Walt Mossberg

PlayBook: A Tablet With a Case Of Codependency

Now entering the tablet wars: the BlackBerry PlayBook, a contender from Research In Motion, maker of the iconic smartphone.

Unlike most tablets aiming to take on the iPad juggernaut, the PlayBook, which I’ve been testing for five days, doesn’t run on Google’s Android operating system, nor does it run on RIM’s own aging phone software. It uses a new tablet OS that is handsome and quick, and looks different from Apple’s and Google’s. I enjoyed the user interface.

But that isn’t the biggest distinction between the PlayBook and the other tablets. This first edition of the PlayBook has no built-in cellular data connection and lacks such basic built-in apps as an email program, a contacts program, a calendar, a memo pad and even RIM’s popular BlackBerry Messenger chat system.

To get these features with your $500 PlayBook, you must use it with a nearby BlackBerry phone connected to it wirelessly over a short-range Bluetooth connection. Once this link is made, these critical applications pop up on the PlayBook’s screen, via a system called Bridge.

But these are essentially ghosts of the same apps on the phone. In my tests, I could use them from the tablet, where they looked nicer, and they did synchronize with the phone. But when I broke the connection, the apps became grayed-out and the data they held disappeared. It is all stored on the phone.

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. That may be fine for dedicated BlackBerry owners, but it isn’t so great for people with other phones. PlayBook owners with other phones must do things such as email and calendar tasks on the tablet using Web-based apps like Google’s or Yahoo’s via the PlayBook’s browser. All other phones can do is provide the PlayBook an Internet connection using their hot-spot features.

The PlayBook, which goes on sale April 19, will match the prices of the Wi-Fi versions of the Apple iPad, starting at $499 for a base model with 16 gigabytes of storage—albeit with a screen that, at 7 inches, offers less than half the surface area of the iPad’s.

RIM says it is planning to add built-in cellular data, email, contacts, calendar and the other missing core features to the PlayBook this summer, via software updates. But until then, I can’t recommend the PlayBook over a fully standalone tablet, except possibly for folks whose BlackBerrys never leave their sides.

There are other reasons for my hesitation. For one, unlike the iPad, which can run almost all of the 350,000 iPhone apps, the PlayBook can’t run any of the 27,000 BlackBerry apps. It will launch with only about 3,000 apps designed for tablets, compared with 65,000 tablet-optimized iPad apps.

RIM also plans to release this summer special players or emulators that will allow the PlayBook to run BlackBerry apps and even Android apps. But the latter, while numerous, will be apps designed for the smartphone versions of Android, not the newer tablet version. It’s too early to say how these apps will perform via the special player.

I got the strong impression RIM is scrambling to get the product to market, and that it will be adding other features already offered on competing devices for months, through software patches.

For instance, although the PlayBook has very nice front and rear cameras, it comes without video-chatting software. That will be added soon after launch, RIM says. The same goes for a video store, even though the screen renders videos beautifully and a built-in connector outputs gorgeous high-definition video to a TV over a cable.

The built-in Photos app offers no functions for sharing pictures, another feature the company is considering adding later. There is no one-touch icon for airplane mode. You can’t yet add Web bookmarks to the home screen, though some ship with the device.

Battery life also fell short in my tests. With the screen brightness at about 75% and Wi-Fi on, I played a movie I had transferred from a computer over and over until the juice ran out. The PlayBook lasted a bit over five hours, well short of the company’s claim of eight to 10 hours for mixed use. In mixed use, and on a second test of watching video with Wi-Fi off, I did better, over six hours, but well short of the 10 hours on the iPad 2. Plus, I ran into a few bugs, including a scenario where the memory ran out prematurely. This persisted after a major software update that was supposed to fix it. RIM is now blaming the bug on a single app, which it says will be fixed by launch.

PTECH-JUMP

The PlayBook’s user interface takes a clean and attractive approach.

So is there anything good about the PlayBook? Actually, yes. I really liked the user interface of the new operating system, which is based on software RIM bought called QNX. It’s smooth and fast, and makes excellent use of multitouch gestures. An area at the bottom of the screen holds the icons, which are divided into sections like “All,” “Media,” “Games” and “Favorites.” When you have multiple apps open, large images of them appear at the top of the screen, and you can scroll though them. It’s a very clean, attractive approach.

The browser, while sometimes slow to load, is highly capable, even on sites designed for a regular computer, and does the best job with Flash video and Flash sites I have ever seen on a tablet—far better than on any Android device I’ve tested. I couldn’t find a Flash video the PlayBook couldn’t handle, and it even breezed through a site written entirely in Flash, which other Flash-capable mobile devices couldn’t. The iPad, of course, can’t use Flash at all.

The hardware is sturdy and the back has a nice rubberized feel. While the PlayBook is 14% thicker than the iPad 2, it’s about one-third lighter. This lower weight, combined with its smaller overall size, will appeal to people who find the Apple product too large.

The screen is beautiful, even though it has a lower resolution than the iPad’s. And the cameras are better than the iPad’s.

Still, unless you are constantly glued to a BlackBerry phone, or do all your email, contacts and calendar tasks via a browser, I recommend waiting on the PlayBook until more independently usable versions with the promised additions are available.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos at walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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