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BlackBerry PlayBook review: Too little, too soon

Laptop Magazine

By Mark Spoonauer
Laptop Magazine

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
Price: $499 (16GB), $599 (32GB), $699 (32GB)

Pros

  • Good multitasking power
  • Sleek and solid design
  • Crisp 7-inch display
  • Captures high-quality 1080p video
  • Powerful speakers

Cons

  • Need BlackBerry phone to get native email, calendar apps
  • Buggy software
  • Lackluster third-party apps
  • No video chat option yet
  • Android Player coming later 

Somewhere along the way, BlackBerry lost its cool. And RIM hopes the PlayBook can steal it back. The company’s 7-inch answer to the iPad 2 features a whole new operating system that’s tailor-made for multitasking and chock-full of nifty gestures. A zippy dual-core processor and dual cameras that capture full HD video make the PlayBook a pint-size powerhouse on paper. This tablet is also affordable. The Wi-Fi only version starts at $499 (for 16GB), and 4G versions of the tablet will start rolling out this summer. So how well do the software and hardware work together? How good are the apps? And do you really need a BlackBerry phone to get the most out of this slate? Our in-depth review has all the answers.

WHAT WE LIKE
Sleek and solid design
The BlackBerry PlayBook feels good in your hands, thanks to a soft-touch backside. RIM’s slate is a hair thinner than the original Samsung Galaxy Tab but is an ounce and a half heavier (14.9 vs 13.4 ounces). Still, you can easily slip the PlayBook in a purse or jacket pocket, something you can’t do with the iPad 2.

Sharp display, boomin’ speakers
Sporting one of the better screens we’ve seen on a tablet, the 7-inch LCD on the PlayBook has a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels. Colors really popped, text looked sharp, and viewing angles are wider than the muddier Motorola Xoom.

Don’t let the small speaker grilles on the front of the PlayBook fool you. This tablet produced booming audio when we streamed Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” with the Slacker app. At least for smaller rooms, you won’t need a speaker dock.

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Gesture-friendly interface
The home screen of the PlayBook looks a lot like HP’s webOS, but we’re not complaining. The center of the home screen gets populated with thumbnail views of apps as they’re opened. You can then swipe through this carousel and tap on the app you want, or press the little X below the thumbnail to close it.  (You can also swipe up on an app to whisk it away).

The front side of the PlayBook has an enlarged bezel that surrounds the 7-inch display, which is there for performing various gestures. For example, you can get back to the home screen at any time by swiping up from the bottom of the frame. You can also swipe sideways to switch between open apps. The software is even smart enough to automatically pause video playback.

Wireless file sharing
When connected to your PC via USB, you can either drag and drop files to the PlayBook or use RIM’s BlackBerry Desktop Software. You can also wirelessly sync files by turning on the PlayBook’s Wi-Fi Sharing feature under options. We got this to work, but only after enabling the Network Sharing feature on our Windows laptop. Also keep in mind that the PlayBook doesn’t sync automatically over Wi-Fi (like doubleTwist for Android). You have to manually transfer files in this mode.

Fast keyboard
As you might expect, the keyboard on the PlayBook is fast and accurate. We could really fly with our thumbs when using the device in portrait mode. We also like the reassuring clicking sound, whose volume you can adjust. You don’t get haptic feedback, but we can live without it. 

Multitasking power
With a 1-GHz dual-core processor from TI (the OMAP4430) and 1GB of RAM under the hood, the PlayBook certainly has the specs to stand toe-to-toe with the iPad 2 and other tablets. We streamed a 1080p video to a 32-inch TV while surfing the Web on the PlayBook at the same time without seeing any lag. Swiping from app to app was also fairly smooth, though the accelerometer took longer than we’d like to switch the display’s orientation when flipping the device around.

Web browser does Flash (even Hulu)
While the PlayBook’s browser lagged behind the iPad 2 when loading pages, the Web surfing experience is more robust because RIM’s slate supports tabs and Flash. Even Hulu works, at least for now. We first watched The Daily Show on Hulu, and playback looked smooth at full screen. However, Flash-heavy pages often mistook swipes for taps, which made navigation difficult. 

Sharp cameras
We don’t expect a lot out of tablet cameras, but the PlayBook captured some of the best-looking videos we’ve seen yet. Using the rear-facing camera (5-MP), we recorded a detailed and stutter-free 1080p clip of New York City traffic. The footage looked crisp both on the PlayBook’s screen and on a 32-inch HDTV. 

Still shots we took with the back camera looked fine, but the PlayBook was slow to fire, and the camera lacks a flash. In either mode photo or video mode, you can switch from the back to the front (3-megapixel) camera, which can also handle 1080p video. It’s too bad the PlayBook doesn’t feature video chat software yet, because it delivered a very bright picture. 

Music and book stores baked in
Although you’re pretty much on your own for premium video, RIM picks up the slack in the music department with a built-in music store powered by 7digital. The scrolling album art on the main page looks pretty slick, and it looks like most of the major artists are here, from Britney Spears to R.E.M. 

RIM also bundles a Kobo app for buying and reading e-books, which has a clean interface that shows your downloads on a virtual book shelf. The store is easy to navigate as well, with a Top 50 list that’s front and center. 

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WHAT WE DON'T LIKE
Buggy software
Unfortunately, we found the PlayBook to be flaky, with some applications randomly closing (like the browser). More than a few times we had to reset the PlayBook because it froze up, and at one point it refused to connect to different Wi-Fi networks. We hope and assume the device will get more stable as software updates roll out.

Requires BlackBerry phone to get BlackBerry Mail
Imagine if you had to thether your iPhone to your iPad to use the email app. That sums up BlackBerry Bridge, which allows BlackBerry phone owners (OS 5.0 and up) to connect via Bluetooth to access BlackBerry email, calendar, contacts, tasks, memos, and BlackBerry Messenger. When your BlackBerry phone isn’t tethered to the tablet, all of these apps — and the data they contain — disappear. Security-minded IT types might appreciate this approach, but most consumers will be left scratching their heads.

The BlackBerry email app was also slow to load, which just reminded us that we were connecting over a phone. The good news is that you can always use web-based mail; the PlayBook comes with prominent shortcuts for Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and AOL Mail. RIM promises to make email, calendar and contact apps available this summer that always reside on the tablet as part of an over-the-air update, and we suspect many prospective PlayBook buyers will wait until then.

Lackluster apps (for now)
RIM says that more than 3,000 apps have been submitted so far to BlackBerry App World, and there are some pretty heavy hitting developers and publishers backing the platform. We had a blast playing the bundled EA’s "Need for Speed Undercover," using the PlayBook as a steering wheel to tear around city streets. We also like the included Documents to Go for viewing and editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. Other “apps,” however, are just shortcuts to Web pages, such as Twitter and Facebook. The third-party apps we tried fell flat. Take "iRok2," a "Rock Band" clone that’s just a repackaged version of the browser-based game. The dead giveaway? The big “Press Space Bar to Pause During Game” message at the bottom of the screen. 

VERDICT
It’s not really a matter of too little too late with the BlackBerry PlayBook. If anything RIM’s first tablet feels rushed to market. The PlayBook has a well-designed interface and plenty of power under the hood for serious multitasking. The sharp screen, high-quality cameras, and loud speakers all impress as well. However, the software was buggy during testing, there’s no video chat option yet, and App World just doesn’t have a lot of compelling options right now. Combine these issues with the need to tether a BlackBerry phone to get native mail, calendar, and BlackBerry Messenger, and it’s hard to recommend this tablet in its current form. Assuming RIM can work out the kinks and improve the app selection, we’ll warm up to the PlayBook more.

Click here to read the complete in-depth Laptop Magazine review of the PlayBook.

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