To say that Research in Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook is a study in contrasts is an understatement. After extensively testing a PlayBook ($500 for 16GB of storage, $600 for a 32GB version, and $700 for 64GB) that was running not-quite-final software, I'm impressed by its convenient size and novel navigation, but I found the tablet's sometimes primitive native software and selection of apps frustrating.
In some respects, the PlayBook is the most impressive tablet I've seen to date. Its approach to navigating among open apps is a joy; I was able to move among them faster than on any other tablet. But native apps like the PlayBook's browser have disappointing glitches, and you won't get much help from downloading third-party apps -- only 3000 will be available at launch (compared with the 65,000 available for the iPad), and I still haven't seen many marquee names among them.
The first thing you'll notice about the PlayBook is that it's compact and light. Like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the PlayBook has a 7-inch display, significantly smaller than the 9.7-inch iPad 2. At 7.6 inches wide, 5.1 inches high and just 0.4 inches thick, the PlayBook is small enough to comfortably fit into a generous coat pocket, and yet provides enough screen real estate to feel like a significant improvement over a standard smartphone screen. Its depth falls smack in between the Galaxy Tab and the iPad 2, at 0.1 inch thinner than the Galaxy Tab, and only 0.06 inch thicker than the svelte iPad 2.
And its weight? Just under 1 pound (exactly 0.94 pounds, according to the PCWorld Labs' scale), which makes it 28 percent lighter than the 1.3-pound iPad 2. By comparison with other tablets I've used, the PlayBook felt downright featherweight. It was by far the easiest to hold, whether you use two hands or one. The PlayBook feels solidly built, with a velvety-smooth, textured back. I do wish the edges were more rounded (they are squared and angular), but that didn't bother me too much.
While you can use the PlayBook in portrait mode, it's designed to work best when held horizontally. In that landscape orientation, the PlayBook's 3-megapixel front-facing camera sits centered over the top of the screen, with several buttons flush along the edge: the power button (which is miniscule, stiff, and difficult to use), volume buttons, and a mute button that doubles as a play/pause button. At back, centered along the top edge, sits the 5-megapixel camera (which has no flash). The stereo speakers are front-facing, and centered at either side of the screen; my smallish hands never came close to blocking the speakers, though those with large hands might have a different experience. (The audio output from the PlayBook's speakers is the best I've heard yet from a tablet.)
Along the bottom of the tablet are three ports: HDMI Micro, microUSB, and a magnetic rapid charger connection. The PlayBook has three different charging options: slow, fast, and really fast. Unlike most tablets, the PlayBook can charge fully off of a standard PC USB port (at 5V and 500mA), but it'll take a while. The process goes almost four times more quickly, according to RIM, if you use the included microUSB wall charger. If that's not fast enough, you can spring for either of two $70 options: the Rapid Charging Pod or the Rapid Travel Charger. The rapid charging options rejuvenate the PlayBook battery nearly twice as fast as the wall charger, RIM says.
Inside the PlayBook, you'll find a competitive set of components. The tablet is powered by a 1GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of memory. This initial iteration connects to 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, but lacks any mobile broadband connection; for that, you'll have to wait until late summer, when RIM will release 4G LTE and WiMax versions of the PlayBook. The unit I tested came with 32GB of on-board storage; as mentioned, it is also available in 16GB and 64GB. You'll need to choose your capacity carefully, since, like the Apple iPad, the PlayBook has no memory expansion card slot.
Interface and Multitasking
The PlayBook runs RIM's new BlackBerry Tablet OS, based on software from RIM subsidiary QNX, which builds operating systems for everything from in-dash car appliances to electric guitars. This OS has a fresh look and feel, and its touchscreen navigation concepts are novel and innovative, albeit it with a few bumps.
Let's start with the basic navigation. The PlayBook has no home button. Instead, touch controls are integrated into the bezel, and you navigate about with swipes that originate outside the screen, or move down or up towards the bezel.
The gestures work differently depending on the context. For example, if the PlayBook is asleep, you can wake it by swiping up from the bottom bezel into the screen. Once you're on the home screen, a swipe up will reveal a screenful of app icons. If you're in an app, swiping up will close the program.
The PlayBook's home screen is divided into three components: A narrow status bar up top; a large horizontal navigation pane in the center that shows thumbnail images of your open apps; and along the bottom, the first row of the app menus. These menus are by default divided into folders: All, Favorites, Media, and Games. The status bar at top gave one-tap access to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, battery life percentage, and general settings info.
Within the navigation pane, you can swipe from side to side to move among open apps -- an easy way to switch among tasks. When you're not on the home screen, you can always reveal the status bar by swiping down from the corners. And when you're in an app that uses the keyboard, you can swipe up from the bottom bezel to reveal the keyboard.
While it sounds complex, the navigation system is intuitive and quickly becomes second nature. The PlayBook is also responsive: Screens refresh quickly, and transitions and scrolling are snappy. On the whole, RIM has come up with a simple and elegant approach to navigation that is easier and more flexible than the iPad 2's iOS 4.3. One thing I miss: the active widgets on Android 3.0 that keep you updated with bits of information without having to open an app.
Individual apps sometimes have additional menu options that can be revealed by dragging up or down from the bezel. The problem is that those options aren't always obvious. Built-in apps like the Web browser, the music player, and the video player have no visual cues alerting you to additional menus or navigation options. It was only through experimentation, for instance, that I found that if you swipe down from the top bezel, you'll see a convenient horizontal scroll of thumbnails of your videos, so you can easily hop to another selection in your library.
The BlackBerry's notifications are unobtrusive: Messages appear in the upper right corner to tell you that the battery is running low, for instance.
Media and File Handling
The PlayBook's handling of video, music, and pictures is a mixed bag. It does some things extraordinarily well: For example, the OS can power two different graphics activities simultaneously, so you can output 1080p video via HDMI to a TV and still surf the Web on the PlayBook -- with no degradation of image quality. Flash video played fine inside a Web page, though occasionally YouTube or Hulu videos wouldn't resize properly to fill the screen. If you leave an app that's in the middle of playing a video, then return later, the PlayBook instantly resumes the video at just where you left off. That's impressive given how klutzy other tablets are in that situation.
You can buy music on a PlayBook through 7digital, the same DRM-free store you can shop via a BlackBerry phone. RIM plans to offer a video store, but it's not ready yet.
This tablet had no issue with playing WMV, AVI, or even H.264 MP4 files I shot on my iPhone. The video player is nimble and quick to navigate, but it won't let you store videos in folders of your choice; instead, you must use the three default folders: All videos, Downloaded videos, and Recorded videos.
Images looked great -- crisp and sharp, with terrific color -- in the Pictures app. But this app is very basic: It has a slideshow mode, but no transition or playback options. It doesn't show image properties like EXIF data. And vertical images appear as small versions presented in horizontal mode; RIM said it will add that capability in a future update.
RIM makes it fairly easy to get content onto the Playbook. You have to install an app on your desktop, and use it to transfer content to the device wirelessly (the tablet acts like a wireless hard drive), or use the app's guided sync and transfer options. Impressively, it grabbed music from my iTunes library, skipping over some songs only because those tracks were protected by digital rights management. The music player that's built into the BlackBerry Tablet OS looks fine and operates smoothly, though its layout took a little getting used to, and it wasn't as easy as I'd like to build playlists on the fly.
I like the fact that BlackBerry Tablet OS browser supports Flash, but I was otherwise disappointed with its uneven behavior. The company says some of these issues will be fixed in a future update, but the stumbles made it hard to love the experience.
The browser lets you save a JPEG file to a Downloads folder that's accessible via the browser; however, I couldn't open the JPEGs I downloaded on the device. I had similar problems with some Word docs and PDFs that I downloaded, too, though other files saved and opened just fine in the preinstalled apps (Adobe Reader for PDFs; and the Microsoft Office-compatible Word To Go, Sheet To Go, Slideshow To Go). Stranger still, tapping on a file didn't consistently bring up the action to save it -- though when I did get the chance to save a file, the PlayBook also gave me the chance to rename it on the spot. Another frustration: the Download folder didn't consistently retain a history of the downloaded files; without that, or a general file browser so I could rummage on the tablet myself, those files felt lost to the ether.
I liked how I had a choice of viewing bookmarks as a visual icon, or as a text list that shows the URL. As with the rest of PlayBook's interface, there's a bezel gesture: Drag down from the top to reveal and flick among open tabs, add a new tab, check the limited browser options, and go to the Downloads screen.
The Web browser is as good a place as any to mention the on-screen keyboard. The BlackBerry Tablet OS doesn't have autocorrection; what you type, right or wrong, is what you get. And its keyboard felt cramped -- not surprising, given that the PlayBook has a 7-inch screen. A bigger issue is that the key placement is off-kilter, too. The rows of keys are not staggered as QWERTY keyboards almost always are, and that threw off my touch typing. I like the fact that the PlayBook shows both pop-up letters (as with iOS) and a blue tint as visual indicators of which key you pressed.
RIM stocks the PlayBook with a solid complement of preinstalled apps, but it has some notable omissions. As already mentioned, it has a Web browser, Picture gallery, music player, the AppWorld app store, and the 7digital Music Store. Also on board: A well-done YouTube app, a Podcast subscription app, a voice recorder, Bing Maps for navigation, a calculator, weather, and Slacker Radio (for capturing photos and videos).
Several games are preinstalled, including the NFS Undercover driving game, and Tetris. But in NFS Undercover, the accelerometer seemed to be too sensitive, and it would prematurely rotate the screen -- another thing RIM said its working on adjusting.
The strongest software on board is the Adobe Reader and the three productivity apps that stem from RIM's acquisition of DatavViz. These apps -- Word To Go, Sheet To Go, and Slideshow To Go -- provide interoperability with Microsoft Office documents, and allow for document editing and creation. I found them easy enough to use, though I was frustrated by how they stored files.
The PlayBook doesn't include any calendar, contact, or e-mail apps. The idea is that you won't keep any of that data on the tablet itself. Instead, you'll use a feature called BlackBerry Bridge to pair your PlayBook with a BlackBerry phone. That way, you can view your BlackBerry Messenger e-mail, contacts, and chats on the PlayBook's larger screen. When you decouple the tablet and the phone, the Messenger data disappears from the PlayBook -- an element of security that might frustrate consumers, but should appeal to corporate IS honchos who want to limit the spread of sensitive information. The Bridge feature wasn't fully enabled in time for this review; I'll report back once I can test it in full.
As a substitute for a native mail app, RIM offers four app icons -- one each for Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and AOL Mail -- that, misleadingly, redirect to those Web-based mail sites in the Web browser rather than to an installed mail app. Depending on the service you use, you will get more or less full functionality via the Web browser. (For example, the Gmail app doesn't let you attach files, unless you manually go to the "basic HTML" or "Desktop" version of the site.) And unfortunately, RIM's Twitter and Facebook offerings are similarly just shortcuts to the browser -- no substitute for an actual app experience.
RIM says it will launch the PlayBook with 3000 apps in its AppWorld store. Unfortunately, in the prelaunch testing period, none of the apps I downloaded particularly impressed me -- some appeared to be simple, almost DOS-like in their design. RIM says the PlayBook will be able to run Android 2.x apps (but significantly, not apps for Android 3.0, the tablet version of Google's OS), and only those Android apps that are sold via its AppWorld store; but the Android Player emulator that will enable this feat, along with the emulator that will run BlackBerry phone apps, won't be available until later this summer. Right now, I have to say that the PlayBook lacks compelling apps to complement its (mostly) compelling hardware and mobile OS.
The BlackBerry PlayBook gets a lot right, but it also feels very much like a work in progress. It could shine in the future, but for now it's constrained by its limited app selection, software glitches, and choices in functionality or design that should limit the PlayBook's popularity among consumers. Businesspeople who already depend on BlackBerry phones should value both the way those phones will interact with the Playbook and the built-in security of the platform -- and for that audience, those capabilities will override many of the PlayBook's other weaknesses.
Note: Since the Playbook's software is still being updated in advance of its launch, PCWorld is holding its rating until April 19.