RIM's PlayBook offers a BlackBerry-branded alternative to the iPad and Android tablets. But can it succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace?
Research In Motion's PlayBook offers
users a BlackBerry-branded alternative to the Apple iPad and other tablets
currently flooding the market. But does the 7-inch PlayBook offer enough unique
features-and few enough drawbacks-to persuade consumers and businesses to
choose it over any of those competitors?
That's a question that RIM needs
answered in the affirmative. While the BlackBerry enjoys adherents among
business users, the smartphone franchise has steadily lost ground over the past
several quarters to the likes of Apple's iPhone and the growing family of
Google Android devices. Microsoft, in partnership with Nokia, will make a hard
push over the next few years with Windows Phone 7, and Hewlett-Packard has big
plans for the webOS. Faced with that multi-front competition, RIM has focused
on developing a multi-device ecosystem capable of appealing both to its
traditional business audiences and consumers.
The long-in-development PlayBook is a
vital part of those plans. Its proprietary QNX-based operating system, which
emphasizes multitasking, will eventually find its way into future BlackBerry
smartphones. The hardware is more advanced than anything currently in
BlackBerry's stable: a 1GHz dual-core processor paired with 1GB of RAM and a
choice of 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of memory; Adobe Flash support; front- and
rear-facing cameras a step above RIM's usual muddy excuses for apertures; and a
touch-sensitive casing for navigating through on-screen menus.
That casing may be one of the PlayBook's
more unique features. Flicking your finger along the tablet's bottom-center
BlackBerry logo brings up the home screen; flick downward from the tablet's top
edge, and menus will drop down; swipe across the sides to cycle through active
apps. There are some points of familiarity here for anyone familiar with
Android or iOS, including gridlike screens of individual apps, but the gesture
control and menu design is sufficiently different from other mobile operating
systems to present something of a learning curve for most users.
The PlayBook's virtual keyboard is
roughly on par with its Android and iOS equivalents; if you're familiar with
those, this one will pose little trouble. There's no Swype yet, though, for
those who like running their fingers around a keyboard as opposed to tapping.
"How do I use it?" was a
question frequently asked by people handed the device at random. "Where
are the buttons?"
Fortunately, a newly purchased PlayBook
boots with a short tutorial that brings the owner up to speed on basic
functions. Activated for the first time, eWEEK's review unit also began
downloading and installing a 295MB software update, suggesting that RIM is
continuing to adjust the tablet's software even at launch.
In a further bid to stay competitive,
RIM has priced the PlayBook at $499 for the 16GB model, $599 for the 32GB model
and $699 for the 64GB version. That places the device roughly in the middle of
pricing for the tablet market, and toe-to-toe with the iPad 2, whose 16GB
version retails for $499, 32GB for $599, and 64GB for $699.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs may have
denigrated the 7-inch tablet as a size insufficient for most people's needs,
but the ability to hold the PlayBook in one hand is a definite selling point-if
only because you can more easily manipulate the screen while on the move. It
fits easily into most bags without trouble. The rubberized backing prevents the
device from sliding around on smooth or tilted surfaces, and it feels sturdy
enough to take, if not an outright beating, certainly the usual wear-and-tear.
In several meetings with eWEEK
throughout the winter, RIM executives suggested they were working to tweak the
PlayBook's battery life. Adobe Flash support and multitasking may be selling
points, but they also drain power like nobody's business. The PlayBook's
battery life is advertised at 8 to 10 hours, but eWEEK's testing suggests 6 to 7
hours is probably more accurate, especially when running lots of video and
games. The PlayBook becomes noticeably warm after only a few minutes' use, but
not hot enough to fry an egg.