RIM PlayBook: An Early Look

RIM's BlackBerry-branded PlayBook is going head-to-head against Android tablets and Apple's iPad. Does it have a hope of succeeding in that battle?

Research In Motion has high hopes for the PlayBook. Not only will its proprietary QNX operating system eventually power the company's smartphones, but RIM hopes the BlackBerry-branded tablet will establish a robust presence in a market currently dominated by Apple's iPad.

At first glance, though, the PlayBook has more in common with other tablets on the market, particularly the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Dell Streak 7, than Apple's blockbuster device. Like the Tab and Streak, the PlayBook boasts a 7-inch capacitive touch screen, along with front- and rear-facing cameras for video chatting. The rubberized backing provides a little more friction (at least in theory) on smoother surfaces. The battery life is advertised in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 hours, roughly in line with other tablets on the market.

Like some early Android devices, though, the PlayBook feels a bit like a work in progress. Activated for the first time, eWEEK's review unit immediately began downloading and installing a 295MB software update, something also experienced by other early reviewers. This hints that RIM is continuing to tweak various aspects of the operating system ahead of the tablet's official April 19 release date.

The PlayBook also wants to know from the outset whether you own a BlackBerry, so it can set up the BlackBerry Bridge tethering feature. RIM likely expects the Bridge to help sell the PlayBook to those businesses that want tablets and already rely on the BlackBerry for their mobile-communications needs: With the Bridge activated, the tablet can display a nearby BlackBerry's emails, calendar and other vital information-until the smartphone is removed from range, which will also erase its information from the tablet's screen. While this is a nifty security feature, it also prevents anyone without a BlackBerry from leveraging everything the PlayBook has to offer.

Those with Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Gmail and AOL Mail accounts can access those services via icons that take you to the Websites for those respective services. It's a little more time-intensive than a native app that consolidates email from across your various accounts, but better than nothing.

RIM claims it will eventually add a native email client, contacts, a calendar and similar features. Until that day-and without a BlackBerry to provide a 3G connection-the PlayBook feels more like a highly polished prototype than a device ready for store shelves. The billion-dollar question is why RIM felt compelled to deliver the PlayBook now, as opposed to spending a few more weeks or months polishing the software to a brighter shine.

And shiny it is. Unlike some early versions of Android on tablets, which involved slapping the smartphone version of the operating system into a device with a larger screen, adding some awful "bonus" apps and calling it a day, RIM obviously put effort into designing an operating system that melds with the PlayBook's hardware. Instead of studding the rim of the device with mechanical buttons, RIM has opted to make the PlayBook's case touch-sensitive. 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.

The operating system preserves some features familiar to Android or iOS users, including gridlike screens of individual apps, but is sufficiently different from other mobile operating systems to present something of a learning curve for most users.