PlayBook's Rush To Market Ruins The Tablet For Non-BlackBerry Users [REVIEW]

Blackberry playbook

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

The much-hyped BlackBerry PlayBook is finally here. It’s the first tablet from RIM, and the first to be marketed directly to enterprise and business consumers who love the security and stability that go with the BlackBerry brand.Click here to see a photo review of the PlayBook >

RIM packed a lot of impressive hardware features into this seven-inch tablet, and you’ll feel it right out of the box. But the PlayBook is still missing a lot of the essentials I’ve come to expect from a tablet, making it feel like RIM rushed this thing to market before it was fully ready.

Lots Of Power In A Small Package

At first glance, the PlayBook seems tiny with the screen switched off. I was actually a bit surprised at first; it even looked smaller than Samsung’s Galaxy Tab.

Then I turned the display on. Brilliant. colours are bright and vibrant, and HD video is the best I’ve seen on a tablet so far. Apple should take note. If there’s one killer aspect of the PlayBook’s hardware, it’s in this gorgeous seven-inch screen. This is what video should look like on a tablet.

The stereo speakers add even more to the video experience. Unlike the iPad, there’s a speaker on either side of the screen, offering excellent stereo sound. It’s much better than the tiny mono speaker I’m used to when watching video on a  tablet.

The PlayBook feels great too. The design is a dead simple rectangle with rough angles, but it’s thin, light, and easy to hold for long periods of time without getting tired. I’m not crazy about the tiny buttons on the top for power and volume though. They’re difficult to control with adult-sized hands. Luckily, you don’t need the buttons for most tasks. Almost everything from turning the device on to returning to the home screen can be done with touch gestures on the screen.

BlackBerry PlayBook screenshot

Photo: Screenshot

Like most tablets now, the PlayBook includes a front-facing and rear camera. The front-facing camera has good image quality compared to most tablets out there, but there are no video chatting apps available yet. The rear camera takes decent photos and video, but there’s no flash, so make sure you’re in a well-lit area before using it.

Besides the video quality, the PlayBook’s touch responsiveness is my favourite feature. I never understood why Apple seemed to be the only company that could master multitouch and accurate touch input. The PlayBook is the only non-Apple device that nails it.

What’s Missing?
Overall, I love the hardware on the PlayBook, but there are a few glitches that really turn me off. First of all, there’s no way to get media on or off the tablet right now. I tried plugging it into my Mac with a USB cable and got a window on the PlayBook saying drivers were being installed.

Nothing happened.

Next, the PlayBook displayed a message saying I should download RIM’s BlackBerry desktop software, which is supposed to let you sync content from your BlackBerry device to your computer. I did.

Nothing happened.

This will likely be fixed in a future software update, but for now you’re stuck. There’s no way to load photos, videos, or music on or off the PlayBook. That’s especially frustrating considering there’s no media store like iTunes to download content from.

In the end, I had to access the web version of Gmail and email screenshots and photos to myself. That’s inexcusable.

One final hardware flaw: The PlayBook only comes in a wifi-only model right now, with no plans for a 3G version until the summer. If you want to access 3G you’ll have to tether to a Bluetooth phone, although you’re subject to extra fees from your carrier.

Pricing seems a bit high too, considering you’re paying the same price as an iPad 2 for a smaller tablet. There are three models: 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB that cost $499, $599, and $699, respectively. It won’t kill your wallet, but you’d think RIM would price the PlayBook a bit more competitively.

Where Are The Apps?

The biggest blunder RIM made was rushing the PlayBook to market before apps and other standard features were ready. As you’ve probably heard by now, there’s no way to email or manage your calendar from the tablet unless you already have a BlackBerry phone you can tether to. It’s like buying a bike with no pedals. How RIM could skip out on those essentials is beyond me.

Blackberry playbook

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

BlackBerry AppWorld, RIM’s app store, is a joke. I scoured every featured app, every category, every add-on in BlackBerry’s AppWorld and couldn’t find anything useful. No Netflix. No video chat apps. No media store for downloading movies and music. AppWorld is littered with subpar games and basic utilities like battery monitors and RSS readers that either don’t function or cost more than they’re worth.RIM’s answer to the lack of app selection is twofold:

First, you get the “full web” with the PlayBook, meaning they see no reason for apps when you can get most of the same services through the web browser. The flaw in that logic is that so many websites aren’t optimised for tablets and other touchscreen devices. That’s why apps are so popular on iOS and Android, they take advantage of the platform and deliver content in ways a browser can’t.

Second, RIM wants you to wait. Support for Android apps is coming. Email and calendar management is coming. When? Probably within the next two months. But that doesn’t change the fact that the PlayBook is on sale starting today, and anyone who doesn’t have a BlackBerry phone is stuck with a half-functioning tablet.

That’s the same argument we heard with Honeycomb, and now, two months after the Xoom’s release, we have yet to see a solid selection of decent apps.

Browsing, Multitasking, And User Experience
But while poor app selection is a giant flaw with the PlayBook, there’s plenty here to get excited about. First of all, I was very impressed with the web browser. It’s fast and responsive and there’s a neat tab system where you swipe down from the top of the screen to cycle through open tabs or add a new one. I like the tabs a lot more than Honeycomb’s browser on the Xoom. And of course any browser with tabs trumps the iPad’s browser.

Flash support is great too. Video looks incredible, especially on Hulu and YouTube. It’s probably only a matter of time before Hulu blocks access from PlayBook’s browser, but for now the experience is superb. Flash video is a burden on the tablet’s battery though, so use it sparingly if you’re not close to a charger.

Hulu on the BlackBerry PlayBook

Photo: Screenshot

While multitasking takes a little while to get used to (whenever I hand the PlayBook over to someone new to try they always have difficulty figuring out how to return to the home screen and switch between apps), once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty intuitive. It’ll be blatantly obvious to anyone who has used WebOS that RIM basically ripped off HP/Palm’s multitasking system. But hey, it works.

You can cycle through open apps by swiping left or right. Swiping from the bottom of the screen up gives you a zoomed out thumbnail view of your open apps. What’s really cool is those apps continue running, even as you scroll past it. For example, if you cycle through apps while watching a video you can still see it playing in the thumbnail. Just tap to resume to full screen. Very cool.

I also enjoyed the other touch gestures. At first it’s a bit jarring that there are no physical buttons on the front of the screen. There isn’t even a virtual toolbar with home buttons like you see on Honeycomb tablets. Everything is controlled with gestures, which is a refreshing take on how to control a touchscreen tablet.

When the display is off, simply swipe from bottom to top to flip it back on. Swipe down from the apps menu to view your open apps and cycle through them. I’d love to see Apple and Google adopt gestures like these into their future tablets and phones.

Should You Buy It?
If you are a BlackBerry user, have always been a BlackBerry user, will always be a BlackBerry user, and could care less about a robust app selection, then yes, the PlayBook is the right tablet for you. You’ll get the same secure, and speedy email and contact management the BlackBerry brand is known for. In fact, pairing with your BlackBerry is really your only option if you want to unlock the PlayBook’s full potential.

Everyone else is pretty much out of luck. If you don’t have a BlackBerry phone or love opening up your tablet’s potential with new apps, you’re going to be really disappointed.

It’s likely those missing features will be announced at the BlackBerry world on May 3, but what good is that? The PlayBook is on sale now, not two months from now, and its absurd to ask customers to wait for essential features that every other tablet already has out of the box.

The PlayBook is a solid attempt, but I’d hold off on buying it until RIM has time to add Android app support and other features enticing to non-BlackBerry owners.

A nice thin profile. It's even thinner than the original iPad

The display is sharp and can be switched on with a simple swipe gesture

There's a USB port for charging or syncing to your computer. You can also display video on your HD TV from the HDMI port

The volume and power buttons are tiny and difficult to manage

The rear-facing camera takes decent photo and video, but there's no flash

There's a front-facing camera for video chat, but no apps take advantage of it yet

The app selection is pretty awful

Touch is incredibly responsive and easy to use. It's better than any Android device out there

The screen resolution is much better than the iPad's

Now check out a Honeycomb tablet hitting stores tomorrow

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