So I have got my hands on one of the new Blackberry PlayBooks – although I have to confess I didn't buy it, I've got it on loan from a friendly techie who had been evaluating for software development purposes but then grew bored/frustrated with its capabilities and put it back in the toy cupboard.
Physically, the new PlayBook is almost exactly half the size and half the weight of a first generation Apple iPad (see picture). It is also about the same price of an iPad except of course you also have to possess a modern Blackberry phone and an airtime contract. What else…
The PlayBook takes an age to boot-up (particularly when compared to an iPad) so the more convenient option is to keep it on standby. But, that then bites into the limited battery life, which is already taking a pasting from supporting the Bluetooth link between the PlayBook and the Blackberry to which it is tethered, as well as the device's large screen. It is not quite a case of you being able see the battery life dropping away before your eyes but it is disconcerting to discover how soon you can be down to 75% without apparently doing anything. (Anyone using a touchscreen Blackberry phone like the Torch 9800 will already be familiar with the battery life issue.)
The good news is that the way of linking the PlayBook to the Blackberry, is simple – a little more complicated the first time around than linking to a new Bluetooth headset (as it includes downloading the Blackberry Bridge app) but otherwise no big deal and no need for cables, pace the iBook. It's also got a nice clean screen, a simple to use touch-screen interface and using the device as an untethered (as in not linked to a Blackberry phone) terminal for web surfing etc is a joy. So far so good but… and now we come to the big buts.
Unlike the Apple iTunes system, which allows you to sync your apps on multiple devices (the mothership computer, iPhones, iPods and iPads etc) currently the apps you already have on your Blackberry do not automatically become accessible on the PlayBook. Instead the PlayBook comes complete with it's own set of apps (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Weather reports, Bing Maps, Word To Go etc etc) as well as the ability to download more apps from the Blackberry AppWorld store.
This does also mean that with some apps you may have to download them twice – once for the Blackberry and the second time for the PlayBook – as well as login to them twice etc. Ok, maybe not a deal breaker – unless you are downloading apps you need to buy… RIM say they will address this issue (as well as the lack of support for Citrix – not something I looked into as I don't use Citrix) in the next version of the PlayBook. However, it does seem to defeat the whole purpose of having a wide-screen add-on to the Blackberry if you are still forced to access some apps on the tiny phone screen?
And talking of apps, the PlayBook's browser (in common with the Blackberry phone's browser) does not support rich-text-format editing (something us bloggers-on-the-move need) so for some types of work, you are still going to have to carry a 'proper' laptop along with you.
So far, so good – or so indifferent – but now we come to a couple of killer issue.
The first, I will concede, may have been an idiosyncratic issue with either my Blackberry or my PlayBook but when I came to try to reconnect the Bluetooth link between the two devices, nothing happened. My Blackberry was happily trying to flirt and pair with every other Bluetooth device in the house but it couldn't find the bloody PlayBook. Instead I was getting error messages that the correct bridge software had not been installed, plus both devices timing out before they could search for and pair with each other. Then suddenly, after about 30 minutes of faffing about, the two devices found each other and happily got hooked. Now if that happens once, it is annoying but with my devices, it occurred repeatedly – not something you want if you are a serious business user.
And then there is the rather more fundamental issue of there being no offline email client on the PlayBook. (Not strictly true as you can run Google Mail on the tablet via wifi and without need to sync with the phone but if Gmail is not your core email account then this is not going to help.) In fact when you sever the Bluetooth link between the phone and tablet, you lose all access to your Blackberry contacts, calendar, memo pad, tasks and messages/email applications on the PlayBook. And by all access, I mean all access – you cannot see any appointments, addresses or emails you have stored on your Blackberry, except on your Blackberry.
The answer of course is to keep the two devices permanently tethered via the Bluetooth link – but then we are back to the battery life problem. Oh yes, and talking of email, somewhere along the way the Blackberry to PlayBook messaging sync falls down, so I found myself seeing new message alerts on the PlayBook for phantom messages I did not have.
Verdict: I've always been a Blackberry fan since the early days (in fact my first model is so old the keyboard is in Latin) but I was disappointed with the PlayBook as it seems to promise far more than it can actually deliver. It is a semi-detached, halfway house (like one of those 1930's style mock-Tudor houses you see in suburbia) lying somewhere between a mobile phone and a truly independent tablet device. So near yet not quite there. To be a serious contender in the business market – and that means dealing with the iPad monster – RIM need to rethink this device and address its short-comings – and soon.