BlackBerry PlayBook: First Look

Despite less than favourable initial reviews, the team at RIM responsible for bringing us the PlayBook tablet has created an exceptional piece of hardware.  They have managed to create a device that, from initial power-on to general usage, doesn’t feel at all like an iPad clone.   The packaging is sleek, black and simple, and the device is small enough to fit in one hand, yet large enough for a comfortable user experience.  I wonder, however, if that’s enough for the device to succeed in such a competitive market with iOS and Android tablets currently dominating the tablet market.

As a developer, the QNX operating system was enough to attract my attention to the device and I managed to get my hands on one in advance of the UK release date of late June 2011.  The QNX sub-OS has has already proven itself in the most mission-critical environments where most operating systems don’t dare to go, such as nuclear facilities, medical equipment and space ships.

The US pricing of the device is very competitive and on par with the iPad 2 at $499, $599 and $699 for 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models respectively.  It looks like a number of UK retailers have picked up the device (including Phones 4U), but retail pricing has not yet been announced.

The first thing that struck my about the PlayBook was the slightly unusual, almost rubbery back cover.  After seeing the pristine white back cover of a friend’s iPad quickly gather scratches with the smart covers only protecting the front, I think this is a great design decision by RIM, as the durable rubber back means you can sit it on any surface without fear of damaging it.

The operating system, despite being far from perfect has an absolutely rock solid UI, which could be the device’s saving grace and, in my opinion, beats iOS and Android hands down.  The touch sensitive bezels make use of otherwise wasted space on the chassis of the device, removing all traces of buttons from the device.  A swipe from the top gets you the current application’s menu, a swipe from the bottom brings up the home screen and a swipe from the side is by far the fastest way to switch between multiple applications.  Gestures were responsive and relatively jerk-free, however, I have experienced a couple of lock-ups during general usage over the past couple of days.

RIM’s decision not include native e-mail and calendaring with the Playbook at launch is a decision which reinforces the fact that they are still very much targetting the corporate customer base.  I feel that this will put a lot of people off at launch; however the announcement at BlackBerry World that a standalone e-mail client will be released for the device within a matter of weeks is positive news.  It is reported that the client will support BIS and BES plans, but whether or not it will support IMAP has yet to be announced.

After having owned Android and iProducts in the past (and selling both within a month), I really want to support this device, but the lack of functionality and applications at launch is making it very difficult.  RIM has announced that the PlayBook will be able to run Android applications from this summer; great news, however, will this put developers off from creating applications specifically designed for PlayBook, leaving us to run Android apps in their separate environment, potentially leading to performance/battery issues?

Additionally, the convoluted development approach could do with some refinement from the Waterloo, Ontario based company; however, this has already been covered by Jamie Murai in his open letter to RIM, to which a company representative answered promptly and provided some answers – this article is well worth a read if you have the time.

After a few days with the device, I’d summarise its features as follows:

Arguments For the PlayBook

  • Fantastic user interface and gesture based navigation; very intuitive.
  • A great tablet choice for IT administrators as the device can be used with BlackBerry BES policy
  • No complaints about screen quality or performance, despite a few oS hiccups (it’s V1 of a new OS so I’ll give them the chance to fix!)
  • Nice size – although not everybody agrees with me on this one

Arguments Against the PlayBook

  • Virtually no applications available at launch – when the “top 10” apps include a translator and weather app, you know you have a problem.
  • Built in YouTube app doesn’t allow you to sign in under your own account – basic stuff!
  • No e-mail client on the device for people who don’t want to use BlackBerry Bridge – a major oversight and potentially damaging unless they rectify it soon.
  • A few Wi-Fi issues – detected a WEP protected network as open and had to add it manually.
  • Convoluted development process
  • Basic UI omissions like not being able to e-mail links in browser, links not appearing as clickable in e-mail client.  It feels a little rushed!

I really want this tablet to work and if RIM fix these before releasing it in the UK, I think it just might.

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