Speaking of multitasking, this very ability is key to the PlayBook’s interface, as are gestures. Like HP’s WebOS, you don’t have homescreens filled with widgets and apps, but instead the homescreen is reserved for showing the apps you have running. To open an app you use the app launcher that runs along the bottom – swipe up and the launcher fills the screen.
The app launcher can be organised into Favourites, Media and Games and the icons can otherwise be moved around into whatever order you want. You can’t create folders though.
Once an app is open it will fill the screen as you’d expect. It’s here that gestures start to come into play. Swipe up from the bottom and the app is minimised to a large thumbnail size on the homescreen, and if it’s a video (flash video included) or game it will continue running in the background. Now you can continue opening other apps, and minimising them as you please, swiping left and right between the thumbnails to pick the one you want. When you’ve decided you no longer require an app you can tap the ‘X’ button or swipe it upwards off screen.
Although unfamiliar, this interface does actually work very well. We wouldn’t say it’s better than the iPad and Android style but it certainly has its advantages. What it doesn’t address, though, is the need to actually view two apps at once in sensibly sized windows – just like on a desktop OS – it’s either fullscreen or a thumbnail. Not that any other tablet offers this sort of functionality yet…
Nevertheless, some of the other gestures are great additions. Swipe down from the top bezel and if you’re on the homescreen it will open the system settings. If you’re in an app it will open the options for that app. Alternatively, swipe down from the top right corner of the screen and the system status bar that runs along the top of the homepage pops up. From here you can access wireless and Bluetooth settings, lock the screen orientation, check the battery level or open the full system settings. Flick up from the bottom left corner and you bring up the excellent on-screen keyboard.
This combination of gestures is brilliant, letting you know where you stand in terms of how to access basic features and you can do all these things without interrupting whatever you’re doing in the background. Incidentally, you can change the settings to make apps pause when minimised or when another app is maximised, to help save battery life.
One set of gestures we’re not so keen on, though, are the one used to move between open apps. Swipe left or right from the right and left bezels respectively and you can move from your current app to the next one without minimising and reopening. However, not only is this not all that useful, it also adds complication and, worst of all, we often found we’d activate these gestures when simply trying to interact with the app we were using – most commonly when trying to pinch-to-zoom.
The PlayBook QNX interface is, in general, a joy to use. Remove those left and right gestures and iron out the few moments of stuttering performance and it’ll be up there with the best.