(UPDATE: We've now adjusted the review to take into account differences between the US and UK models.)
It was a surprise when RIM announced their plans last year to launch a complementary tablet device. Named the PlayBook, it’s anything but a kid's toy. Boasting all those hardcore security features businesses love, and extra functionality for anyone who already owns a BlackBerry phone, it has a smaller factor form, with a seven-inch screen capable of high-definition video play-back.
What we like
Picking up the PlayBook, there’s a reassuring weight to the device, yet we can hold it easily with one hand. This can’t be said of many of its tablet rivals.
The display also impressed us with its sharpness. Videos and pictures look amazing, and we’d be willing to prop the PlayBook up as some sort of multi-functional digital photo-frame.
Getting into the PlayBook, many may be worried about the lack of any visible buttons on the front of the tablet, but we found this really wasn’t an issue. Turn on the PlayBook for the first time, and you’ll be guided through a tutorial to teach you exactly how to use the touchscreen-based navigation.
Apps can be minimised with a swipe up from the bottom, while you can sweep sideways to switch between multitasking apps. From the multitasking screen, you can close any unnecessary apps and also access the main screen and launch new apps.
You can also bring out the on-screen keyboard with a swipe from the bottom left corner, and in-app menus appear when you swipe down from the top of the PlayBook.
It all may sound a bit dizzying, but you soon get used to it, and it removes some of the fiddly precision sometimes needed on rival tabs. We really didn’t miss those front buttons.
Thanks to the dual-core processor, the PlayBook’s internet browser is impressively fast, with pages loading blazingly fast, and scrolling around the screen is kept slick and smooth. The PlayBook also runs Flash content, and had no troubles running the BBC iPlayer from the browser.
Multimedia content like this is aided by front-facing stereo speakers, while a microHDMI port at the base of the phone means entertainment can be shared to other compatible screens. Multitasking meant we could still switch between emails and internet browsing while the video content continued to play.
BlackBerry Bridge is a clever feature that pairs your BlackBerry phone to the tablet. Alongside adding a 3G connection to the PlayBook, like ‘tethering’ any other phone to any other tablet, you’ll get the likes of BlackBerry Messenger, your phone contacts, browse between files on both the phone and tablet, and messages on your phone.
Any calls, messages or alarms ringing out on your phone will pop-up on the PlayBook, where you can even turn off the phone ringer. There’s also a status display at the top of the phone, which will tell you if you’ve missed any emails or BBM messages.
What we don’t like
Whilst we loved the look of the front of the PlayBook, those thick edges are trickier to hold than other tapered tablet offerings. The fact that there isn’t a 3G version just yet is also baffling, though we’ve been told by BlackBerry that these will arrive later in the year.
The BlackBerry App World is still growing. . Despite offering developers plenty of ways to move their apps across to the BlackBerry tablet (an Android ‘player’ is set to come in the Summer, similarly a Java ‘player’ allowing BlackBerry phone apps to run on the tablet should come in the next few months.)
For some the lack of a native email program may be a deal-breaker, and internet browser-based email isn’t enough to replace this. Again, RIM have said that native email is coming, and we hope this will come before the PlayBook gets to the UK, but it’s unlikely.
What the PlayBook can do, it does very well. We thought this would be the dry middle-aged tablet, but we’ve been impressed by how well it’s been able to handle video, music (through the great 7Digital music store) and the internet browsing experience.
But it’s what the PlayBook can’t do that lets it down. The apps section, one of the core parts of the tablet experience, needs strengthening- a lot. No embedded email client? As BlackBerry makers RIM target their business clients, this seems like an glaring oversight, even if it was done for security reasons.
But the PlayBook does several things very well; exploring the tablet and switching between apps is a joy, as is internet browsing. You can feel that dual-core processor pulling its weight, ensuring smooth streaming video and fast-loading pages.
Compared to the US review model we saw a few months earlier, the app store has been improved, and there's now a better selection of apps, including a genuine Twitter app that isn't webpage-based.
The PlayBook still manages to embarrass some Android tablets we've seen, with barely any errors or crashes, but with a boost to its apps, including that Android app 'player' it could even make the iPad sweat a little.