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The BlackBerry PlayBook is RIM's entry into the burgeoning tablet market that is currently dominated by Apple. It faces a stiff competition from the iPad and the various Android tablets that are just now coming to market. Does RIM have what it takes to compete at this level of consumer tablet? Is the BlackBerry PlayBook something that the average customer should be parting with their hard-earned money for?
In a nutshell, no. The PlayBook has a lot of things going for it, solid hardware, speedy processor, and dual-cameras. But hardware is only half the story. And the story of the PlayBook is as much about what RIM left out as what it put in. The PlayBook is not quite ready for prime time, and could definitely benefit from going back in the oven for a little bit longer, especially on the software side. Considering that ensuing updates to the OS and integrated apps could improve the PlayBook, bear in mind that this review is current only as of launch time: April 2011. Read on to find out what the PlayBook does right, and why we think it is sorely lacking in other areas.
The hardware on the PlayBook is really quite nice. The 7-inch size, no matter what Steve Jobs says, is very easy to hold in the hand and use while on the go. Unlike the iPad, which almost requires that you put it down in order to type on it, the PlayBook accommodates typing with two thumbs quite easily. The tablet weighs just under a pound, at 425g (0.9 lb), which is enough heft to give it a solid feel without being too heavy to easily carry around. Not to mention the fact that the 7-inch size can fit in many more jacket pockets than a 10-inch slate.
The screen itself is very nice to look at. The 1024 x 600 pixel resolution provides crisp images and colors really pop off the screen. Viewing angles are phenomenal and outdoor viewing was even usable, if not exactly great. The screen is capacitive multitouch glass, and we found it to be very responsive to the touch.
The bezel around the screen is rather large, but part of that is because it includes a gesture area that is used to initiate functions in the OS such as multi-tasking and settings. Dual speakers frame the front on the left and right sides and pump out some of the loudest sound we've ever heard from a mobile device. They offer rich, full sound. At the top of the PlayBook, within the bezel, is a light sensor and the 3 megapixel front facing camera.
The sides of the PlayBook are coated with a soft-touch rubber that has a quality feel and provides some grip. The PlayBook is a svelte 10mm (0.4 in) thick, which is certainly thin enough in our opinion. On top of the device are a power button, volume controls, and a play/pause key for media. A 3.5mm headphone jack is present as well. The power button is very small and quite difficult to depress. Thankfully, the tablet can be activated by swiping from one side to another, without using the button. On the bottom of the tablet are three ports: micro-HDMI, micro-USB, and a three pin accessory dock connector.
The back of the PlayBook is fairly sparse, save for the chrome BlackBerry logo dead-center and the 5 megapixel camera centered at the top. The position of the camera works well, never once did we find our fingers blocking the lens while we snapped a picture. The entire back is coated with the same soft-touch rubber that is on the sides of the PlayBook. It provides nice grip without showing fingerprints or minor scratches. The overall design of the PlayBook is a delight in minimalism, and the squared edges are very different than the tapered sides that we see on the iPad and other tablets.
RIM offers an option to pair a BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook via its Bridge app. This allows access to the mail and messaging (as well as contacts, calendar, and tasks) data that exist on the phone and lets the user manage those from the tablet. The apps only appear when the phone is paired, within range, and connected, and all of the information immediately disappears from the PlayBook when the devices are disconnected.
RIM positions this as a security feature for enterprise customers, as they will not have to re-certify each tablet for their networks. While it is a nice feature to be able to access a phone's email system on the tablet, it is no excuse for not having a true email client on the tablet, especially with email and messaging being something that is so important to the BlackBerry brand. RIM's CEO has promised that an update is coming that will provide a real email app, but no timeline has been given as to exactly when. Frankly, it's something so essential that should have been bundled at launch, otherwise the PlayBook appears like a half baked contender as a standalone tablet.