The BlackBerry PlayBook isn’t just the third major tablet platform to launch, or the first one to deeply poke at figuring out why 7-inch tablets should exist – it’s literally the future of BlackBerry, since the QNX-based OS is going to be the gooey software heart of BlackBerry phones in the next year or so. This is not a bad thing.
The first thought that’ll ripple through your crinkly brainfolds: “Man, it’s tiny.” It’s also pleasantly minimal, the face a buttonless void. It’s a real-world manifestation of the archetypal black slate. Which sounds boring as balls, but it’s not, because there’s a fairly remarkable precision in the way it matches what you expect a tablet to feel like. Cut like a tall paperback, but just a hair or seven thicker than an iPad 2 (and half as thick at the latest BlackBerry), it’s less than a pound. The back is just rubbery enough to feel grippy, but not so rubbery it feels gross. The screen, bright and pop-y (and glosssssy), just a shade short of killer.
PlayBook is the most thoughtful product that RIM’s put out in a long time. A BlackBerry has never been this smooth or fluid. It has the best multitasking of any tablet out so far, both in terms of straight-up ballsiness (you can pump 1080p video out to an HDTV via HDMI while dicking around in another app or two back on the tablet and everything runs neatly) and the UI, which it borrows liberally from Palm’s webOS. In an app, swiping up from the bezel pulls up the desktop/card view, where you can switch to a different app, or close them by flicking up on card. (Or you can switch directly from app to app by swiping from the left or right bezel. Swiping from the top bezel works like the menu button in Android – sometimes it pulls down additional options or features within the app, sometimes it doesn’t.) You can choose how you want to multitask: full-blown, every app stays open till the PlayBook has to kill them, or the default, where apps pause and resume, like the iPad and Android 3.0.
The most controversial thing about the PlayBook is that it doesn’t have independent, native apps for mail, contacts and calendars. Instead, you’ve gotta “bridge” via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry phone to get all that stuff on the PlayBook. The first-time setup is a little obtuse, with a QR code – and tethering for internet access through your BlackBerry requires a separate action – but everything from your BlackBerry shows up on the PlayBook, in fresh, tablet-ized apps that are clearly inspired by the iPad. It may be a security feature according to RIM but to everybody else, it’s just ridiculous. If you don’t have a BlackBerry or your phone runs out of juice, well, you don’t have access to those apps. Nightmare scenario: Your phone dies, there’s no Wi-Fi, and you need a contact’s info. You’re hosed.
The not-so-secret secret about tablets right now is that everything comes down to the apps. And, well, the app situation is, uh, complicated. RIM says it’ll have the most of any tablet at launch, with 3000. Most of what I’ve seen so far in the beta App World is junk – possibly it still has some issues making it hard to find good apps. RIM’s offering like a billion different ways for developers to get onto the tablet – AIR, WebWorks, a native SDK, even Android apps (one day). Some of the built-in apps, like Weather and App World, are actually written in AIR and feel fine, no less “native” than the slick little port of Need for Speed, which is promising. But it’s hard to tell what the app situation is gonna be like, ultimately (this dims my hopes a bit).
In the meantime, RIM’s pushing the PlayBook’s browser as the solution to all its problems, like no native mail app and the lack of apps like Facebook and Twitter at launch – there’s even Facebook and Twitter “apps” in the app menu, but they’re just bookmarks. The PlayBook’s browser isn’t bad – it scores 100 on the Acid3 test, and the Sunspider benchmark is just a shade slower than the iPad 2 at 2338.8ms to 2121.0ms. But it’s not a desktop class browser, either (even though in-flight Wi-Fi made me pay $US10 like it was a laptop =( ). Facebook is fine, but the standard Twitter page it links to barely works. I don’t love the font rendering, and pinch-zooming occasionally shoots you to a different section of the page. With Flash, I could watch Amazon Prime streaming, at least until an HD stream kicked in, and then it got super laggy. Even though the standard YouTube site with Flash works, it’s not exactly a joy to use either. Which is basically how I’d describe Flash on the PlayBook: It works, better than any other mobile device, but I still clench my asshole every time I have to deal with it.
For being so small, it’s got tons of muscle, like a freaky little dude on ‘roods. Everything’s fast, once it’s running (apps typically take a second longer to start up than they should.) It runs a solid handful of apps (simultaneously, if you want) without going catatonic. Awesome multitasking UI. The battery life is legit all day. Screen’s solid. The front camera is mega-awesome, compared to every other tablet and phone’s front camera. You can dump music and photos and docs on onto the PlayBook via Wi-Fi.
There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s still not there, or on RIM’s list of “coming soon”: No Android apps yet. You can’t create custom app categories. There’s no universal search to quickly find apps. You can’t re-arrange your open app cards. Half the time you try to touch a link in the browser, you don’t know if you touched it correctly or not – the feedback isn’t fast enough. Not a fan of the App World or Music Store interfaces – they feel cramped, and it seems hard to find good stuff. Needing to tether to a BlackBerry to use native mail, calendar and contacts apps is annoying, and potentially deal-breaking any way you slice it. (You have no mail, calendar or contacts stored on the PlayBook if you’re not tethered!)
In a lot of ways, the PlayBook is more polished and usable in its beta state than the Motorola Xoom, and it’s straight-up the best seven-inch tablet out there (though in the tango between between portability and size, I think 10 inches is still the best). At the same time, I don’t think anyone should buy it right now – BlackBerry user or otherwise – for at least a few months, to see if the platform has enough legs to carry itself to where it needs to be. If the apps do arrive to fill in the gaps, then the PlayBook is totally going to be a tablet to check out. The foundation is solid – I can’t wait to see the first phones running this software – it just needs some stuff built on top of it before you can decide whether or not you should move in.