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.
Plenty of Hardware Under the Hood
The PlayBook relies on a 1GHz dual-core processor paired to 1GB of RAM. With that sort of hardware under the hood, applications and the Web operate without a stutter, although some of the former occasionally took a notable time to load. The operating system is particularly multitasking-happy, capable of preserving multiple open apps in the background. Paired with Flash support, that presents some potential challenges for battery life. The device also becomes noticeably warm within its first few minutes of operation-not “fry an egg on the back” hot, but definitely noticeable.
The tablet’s 5-megapixel camera is leaps and bounds better than the ones found in BlackBerry phones. RIM’s engineers have included a neat feature: If you hold down the “-” and “+” volume buttons on the top of the device, the PlayBook takes a screen-capture. With more native communication apps coming at a later date, it may even be an easy process, at some point, to actually port those images from your tablet onto another device.
Loading files from a PC onto the PlayBook is a snap, via USB. Within 10 seconds, I had managed to drag several PDFs and documents from my desktop onto the device, along with a selection of music. The PlayBook seems to handle many everyday functions-including document viewing (via a well-rendered Adobe Reader app) and editing (via Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go)-with ease. 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.
The operating system looks and feels polished, but comes with occasional annoyances. While the screen itself is very touch-sensitive, various apps (particularly Adobe Reader) sometimes have a hard time recognizing a swipe or tap. One PDF document I tested seemed to have a mind of its own, sometimes flipping through two or three pages in response to a single leftward flick, other times kicking me back to the home screen. The Bing Maps app is very neat, but sometimes requires a bit of wrestling. Presumably future updates will iron out some of these minor kinks.
Much has been made in early reviews about RIM’s lack of apps for the PlayBook platform. This is indeed a problem, although App World is populated with enough to give all but the most app- and game-hungry user a start on populating their device. If and when Android apps come to RIM’s ecosystem, that could radically change the game-but for now, anyone seriously considering a PlayBook purchase probably shouldn’t put apps at the top of their list.
In essence, the PlayBook is really two devices. If you own a BlackBerry, it’s the rough draft for a tablet that could eventually serve as a viable player on the tablet market. If you’re BlackBerry-free, then your decision-point on whether to buy a PlayBook should probably come a few months down the road, once RIM introduces more functionality and irons out a few kinks. The PlayBook’s lack of 3G connectivity may not matter to many users, particularly those already interested in WiFi-only tablets.