Update: RIM has announced the 4G LTE BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which supports the fourth-generation mobile internet and is set to be rolled out in the UK by the end of 2013. The maker claims that it will be considerably faster than the original BlackBerry Playbook.
The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet from RIM isn’t trying to be the Apple iPad 2, just like the Bold isn’t trying to copy the Apple iPhone 4. They’re completely different animals with a different raison d’etre.
However, with Apple’s anaconda-like vice grip on the tablet market, the success of RIM’s fledgling effort will be doubtlessly be defined by how it compares to the mighty iPad. What does it do, if anything, that the iPad can’t? Does it boast a superior brain? And does the 7-inch form factor seem a better fit?
BlackBerry PlayBook: Design
RIM opted to fit the PlayBook with a 7-inch screen, taking on the form of a moleskine paper notebook that could slide into a suit jacket of one of BlackBerry’s beloved “end users.” The bezel around the edge appears a little thick, but it does boast the advantage of being touch sensitive, which is a big part of navigating the OS.
At 425g it’s lighter than the iPad 2 (601g), and very comfortable to hold with one hand, while still feeling reassuringly weighty. It’s a fine line that RIM has walked perfectly. The softish rubberised back is a masterstroke which makes the device really comfortable to hold, even when reading one-handed for longer periods of time.
The top power button feels cheap and is hard to access, but design guru Tom Wood told T3 at BlackBerry World that the company doesn’t expect people to use this on the always-on PlayBook. You can wake the device up by swiping across the screen instead. The HDMI out is also a great option.
BlackBerry PlayBook: Screen
The 7-inch, 600x1024 LCD screen is, in the main, pretty good. HD video trailers on YouTube are really vivid and colourful, with fantastic clarity. Homescreens, menus and webpages are a little less impressive when compared to the iPad 2. Text isn’t as crisp and colours somehow feel a little drab. It lacks the wow factor.
In terms of the hands-on stuff, flicks and swipes across the screen are generally greeted with an accepting step into action (although sometimes you may find yourself having to ask twice) but pinching to zoom on webpages is nowhere near as effective and intuitive as it is on iOS devices. It feels clunky.
Typing in apps like Word-to-go isn’t as appealing as it is on the iPad, it’s just not an enjoyable experience, despite the responsiveness of the keys.
BlackBerry PlayBook: OS
BlackBerry’s Tablet OS borrows heavily from Palm’s (now HP’s) webOS thanks to the app cards UI that run across the homescreen. However, BlackBerry’s business approach means the attractive curves are gone in favour of a tight gym body.
After they’re opened by the conventional means, apps can be minimised by flicking up from the touchscreen bezel and then closed by pushing it off the screen, just like on the Palm Pre. It’s a great way to get around the PlayBook and feels very natural.
Multitasking allows you to have games, video, music, browsers or whatever else open, while you scroll through the cards, in and out of the apps and you’ll find yourself whizzing around the device using these gestures.
A big plus is the presence of Flash on the device, unlocking a host of web video that can easily be plugged into your TV via the HDMI out.
Browsing is a decent experience on the PlayBook, but nothing special, while the PDF reader, and office apps will go over well with the business types. Speaking of work, BlackBerry Balance allows you to keep your work and personal communications separate.
BlackBerry PlayBook: Performance
The PlayBook boasts a 1GHz dual-core Cortex-A9 processor, which, supposedly makes it on the same plane as the iPad 2, or at least it should be.
During our tests, performance is nowhere near as fast, and whereas the iPad 2 almost pre-empts your touch, the PlayBook sometimes needs a little think, especially when opening apps, while switching the device on takes ages.
Multitasking is available and, in theory, you can have a HD video, game, music app and web browser all running concurrently. In practice it works very well, with no frustrating slowdown. Apps like Need for Speed: Undercover take longer to load than we’d like, though.
BlackBerry PlayBook: Apps
The BlackBerry App World has about as much depth as a Vin Diesel movie and although there’s some big names on the way (Angry Birds this summer), there’s not a lot for new PlayBook owners to get their teeth into right now. It does have the first ever designed-for-tablets Facebook app, which is everything you’d hope for it to be.
The video chat app is BlackBerry’s Skype and FaceTime rival. There’s also a neat music store app on board.
The saving grace for the bare-cupboarded App World is access to Android apps in the BlackBerry App Market. The Android Player functionality will be able to interpret the code of apps designed for Android and submitted to RIMs store.
It could be a lifesaver, because judging by the examples showcased at BlackBerry World, RIM hasn’t enticed that many developers to do new and exciting things.
BlackBerry Playbook: Camera
With a few exceptions, cameras seem to have taken a massive step back on tablets, and the 5-megapixel snapper on the PlayBook almost seems like an afterthought. There’s no flash or touch-to-focus and we can count ourselves lucky that we can zoom. That being said, it can churn out decent snaps in good lighting conditions.
The 1080p camera, doesn’t really feel like full HD at all and again is largely dependent on perfect sunlight to coax out some half decent footage. There’s no effects or settings in this department either. It’s also absolutely criminal that there’s no way to share pictures via email or social networks using the app. This really needs to be rectified.
BlackBerry PlayBook: Battery life
Although there’s no official estimates available from RIM, the PlayBook will get you through the day. We got about seven hours of web browsing, video watching and general piddling about out of the device. That puts it about level with the Apple iPad 2.
BlackBerry PlayBook: Verdict
The 7-inch form factor is perfect for RIM fans, while the design, build and OS are very good. However, sadly, this isn’t the tablet to break the Apple stranglehold. There’s no 3G option presently, the screen falls a little short and there just isn’t enough here in terms of high-level apps and functionality to make this a smart choice over the similarly priced iPad 2.
The PlayBook has a bit of an identity crisis in that it wants to serve its core BlackBerry audience, but also fulfil the first syllable of its name. The words place, rock and hard spring to mind. It’s still the best 7-incher out there and something very different, and the hardware and OS is already in place.
Let’s hope RIM can improve the device as time goes on, but there’s a long way to go and we’re not even sure BlackBerry loyalists will instantly fall in love with it in its present guise. All in all, we must say we’re a little bit let down and are fearful that the PlayBook could be this year’s Palm Pre.
Blackberry PlayBook availability: Available now
Blackberry PlayBook price: £499 (16GB) online