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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blackberry Playbook

The Playbook makes a great first impression, but it's too reliant on a BlackBerry smartphone for my liking.
We’re drowning in a sea of 10-inch tablets, so it was a relief to slide the BlackBerry Playbook out of the box to discover a petite 7-inch slate that’s even lighter than the iPad 2. I think the 7-inch form factor is more practical for road warriors, so it makes sense that business-focused RIM should design a 7-inch tablet as a companion for its high-end BlackBerry smartphones.

Actually “companion” perhaps isn’t the right word, as it’s more of a symbiotic relationship between the Playbook and BlackBerry phones. I’ll go into more detail later, but the cynic in me suspects that the Playbook is partially designed to lock-in BlackBerry users tempted by other tablets.

Perhaps RIM is worried that BlackBerry users might buy an Apple or Android tablet, fall in love with the OS and then ditch their BlackBerry smartphone (known as the halo effect).  In order to fight back, RIM is giving BlackBerry owners a tablet of their own.

Once you owned a Playbook you’d be much less likely to abandon your BlackBerry smartphone because you’d lose access to some Playbook features. Even if I was a BlackBerry user, this kind of customer lock-in would certainly make me consider the Android and Apple alternatives before taking the plunge with the Playbook.

The 16GB Playbook retails for $US499 and there are also 32GB and 64GB models. There’s no official word on Australian pricing although is taking orders for $696. I expect the official local pricing ot come in lower.

At $696 the 16GB Playbook is a little pricey but that’s easily forgotten when you get your hands on it. It’s a delight to hold, weighing in at a mere 400gm and only 9.7mm thick.

The black button-less styling adds to the slimming effect and this sleek tablet certainly has a touch of elegance about it. The Playbook comes with a felt-lined soft cover which would easily slip into a small bag or perhaps even a large jacket pocket. There are two $68 cases listed on that BlackBerry store website - one is a journal-like leather case and the other converts into a stand.

The Playbook sports a bright 7-inch LCD 1024x600 display with bright whites, great contrast and decent viewing angles. Under the bonnet you’ll find a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex power plant accompanied by 1GB of RAM, so it’s not short on grunt. There’s a 3 MP webcam embedded in the bezel (at the top in landscape mode), with a second 5 MP camera on the back. Discrete speakers are embedded on either side of the bezel.

Across the top edge of the Playbook is a power button along with play/pause and volume buttons and a 3.5mm audio jack. Across the bottom edge are micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports along with a charging point, but no micro-SD card slot.

About now one of the Playbook’s key drawbacks becomes apparent. There’s no SIM card slot, you can only access the internet via wifi (802.11g/n at 2.4GHz or 5GHz) or Bluetooth tethering.
You can tether the Playbook to any smartphone via Bluetooth for internet access, not just a BlackBerry smartphone, but it’s a temperamental beast and I couldn’t get it work with an iPhone 4, HTC Desire or BlackBerry Torch 9800 even though they paired successfully. It’s easier just to generate a wifi hotspit with your phone.

RIM says it intends to offer 3G and 4G Playbooks "in future". Even if I was tempted by the Playbook, I’d seriously consider holding out for a 3G/4G version - especially if you want to use this tablet on the road.
Perhaps the killer blow to the Playbook is that you can’t use the native mail, contacts and calendar apps unless you’re tethered via Bluetooth to a modern BlackBerry using a feature called BlackBerry Bridge.
Compatible phones include the Torch 9800, Bold 9780/9700, Curve 3G/8520/8900 and Pearl 3G. Setting up BlackBerry Bridge is also overly complicated, as I’ll get to later. Using it means you're chewing through the battery on both your phone and the Playbook. There is a Bridge Browser which supposedly works when you're in Bridge mode, but I found it so slow as to be completely useless.

You obviously lose access to these Bridge apps on the Playbook if you’re on a plane and can’t wirelessly tether to your BlackBerry. You also lose them if your BlackBerry is out of action - for example due to a flat battery, or you just left it at home. Now you’re stuck with using the Playbook’s web browser to access features such as email and calendar (assuming you’ve got wifi access).

Of course this depends on whether your corporate email system allows browser-based access. If a BlackBerry is the only way you can access your work email remotely then you’re screwed. If that’s the case then other tablets can’t access your work email either, so the Playbook still might seem an attractive option.
I know Apple and Android would get slammed if they introduced these kinds of restrictions to their devices, so I don’t see why RIM shouldn’t cope some flak for it. Native mail, contacts and calendar apps are supposedly coming to the Playbook in a future software update, but I’d say not including them from day one is a major stuff up on RIM’s part which plays into the competition’s hands.

As soon as I held the Playbook I wanted to like it, but RIM has gone out of its way to make that difficult. At this point, even if I was a BlackBerry owner, I’d be tempted to wait for the 3G model and a standalone mail app so the tablet wasn’t so dependent on my smartphone. Meanwhile I’d want to spend some time with a 7-inch Honeycomb tablet such as Acer’s A100 before pledging my allegiance to the Playbook.
On Friday I’ll take a look at the Tablet OS interface and apps, then next week I’ll wrap up with a look at the Playbook’s integration with BlackBerry smartphones.


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