It's been quite a journey following RIM's PlayBook tablet from announcement to launch. The amount of hype this device has received can't be understated. We've seen plenty of videos and more showing the PlayBook smoke the iPad in web page rendering, showing off its touch-sensitive bezel, confirming that it runs Android smartphone apps and cheering at its iPad-mirroring price points, but that was before we settled in with it.
Now that we've welcomed it into our home, is the PlayBook worth going gaga for in the real world? Click on for our full review.
Beefy Littlest Tablet Yet
We've said it before and we're going to say it again: the PlayBook flies, thanks to its dual-core 1GHz Texas Instrument processor and 1GB of RAM. The PlayBook's 7-inch 1024x600 touchscreen is crisp and its speakers are loud. I found RIM's tablet to be the perfect device for watching movies, viewing photos and listening to music on the go. No, seriously, it's not too small like a smartphone and not too large as an iPad or Xoom. In public, the PlayBook is the perfect size without shouting out loud to everybody that you've got a tablet in your hands.
I really like that the PlayBook supports a large array of video codecs so you don't need to encode your library into a single format like on the iPad. On the front and the back are dual 1080p HD cameras for taking snaps and videos. While the cameras won't replace your point-and-shoot or DSLR, the cameras do get the job done (under good lighting). It's also reassuring to know you're carrying 1080p HD video capabilities in a device that is slightly thicker than a pencil.
Simply put: the PlayBook is a multitasking beast. Apps remain open while switching and I hardly ever noticed a slowdown. The battery is long lasting, too: I got over 8 hours on the PlayBook with daily use consisting of reading lots of web pages and watching a few movies with Wi-Fi turned on — brightness at 50 percent.
If you want, the PlayBook even supports a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. It's a little awkward to use a mouse to drag the touch sensitive bezels down, but it works.
Flashing the iPad
A big differentiator for the PlayBook is that it runs Adobe Flash content. It's not perfect, but it works for the most part. Provided you've got a good Wi-Fi connection, YouTube videos and Flash websites such as Newgrounds load without problems. As an iPhone and iPad user who's all but forgotten about (and given up on) Flash support on mobile devices other than on a high-end netbook, it's good to see it again. Android tablets and smartphones run flash, but many report that it doesn't run it well. There's lots of lag and slowdown — the whole works, but on the PlayBook, it just seems to work. If it takes dual-core processors and 1GB of RAM to make Flash run smoothly, RIM's managed to do it — in a tiny package no less.
Slick Touchy Bezels
One of the absolute best features on the PlayBook is its touch-sensitive bezels. There is no "Home" button on the PlayBook. Swipe the left, right, top or bottom bezels and panes slide down revealing different options. It takes a little getting used, but I love it. It feels new, refreshing and intuitive. If the PlayBook gets one thing right, it's the underlying QNX operating system. It's a beauty and it's smoother than a baby's butt.
No Real Killer Apps (yet)
Perhaps the biggest letdown that ultimately makes the PlayBook look like a non-competitor is its weak library of apps in the BlackBerry App World store. I don't want to sound like I'm bashing it, but it really does suck. Almost immediately upon booting the PlayBook up, I headed straight for the App World. RIM boasts 3,000 apps, but what I saw was a pile of bug-laden crashy apps that made me hurry up and exit to the browser, log on to Facebook and look for someone to bother or something to "Like." All those Android apps I was excited for? It'll come in a future update.
The bottom line is, the ecosystem of a tablet revolves around apps. I need them in order to engage with the tablet. Without apps, there's a limit to what you can do before you get bored with the PlayBook. Checking your Twitter and Facebook every 10 seconds can only be so entertaining until it's not. I want good games to play with other than Need for Speed: Undercover and Tetris, which both come pre-loaded on the PlayBook. Even considering I've played the likes of Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies to death, I realized I wanted them. I want a Garageband on the PlayBook to create music. I want an iMovie on the PlayBook to edit videos of my dog. I want Flipboard to read my news. I want apps that matter — not "CrApps."
No Syncing Client (yet)
As far as I can tell, the BlackBerry Desktop manager (iTunes equivalent for BB users) hasn't been updated to include syncing to the PlayBook (yet). For most people, dragging and dropping their photos, videos and music directly into their device as a mountable drive is fine, but I like being organized. I like having a central app that shows me everything that's in the device. I like the system of iTunes working seamlessly with any iOS device. Where is that on the PlayBook?
I was all psyched to enter the world of BB desktop syncing, but unfortunately it's non-existent. I'll make do with the PlayBook showing up as a mountable USB drive for now, but I fully expect RIM to push out an updated Desktop manager very soon or else I might go bald from ripping all my hair out.
No 3G or 4G Models (yet)
While Apple is able to push out its iPad 2 in both Wi-Fi and 3G flavors simultaneously on two different networks, the PlayBook is (for now) stuck with a Wi-Fi only model. Now, I get the prospect of being able to tether a BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook, but not everyone has a BlackBerry smartphone. For the professional and workaholic (like moi), editing a few Google Docs on the Subway, answering a few emails and not being able to sync it up immediately unless I connect to a Wi-Fi spot is a bit of an inconvenience. The choice to buy a Wi-Fi or a 3G/4G model should be available from launch.
RIM did say that the PlayBook will come in 4G models later this year on Sprint and other carriers (yet to be announced), but by then, it might be too late. Nerds like me who have been following the PlayBook like a mosquito might just wait for the PlayBook 2 by then. RIM might have looked at the Samsung Galaxy Tab's 3G-only option as a reason to offer a Wi-Fi only model first, but the only one who's laughing all the way to the bank is Apple — the one with Wi-Fi and 3G iPads on AT&T and Verizon in black and white.
Patience Is A Virtue
The PlayBook is a solid tablet hardware-wise that's held back mainly by its sometimes buggy and "unfinished" software. Essential things such as an email client, useful apps, Android app support as well as bug fixes will no doubt be ironed out in future software updates, but that's no excuse to ship consumers a half-baked product.
I long for the day where products actually come fully functional with all their core features in tow (Nintendo 3DS, I'm looking at you). Right now, buying a PlayBook is like buying a batch of flower seeds. The seeds look okay, but the flowers they bloom into is what you really want. My advice is to wait for these features to roll out into the PlayBook. When they do, the PlayBook will look more complete. You'll feel like you're getting what RIM promised.
Early adopters can pick up a PlayBook starting tomorrow, April 19 at Best Buy and Best Buy Mobile stores in 16, 32 and 64GB models for $499, $599 and $699.