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Tech Report – BlackBerry PlayBook

By Paul O’Reilly

Although 2011 was supposed to be the year when Apple finally got some serious competition for its iPad tablet computer, that competition has been slow to materialize. Sprint and Verizon recently slashed the price of the Samsung Galaxy Tab to generate more sales, and Motorola’s Xoom has failed to live up to its pre-launch hype.

Meanwhile, the second-generation iPad 2 rolls along, with supply shortages the only threat to Apple’s continued domination of the sector.

Into this difficult environment comes another much-hyped newcomer – the BlackBerry PlayBook from Research In Motion. The PlayBook is touted by RIM as the “world’s first professional-grade tablet,” and it’s an important launch for the company, which has seen the iPhone and Android devices gobble up much of its growth potential in the smartphone market

One thing in its favor: the PlayBook certainly can’t be accused of being an iPad clone. Measuring 5 inches tall and 7.5 inches wide, the device is significantly smaller than its competition. Its size and lightweight design (under one pound) make it very easy to handle but still slightly too large to slip comfortably into a coat pocket.

The 7-inch screen is surrounded by a 0.7-inch bezel, which gives the PlayBook the look of a digital picture frame. This is compounded by the complete lack of any visible buttons or controls. Like the Xoom, the Playbook is operated entirely by using the touchscreen.

In terms of hardware specs, the Playbook features a 1GHz dual-core processor, along with 1GB of RAM. There is a 3-megapixel camera on the front of the device, and another 5-megapixel camera on the back that can capture video at full 1080p HD quality. There is also a connection for an HDMI cable (not included) for connecting the PlayBook to a TV.

One of the strengths – and weaknesses – of the PlayBook is its unique operating system. The PlayBook OS was developed specifically for this device and it’s very different to anything that you will have seen before, even if you are a BlackBerry smartphone user. In many ways, it’s like learning a whole new language but there are no help screens and very little that is intuitive.

However, once you master the basics, it starts to make a lot of sense. For example, instead of swiping between home screens as you would on an Android device, you swipe between open applications. Unlike its competitors, it’s a true multi-tasking device – you have the feeling that everything is right there at your fingertips, much like an all-in-one computer.

This feeling that you are using something more powerful than a handheld device also translates to the PlayBook Web browser, perhaps its finest feature. The PlayBook gives you the Web as it was meant to be seen, every page faithful to the original and not some watered-down iPad version, stripped of Flash video and animation and anything else that Apple deems to be unworthy.

The PlayBook also comes loaded with apps, including a full suite of Docs To Go, which allows for viewing and editing document formats such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The HDMI connection will also allow you to show these in big-screen presentation format, making the PlayBook an extremely useful business tool.

However, some notable apps that are missing include e-mail, calendar, and contacts. If you are a BlackBerry smartphone owner, you can get around this by utilizing a free app called BlackBerry Bridge. This effectively pairs the PlayBook to your smartphone, allowing you to work on and “mirror” all the e-mail features. However, if you don’t have a BlackBerry smartphone, you’re out of luck: no e-mail, no calendar, no address book.

The PlayBook is offered in three versions: 16GB for $499.99, 32GB for $599.99 or 64GB for $699.99. Another important point to note: this initial version of the PlayBook is Wi-Fi-only, meaning there is no data contract to buy. It also means that if you can’t connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot, there is no 3G or 4G alternative.

For all its good points – and there are many – the PlayBook is unlikely to register wide appeal outside of the existing band of devoted BlackBerry followers. For them, the PlayBook offers a well-designed and productive extension of their smartphone experience. For everyone else, the iPad 2 is still the tablet to beat.

Follow Paul O’Reilly on Twitter @TheTechDad

Comment by Jean Parks, posted 4/27/2011, 5:18 AM:

Paul, As usual an awesome review & one that echo's sentiments I'm hearing in the rest of the tech community. End users want more & they know with the huge spat of tablets being released this year, if they wait they will get more!
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