By Ben Bowers
on 4.21.11

Photos by Gear Patrol

Falling from grace is an experience many businesses never recover from — especially in the vicious world of consumer electronics. BlackBerry, once the darling brand of the technological elite and synonymous with power and status, is working to be the exception. In just a few short years, while companies like Apple, Samsung, LG, Google, and HTC doubled-down on consumer-oriented touch devices driven by app-centric mobile operating systems, RIM stood resolute in delivering the enterprise-friendly, secure, and keyboard-based products their core costumer base loved..or used to at least. The nick name Crackberry stuck for a reason back then. Looking back on those choices, phrases like short-sighted, flat-footed, or outright dumb are brought up by various groups to describe RIM over the last few years. Hindsight is always 20 / 20, and our time with the PlayBook shows the company is turning the ship around while it still can. This new attitude and outlook oozes from the PlayBook, making it the most encouraging product we’ve seen bearing the BlackBerry moniker to date. To read our full dissection of the device (oh and do we mean full), hit the more button and dive in.

The Hardware

The PlayBook measures 7.6-inches wide, 5.1-inches tall and 0.4-inches thick. Weighing just under a pound, it sports a rubberized back for easy gripping and a responsive,1024 x 600, multi-touch screen — giving it a higher pixel density than the iPad. This form factor may not please all, but we certainly appreciated sliding the device into our coat pockets and holding it easily with just one hand. Dual-core 1Ghz processors and 1GB of ram provide plenty of oomph for dealing with multiple applications at a time. A front facing 3-megapixel and rear facing 5-megapixel camera are capable of recording 1080p video, while two excellent speakers and mics are an added boon for playing and recording stereo audio. Internal storage comes currently in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB WiFi only versions, but 4G models are coming. BlackBerry handset owners, however, can use their phone’s data connection with the PlayBook without an additional tethering fee via a special Blackberry Bridge app. The ability to BBM from the Playbook while tethered is also supposed to be coming shortly. GPS is on board too, as is a mini-HDMI port for connecting the tablet directly to your TV, and Bluetooth for pairing the tablet with phones or other BT accessories. Battery life shines, providing enough juice for 10 hours of continuous video playback, or several days of pretty hard use. Taken as a whole, the PlayBook is a powerful and well-built device, equipped with all of the necessary accoutrements of a top-tier tablet.

The Software

Obviously, all of the computing brawn in the world means nothing without excellent software to utilize it. That’s where the company’s newly released operating system steps in. RIM’s methods for producing this OS were certainly Machiavellian. They acquired QNX for the base platform, and borrowed hefty bits of interaction queues from Palm’s WebOS for polish — but the ends justify the means. The icon-based UI is familiar and immediately usable. The only learning curve involved centers on the swiping gestures used for switching between apps, closing them, and accessing menu bars. Multi-tasking on the device is excellent, allowing any app opened to continue running fully in the background. Things weren’t always rosey, though, and we encountered several points of frustration. For example, the orientation locking in portrait or landscape mode often didn’t work. In RIM’s defense, the Playbook we actually reviewed wasn’t a production model, and it did receive three over the air software updates during our testing which each addressed certain issues. This was heartening because it showed RIM is dedicated to improving the overall experience. However, scrambling has never sat exactly well with our internal pessimist.

Taken as a whole, the PlayBook is a powerful and well-built device, equipped with all of the necessary accoutrements of a top-tier tablet.

Core Apps
The apps that come pre-installed on the PlayBook are great. The included Need for Speed app was developed specifically for the device, and matches the performance found on competing tabs. The weather application is elegant, while the integrated video and audio player solidly perform their playback duties. 1080p video in particular looks gorgeous on the PlayBook, plus, the ability to display the content on your TV in full HD via HDMI makes it an awesome mobile movie player. Windows users can take advantage of RIM’s syncing software to manage files on the device, but Mac users are left out for now. However, after directly connecting the PlayBook once via USB, both Macs and PCs will recognize it as a networked drive for wirelessly transfering content, even when the device is in sleep mode.

Another key piece software always at the crux of the tablet wars is the browser. The PlayBook’s browser is a modified version of the Torch’s, and a definite improvement. It’s also the first tablet browser we’ve been hands on with that handles Flash video just like your desktop does — giving you access to 1080p Youtube and even Hulu. That’s important, because while plenty of competing Android tablets have talked the flash is supported talk, we’ve yet to see one in the market actually do it. Instead, it’s been pawned off as a “coming soon” software update.

The PlayBook’s browser is a modified version of the Torch’s, and a definite improvement. It’s also the first tablet browser we’ve been hands on with that handles Flash video just like your desktop does — giving you access to 1080p Youtube and even Hulu.

Despite the great browser performance, this also happens to be an area where the device’s 7-inch screen is a liability. There’s just not enough real estate to view pages in their entirety. It isn’t a game breaker, just merely a trade off you should knowingly accept when purchasing a 7-inch tablet. Thankfully pinching and zooming to adjust the view is buttery smooth. The other major land mind with the PlayBook is its lack of dedicated apps for email, contacts, and calendars. This seems like a baffling oversight, but RIM consciously did it to make the PlayBook business ready from day one. You see, in an idyllic world where BlackBerry’s were 99% of the smartphone market, everyone could take advantage of the PlayBook’s Bluetooth-enabled bridge app to securely view contact lists, email accounts, and calendars found on their phone via the bigger tablet screen. In this parallel universe, the PlayBook then doesn’t pose a risk for leaking critical business information in the event it’s stolen or lost — since nothing sensitive is actually on the device. Of course, we don’t all live in that world. So for now, RIM’s short term solution for consumers is to use the web browser. They’ve also promised to bring dedicated apps for these task to the PlayBook soon, presumably when they figure out the security loop holes. The bottom line is it’s not a pretty situation for non-BlackBerry users, and we hope RIM makes good on its promise to fix things fast.

App Store

While other reviewers treat the PlayBook’s lack of apps with the same level of shock as the missing core apps mentioned above, we’re more realistic. It’s no secret that the BlackBerry App World lags significantly behind the iPad and Android versions. What does as insult to injury to the Playbook is that it can’t make use of even those limited BlackBerry app titles, which is a side effect of RIM’s decision to use a completely new OS for their tablet. Subsequently, browsing through the 3,000 apps currently available on the Playbook’s store feels a bit like hitting up a bankrupt retailer 30 days into the fire sale. The good news is that two big changes could remedy this quickly. The first is an emulator that RIM is developing have their current library of BlackBerry apps work on the tablet. The second is the PlayBook’s potential to run Android apps. In that light, we’re fine to take a wait and see approach to this aspect of the PlayBook, but don’t expect this to be an issue for long.

Final Thoughts

The PlayBook is a welcomed addition to the tablet fray and has enough unique features to carve out it’s own distinctive place in the gadget ecosystem. It particularly won’t disappoint BlackBerry diehards and should perform admirably for any consumer looking for a highly portable device for consuming media and browsing the web beyond their smartphone. It also has the potential to be far more — granted its powerful hardware can just be let loose on a wider array of tablet-optimized applications. All that’s required is for RIM to deliver on it’s promises.

Buy Now: $500-$700

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