It took a while but it finally got here. BlackBerry has been bigging up its first foray into the tablet market for the best part of a year. So was it worth the wait?
Well, yes and no. It’s certainly different, with one or two innovations that distinguish it from its rivals, but it’s also seriously lacking in some key areas that could prove to be its downfall.
Design and build
It’s a good-looking, discrete slab of black, lightly rubberised plastic and the front is covered entirely by a single sheet of glass. It measures 194x130x10mm and weighs 425g, which gives it an advantage over the iPad straight away – you can fit it into your suit pocket. It’s still a little bigger than HTC’s svelte Flyer though, which manages to include the same size screen in a smaller and thinner package.
The sides are blocky and solid, without the sleek curves of the Flyer or iPad, and on top (with the PlayBook held in landscape mode) there’s a power/sleep button, volume buttons, play/pause button and 3.5mm headphone jack. At the bottom there’s a microUSB power slot, a micro HDMI port and a dedicated docking port.
The 7in screen looks nice and sharp with its 1024x600-pixel resolution and sits well within the front fascia, with a good 2cm separating it from the edges. But that bezel isn’t just wasted space, it actually forms part of the PlayBook’s navigation system. You can use it to bypass those control buttons on top – brush your finger up or down from the edge allows you to get out of an app and switch between them, brushing from the top to the middle shows the relevant menus for whichever app you’re in.
Interface and OS
The operating system is based on QNX, the system BlackBerry acquired last year and is working to integrate into its future devices. The PlayBook’s interface looks very different from the standard BlackBerry phone layout, with a sort of Cover Flow look when you have several apps open at once.
You can brush through them from side to side to choose the one you want, then press it to access it or close it down. You can also display shortcuts as a grid and separate them into favourites, media and games sections. The system isn’t immediately obvious, but very intuitive and easy to use once you know how it works.
BlackBerry manufacturer RIM has come up with an odd technique for getting your messages onto your PlayBook. Rather than accessing them directly from the device, you’re expected to connect your Playbook to your BlackBerry mobile phone via BlackBerry Bridge, a Bluetooth link which syncs your email, calendar and contacts between the two devices.
With no onboard email client of its own, it’s the only way to view your emails on the PlayBook, which seems quite a drawback if your whole business has been built on your proprietary email capabilities. It’s not a disaster if you already have a BlackBerry phone, but it’s hardly likely to persuade anyone to cross over from Android, Apple or Windows. Still, BlackBerry has promised an imminent update that will allow you to get your emails direct – they’re just not sure exactly when.
The 1GHz dual core processor keeps things moving along nicely for the most part, though there were occasional signs of lag when moving between apps, especially if there were a few running at once.
The 5 megapixel camera has no flash but offers autofocus, image stabilization, digital zoom and the option to shoot in 16:9 or 4:3 ratios. You can also choose between auto, sports or ‘whiteboard’ modes. Picture quality is generally good though, with sharp edges and good colour balance.
There’s also the option to record in full 1080p HD video too, which looks really very good on the 7in screen, and blows up nicely when you view it on a TV via HDMI lead (not supplied).
The 3 megapixel camera on the front is designed for video conferencing and it’s a notch or two above the usual VGA model found on most handsets. But while there’s a Video Chat app on board, you can only use it with other PlayBook owners, which, like the email solution, is hardly mass appeal.
Apps and browser
BlackBerry AppWorld is very much the poor cousin in the app universe, way behind Apple and Android’s mega stores. Still, the hundreds (as opposed to hundreds of thousands) of apps on offer, including a variety of business apps and loads of games should keep you busy for a while.
The question is whether or not RIM can persuade enough developers that it’s worth their while creating for their devices after they’re done with their iOS, Android and WinPho7 versions.
Several apps are preinstalled, including the Kobo ebook reader, Office emulators Word, Sheet and Slideshow To Go, Bing Maps, Facebook, some games and a few more. But there’s no Skype, Twitter, Spotify, Kindle or even a dedicated BBC iPlayer app, all extremely popular apps which are readily available on Android tablets or the iPad.
The browser is easy to get the hang of and connection is fast via 3G or Wi-Fi. It has full Flash capability too, so you can see pretty much all the video you’d see on a PC, including BBC iPlayer and ITV Player.
Media and connectivity
Films look pretty good on that sharp screen, and the HDMI connectivity means you can send them straight to your HD TV, while keeping the PlayBook’s screen free for multi-tasking, which you can’t always do with other HDMI-capable devices.
The music player is decent enough and there’s also an online music store from 7 Digital which allows you download music direct from the internet. There’s no equivalent for video yet though.
Performance and battery life
The PlayBook comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions, but there’s no memory card option to let you beef up the space on any of the models. Battery life is pretty good, offering a good two days of fairly heavy use.
- Pocket-sized (just about)
- Good use of gesture controls
- Good-quality 5-megapixel camera
- No email client
- Not many apps available
- Video chat only with other PlayBook users
Verdict: The BlackBerry PlayBook is a mixed bag – good looking and very portable it has the makings of a decent workhorse. But the outrageous lack on an integrated email client and extremely light presence in BlackBerry AppWorld mean it will struggle to make its mark.
More info: BlackBerry PlayBook spec
Price: £300 (16GB model)