Quick Look - BlackBerry PlayBook
PROS: solid build, fast hardware, great battery life, tight smartphone integration
CONS: limited apps, non-functional BT, no SD slot, requires BB smartphone for PIM functionality
Previewed heavily at CES in Vegas this year, the BlackBerry PlayBook is RIM's stab at the Apple iPad and other Android-based tablets. The slate measures a compact 7 inches across the screen diagonal, making it very small and portable, much like Samsung's Galaxy Tab. That's about where the similarities end.
The device itself has a very solid build and is all metal with a non-slip, matte texture. It feels very good to hold. The only glossy area is the display panel itself, so like every other "touch" device, you will be wiping the screen of fingerprints constantly. On the bottom you will find micro-USB and micro-HDMI connectors while at the top is a power button, volume rocker and headset jack. Very spartan, but enough to get things working.
Powering on, the slate first requires you to create an account, after which it automatically downloads the latest device update. This procedure requires an active wifi connection, so if your home network is locked down, you will need to open it up in order to complete setting up the device. The step-by-step on-screen guides are simple to follow, and swiping/typing on the screen is foolproof and accurate.
Using the default apps on the device quickly shows that the user experience is very solid and pleasant. There is no lag at all, switching between apps is instant, and I can have multiple apps open. Browsing is also a lot easier than the trouble I had on the Galaxy Tab. I was able to navigate to more than one flash video site and watch streaming content with no buffering or stutter. The speakers are loud, and the video player was able to handle 720p and 1080p easily. Most importantly, I was able to edit and create posts on Blogger.
Corporate entities already deploying BB smartphones within it's workforce should be especially interested. As the platform runs the same software, and security services, it will allow much wider and faster integration. The biggest strength will no doubt be the ability to run custom applications for businesses. With RIM's install base in the enterprise already substantial, the PlayBook has a serious shot of becoming a slate specifically tailored to business use.
Unfortunately, the PlayBook, like all first-gen slate devices, has it's issues. As with the Galaxy Tab, the core social networking apps such as facebook, skype and twitter were missing. Using the browser does allow you to work with facebook and twitter through their website, but I have to question why slate manufacturers insist on putting a front-facing camera on a device if it remains useless?
The same is true for Bluetooth. While I was able to successfully pair the slate with my notebook, I was unable to connect because the slate refused to recognize any BT service I threw at it. As it turns out, the PlayBook supports only three BT profiles, DUN, HID and SPP. Of those three, DUN and SPP only work with BlackBerry smartphone devices. And since there's no SD card slot on the device, you need to use a USB cable if you want to move files between your PC and the slate - fail!
One of the very first things I noticed was that there was no PIM functionality at all on the slate. The brains at RIM expect PlayBook owners to have a BlackBerry smartphone to connect and sync with for all your contacts, calendar and email info. That's ok for BB smartphone owners, but shouldn't it be the other way around? What if I don't own a RIM smartphone? I think a better approach would have been to include PIM functionality standard on the slate, with the ability to sync and share with BB smartphones built-in.
As with the Galaxy Tab, the number and selection of downloadable apps was a disappointment. Fanboys can cry all they like for slates being consumption devices, but until I see a working Hulu and Netflix app that allows video streaming, my netbook remains my mobile consumption and creation device of choice. Even my Touch Pro 2 smartphone from 2009 handles music and bluetooth better than the PlayBook.
Put simply, if BT would have worked and RIM included PIM functionality as standard, I would have given this slate a recommendation. As it is, though, the Playbook is just yet another slate wannabe showing off it's immaturity.
I can understand RIM's mindset - they want to take care of their existing customers. But is such tight integration with BlackBerry smartphones necessary in a slate? At $499 (16GB), it's certainly less useful and more expensive than a netbook. But I shouldn't have to own a BlackBerry smartphone to get full functionality! Voice calls and tethering aside, it should be the phone that complements the slate, not the other way around.
If you're an existing BlackBerry smartphone owner, the Playbook will most certainly interest you, as will enterprises with a sizable existing deployment of BB smartphones. For everybody else, if your plans don't include a smartphone from RIM in the near future, you're better off looking at an alternative slate platform.