RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet: A study in contrast
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.
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