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.
BlackBerry Bridge Tethering Feature
For those addicted to their BlackBerry-easily identified by the permanent notch in their pants’ waistlines, from the clip for their device holder-the decision to purchase a PlayBook is perhaps an easier one. Via the BlackBerry Bridge tethering feature, the PlayBook can display a nearby BlackBerry’s emails, calendar and other vital information, which disappears once the smartphone is taken out of range.
For early adopters, BlackBerry Bridge is also the only access to anything resembling a native email and calendar app. While the PlayBook’s home screen offers shortcuts to Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Gmail and AOL Mail accounts, these all open in the browser. RIM is promising a native app that consolidates email across various accounts, but it could take months before this appears. In the meantime, those who live with their BlackBerry practically grafted to their hand will have a decided advantage over those who chose an Android, Windows Phone or iOS device.
Although the PlayBook currently lacks a built-in 3G connection, those wanting WiFi on the road can tether the tablet to a Bluetooth-enabled device. In other words, the PlayBook (in its current form) isn’t a stand-alone tablet like the others on the market; if you want the broadest possible functionality, whether to update your calendar or use Bing Maps while in the car, you’ll need a secondary device. This could prove a deal killer for some people.
As befitting a manufacturer for devices aimed primarily at business, the PlayBook offers a selection of built-in productivity software. Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go allow the user to view documents and perform light edits. Adobe Reader displays PDFs very handsomely on the PlayBook’s 7-inch screen, although the gesture controls can prove frustratingly unresponsive at moments.
When it comes to transferring files, the PlayBook is essentially the world’s most expensive USB stick. After connecting the tablet to a PC, and installing the appropriate driver, a window pops up with a list of folders. You can drag files to and from those folders for seamless loading (and off-loading).
BlackBerry’s App World does feature a selection of additional productivity apps, but that storefront feels positively sparse in comparison to those offered by Google and Apple. Presumably, HP will make a concerted pitch to tablet-app developers once its webOS-based devices begin rolling out this summer, and Microsoft could do something similar once it begins a harder consumer-tablet push in the United States. RIM is in something of a double-bind here: While the company could embrace support for Android apps in order to compensate for its current lack, that runs the risk of strangling any developer enthusiasm for its homegrown platform.
In any case, if apps are indeed the key to a particular device’s popularity, then RIM finds itself in something of a poor position-and likely hoping, as with the native email app, that additional time and work will somehow fix the situation. Given the aggression of RIM’s competitors in the space, though, that time is probably limited.
On top of lacking games, native email support and a broad selection of apps, the PlayBook is also a little buggy. The browser crashes, occasionally, and the screen sometimes refuses to obey your increasingly frantic finger-swipes. The clock on eWEEK’s review unit refuses to budge from 14 minutes behind. The Bing Maps app requires a bit of wrestling. One hopes that future updates will iron out some of these minor kinks.
If you own a BlackBerry-or belong to a company that’s BlackBerry-centric and obsessed with mobile-device security-then the PlayBook is probably worth your consideration. BlackBerry-free individuals and companies, though, may want to hold off until RIM bakes more functionality into (and removes some of the bugs from) the platform.
In essence, the PlayBook feels like a work in progress. The question is whether people will give RIM’s device the time it needs to develop into a full-on tablet competitor.