The Misadventures Of PlayBook: Questioning Reviews Jump The Launch Gun

RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) has been previewing and talking up its new PlayBook tablet for months already, with demonstrations shepherded by the likes of its CEOs and other executives. But those steps forward have also been met with a number of knocks. Now, on the day that RIM prepares for a public launch of the product in New York ahead of a commercial launch on April 19, a clutch of reviewers are posting their first hands-on impressions.

The reviews we’ve excerpted below come on the back of a challenging couple of months for RIM and the PlayBook.

On top of accusations of RIM losing its way with BlackBerry devices seeing declining market share, the PlayBook has had its own rainstorm: accusations from developers over the difficulty of making apps for the device; news of all the things that the PlayBook will initially lack (cellular connection; email and the rest); and alternating claims of device security to speak to enterprise/corporate concerns but at the same time opening the device to apps from the very open Android Market.

Yesterday’s post from the BBC — about co-CEO Mike Lazaridis ending an interview after the BBC raised questions about RIM’s issues with security in India — didn’t help much, either.

Walt Mossberg of the WSJ, takes issue with the PlayBook’s lack of basic functions built-in: that lack of cellular connection, email, and such popular services as BBM, unless, as mentioned above, connected to a BlackBerry using the device’s “Bridge” service. “This odd system, aimed at pleasing security-concerned corporate customers, doesn’t work with other smartphones. So, in my view, even though Bridge is a neat technical feat, it makes the PlayBook a companion to a BlackBerry phone rather than a fully independent device.” Other problems include being unable to run BlackBerry apps, a small amount of apps (27,000 versus 3,000), and not brilliant battery life.

Positives? “I really liked the user interface of the new operating system [QNX]. It’s smooth and fast, and makes excellent use of multitouch gestures.”

Josh Topolsky, formerly Editor of Engadget and now preparing a new tech site, weighed in with positive words on the smaller, leaner design compared to the iPad and competitors like the Xoom: “I think RIM has mostly made the right decisions with the PlayBook. The 7-inch rectangle is – as stated – not exactly fanciful, but it is nice to look at, and a pleasure to hold in your hands.”

Similar response to media specs: “I was stunned by how good the device sounded when playing back music or watching video… the combo of that dual-core CPU and the QNX architecture seemed to deliver on all the promises of speed and flexibility that RIM has been touting. There aren’t any real benchmarks to run on the platform at this point, but I can say that the PlayBook feels extremely snappy in most scenarios. Apps open quickly, and switching between the truly active programs is instantaneous.” Also mentions how well Flash works on the device. He calls the lack of an email client (without the aid of a BlackBerry device, or a web interface) “astounding”.

But a big vote down for the apps: “The majority of third-party apps I tested while using the PlayBook were simply awful. It’s quite clear that many of the 3400 applications that will be available at launch are converted Flash and Air titles, and many are truly not ready for primetime, nor are they really developed with a touchscreen in mind.”

David Pogue, NY Times, also takes issue with the lack of apps, and much more: “For now, the PlayBook’s motto might be, ‘There’s no app for that.’

“Remember, the primary competition is an iPad – the same price, but much thinner, much bigger screen and a library of 300,000 apps. In that light, does it make sense to buy a fledgling tablet with no built-in e-mail or calendar, no cellular connection, no videochat, Skype, no Notes app, no GPS app, no videochat, no Pandora radio and no Angry Birds?”

And a final note about how even now the software is being tested: “You should also know that even now, only days before the PlayBook goes on sale April 19, the software is buggy and still undergoing feverish daily revision. And the all-important BlackBerry Bridge feature is still in beta testing. It’s missing important features, like the ability to view e-mail file attachments or click a link in an e-mail.”

Om Malik was significantly more positive: “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.”

Also mostly good words about Flash incorporation too: “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 (NSDQ: GOOG) videos off the YouTube website on the Playbook without much of a problem. There is no doubt that Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) and Blackberry have spent a lot of energy on getting this right – even though Flash does start sucking down the battery pretty fast.”

He calls apps RIM’s “Achilles heel”, while the music service is nothing to write home about, and the lack of some of the most popular media consumption services — Amazon’s Kindle, Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX), etc. — a big drawback at this stage. His “deal-killer” though is that lack of native email, calendaring and to-do list functions.

The WiFi-only PlayBook goes on sale on April 19, with prices ranging from $500 to $700.