First Impressions: RIM BlackBerry PlayBook not ready for prime time

Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry PlayBook offers promises so much. Sexiness, speed, chic. As witnessed during the recent media preview, the PlayBook certainly entices, at least hardware-wise. Perhaps due to my personal high expectations for the 7-incher, I come out feeling a little shortchanged and underwhelmed. Read on.

Hardware – Solid effort, impressive specs

In terms of hardware, the PlayBook is probably one of the best spec-ed out there in the market today. Powered by a dual-core 1Ghz processor with a generous 1GB RAM, the PlayBook boasts symmetrical multi-processing, something not seen in other tablets thus far. The highly-responsive 7″ multi-touch capacitative display supports 1024 x 600 screen resolution. Colours are bright and text crisp.

Saturation is good, bordering on the slightly over side, but much better balanced than ones found on Android tablets. Connectivity-wise, the PlayBook comes with WIFI (a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with LTE/WIMAX/HSPA options over various models.

The PlayBook offers ‘best-in-class’ media and RIM makes no secret about this – dual cameras supporting still and video capture – 5MP HD at the rear and class-leading 3MP HD front-facing.

It comes with 1080p HD video support out of the box including MicroUSB and micro HDMI ports. Nice. While details are scarce, the PlayBook apparently holds a 5300mAh battery which is supposed to be enough juice for 10 hours. May be slightly optimistic with its multitasking prowess. Will wait and see.

Design & aesthetics – sexy chic

At first glance, the PlayBook looks and feels smaller than expected. Visually it looks smaller than a Samsung Galaxy Tab and HTC Flyer. It’s svelte and very pocketable. It exudes a kind of understated sexiness, with its simple lines and black rubberised external housing.

At 425g, it certainly feels heavier than it looks (even heavier than the HTC Flyer), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing worse than something super-light to the extent it feels cheap. It has a depth of just 10mm, which is nicely thin. The screen is bright and crisp. Overall, the build quality is excellent.

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Performance – A whole lotta “Hmmmm…”

While the PlayBook excels in every possible way in terms of hardware, the software side of things and how that translates to overall real world experience leaves much to be desired.

First the good. QNX, the OS that powers the PlayBook is a robust, UNIX-like realtime operating system for embedded systems. Its true multitasking ability is pretty amazing to behold. How this translates to real-world applications still remains to be seen.

I mean, would you be watching a movie, playing a game and checking your emails at the same time? Probably not. However, while other smartphone platforms have their own implementation of ‘multitasking’, usually by way of ‘pause in background’, the PlayBook holds bragging rights for desktop-standard abilities.

The UI looks and feels good but does look a little cramped when in portrait mode. Performance is responsive and snappy. Without a hardware button for ‘Home’ or ‘Back’ which we’re accustomed to, users merely need to swipe the bezel to exit an application, or side swipe to bring up a dashboard of running applications.

Pretty nifty though a slight learning curve for the unfamiliar. The cameras work well and captures are pretty good. Video playback is impressive, too. The WebKit-powered browser works well.

While RIM is quick to admit that the PlayBook software is still ‘pre-release’, some glaring exclusions and myriad errors left some frustrated. I encountered numerous errors while attempting to play media – both videos and audio on one of the test devices.

The lack of a dedicated email, calendaring and contacts clients is a surprising exclusion. Actually it’s dumbfounding.

The only way to manage this is via BlackBerry Bridge – the app suite that allows your Bluetooth-tethered BlackBerry device to manage your Messages, Calendar, and BBM.

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RIM went on record recently to announce that there will be native e-mail, calendar, contact “coming” while the platform evolves. No luck if you’re NOT a BlackBerry phone user. Hmmmm.

I fired up the native game Need For Speed Underground. Took quite a while to load, then gave me an error while failing to load. Boo. Different test devices with different levels of experience. Hmmmm.

One other facet that needs to improve are apps. Whilst Android and iOS enjoy tens of thousands of apps, BlackBerry has a mere three thousand (appended). Yes, BlackBerry will support Android apps via a runtime environment and this satisfies certain camps, but strategy remains muddied and execution untested. Also, it only supports up to Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and not Honeycomb. Hmmmm…

End Notes – The best is yet to come?

In summary, the PlayBook holds much promise. While I question its positioning and RIM’s strategy, this can turn out to be a good, solid commercial product. If and when it’s ready that is. At this juncture, it feels unfinished, like an early beta. Yes, the tablet space is getting crowded and highly competitive and it’s obvious that RIM is feeling the heat to push it to market as quickly as it can. This, however, should never be a reason to deliver an unfinished product. Leaves consumers, like me, disappointed on many levels.

The PlayBook isn’t for everyone. It’s a niche product and it’s obvious RIM is targeting the 41 million (appended) BlackBerry users out there. The PlayBook is available for pre-order in the US and is expected to go on sale soon. No official announcement on availability in Malaysia, nor price yet.

Download and listen to TechBeat #17 audio podcast, where I join host John Lim, Goreng.my’s Erna Mahyuni and Jiboneus’ J Shamsul Bahri to discuss, among other subjects, about the BlackBerry PlayBook and HTC Flyer.

Picture source: RebeccaSaw.com

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