RIM PlayBook: BlackBerry Tablet Makes a Run at Businesses Despite Flaws

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.