We evaluate the first wave of PlayBook apps to emerge
Robert S. Anthony
Ultimately the success or failure of the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook tablet will rest on the apps that fill its sharp, snappy 7-inch touchscreen. According to RIM, 3000 BlackBerry Tablet OS apps are in the pipeline; but even a day before the PlayBook went on sale, most of the major names in mobile apps were missing from the BlackBerry AppWorld store.
RIM says that this state of affairs will change once the PlayBook hits stores. In the meantime, here’s a potpourri of apps that do exist - and that caught our attention. The available apps vary in quality from a lame, noninteractive guide to shoe sizes to a well-researched, map-assisted Australian public toilet directory to sophisticated apps from Slacker (included in this slideshow), Kobo, and Microsoft’s Bing.
1. Mediafly OnAir
The Media OnAir app (version 4.01) has one key advantage: After you register with Mediafly.com and select what you want from more than 30,000 audio and video feeds, you can access the content from any mobile device or desk-bound computer. The deep selection is neatly divided into subjects ranging from technology to cooking and drinks, and includes popular sources such as the Wall Street Journal's WSJ.com and ESPN Radio. The neat, thumbnail-laden interface is easy to navigate. Though video content usually loaded smoothly, it was at the mercy of the quality of the Internet connection.
2. iSpeech Translator
The functional iSpeech Translator from iSpeech.org has a simple interface, but it lets you choose between typing in the words or phrase you need to translate and saying it aloud. The translated phrase is printed and spoken with a smooth voice. Currently the app (version 1.0.6) can understand seven spoken languages and read back the translation in 18 languages. The voice translator worked well in a quiet room with the PlayBook's own microphone and when tested with an external handset.
You won't find Hollywood blockbusters here, but Canada's National Film Board (NFB) app provides access to all of the films in the NFB's Online Screening Room, including an HD Channel with videos that give the PlayBook's high-resolution display a good workout. You can manually search for a film, hunt by category or browse a list of featured films. Short-film favourites like the cartoon "The Cat Came Back" contribute to an extremely diverse collection.
It won't help you find theatres or buy tickets, but MovieNews by Media RL (version 1.05) does an adequate job of neatly organising information on recent and upcoming films and newly released DVDs. A handful of trailers are accessible on the front page, the right side of which offers a tally of the highest-grossing films. A search box at the top provides access to data on thousands of films, complete with box art, overviews and cast lists with photos.
The official weather app for the ASPCA comes up short on actual weather forecasts, but it's long on animal-related news, photos, and advocacy. The left side of the screen offers three days worth of temperature-only weather forecasts, plus an animal photo and short tips such as "Night owl for a pet? Try feeding him a big meal at bedtime". The right side provides a steady feed of animal-related news stories and profiles of adoptable animals. Most important, PetWeather (version 1.0.1), which draws its data from AnythingWeather.com, provides warnings and advice on how to care for pets during extreme weather.
The Piano app (version 1.01) from Aberrant Software is just that - with no recording capability included - which may be fine if you've never taken a piano lesson and simply want to doodle with the keys. What separates this Spartan-looking app from others is that it supports multitouch, so you can virtually run your fingers across the keys or practice chords by touching multiple keys at once. It's simple and fun, but it lacks any options or customisation possibilities. Other piano apps in AppWorld also make good use of the PlayBook's responsive touchscreen and stereo speakers, and you can expect to see many more.
7. Slacker Radio for BlackBerry PlayBook
Among the few of the first salvo of BlackBerry tablet apps hailing from a big-name online service, Slacker (version 1.0.58) doesn't disappoint; allowing as much functionality as Slacker apps for other platforms. Unlike other music services, Slacker.com has real people do its music programming - a throwback to the days when local radio stations had live deejays. As a song plays, you can click to view the artist's biography, lyrics, or album reviews. Slacker, which provides unlimited free music on the PlayBook, lets you program your own station based on artist or songs and to identify songs that you like or want to ban.
RailTimes-Caltrain (version 1.0.2) by Jason Pittenger is a simple but practical app that a busy San Francisco Bay Area commuter might want to keep handy. Once you've selected the origin and destination stations, the app immediately brings up a current train schedule with indicators that let you know whether itundefineds a direct ride or requires a transfer. The app's one-click access to rail-related news and @caltrain Twitter tweets allows commuters to keep up with late-breaking delays or schedule changes. Obviously this platform could easily be ported to other mass-transit systems.
9. Localipedia for BlackBerry PlayBook
Basically an easy way to get information out of Wikipedia, the Localipedia (version 1.0) app from marc & seppi is useful for travelers who want a little history or other detail about their destinations. The app would work better with GPS assistance, but since the Wi-Fi-only PlayBook lacks that, you must enter your data manually. Here again, a simple interface with large fonts works well with the PlayBook's sharp display.
10. TuneIn Radio
The TuneIn Internet radio app from TuneIn.com radio app was - until last weekend - the top free app in the BlackBerry AppWorld for the PlayBook. Then the listing disappeared. We still have it installed on our PlayBook, but now it's listed as "not supported by your current device". This assessment seems strange, given that the version we installed operates smoothly and delivers high-fidelity stereo audio. It offers easy access to more than 30,000 stations; and its pleasant, simple interface simplifies the task of selecting stations by genre or location. As a song plays, the appropriate album art comes up on screen. TuneIn also makes it easy to add songs to a list of favourites or to move on to other stations with similar content. We await its return.