Research in Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook has been much-maligned, including by yours truly (see BlackBerry PlayBook: Beware of the demo-ware tablet). But, as I said when I first got my hands on the device, the PlayBook's low expectations have led to some pleasant surprises, and I think there are definitely a couple types of users who would prefer the PlayBook to any of the other tablets on the market.
- OS: QNX, BlackBerry Tablet OS with with symmetric multiprocessing
- Processor: 1GHz dual core Texas Instruments OMAP4430
- RAM: 1GB
- Storage: 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB internal
- Display: 7-inch WSVGA, 1024x600
- Battery: Lithium-ion 5400 mAh
- Ports: Micro USB, Micro HDMI, 3.5mm headset
- Weight: 14.4 ounces (425 grams)
- Dimensions: 7.6(h) x 5.1(w) x 0.4(d) inches
- Camera: 5MP rear-facing, 3MP front-facing
- Sensors: Accelerometer, GPS, digital compass, 6-axis gyroscope
- Keyboard: Virtual QWERTY
- Networks: LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+ models later in 2011
- Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
- Tethering: Only to a BlackBerry smartphone
- Price: $499 (16GB), $599 (32GB), $699 (64GB)
Who is it for?
What problems does it solve?
Based on BlackBerry's overcomplicated smartphone UI that makes users constantly dig through tons of menus, I didn't have much confidence that BlackBerry could deliver an excellent user experience on a tablet. But, the PlayBook pulled it off. The user experience is simple and self-evident, with no buttons and two basic gestures — swipe-up and swipe-down. It's as easy to use as the one-button iPad solution, but without just blatantly ripping off Apple. The other big innovation in the PlayBook is the Web browser, as mentioned above. The page-load times are really quick, the fonts render beautifully, and RIM and Adobe worked together to pull off a Flash experience that virtually seamless. For example, you can take a lot of high quality Flash videos on Web page and throw into full screen mode and they look great and render flawlessly. You can even output these high quality videos to an HD TV via the PlayBook's HDMI port and they still look great.
- UI and performance - The user experience is the biggest surprise of the PlayBook. It is easy to learn, smooth to navigate, and has some of the best and fastest responsiveness that you'll find on any smartphone or tablet. It is a completely different experience than a BlackBerry smartphone.
- Full-featured Web browsing - As we've already talked about, the Web browsing experience on the PlayBook is excellent. The Flash implementation is well-done. Even though I'm not a fan of Flash, it's still a big part of the Web and will be for years, until HTML5 replaces it. Oh, and the PlayBook already handles HTML5 quite nicely.
- Usable word processor - One my biggest complaints with the iPad is that there isn't a decent word processing app for taking notes, writing letters/memos, building basic documents, etc. Apple's Pages app is a little too complicated than it needs to be and apps like iA Writer are nice but almost a little too bare bones. The PlayBook has the happy medium. Its Word To Go app (see screenshot) is the best word processing app I've used on a tablet. It is dead simple to use and has the most important basic features for building a good document. Plus, it's free and installed by default. This is where RIM's acquisition of Davaviz — the company behind Documents to Go — has really helped.
- Brilliant for multimedia - The graphics performance and LCD display on the PlayBook are another big plus — and another pleasant surprise since the BlackBerry isn't known as a multimedia powerhouse (although its high-end phones have been making strides in recent years). The PlayBook is terrific for watching videos and looking at photos. The images are crisp, the colors are vibrant, and the performance is snappy.
- Email and calendar require a BlackBerry - The thing you most often hear the PlayBook getting dinged for is the fact that it didn't ship with native email, calendar, and contacts apps (RIM says it will add them later this year). What the PlayBook does offer is the ability to use its Bridge feature to connect to a BlackBerry smartphone and then use its email, calendar, and contacts on the PlayBook's larger screen. However, the actual data never resides on the PlayBook. It remains locked down in the BlackBerry phone, which is a plus for users that need tight security. The other thing to keep in mind is that if you use Web mail such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, the Web experience on the PlayBook is good enough to handle light email and calendar tasks.
- Needs more apps - The biggest problem with the BlackBerry PlayBook when you compare it to the iPad is the the lack of apps. On the iPad, apps extend the functionality of the device in lots of different ways, for business, for personal productivity, for entertainment, and much more. While RIM claims that the PlayBook ships with 3,000 tablet-optimized apps — "more than any of our competitors at launch," according to co-CEO Mike Lazaridis — the problem is that the iPad has 75,000 apps now and a lot of important partners who are committed to the platform. RIM will never be able to compete with that, but if it can forge partnerships to get key apps like Amazon Kindle, Evernote, Dropbox, and Netflix on to the PlayBook, then it would have a much easier time winning over a larger niche market. However, companies appear reticent to jump on the PlayBook bandwagon. Amazon initially announced that it would release a Kindle app for the PlayBook launch, but is dragging its feet in fulfilling that promise.
- 7-inch form factor has its limits - The thing that limits the great Web and multimedia experience on the PlayBook is the 7-inch screen. There are times when it's just a little too small to clearly read Web pages and when some of the details can get lost in videos due to the smaller screen.
Bottom line for business
The BlackBerry PlayBook is the perfect choice for two types of tablet buyers — 1.) BlackBerry loyalists who want the perfect compliment to their smartphone and 2.) people who want a tablet primarily for mobile Web browsing from the conference room, couch, bedroom, and other places where you don't have a full PC and don't want to whip out a laptop.
For high security enterprises and government organizations that are already committed to the BlackBerry platform and have employees clamoring for iPads, the BlackBerry PlayBook is potentially an excellent tablet solution to run private apps and intranet services.
Where to get more info
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.