Enough to give Apple the pip?

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I was once a BlackBerry acolyte, permanently locked in prayer mode over the device just like all my peers, thumbing away furiously at the altar of its keyboard. It was the perfect phone for rec­eiving and viewing the e-mails that dominate my working life and for tapping out replies on those unbeatable keys.

But then along came Apple and Android devices to tempt me away with their tactile touchscreens and appetising apps and, as their smartphone concepts developed into tablets, I wanted them as well.

So, what to make of the BlackBerry PlayBook, Research in Motion’s first tablet, which goes on sale on Tuesday in the US and Canada, and in other markets later this quarter?

It cannot hope for the same hype as the iPad these days. While early BlackBerry users worshipped their new devices, there are now non-believers who prefer Android or are entranced by Steve Jobs’ “magical and revolutionary” device.

The big question is whether it can stop the drift away to other platforms – or even reverse the flow. RIM’s share of the global smartphone market fell year on year from nearly 20 per cent to 14 per cent in the fourth quarter, according to Gartner, the research firm.

First, the bad news for anyone looking to return to what they knew and loved. The PlayBook’s onscreen keyboard is a poor substitute for the real ones of old on BlackBerry smartphones and there is no easy access to corporate e-mail. Oddly, the PlayBook is also missing crucial apps, which means it is less business-like than close rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Moreover, given RIM’s credentials when it comes to security, I would have expected it to have more security features than its rivals, but it lacks some basics – there is no “find your PlayBook” feature for tracking down errant devices, like the iPad’s free service.

But the good news for those who have stuck with their BlackBerry, and who RIM hopes to retain, is that the PlayBook has the potential to be a great companion device and the best 7in tablet on the market. I say “potential” because large chunks of software and services are still missing, presumably because of RIM’s haste to bring this to market in a madly competitive tablet environment.

The PlayBook name holds a clue as to what this tablet is about, suggesting it is more for pleasure than for business – whereas the BlackBerry smartphone was first adopted by business users – and the device builds on solid hardware to back this up.

The all-important screen may be on the small side next to the 9.7in iPad 2 or 10.1in Motorola Xoom – the first device with an Android tablet operating system – but I could see nearly the same amount of information and at a high level of detail. The PlayBook has 1024 x 600 pixels at a density of 169 pixels per inch – the same as the Galaxy Tab – compared with the iPad 2’s 1024 x 768 at 132 pixels per inch.

The high-definition video demo that came with the device showed me the sharpness and rich colours that were possible and it played without any noticeable stutter with the help of its dual-core processor. It is full HD capable, thanks to its 1080p format. I also played a Need For Speed racing game included with the PlayBook and there was no lag in performance – except in mine when I crashed into oncoming cars. Tetris is also included.

There is a gyroscope and accelerometer inside for sophisticated motion-controlled gaming and a GPS chip and magnetometer (digital compass), al­though another mystifying omission – so far – is the turn-by-turn navigation directions software that these would be used for and are present on Android tablets.

Stereo speakers are on either side of the screen for maximum sound effect, while stereo microphones are in the top edge, where there is a very fiddly on-off button, a headphone jack and play/pause/volume controls. The 3Mp and 5Mp front and rear cameras are higher resolution than the Galaxy Tab’s and take a decent widescreen picture. They perform poor­ly in low-light conditions (the Xoom’s camera is the best in this area) but they can record video in full HD quality.

The PlayBook is a little larger and heavier than the Galaxy Tab, but still weighs less than 1lb, and feels very light compared with the iPad 2. It should slide easily into a large jacket pocket or a handbag. In fact, it is small and light enough to make the absence so far of a “find your PlayBook” service annoying.

I was puzzled at first by the thick frame around the screen, only to discover it is an integral part of the touchscreen and intuitive interface. Swiping up from the bottom of the frame reduces the app being viewed to a smaller window that becomes part of a carousel of windows of other apps that are open. A similar swiping action closes and flings the app off the screen – this is all very similar to the interface on HP’s Palm phones and its own forthcoming tablet.

There are third-party music and book stores from 7 Digital and Kobo, but a film and TV show store is missing. There is also a paucity of business apps – I counted a calculator, note recording, teleprompter and Word, Excel and PowerPoint equivalents. But there were no contacts, calendar, messaging or video-calling apps, and e-mail could only be accessed through webmail services in the built-in browser.

Help is at hand if you are already a BlackBerry user running version 5.0 or later of its operating system. A Bluetooth connection to the phone reproduces its BlackBerry Messenger, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks and Memos on the larger tablet screen. If the connection is broken, they disappear, with any work you have done with them saved to the phone (one welcome security feature for IT departments), which can also lend its internet connection to the PlayBook.

I was disappointed by the dearth of apps that could be downloaded from the App World store ahead of the launch, although RIM says more than 3,000 have been submitted by developers. It says its software will also be able to run regular BlackBerry and Android apps this summer. However, these will have been designed for smaller smartphone screens.

This seriously limits the PlayBook’s appeal next to the iPad 2, for example, with its 65,000-plus apps.

Corporate IT departments may recommend the PlayBook to executives as a secure accompaniment to their BlackBerry smartphones but the executives may soon tire of the limited choice of things to do on it.

For the rest of us, RIM needs to work hard with operators to offer attractive bundles of phones with PlayBooks. Otherwise, in spite of an attractive design and powerful hardware, the PlayBook is hard to recommend as a standalone device.


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