The BlackBerry PlayBook is a high-fiving, chest-bumping tablet with a name inspired by American football and a background in business. Its good looks and speed may tempt you, but unless you're a BlackBerry fanatic -- or forced to be one by your IT department -- we think its high-security system is more trouble than it's worth.
The 7-inch PlayBook costs £399 for the version with 16GB of storage, £479 for the 32GB model, and £559 for the 64GB device. There isn't a 3G version of the PlayBook.
The PlayBook costs exactly the same price as the equivalent iPad 2. Considering the iPad 2 has a larger, 9.7-inch screen, the PlayBook's price seems a mite high. Still, it's less expensive than the HTC Flyer, which also has a 7-inch screen, and costs £480 for the 16GB model and £600 for the 32GB version. The Flyer does, however, include 3G connectivity.
For CrackBerry addicts only
Let's get one thing straight -- the PlayBook is only suitable for people who have a BlackBerry smart phone and will never, ever switch to a different brand. Even if you're a CrackBerry addict now, don't bother with the PlayBook unless you think your addiction will outlast the life of the tablet.
You'll need a CrackBerry addiction because the PlayBook requires a BlackBerry phone to enable some important features. The tablet has no email, calendar or messaging client. Instead, it connects to your BlackBerry phone over Bluetooth to access these functions. If you don't have a BlackBerry phone, or it's not in the room, these features simply don't exist.
You can access your Gmail and suchlike through the Web browser, and BlackBerry has said that an email client is on the way for accounts that you don't need to be locked down. But these are halfway houses on a tablet that's fundamentally designed to work in a symbiotic relationship with a phone.
BlackBerry says it's done things this way for security reasons. The company's phones are some of the most secure in the world, since all your email and messages travel, encrypted, through its own servers in Canada or through your company's servers, rather than your network's. By keeping this information on the phone, the tablet doesn't risk leaking any of it. It's also tempting for IT departments who might be handing out tablets to employees. They are wary of managing yet another device with possible security holes.
We're impressed by the software that BlackBerry has whipped up to make this sharing possible. For example, when you open a spreadsheet that's been attached to an email, you can edit it in the tablet's powerful Documents to Go app. You get all the advantages of an app designed for the big screen of a tablet, but the data itself is always kept secure on the phone, and never transferred to the PlayBook. Pairing a BlackBerry phone with the PlayBook is quick and easy too.
While we understand the reasons for doing things this way, it means that, unless your employer buys you a PlayBook to go with your company BlackBerry, or you're a security fanatic who will never use another type of phone, this tablet isn't a good choice.
Without a BlackBerry phone in tow, the PlayBook feels hobbled. If your phone runs out of battery or gets left in a drawer, you can kiss your email and calendar goodbye. The plus side of this is that, if you like to switch off your phone to escape email overload, you won't be tempted to check your inbox while you're playing with your tablet. But this is only really an advantage for people with a truly raging CrackBerry addiction.
Now that we've got this off our chests, we'll dig deep into the tablet's strengths and weaknesses. But, if you don't count yourself among the BlackBerrinati, you can probably stop reading now. Instead, check out our reviews of more consumer-orientated tablets.
The PlayBook has a 7-inch screen, which makes it smaller than the 9.7-inch iPad 2, and puts it right into Samsung Galaxy Tab and HTC Flyer territory. In practical terms, that means it's too big to pop into a pocket, but small enough for your average handbag or manbag.
Even in landscape mode, it's possible to type on the PlayBook using both of your thumbs if you've got big hands. In addition, the tablet's subtle black design and portable size mean we wouldn't be embarrassed to use it while out and about, whereas the iPad can feel like a comedy prop because of its size.
The PlayBook's case feels solid and well-made. The power button on the top is tiny, but it's not used very often. Unlike with many other tablets, the PlayBook's power button doesn't double as a home button to kick you back onto your main screen.
Rather than tweaking its mobile-phone operating system, BlackBerry 6 OS, for the big screen, RIM has developed a new OS, BlackBerry Tablet OS, specifically for the PlayBook. The user interface is very similar to that of webOS, which features on HP and Palm phones, while the menus feel similar to those on BlackBerry handsets.
The PlayBook uses a gesture-based system to move around its basic functions. The gestures are made on the black bezel that surrounds the screen. For example, you swipe upwards to shrink the currently running app to a thumbnail on your home screen. You can then move through open apps, close them or launch another app from the menu. This feels like an homage to the lovely webOS 'deck of cards' system, as does the ability to swipe app thumbnails to the top of the screen to close them. You can't stack app thumbnails as you can on a Palm Pre, though.
You can also swipe left or right on the bezel to quickly swap between open apps. Dragging your finger diagonally from the lower left-hand corner opens the on-screen keyboard.
These gestures work well, once you get used to them. They also keep the screen and bezel from becoming cluttered with buttons, although there's often a back button displayed somewhere on the screen, since there's no back gesture.
The downside of this gesture-based system is that there's no comforting escape hatch in the form of a home button, like on an iPad or Android tablet. When you're in a panic and an app isn't behaving as it should, it's good to have a button that you can mash until you're safely delivered back to your starting point.
The PlayBook's new OS means that existing BlackBerry apps won't work on the tablet, although the BlackBerry platform has never had the biggest selection of apps anyway. PlayBook users will have to wait a while before their favourite time-wasting game or useful utility makes it to the tablet.
Our test sample didn't have the UK app store on it yet, but even the US store -- which had been online for weeks -- didn't have much in it. RIM, the PlayBook's manufacturer, says you'll be able to download an app that allows you to use Android apps on the PlayBook, but it wasn't available in time for our tests either.
We're also holding our breath for BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) on the PlayBook, which would allow you to instant message other BlackBerry users for free. It should be coming soon as part of an update to the software that connects the tablet with your BlackBerry phone, but it was nowhere to be found on our sample, or in the BlackBerry App World store. Until it does arrive, there will be a huge hole in the PlayBook, but we don't expect to wait long -- the software is already available to some users in the US.
The upshot of all this is that the PlayBook doesn't come close to offering the variety or quality of iPad 2 apps. The iPad's app selection is still the best out of all tablets.
The apps that do run on the PlayBook benefit from its lightning-fast speed. It has a 1GHz dual-core processor, as well as 1GB of RAM.
Our minds were blown by the tablet's multitasking capability. Videos and games continued playing even when minimised to home-screen thumbnails, for example.
The PlayBook's Web browser supports Flash video, and such video is smoother and faster than on any other tablet we've seen. Even when scrolling up and down the page, video doesn't judder or fail.
Apps don't always seem to benefit as much from the PlayBook's power. Occasionally we had to wait for the buttons in the email client to respond to our touch when we fired it up. That may be down to the fact that the tablet has to connect to the phone before it can get going.
PlayBook media playback
The PlayBook supports H.264, MPEG-4 and WMV video, and there's a micro-HDMI port so you can connect it to a telly or projector. You can output one thing via the HDMI port while viewing something different on the tablet's screen. For example, you can run a PowerPoint presentation on the big screen while reading your notes on the PlayBook.
If you want to make your own videos, the PlayBook has two 1080p, high-definition video cameras -- one on the back, and one on the front for video calling. The rear camera also takes 5-megapixel stills, while the front camera snaps 3-megapixel shots.
The PlayBook has a video-calling app, but it only works between PlayBooks -- you can't even make video calls to BlackBerry phones. Don't expect to gurn into your friends' faces unless they've also been pressured into PlayBookdom by their IT departments.
We're big fans of the 7digital music store on BlackBerry mobiles, so we're thrilled to see that it's made it to the PlayBook. We especially like the fact that 7digital stores your purchases in your account, so you can download them again to other devices, or to your computer, at any time. The PlayBook also comes with a podcast app so you can keep up-to-date with your favourite regularly released recordings.
To top it off, the PlayBook is easy to sync with your computer using the BlackBerry syncing software, or your choice of media programs. There's also the option to browse the PlayBook as an external hard drive, and load it with files and folders manually.
Once you've packed the tablet with tunes, you'll treasure the media buttons that grace the top of the device. The normal volume buttons are joined by a play/pause button to help you keep a handle on your music.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is pleasantly designed, easy to use, powerful and packed with features. But we still don't think you should buy it.
With so many core features requiring you to have a BlackBerry phone nearby, the PlayBook just isn't as versatile or practical as its competitors. For the average punter, the extra faff just isn't worth it. Even if you have a BlackBerry now, buying a PlayBook will mean that you won't be free to switch to another type of smart phone at whim.
That said, if the extra security of this system appeals to you, the PlayBook could be a good choice. Just be prepared to wait a while for the app store to fill up, and for the ability to use Android apps.
Edited by Charles Kloet