BlackBerry Tablet, PlayBook, a Notable Debut

Research In Motion (s RIMM), the company behind the iconic BlackBerry devices, is finally taking the veil off its much-anticipated tablet, the PlayBook. The device will cost between $500 and $700 and will be available April 19.

I have been playing around with the device for a couple of days, and I’ve also been comparing it with three tablets currently available to me: the iPad 2, Motorola XOOM and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Like most reviewers, I don’t tend to read the review guides that manufacturers send us with the review units. Out of the box intuitiveness is — or should be — par for the course when it comes to tablets and new smartphones. When I bought the iPad, I didn’t need any outside help to get started. A few exploratory gestures, and I was off to the races. I used the same approach with the PlayBook.

To be clear, I don’t really consider myself a professional device reviewer like, say, our excellent gadget guru Kevin Tofel or the fantastic David Pogue. I consider myself a discerning buyer, someone who is not shy about spending the dollars as long as the product is worth buying and scores high on my own abstract metric of the happiness quotient.

After spending about 20 hours on the device, I am sharing my early impressions of the PlayBook — broken down into ten key segments with a quick summary at the end.

1. Looks & Design: The experience of a device starts with the looks, and here the PlayBook scores high marks. Though not as elegant as the original iPad and not as thin as the iPad 2, the device is solid and well engineered. The black body, rubber back, clean lines and a functional placement of buttons and ports add up to a great first impression. My only quibble: It doesn’t look much different from many of the Android tablets.

2. Interface & Experience: The new PlayBook is based on QNX, the new operating system RIM acquired in April 2010. As an old BlackBerry fan, I found the OS, interface and even the icons for various apps felt very familiar, and the menus are clean and easy to use. The home screen is divided into three panes: status bar, apps list and, when you have apps open, an open app panel. The whole experience feels very natural.

The TI OMAP that powers the device runs at 1 GHz and is extremely fast, and the device puts that oomph to maximum use. The fluid interface makes switching from one app to another smooth and easy. The overall experience feels superior to some of the Android-based tablets I have used. The two built-in cameras — the 3 megapixel (front facing) and 5 megapixel (main camera) — are high-quality and are tightly integrated

3. Size: I love the iPad and its bigger screen. The big screen is one of the things I actually like about the XOOM. I have often argued with Kevin about the merits of the bigger screen so, I wasn’t quite prepared to like the PlayBook’s 7-inch screen with 1024 X 600 resolution. But I did. Weighing less than a pound, the PlayBook is very comfortable to hold and use, especially when playing video games or watching video. The diminutive size makes it easier to type out quick notes with your thumbs, something that is virtually impossible on a bigger tablet.

4. Connectivity: The PlayBook has built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It was easy to connect to Wi-Fi networks, and the radio even worked in corners of my apartment where the signal was the weakest, such as my balcony. Here it easily beat the two Android devices and the original iPad. The iPad2 had the same powerful connection as the PlayBook. Once you connect to the network, the device automatically shows up on your network as a drive. As a Mac user, I could easily transfer files such as photos to it without plugging into a computer.

With Bluetooth, you can tether the device to your 3G phone, and I had no problems doing that with my Verizon iPhone. (You can also just use the Wi-Fi to connect to the phone via the Verizon iPhone Personal Hotspot option.) If you use a BlackBerry phone, the Bluetooth connection gives your tablet a constant 3G connectivity option without sucking up too much power.

5. Browser: RIM has been making a lot of noise about the PlayBook’s Webkit-based browser — and specifically its ability to run Flash. I can see why –- the browser is Playback’s single best feature.

You can hardly tell the difference between a desktop browsing experience and the Playbook. I have been watching YouTube videos off the YouTube website on the Playbook without much of a problem. There is no doubt that Adobe and Blackberry have spent a lot of energy on getting this right — even though Flash does start sucking down the battery pretty fast.

6. Apps: PlayBook has links to websites of popular services such as Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and Hotmail, and they all look like “app” icons. Why? Because RIM says “you don’t need an app for the web.” That may be true, but users expect devices to use apps, and apps often define the potential of a platform.

RIM executives claim that the BlackBerry apps store has nearly 3000 PlayBook apps, but that is nowhere near what Apple and Google’s Android OS-based tablets offer. I am underwhelmed by the specific offerings. Where is a Kindle native app or the Netflix? Without those apps, Playbook feels less useful. Apps are RIM’s Achilles heel and will remain so, and they need to motivate popular app makers to develop for their platform.

7. Media: I collectively call music, photos, videos and books “media.” To me, they represent the most important features of a tablet. The PlayBook music app is adequate but nothing to write home about. RIM is offering a built-in music store (via Seven Digital), but again the buy, download and playback experience isn’t as smooth as iTunes on the iPad. The Kobo Books service offers an option to buy books, but frankly having already spent hundreds of dollars in the Amazon store, this is a non-starter for me. I bet there are many more who would rather wait for the Amazon app than start fresh with Kobo.

But when it comes to photos and video, the PlayBook is simply outstanding. No, they don’t match up to the floating image feeling you get when watching photos on an iPad, but the PlayBook offers a whole different experience that’s in a class of its own.

PlayBook ships with an HDMI port which allows you to take any generic HDMI cable and plug the device into your television, making the PlayBook extremely versatile as an HD media center. There is no stutter, delay or jumpiness with videos; the playback on the PlayBook is akin to watching movies on your DVD player.

If you asked me what I love about PlayBook, I would say it is the video playback features.  Damn shame that it doesn’t have many popular video download services at this time.

8. Productivity & Communications: For me this is the deal-killer: I wouldn’t buy a device that doesn’t have a standalone email client, calendar or a to-do list. Need Google Talk? Tough luck. Skype? No mas, amigos. Sure you get Office apps, thanks to RIM buying DataViz, but frankly I want a good email client in my tablet more than anything else.

RIM would argue that you could use BlackBerry Bridge, a piece of software that allows you to pair your tablet with your BlackBerry. It’s not the smoothest process, but once you establish the connection, you can mirror BlackBerry apps such as BBM, contacts, messages, memos and calendar on the big screen. The PlayBook gives you full access to the data in those apps.

If BlackBerry wants to sell PlayBook to existing Blackberry owners, then the Bridge might suffice. But what if you don’t have or don’t want a BlackBerry? RIM says the email client is going to be offered later this summer as an OTA download, and for me that is enough of a reason to refrain from buying this device — at least until then.

9. Multitasking: All I can say about the multitasking abilities of this device is — wow. You could output a movie via HDMI to your big-screen TV while looking at a PowerPoint, then switch to web browsing. Playbook does it all smoothly.

10. Gestures: As a longtime iPad owner and someone who’s tried Android devices for a long time, I have to say, it took me a few hours to get my gestures right on this device. But then not all PlayBook users will be swtiching between different devices. If you are a first-time buyer, you won’t have natural inclination to use the iPad/Android gestures. PlayBook’s gestures are simple, though you might want to check out the tutorial to get the basics down quickly.

My Overall Impressions: PlayBook is perhaps one of the best tablets I have used, but it has some glaring shortcomings. What works for PlayBook is what works for iPad –- the chip, the hardware and the operating system are very tightly coupled. You can feel the cohesion, which in turn adds up to a fluid and satisfactory feeling.

Android tablets have a worthy rival in the PlayBook. It lacks the overall polish of the iPad 2, but give it a little time and RIM could get the hardware and experience right. Even with this first release, it is among my top three tablets picks. I am glad they are in the market and will prove to be a worthy competitor.

Disappointed as I am in the limited number of apps, the deal-breaker for me is the lack of independent communication tools. I understand that RIM wants to sell more BlackBerry devices (just as Apple wants the halo effect for its other gadgets), but to leave out a standalone email client makes little or no sense.