Despite previous forays into touchscreen territory, BlackBerry is still best known as the leader in QWERTY email phones. Undeterred, it’s now delivered its first tablet, the 7in PlayBook.
Initial impressions are that it’s small – possibly too small. It might be that we’ve just grown accustomed to the larger screens of the iPad, Motorola Xoom and Asus Eee Pad Transformer, but it does feel rather odd.
There are advantages to its proportions though. It squeezes almost the same number of pixels as the iPad’s display into a smaller frame, which has the effect of sharpening everything up. And, of course, it’s more portable. At a push you could carry it in a generously dimensioned pocket.
Build quality is high: the rubberised back makes it easy to hold and the front-facing speakers look smart. The only let-down is the power button that’s too small and recessed too far, but since you wake the screen with a swipe of the frame this isn’t crucial. And BlackBerry says it’s fixing the button, anyway.
Although there’s the promise of compatibility with selected Android apps (due later in the summer), the PlayBook doesn’t run on Android. Instead it’s based on BlackBerry’s Tablet OS, which is similar to the WebOS seen on recent Palm handsets.
Smooth as silk
As an OS it could do more to give you hints as to where to touch, swipe and flick. A newbie won’t have much joy with it in the first few minutes, but once you realise how it fits together it’s easy enough to get on with. On the PlayBook hardware the OS really flies, with perfectly smooth transitions and scrolling. It’s not a million miles from Android and iOS but has a few neat tricks of its own, such as the multitasking app thumbnails that show off the power of the system with realtime animated updates and video playback, not just still images.
The official app count at launch is 3000, a large number of which are repurposed from the Palm WebOS platform. The first official Facebook app for tablets is one of the highlights and elsewhere there are some office apps and a few games (such as EA’s Need for Speed Undercover). They show off the potential of the PlayBook, but the last thing app developers need is another platform to add to their list, so the prompt arrival of Android app compatibility will be crucial.
Email, you say? Well, you can have your Gmail and Hotmail, and sync with a BlackBerry handset, but so far there’s no BlackBerry email on the PlayBook. The hardware is only Wi-Fi at this stage, so full always-on email wouldn’t be a realistic proposition anyway.
Where does it fit in?
That raises the question of what, or who, the PlayBook is actually for. It’s a question we haven’t quite found an answer to. It’s clearly not a replacement for a BlackBerry phone, so it would seem it’s a ‘playmate’ for BlackBerry users. Still, without the extensive gaming catalogue of iOS or the mountain of less impressive Android Market games, it won’t be the gamer's first choice.
Video is one area in which it can stake a claim. The screen isn’t hi-res enough to display 720p at its full resolution, but nonetheless, HD files look brilliantly sharp and colourful on the PlayBook, and can also be pumped out in Full HD via HDMI.
The PlayBook is hard to fault. Technically it’s up there with the best, with an OS and hardware combination that seems to be unflappable. Any new format is bound to be short of software at launch, but whether or not BlackBerry can ramp up its app roster fast enough will be the deciding factor in its success or failure.