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BlackBerry PlayBook Review

  • Free with Torch 9860 on Optus $49 cap
  • Great BlackBerry build, with some weaknesses
  • OS 2.0 coming in late February
Written by Adam Wajnberg
06/02/2012

As little as 6 years ago, the landscape for mobile plans was very different indeed. The focus for most consumers was price and size- before smartphones came along, the key to a good phone was how miniscule it could get. Then mobiles became small computers, and suddenly, a screen that could display more than the time and date was a necessity.

With Nokia and Sony Ericsson offering handsets that were essentially indistinguishable from each other, retailers started looking to other goodies to entice customers to sign on for new 24 month contracts. GPS Units were popular, as were DVD players. But Strathfield was particularly successful in giving away a rich bundle of swag with new contracts, including Xbox’ and Playstations, and even netbooks.

In the current era, we’ve reached a point where one shiny black rectangle and another are all pretty fantastic, with the differentiators being size, build quality and materials. These aren’t enough to sway most competitors one way or another, and so they just go for the iPhone, which has the widest selection of apps, or the Samsung, which has the widest selection of accessories in the Android world, or *GASP!* avoid upgrading altogether and stay with their still-fantastic two year old phone. What’s a retailer to do? Everyone also has bought and abandoned one or more game systems.

Tablets seem to fill the niche nicely as expensive, desirable but otherwise hard-to-shift units that can be bundled up with a new phone. Apple’s iPad sells briskly, but other models have a tendency to sit around for a little too long, with an upgrade usually right around the corner, ready to make your inventory immediately obsolete. So, pack them in with phones that are in the same boat!

Optus has recently been offering the BlackBerry Playbook as a freebie with the Torch 9860. The Playbook was released shortly after the iPad 2 in mid 2011. The 7-inch tablet comes in 16, 32 and 64GB flavours, all with the same 7-inch screen. The original price tag was up with the iPad’s, starting at $499 USD. This is for a tablet that is half the size, with a fraction of the apps available, and with no native email or messaging support. To get these apps, you have to ‘bridge’ the Playbook with your BlackBerry, immediately annoying the 98% of potential buyers who don’t have one.

These flaws and mis-steps, coupled with BlackBerry’s flagging brand overall, have relegated the Playbook to the bargain bin. In the US, the 16GB model started selling at $199, before RIM made the unusual decision to reduce all three sizes to $299. That didn’t help. RIM then unveiled a very decent looking upgrade (with inbuilt messaging and email) at the Consumer Electronics Show, scheduled for late February. RIM then shuffled CEOs and are now offering a free Playbook to any Android developers who take the time to port their apps to the BlackBerry operating system.

Here in Oz, the only retailer selling them had been Harvey Norman, which dropped its prices along with the US retailers. Optus seems to be the only other mob to give it a go.

All of this is a bit of a shame. The Playbook is a handsome, well-built little device, using the same sturdy, rubber-backed build as many of their handsets. The size and weight are perfect for reading in bed, offering more comfort than the more popular 10-inch iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Let’s take a close look in a lightning review.

Build

Sturdy, good weight without being too heavy.

Sight and Sound

Excellent. Plays 720p videos easily and beautifully, with near TV-quality sound that tramples the iPad.

Connection

Connects to PC with the widely available micro USB standard, and connects to a TV with mini-HDMI. Excellent stuff.

Camera

5 megapixels facing forward and 3 MP for video chatting, which can only be done with other Playbook users. Good quality, but nothing groundbreaking.

Interaction with PC

Terrible. I tried to mount this to my Mac, and got nothing. I updated all software and installed BlackBerry Desktop Software. BDS only gives the option of syncing with iTunes, with no drag and drop option. What’s more, it takes a long time to load. If you want to find your Playbook in Finder (or in Windows Explorer), you just…can’t. I had to disconnect and reconnect a few times before it picked it up, where media can be dragged and dropped into appropriate folders (videos, books, documents) at a stunningly slow rate. It took 40 minutes to load 5GB of movies. I got the same result on a PC running Windows 7 and a Mac running OSX Lion. Moreover, loading epub files into Books did nothing. There is no native eBook reading software, and the Kobo software that does come with it doesn’t allow for ‘sideloading’ – you can only buy books from the Kobo store. I looked on App World for other ebook reading apps, which did pick up anything loaded into the Books folder – but they were all pretty undercooked (can’t slide to the page I want?) and all cost at least one dollar. In the Apple and Android ecosystems, there are dozens of free eBook readers, and they’re all excellent and feature packed. For a book sized tablet, this is a pretty big oversight.

Browsing

Can you see a line of smoke coming from my head? The Playbook’s native browser is ok, but I like tabs. Instead of tabs, the browser only offers to open your link in another window, which is frustrating. When I looked for an alternative browser, I found nothing. Which brings us to…

Apps
Yikes. BlackBerry’s App World is a bit of a dismal place compared to Apple’s App Store. With a bit over 3000 apps, very few of them free and many of them lacking features. No alternative browsers? No email programs? Hopefully RIM’s enticement to Android developers pans out, or this lack of goods is going to cripple this device.

The Bizness

Native Excel, Word and Powerpoint creation apps are handy, and when paired with HDMI to a monitor and a wireless keyboard, makes this almost a good device for business – except it lacks the grunt for all but the most basic spreadsheets, and there’s no Bluetooth mouse support.

Overall

For a device that has an air of “this is for business, the iPad is for games”, the Playbook is a surprisingly fantastic media player- and not much more. Yet. With a new version of the software coming soon to address many of these issues, it’s hard to completely dismiss the Playbook. At any rate, the operating system is smoother and more secure than Android. All it needs now is something to do, and a way of doing it.

Though the PlayBook is Wi-Fi only, relying on a nearby internet connection, there are several other tablets that can connect to a mobile network for internet-on-the-go. Call Optus on 1300 137 897 for the Playbook offer and for info on other tablets.

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