- Review Date: 03/15/2012
- Bottom line:
The RIM BlackBerry PlayBook is finally a viable tablet computer, now that it includes native email support, but it still lags behind the competition in third-party apps.
Sharp, beautiful screen. Top-notch browser with full Flash video support. Wirelessly transfers files to and from computers on same network.
Far fewer third-party apps than the iPad, and the ones that exist aren't nearly as compelling. Doesn't sync with BES or support BlackBerry Messenger.
Editors' Note: We originally reviewed the PlayBook on 4/13/11 and rated it 2.5 stars. Almost one year later, we're testing the PlayBook again in light of its much lower list price and significantly revised PlayBook 2.0 Tablet OS.
Research In Motion's much-maligned tablet computer, the BlackBerry PlayBook, is finally a viable choice, thanks to its heavily revised OS and a massive price drop. The PlayBook's user interface is beautiful, graceful, and operates with a simplicity that rivals that of the Apple iPad 2 ($399 for 16GB, 4.5 stars) and bests current Android tablets like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime ($499 for 32GB, 4 stars). The BlackBerry PlayBook is also much less expensive than before, at just $199 for 16GB, $249 for 32GB, and $299 for 64GB. In fact, the 16GB $199 model is the same price as the 8GB Amazon Kindle Fire ($199, 4 stars), although the Kindle Fire is a more capable media machine, with its nicely integrated, cloud-based ecosystem of books, music, and movies. Meanwhile, the PlayBook still suffers from a dearth of compelling apps. And Apple's third-generation iPad, which is just hitting stores, makes an argument for buying a PlayBook all that much tougher.
Design, User Interface, and Hardware
The BlackBerry PlayBook remains a nice piece of hardware. It measures 5.1 by 7.6 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and weighs 14.4 ounces. Its black glass front panel, and tapered, soft touch back panel are comfortable to hold. The 1,024-by-600-pixel display matches what you get with the Kindle Fire, though the PlayBook's is a bit brighter and more vibrant. There's no Home button; instead, you sweep up from the bezel to the center of the display with your finger. There's also a 6-axis internal gyroscope and accelerometer. On the PlayBook's top edge, you'll find a standard size 3.5mm headphone jack, plus hardware volume, playback, and power buttons. The bottom edge houses a micro HDMI output, a micro USB connector, and a magnetic charging port similar to the one on the Apple MacBook Pro. It works with RIM's optional dock accessory, but you only get a standard micro USB cable and charger in the box.
The PlayBook's user interface is quite polished; this tablet is pretty fun to use. The graphics and overall layout looks sharp and colorful, and it's easy to launch apps, see what's running in the background, and generally move around and get things done. The main menu is like a giant version of the one on recent BlackBerrys. A dock along the bottom of the screen holds five icons to start with, then expands upward to display many more icons.
A 4G version of the PlayBook never materialized, but the built-in Internet tethering feature is a nice bonus. If you own a BlackBerry phone, you can use its signal as a hotspot for the PlayBook via Bluetooth. There is no extra charge for this, so for BlackBerry owners, the Wi-Fi-only PlayBook is a better deal than it is for anyone else.
Having sufficient hardware power also helps; thankfully, the PlayBook does. The TI OMAP4430 CPU is a dual-core, 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 chip, with a dual-channel memory controller and PowerVR SGX540 for graphics processing. You also get 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, including a file-sharing feature that lets you transfer files wirelessly from other computers on the same Wi-Fi network. We had good luck with Windows 7 machines, but ran into some difficulty transferring files from an iMac and a Windows XP system. Despite that, overall we saw far fewer bugs with the new OS than we did with the original version, which had spotty USB and wireless connectivity. (For a more in-depth dive into the revised BlackBerry Tablet OS, read our hands on.)
Email, Browser, and Apps
The biggest news with the QNX-based PlayBook OS 2.0 is the inclusion of native email, contacts, and calendar support. It's only news in the sense that the PlayBook finally does what it should have done at launch last year. Native email is table stakes for any current mobile device, and the lack of it was frankly shocking. Regardless, I had no problem setting up email, contacts, and calendar using the native email app. The app works directly with Microsoft Exchange corporate servers. On the other hand, the PlayBook still can't sync with BlackBerry Enterprise Server, and it still doesn't run BlackBerry Messenger.
The Web browser remains a bright spot, with an intuitive interface, fast performance, and full Flash 10.1 support. Bookmarking, creating new tabs, and general navigation are all simple, and any page resizing problems the original OS had seem to be gone.
BlackBerry App World, RIM's answer to Apple's App Store and Google Play, contains roughly 10,000 apps made specifically for the PlayBook. Developers can also now submit Android apps to App World, which is supposed to speed up the store's growth. Unfortunately, that effort seems to be getting off to a rocky start. I tried Pool Break Lite, which promptly froze the PlayBook and then crashed after about 30 seconds of black screen.
The glaring gap in functionality, selection, and overall quality between the PlayBook and other tablets is clear. For example, the big-name game title selection is spotty; you'll find Angry Birds, Monopoly, Dead Space, Madden, Plants vs. Zombies, and Need For Speed, but none of the other big franchises like NBA Jam, Dungeon Hunter, Infinity Blade, Real Racing, or even Scrabble or Words With Friends. There's no Netflix, Hulu, Kindle, Nook, Mint, Tumblr, Yelp Pandora, or Spotify. You can't run BlackBerry phone apps either, even in an expanded pixel mode. This is where the PlayBook still falls flat, even post-OS upgrade and post-massive price drop.
Multimedia, Camera, and Conclusions
The PlayBook isn't a bad companion for media consumption. Videos look vibrant, and the HDMI output lets you mirror the screen in 720p high-definition. The PlayBook supports H.264, MPEG4, XviD, and VC1 files. The Pictures app remains somewhat basic, but it displays images beautifully. Music playback is another strong suit, with an intuitive app layout and solid MP3, AAC, and WMA (but no FLAC) audio playback via the integrated stereo speakers. RIM's Music Store is affordable, has a decent selection, and lets you sample songs before purchasing them. The new BlackBerry Video Store offers a few thousand titles to choose from, and is nicely sorted by genre, with options to rent or buy movies.
The PlayBook has a pair of good cameras, though as with other tablets, only the front-facing one is useful. At 3 megapixels, it's actually pretty high resolution, and the new video chat app in OS 2.0 finally means you can do something with it. The PlayBook's rear-facing camera has a 5-megapixel sensor. It's not as good as the iPhone 4S but plenty capable, and much better than the terrible one on the iPad 2. It also records full 1080p high-definition video, just like the new iPad does, and you can output the results to an HDTV with the HDMI port. The battery lasted 8 hours and 15 minutes of continuous video playback with Wi-Fi on, which is very good as far as tablets go.
At $199 with its revised, polished operating system, the PlayBook is now a functional standalone device. If you're buying a small tablet for Web access and media playback rather than apps, the PlayBook is a good-looking alternative to the Editors' Choice Amazon Kindle Fire.
Just by the spec sheet and test results, this should be at least a 3.5-star product. But we're keeping it at three stars because we don't have faith in the ecosystem. We're not convinced that the low sales of the PlayBook and lack of other QNX-based devices on the market will lead to more app development soon. Amazon offers not only a broader range of media, but a sense of the wind at its back and the ability to plug into the larger Android world. Even though this tablet has better specs, the Kindle Fire has more of a future, so the Kindle Fire remains our pick for small tablets.