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Review: Playbook Shows Promise, But Fails to Deliver Apps

The Blackberry Playbook excels at allowing multiple programs to be used simultaneously, but falls short on third-party apps and no e-mail client.

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If you prefer the smaller size, already own a BlackBerry phone, tend to use the Web for most of your productivity tasks, and usually like to run multiple apps at once, the PlayBook is one to consider.

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The BlackBerry PlayBook is a new 7-inch business tablet that shows promise. Widely panned by those in the tech industry, there are several compelling features for entrepreneurs who might find the tablet works remarkably well when it comes to streamlining your mobile life.

Let's be clear up front: this is not the tablet to buy right now. On paper, the specifications are business friendly. The PlayBook is small (about 5 x 9 inches) and light (at just under a pound) and has a 1GHz dual-core processor. The device has most of the features you'd expect in the age of iPad including built-in GPS, a tilt sensor that rotates the screen automatically, and fast wi-fi for access on the road. The 16GB version we tested costs $500, which is the same as the entry-level Apple iPad 2.

Our test unit felt just about right – it's durable and sturdy, and the screen is bright and clear. The mobile browser is buggy but quite fast, and it works with many Adobe Flash sites including YouTube. Built-in apps for viewing Word and Excel docs, playing slideshows, and viewing pictures worked smooth. We noticed a few minor memory errors, some of which were resolved with a recent OS update.

Most of the problems with the PlayBook have to do with the app selection. Shockingly, there is no built-in e-mail client or contact manager. (The tablet includes links to Webmail services like Gmail.) Supposedly, the lack of business apps is by design. If you already own a BlackBerry smartphone, you can sync the tablet to your phone over Bluetooth. When you do, an e-mail client, contacts manager, task list, and notes manager appear on the tablet. This makes the device easier to manage if you have a tech guru on staff. So, if your BlackBerry e-mail is secure on your smartphone, it will be secure on your tablet. This syncing is also convenient: you only have to maintain one set of contacts and never have to wonder if the e-mail loaded on your phone matches the tablet. They are one in the same.

That's not such a bad idea if you are too busy to set up some other syncing method, such as SugarSync. And, you'll probably always have your BlackBerry with you anyway. However, it's a major problem if you do not even own a BlackBerry and do not plan to buy one anytime soon.

There's also an extremely limited number of third-party apps – e.g., no apps for checking flight status, or doing your accounting, or any version of Angry Birds for biding away the time in an airport. There are no Facebook or Twitter apps, just icons that link to the Web versions in the PlayBook browser. There isn't even a Skype app for video chat, even though there's a built-in front and rear camera.

So why is the PlayBook even a contender? One reason is that this is the only currently available tablet that does true multitasking. This means you can go to a service like Gmail, start downloading a large file attachment, switch over to a game or the Web, and the download will continue. Or, you can pull up a Web site with stock quotes and flip over to check them anytime. Remarkably, you can even switch between open apps with a flick left or right and even watch both apps in motion, side by side.

Another reason has to do with file storage. The PlayBook provides a slick way to load files onto the device. First, you have to connect using a USB cable to your computer. After that, you can load files – say, videos or work documents – by sending them over wi-fi directly to the tablet.

I also really like the PlayBook's interface. Sure, it's not quite the same as an iPad or the Motorola Xoom, which runs the Android 3.0 operating system intended for tablets. Yet, the PlayBook OS is fluid and smart. You can flick up from the screen border to see open apps (and close those you don't need). You can flip side to side through open apps as well. The OS is colorful, easy to use, and logical.

You can connect the PlayBook to your HDTV at home or the office and play files in 1080p high-def resolution. The PlayBook is also a good electronic-book reader and includes the Kobo client for buying and reading e-books on the device. The tablet is also a good movie playback device, if you know how to load your own movies – since there is no way to buy or rent them from the device.

Overall, the PlayBook is a major letdown in terms of apps. Maybe Research in Motion (RIM), who makes the PlayBook, will figure out how to attract more developers. Maybe they will include a built-in e-mail client. Eventually, the PlayBook may even include a video chat system and a way to rent or buy videos. For now, as a business tablet, it merely shows promise. That's more than we can say for the many iPad imitators out there, and there will be a slew of them available this year.

If you prefer the smaller size, already own a BlackBerry phone, tend to use the Web for most of your productivity tasks, and usually like to run multiple apps at once, the PlayBook is one to consider. We just recommend waiting to see if a few more apps start coming out before jumping on board.

Last updated: Apr 25, 2011

JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.
@jmbrandonbb




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