Hands on: BlackBerry PlayBook tablet -- released before it was ready?

RIM's new tablet has potential, but it's missing too many important features

Because of its association with the BlackBerry brand, Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook will appeal to businesspeople, but on arrival it lacks many corporate must-haves, such as email and 3G wireless data connectivity. In fact, it feels like it was rushed to market.

The PlayBook's rubberized surface has a silky feel to it; I prefer it to the naked plastic or aluminum that most tablets use. However, at 5.1 by 7.6 by 0.4 in. and weighing 15 oz., the device feels chunky for a 7-in. tablet -- it's thinner but 2 oz. heavier than the 7-in. Samsung Galaxy Tab.

PlayBook
BlackBerry PlayBook

The touchscreen feels cramped compared to the 10-in. displays on Apple's iPad 2 and Motorola's Xoom. Still, it's responsive, supports multifinger gestures and boasts 1024- by 600-pixel resolution.

Because the screen's bezel is touch-sensitive, the PlayBook can do things the others can't. For example, you can swipe your finger up, down or side to side on the frame to reveal app menus, go to the home page or move between apps. The only buttons, by the way, are power, volume and a play/pause button on the top.

Inside info

Inside the PlayBook is a 1-GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM (that matches the iPad 2's memory, but it's twice what the Galaxy Tab offers). The PlayBook is available in three models:16GB ($499), 32GB ($599) and 64GB ($699). Unfortunately, like the iPad, it lacks a microSD card slot to add storage. It has a 3-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera.

Here's a small problem that I found rather irritating: The review unit didn't sit flat on a table; it wobbled if you pressed on a side or corner.

Rather than Apple's iOS or Google's Android platform, the PlayBook is based on QNX Neutrino software. I can't fault the operating system on performance -- it didn't lag and can easily run several programs at once. Unlike the iPad, the PlayBook has a Flash 10.1 player. The device worked without a problem with YouTube and several online games. I was also able to play music while using the included calculator and Acrobat reader.

Where are the apps?

Strangely, though, the PlayBook arrives without key apps -- an email client, a calendar and an address book -- that are typically standard fare for tablets. As an alternative, you can use a Web email service with the PlayBook's browser.

One of the reasons it comes so ill-equipped is that you are supposed to be able to wirelessly tether the PlayBook to a BlackBerry smartphone with BlackBerry Bridge software. Presumably, at that point you would check your email and schedule on your mobile phone. Unfortunately, the PlayBook seems to have shipped without the ability to tether to AT&T phones, something that AT&T is apparently working on.

Speaking of software, at last count RIM's App World had 27,000 programs available. That isn't even close to the hundreds of thousands of programs in Apple's App Store and the Android Marketplace. It's even missing some mainstream apps such as a Skype client. What's more, most of the apps that are available at App World were designed for BlackBerry phones.

While the big selling point of BlackBerry smartphones is that they're supposed to offer the ability to work anywhere, the PlayBook disappoints because it can't tap into a 3G or 4G mobile data network on its own. RIM has promised to add Sprint (WiMax), Verizon (LTE) and AT&T (HSPA+) network connectivity by this summer.

Until then, the PlayBook makes do with an 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi connection. The device stayed connected with my office's network 100 feet from the router, 10 feet farther than Samsung's Galaxy Tab.

In tests, the PlayBook's battery ran for 4 hours and 15 minutes of continuous video playback over YouTube. The system comes with a USB cable and an AC adapter; RIM sells an optional charging dock for $70.

Bottom line

According to a RIM representative, the company has promised to fill in some of the gaps -- it will one day offer apps for email, contacts, tasks and scheduling, as well as wireless connectivity from Sprint, Verizon and AT&T. Meanwhile, however, the idea of a tablet that can't fully operate on its own doesn't really work, especially in today's market -- so my advice is to keep shopping.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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