RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5
In the past few years, Research In Motion has gotten a lot of flak from technogeeks griping about the company’s resistance to change while Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android steadily gobbled its once formidable share of the smartphone market.
Even the release of BlackBerry OS 6 was panned by critics as not being revolutionary enough at a time when RIM really needed to come up with something impressive to stem the tide from the iOS and Android wave.
Then the BlackBerry Tablet OS was released. Immediately, one of the first questions that came up was, “Why isn’t RIM using this on its phones instead of BlackBerry OS 6?”
Which brings us to the BlackBerry PlayBook. As RIM's first crack not just at the suddenly sizzling tablet market but at a totally different BlackBerry OS, the PlayBook plays a key role in the company's continued relevance and ability to remain a key player in the portable electronics sector.
So does this PlayBook have the diagram for BlackBerry's success moving forward? Let's take a closer look.
Solid hardware, speed: Build quality is nice and solid. The PlayBook certainly doesn't feel cheap.
The dual core 1GHz processor is also quite snappy. Multitasking is excellent as the tablet hums along nicely even with several apps open, easily switching between tasks. Games such as Need for Speed also ran well on the PlayBook.
Nice display, media options: High-definition content looks great on the PlayBook's 7-inch screen. Video formats the device can play include MPEG, DIVX and WMV. And yes, the device can play Flash for folks who decry the lack of support for that format by the iPad.
The PlayBook also has HDMI output for those who want to make business presentations or simply view content on their TV at home. You can also record up to 1080p video using the 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, with quality being better than video taken with the iPad 2. Audio options include MP3, AAC, WMA.
Good interface: Folks hardwired to using a “Home” button may be taken aback at first. But once you get used to the BlackBerry Tablet OS, it’s actually pretty neat. The interface is pretty simple. Besides the basic tapping and swiping gestures seen in other touch devices, the PlayBook OS also uses upward and downward swipes from the bezel to minimize windows.
Everything is pretty much integrated within the screen interface, with the only physical buttons being the two for volume and the one for powering on and off, though you could power off from the screen as well. The virtual keyboard also works nicely.
Enterprise and productivity: The PlayBook has productivity tools right off the bat that allow you to view, create and edit documents like Word, PowerPoint and Excel. That’s good news for business folks and students on the go. In fact, I typed up a good portion of this review in Docs to Go during a trip to Japan. Enterprise is also great provided you’re already invested in the BlackBerry environment.
BlackBerry synergy: Speaking of the BlackBerry environment, BlackBerry phone owners will love the connectivity options of the PlayBook with their smartphone. BlackBerry Bridge lets you sync your mail and contacts to the tablet and even tether with your BlackBerry to access the Internet when WiFi isn’t available.
Nicely portable: As someone with a 63-inch TV and 17-inch laptop, I’m a big fan of large displays. Lugging around that 17-inch latop and even an iPad when I’m out and about, though, can be a bit of a pain. Unless I’m on a long trip, those devices pretty much stay at home. The PlayBook, though, is perfectly sized for folks who value extra portability whether they’re traveling cross-country or just going to their favorite cafe.
App selection: The selection of full apps for the PlayBook falls short of the number of native apps available for the iPad, which is at more than 65,000 as of June 2011, according to Apple. The official count from RIM is 3,000 apps developed specifically for the PlayBook and more than 35,000 apps overall for Blackberry App World. But RIM also counts wallpapers and e-books as apps.
A spokesperson for RIM did confirm that upcoming Android and Java app players will enable developers to easily port over supported applications to the BlackBerry Tablet OS, which should help beef up the PlayBook’s app lineup.
Too BlackBerry dependent: Unlike iPad or Xoom, which are quite functional even without an iPhone or Android phone, the PlayBook requires having a BlackBerry phone bridged to the device to take advantage of some basic features like e-mail and messaging. You can still do those via the cloud. But it would’ve been nice to have a more direct way of doing that. On the plus side, at least you don't need a PC or iTunes to start using it like the iPad 2.
Limited video chat: While the PlayBook comes with a 3-megapixel front-facing camera, it initially launched without any robust video chat apps, a curious omission since one would think video chat would be an important feature for business. The OS v1.0.3 update did add a native video calling app but that’s limited to just chatting with other PlayBook owners.
Price: Although the WiFi-only PlayBook is priced comparably with the Wi-Fi-only iPad at $499-$699 (depending on internal memory), one would expect RIM’s tablet to be a bit cheaper due to its smaller screen size.
Size: Speaking of size, there will be some folks out there who likely will be turned off by the PlayBook’s smaller size. Although I value the extra portability of the PlayBook, for example, I also know folks who preferred having a bigger tablet more along the lines of the iPad, Xoom or Galaxy Tab 10.1. One minor gripe I also have is the design and placement of the power button. On one hand, it’s great because you definitely won’t press it by mistake. But it also can be a bit of a pain to press when you mean to do so.
Battery life: In a normal world, five to seven hours of battery life — which is the range I pretty much got with the PlayBook — is actually not that bad. But with the iPad getting 10 hours, it looks a bit lacking.