(UPDATE: Please read our review of BlackBerry PlayBook’s 2.0 software update. It adds email, calendar, and some other features that we were critical of in this review.)
Although RIM only released the BlackBerry PlayBook last week, it felt like everyone in the tech community wrote it off as dead before it even hit shelves. A year ago, many reviewers wrote off the iPad as well. We’re not saying that the PlayBook will make a dent against the colossal success of the iPad, but we also don’t entirely know why people are buying tablets and what they use them for. As much as we like Android, RIM is the first company to make a tablet that is unique, simple, and intuitive enough to compete with Apple. There is a lot of promise in the PlayBook; RIM just needs time to follow through and release some of the missing components that are holding its new tablet back.
Choosing to size the PlayBook at 7 inches was either a good or very bad decision for RIM. Initially we didn’t care for the small size (about half that of an iPad), but the PlayBook does win you over with its practicality, giving it both benefits and drawbacks.
Where many of the 10.1-inch tablets coming out are large and hard to use on the go, the PlayBook lends itself more to mobility (doing things on the go) than larger tablets, which tend to be more in the portable category (you move and then use them). Thanks to the smaller size, and good use of visual cues and force feedback, the keyboard is easy to type on with your thumbs at a relatively fast speed in both landscape and vertical orientations. At the same time, however, there is no good way to type on the PlayBook using more than two fingers at a time. It’s easy to write a Facebook post on a PlayBook, but it isn’t a good tablet for writing a document or long email. But, to be fair, no tablet is great for typing, not even 10.1-inch units.
Still, while it is small, its resolution is not. The PlayBook screen boasts an impressive 1024 x 600 pixels, close to the 1200 x 800 the 10.1-inch Xoom runs at, and even closer to the iPad 2’s 1024 x 768 pixels. As a result, the PlayBook’s screen is sharp. Almost everything looks gorgeous on it.
Removing size from the equation, the PlayBook has a clean black look to it. RIM has taken design seriously this time. It not only looks simple and sleek, it feels sturdy and is built well. A nice rubberized grip covers the back of the unit, which prevents it from sliding out of your hands or off a table when you set it down.
The only physical problem with the unit is the power button that adorns its top. It’s absolutely tiny and doesn’t stick out of the unit enough to know you’ve even pressed it. Prepare to use your fingernail or a pokey object to turn the PlayBook on. It’s a painfully odd oversight. Worse, on the top of the tablet is a play button, which has the attributes the power button should have had. It’s larger, centered between the volume keys, and we have yet to ever need a play button. The volume controls are nice and work well. Hopefully RIM will fix this power problem, which will undoubtedly annoy almost everyone who uses the PlayBook. Luckily you don’t have to use the power button as often as on iOS or Android devices, as RIM’s tablet can be awoken from sleep with a swipe across the screen.
The PlayBook has two cameras, each on the horizontal middle of the front (2-megapixel) and back (5-megapixel). The rear camera is centered under the play button to prevent your hands from covering it. Both cameras perform terribly in low-light conditions, but sadly this is an industry-wide problem, not a RIM problem. It would be nice to have a flash for the rear camera, however.
Two speakers adorn the left and right sides of the front of the PlayBook as well. Like the cameras, they aren’t going to blow your socks off, but they are the best tablet speakers I’ve encountered. Most tablets, like the iPad and Acer Iconia Tab, have rear-facing speakers. The mere fact that RIM’s speakers face toward you is their greatest trait.
On the bottom of the unit is a mini-HDMI port, MicroUSB port, and a magnetic docking port. These are pretty standard, but it’s good to see them, nonetheless. There’s also a standard headphone jack up top.
BlackBerry Tablet OS is fun to swipe
RIM’s new Tablet OS is the PlayBook’s biggest advantage over the competition. The fledgling OS is far more fluid than Google’s Android Honeycomb OS due to its emphasis on gestures and, oddly, its lack of a customizable desktop (a feature shared by the iPad).
The PlayBook runs on a set of universal swipe-based gestures that, once learned, make the PlayBook a predictable and engaging experience. It’s a bit like learning how to ride a bike or playing a good video game. Once you get the rules, you are set. A tutorial guides you through most of the major motions. Hopefully, RIM includes an advanced tutorial in the near future.
The PlayBook is unique in that its bezel (the black border around the screen) senses touch like the screen. To turn on your PlayBook from sleep, you can hit the power button, or simply swipe your finger from the black area on the left all the way across the screen to the right (or vice versa). Once it wakes up, you’re on the home screen. A swipe from the top of the home screen will bring down the system settings. This is where you can set up Wi-Fi or whatever else you want to configure. Simply swipe back up or hit the arrow to minimize settings again. On the bottom of your home screen is a row of apps and app categories (All, Favorites, Media, Games). You can click on one of these to enter a category, hit the arrow on the right side of the screen, or swipe your finger up from the bottom of the screen to bring up the apps menu.
Like WebOS before it, the BlackBerry Tablet OS is built for multitasking. Whenever you’re in an application, you can minimize it and reenter the desktop by simply swiping upward from the bottom of the screen. At one point, we were running almost 10 apps simultaneously with little noticeable slowdown.
Want to quickly swap to the next open app in your list? Just swipe your finger from the left or right side of the screen. Want to enter the menu of an app? Swipe down from the top of the screen. Want to take a peek at the status bar for a minute while you’re in an app? No problem, just swipe down from the top left or right corner of the screen. Want to bring up the keyboard? Swipe in diagonally from the bottom left corner.
After a few minutes, these commands become second nature. Unlike Honeycomb, which seems to be getting clunkier and more Windows-like every day, the PlayBook’s interface is designed for speed and efficiency.