tablet comes in slim at only 5 inches tall and 4 inches thick. It’s quite noticeably petite, and if you’re hoping for a wider screen then look away – there’s no indication of one on the horizon. While three other 4G versions of the tablet are set to hit the US “at the back half of this year,” there’s no talk of a wider screen.

Despite the small form factor, the PlayBook is one tiny powerhouse, multitasking games, videos, Flash sites and other content without lag.

During a demo of the unit, Jaques Basson (from the Sales department of BlackBerry) claimed that the PlayBook could run as many tasks or open as many windows as you give it, be it twenty or thirty. With around 6-8 windows open, including games and videos, the tablet gave a warning of sorts in the top corner indicating that we should close some windows.

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That could just be a pre-emptive safety measure though seeing as there was no physical slow-down. The fact that we had so many content-rich applications opened at once and running smoothly on such a small device was testament to the processing power of the little unit.

Support for web standards like Flash and Java is “deeply integrated” into the QNX-based software, and it makes browsing content and the internet seamless. Flash websites run the same as they would on a PC given a fast enough internet connection, and scrolling in and out of the window presented no slowing.

The actual controls are a slight change to Android and iOS, mainly because of the layout of the user interface, but it works well. The 7inch screen is accompanied by touch control that extends over the bezel, so swipes of the finger from the bottom of the frame upward brings up lower menus while slide across pushes through menus or across opened windows.

This functionality makes for an intuitive menu grabbing function that lets you peel menus out of the top and corners of the screen. Windows cascade from left to right across the screen, and closing windows is as simple as an upward swipe, while switching between apps takes a swipe left or right. It’ll take a second to get used to but, once you’re into the flow of it, it feels natural.

In a demo of the unit, BlackBerry coined the unit as a ‘professional-grade tablet’, specifying that this isn’t limiting the tablet to professionals, but more as a mark of the premium quality of the device.

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That being said, BlackBerry is pushing into the corporate world of business professionals with a few perks from the QNX-based software shining here. The PlayBook uses BlackBerry Bridge to link with corporate data that can be displayed and used on the tablet. For security reasons, the data isn’t retained on the PlayBook if the connection is severed.

Also, being able to pair the screen up with a TV to mirror content to a big screen adds to the business-centric potential of the tablet. That being said, being able to watch 1080p video on such a small screen might make consumers favour TV mirroring too.

The on-screen keyboard features well-spaced keys that are responsive and easy to reach – here the small form factor shines. Typing on PlayBook’s Docs To Go app is simple but functional, like using a simplified version of Microsoft Office software.

With apps pushing the success of smartphones and tablets, RIM has been adopting a developer-friendly approach to its App World application store. Android apps are made available on the PlayBook by a simple port made by developers of apps, which then go through RIM’s more stringent app security tests than Google’s. There are currently “over 1,000 developers” making apps that run on the PlayBook.

The software we looked at on the PlayBook just came out, though RIM says that next week’s official release will have a final version of the OS, but this will still run the same pre-loaded apps and user interface as the current version we tested.

Aussies can expect the PlayBook to hit shores some time in Q2 this year after next week’s US release.

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