Friday, April 22, 2011

PlayBook's close call

An optimist might see the glass as half full. An adventurer might delight in being halfway up the mountain. But it takes a very forgiving gourmand to eat something that's only half-baked.
Ontario-based Research In Motion, the creators of the ubiquitous BlackBerry smartphone, have made their entry into the crowded tablet computer market with the BlackBerry PlayBook, a svelte little slab with a 7-inch touchscreen display.
BlackBerry's baby arrives well behind Apple's iPad and the growing array of tablet devices powered by Google's Android technology. Is the PlayBook a serious contender, or doomed to be an also-ran? That depends on how you look at it.
Half Full:
Look Ma, One Hand: There aren't a lot of 7-inch tablets on the market, and we wonder why that is. The PlayBook's relatively small size and light weight (400 grams) makes it easier to tote around and use with one hand, and it can even fit inside a generously proportioned coat pocket.
Smart Surfing: The PlayBook's built-in web browser is the best we've seen on a tablet - pages load quickly, multiple tabs can be open at once and the pinch-to-zoom function is flawless. The browser also supports Flash, and while it's not perfect, it's better than no Flash support at all. Right, Apple?
Moving Pictures: The PlayBook's video playback is crisp and smooth, whether you're looking at downloaded video or footage shot with the built-in HD camera, and the tiny stereo speakers are surprisingly robust. Attach a mini-HDMI cable and you can watch your videos right on your HDTV.

Expert Juggler: BlackBerry's tablet is a multitasking monster - we had a high-definition movie, the web browser, the National Film Board video app, the Need For Speed Undercover game, a word processor and our e-mail all open at once, and the PlayBook didn't so much as stutter. Switching between apps is seamless, too.
Half Empty:
What's App-ening?: The PlayBook's online app marketplace is woefully thin compared to Apple and Google's offerings. No Facebook app, no Twitter app, only a smattering of useful productivity, reference and entertainment apps. And no Angry Birds? This is an outrage!
Co-dependent: RIM plans to release PlayBook e-mail, calendar and contacts apps in a few months. But for now, the PlayBook must be wirelessly paired with a BlackBerry phone to access these functions, as well as for 3G mobile data. Without a BlackBerry by its side, the PlayBook is a rather barebones WiFi-only tablet.
Failure to Launch: Our PlayBook demo unit was a bit buggy, even after we downloaded the latest software update. Movies and songs would sometimes simply fail to play, and occasionally apps would not start or would quit unexpectedly. A reboot usually fixed the problem, but that's a time-consuming pain in the butt.
Less is Less: There are a few other niggling issues with the PlayBook, such as no BlackBerry-style auto-correct features while typing, a clumsy virtual keyboard layout and the shocking lack of any sort of BlackBerry Messenger feature. We're hoping these will be rectified in future updates.
We don't pretend to know all the factors that motivate a major corporation's decisions, but we can't help but think that if RIM had simply taken a few more months to work the kinks out of the PlayBook and released it with a full suite of apps and features, they could have launched it as a bona fide winner.
Right now, the PlayBook - if we may introduce yet another analogy into the mix - is like a Porsche with a nervous student driver at the wheel. It's a snazzy and fast piece of hardware, but the ride is bumpy and fraught with stalls and crashes. The driver will surely get better in time, and the experience will eventually be smoother. The question is, how long will people be willing to hang on?
BlackBerry PlayBook
Price: $499 (16 GB version), $599 (32 GB) and $699 (64 GB). Available at Future Shop, Best Buy, Sears, Telus stores and other retailers. For more info, see
Verdict: Very impressive hardware undermined by lacklustre software. The PlayBook could be a contender once new features are added and the bugs are worked out, if it can overcome its less-than-stellar first impression.