Editors' note: Thanks to the release of recent, high-quality tablets, the overall score of the Playbook has been adjusted down from 7.3 to 6.
Editors' note: An updated version of the BlackBerry PlayBook OS (PlayBook OS 2.0) is now available as a free over-the-air update. The new software includes native e-mail, calendar, contacts, and broader app support. We updated this review on February 29, 2012, to reflect these changes.
If you thought the tablet wars were just between Apple and Google, think again. Research In Motion may be late to the fight, but it is fighting for its life, and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet demonstrates that the company means business.
Like the Apple iPad, the PlayBook's suggested retail price starts at $499 (16GB), going up to $599 (32GB) and $699 (64GB) if you need the extra capacity. In 2012, we've seen sale pricing for the PlayBook dip as low as $199 for the 16GB model.
Is it an iPad killer? For existing corporate and consumer BlackBerry devotees, the answer is certainly yes. For the rest of you, probably not. With its unapologetically small 7-inch screen, we're not even sure RIM intends it to compete directly with the iPad. More importantly, the PlayBook and its souped-up operating system point the way forward for RIM and the future of the BlackBerry brand.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is probably the smallest high-profile tablet to come out in 2011. Measuring 5 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide, and a slim 0.4 inch thick, the PlayBook's design has more in common with the Galaxy Tab of 2010 than the 10-inch tablets making headlines this year. To RIM's credit, the PlayBook is the most powerful 7-inch tablet we've tested, and the lightweight design comes in under a pound.
One of the first things you'll notice about the PlayBook is the complete lack of buttons on the front. Like the Motorola Xoom, all of the PlayBook's navigation is handled using onscreen controls. A 0.7-inch bezel frames the 1,024x600-pixel-resolution screen, which is bordered by a pair of slender stereo speaker grilles. Above the screen you'll see a 3-megapixel camera staring back at you, along with an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts screen brightness. Flip the tablet over and you'll find another camera, this one a 5-megapixel job that can capture video at 1080p quality.
It's not all gravy, though. The top edge of the PlayBook is a case study in bad design. The problem is the power/wake button, which is so small and recessed that you'll need to whittle down your fingertip to use it. When placed within the extra layer of a case, the power button was almost impossible to press. It's a problem, and one you'll encounter every day since the button is the only means to wake the screen from sleep. The nimble fingered among us may be able to look past it, but for many it will be a deal breaker that ranks up there with BlackBerry thumb. Dedicated buttons for volume and play/pause are also located on the top, but their only real crime is redundancy.
The bottom of the PlayBook fares better and includes contacts for an optional charging dock ($69), Micro-USB (charging/sync), and Micro-HDMI. An HDMI cable isn't included, but we suggest buying one since the PlayBook's ability to crank out 1080p resolution video and mirror its OS onto your TV is one of its coolest features.
BlackBerry tablet OS
The single most important feature of the PlayBook is its operating system. RIM has candidly declared that the PlayBook's OS is more than just a new tablet platform, but the future for BlackBerry devices in general. In building the software from the ground up, RIM's goal was to create an OS that is a powerful, professionally oriented alternative to Android and iOS. We think RIM nailed it.
Aside from being buttery smooth and a multitasking dynamo, the PlayBook's OS is a dramatic change from the cramped, trackball-focused OS RIM built its name on. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Palm's resurrected WebOS, but arguably surpasses it in its quest for laptoplike performance.
There is a learning curve to finding your way around the PlayBook. Unlike iOS or Android, there's no home button to act as an anchor for the experience. Instead, there's a basic vocabulary of gestures you'll need to learn, such as swiping upward from beneath the screen to access apps, swiping down from the top bezel to access menus, or swiping from either the left or right bezel to bounce between open applications. It's a bit of a secret handshake to get it all down, but once you do, you can move swiftly, and the speed with which you can jump between running apps is noticeably faster than anything else out there. It's a dream tablet for anyone with attention deficit disorder. Like switching between applications on your computer, the PlayBook keeps your open apps running in parallel at full throttle and takes no time jumping right in.
Another aspect of the PlayBook's OS that has us smiling is the onscreen keyboard. The virtual keys are well-spaced and responsive. The overall tablet dimension and bezel size make it easy to reach your fingers across the screen. And in a design twist we think is pretty smart, RIM groups its numeric keyboard all on the left side, making number entry a little more natural (especially for fans of BlackBerry's tactile smartphone keyboard).
New for PlayBook OS 2.0
When the BlackBerry PlayBook first made the scene in 2011, it arrived without any standalone apps for e-mail, contacts, or calendar. RIM's PlayBook OS 2.0 update (a free update made available in February 2012) addresses this oversight. While baked-in support for e-mail, contacts, and calendars isn't terribly exciting stuff, this useful update underscores RIM's commitment to improving its product.
The PlayBook's new e-mail app gives you a unified inbox for all of your accounts, including social networks such as LinkedIn and Twitter. In spite of the PlayBook's relatively small 7-inch screen, RIM has made it possible to juggle between inbox views and e-mails using a collapsible multipanel interface.
When it comes to e-mail composition, RIM includes a rich text editor that allows you to change fonts, create lists, bold, underline, and color--just as you'd expect from a desktop e-mail application. The included keyboard has been improved, too, though to notice these improvements is also to remember they weren't there to begin with. Features such as autocorrect, predictive text, and keyboard shortcuts have all been thrown in.
The PlayBook's Calendar app works just as you'd expect. You can create appointments directly or subscribe to any online calendars you may already have. As shown in the above video, one interesting design trick RIM employed is to increase or minimize the calendar date depending on the number of events scheduled on it. This way, you can glance at your calendar and immediately spot the busiest days.
RIM's new Contacts app for BlackBerry PlayBook has a few tricks up its sleeve. Its first trick is the capability to sync profile information from your connected LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. Its second trick is its integration with the Calendar app. Rescheduling an appointment on your calendar will trigger an automatic notification to the contacts you have associated with the event.
Overall, the features provided by PlayBook OS 2.0 are a welcome update for any BlackBerry PlayBook user. For RIM's loyal base of business users, the e-mail and contact integration with LinkedIn is an attractive proposition. A few other enhancements, such as the ability to organize apps into folders, video chat with other PlayBook owners, and an application dock at the bottom of the home screen, refine an already great tablet experience.