Research In Motion launched its first tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook, on April 19th of this year. Since that point in time — and even before, courtesy of reviews — the slender slate has been lambasted. A vocal minority belts praises for the tablet on Internet forums and in the comments sections of news sites and blogs, but the clear consensus is not favorable. Most see potential in QNX, but the lack of core PIM and email functionality coupled with RIM’s current situation makes it hard for many to take the tablet seriously. And yes, it’s a BlackBerry that doesn’t support email out of the box. While I agree with much of the criticism surrounding RIM’s first tablet, my overall feelings stray greatly from those shared by most who discuss the PlayBook. Read on to find out why.
I had hoped to wait until after RIM had updated the PlayBook software to include BlackBerry Bridge-less email support, but June came and went without a peep on the matter so I decided not to wait any longer. Truth be told, the introduction of native email will have absolutely no impact on my usage, as I believe the email experience on almost any modern tablet is terrible. While thumb-typing on the glass touchscreen of a smartphone is a great experience for me, full typing on the glass touchscreen of a tablet is not. I love the email UI on the PlayBook, iPad and other tablets, but I simply can’t take typing on any of these slates for more than a sentence or two at a time.
Here’s how I use a tablet: while sitting on my couch watching television or a movie, I might pick it up and browse the Web a bit or use a few apps. Maybe I’ll want to run through the RSS feeds I subscribe to in Google Reader quickly, or maybe I’ll want to check my Twitter stream quickly during a commercial.
When passing by a tablet on my coffee table, I might pick it up and do some quick searching or add a movie to my Netflix queue. I also use tablets from time to time while my smartphone is charging.
On rare occasions, I might try to watch a movie or TV show on a tablet. This only lasts a few minutes, however, as the tablet form factor is anything but conducive to watching videos. Who wants to site there and hold a device while you watch movies on it? I typically last for about 3 or 4 minutes before growing tired of having to hold it, so I stop the video and move on.
Finally, I use tablets as eBook readers. I purchase books from Amazon’s Kindle store and from Kobo’s eBook store, and I like that I can easily sync my accounts to multiple devices and pick up a book on one device right where I left off on another. I also love that I’ve cleared space on my book shelves for more important things, like bottles of scotch and boxes full of gadgets I’ll never look at again.
Let’s go through my use cases one by one…
The PlayBook is great for browsing the Web. In a monumental departure from BlackBerry devices of old, the PlayBook’s browser is a joy to use. It’s fast, the UI is extremely clean, and it renders most sites as they should be rendered. It annoys me that some sites load as mobile versions instead of full versions, but this is an issue common to all tablets and it’s one that should be addressed by webmasters, not vendors. The PlayBook also supports Flash video, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Most people will argue with me here, but I think the PlayBook already has plenty of great apps that suit my needs. Sure I might not have 13,755 options for a to-do list app like I do in Apple’s App Store, but most of my bases are covered and covered well. Netflix Queue Manager is easy to use and lets me quickly add movies and shows to my queue. News360 sports a wonderful UI — as it does on all platforms — and lets me browse and read top news stories from numerous sources. Pipeline is an absolutely gorgeous RSS reader for the PlayBook that offers full support for Google Reader accounts, and GeeReader is a good free alternative that gets the job done quite well. ScoreMobile lets me check Yankees scores quickly in a great-looking UI, and the Facebook app for RIM’s PlayBook is fairly comprehensive and easy to use. I do wish there were better Twitter apps for the PlayBook, but BlackBird and Blaq will get the job done until more choices come along.
Watching videos on the PlayBook, as infrequently as I attempt it, is as good an experience as one might expect. The PlayBook’s display is bright and vivid, and the speakers are surprisingly decent for a small portable device. So, for the 3 to 4 minutes every other month I try to watch a movie on a tablet, the PlayBook has me covered.
Finally, as an eReader, the PlayBook puts other tablets to shame. The size is perfect for eBooks; I find other tablets like the iPad 2 to be way too large to provide a good reading experience. The PlayBook is also much lighter than competitive offerings, thanks in part to its size of course, and I really do love the hardware. The sleek shape of the tablet and the soft-touch rubbery feel of the back of the PlayBook are just terrific. The PlayBook undoubtedly features my favorite tablet hardware to date, approached only by T-Mobile’s G-Slate.
But the iPad 2 is so thin! And sexy! And aluminum! This is all true, but we’re not talking about a sleek laptop or a refrigerator here. This is a tablet. You hold it in your hands and you shift it around constantly. Metal is hard and the iPad 2’s edges are sharp. The PlayBook is soft and its squared edges sit well in the hand. Just like most things Apple builds, the iPad is absolutely gorgeous. Unlike most Apple products, however, I do not find that function is on par with form in the iPad’s case.
Whether you consider this an endorsement for the PlayBook or a commentary on the current state of consumer tablets, the end result is the same. The BlackBerry PlayBook is my favorite tablet. By a wide margin, in fact.
Tablets as a whole do not improve any experience worth noting. Sure a tablet can browse the Web, but not as well as a PC. Sure a tablet can run productivity apps and email clients, but not as well as a laptop. Sure a tablet can provide an affordable portable computing experience, but not as well as a netbook. Sure a tablet can play movies and TV shows, but not as well as a TV. Sure a tablet can let you play games, but not as well as a dedicated portable console. Sure a tablet can keep users connected on the go and run a number of apps, but not as well as a smartphone. You get the idea.
The tablet is, at its core, the definition of jack of all trades, master of none. Apple’s iPad is a gorgeous, elegant device that gives consumers the opportunity to purchase a large-form Apple product for a mere $499, and that in itself plays a huge role in the tablet’s popularity. Other vendors do not carry the same hype and allure that Apple is enjoying at the moment, and that is a big reason their tablet sales are barely a blip on the radar; of course there are other equally important reasons such as the lack of intuitive and distinguished user experiences, but in the end, these vendors are building products that consumers simply aren’t asking for just yet. I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: Consumers don’t want tablets, they want iPads.
But the most popular product isn’t always the best product, and for my personal usage, the PlayBook is at the top of the pile for me right now. The QNX OS also shows tons of potential, and while I believe iOS provides one of the best mobile user experiences money can buy, I far prefer gesture-based navigation on a larger device like a tablet. Swiping the big screen to switch apps, open menus and discard open applications is far better than poking at a home button, and the PlayBook’s gesture support is great.
If RIM makes the right moves and catches up, uses TAT as much as possible, and finds a way to innovate in some key areas, the company’s future tablets and smartphones could be fantastic. And I’m very confident that RIM is taking this matter seriously. While the native email update users are waiting for is still missing in action, RIM has already issued five software updates for the PlayBook OS since its release in April. This update frequency shows that RIM is being proactive with the PlayBook, and the device’s OTA updates are absolutely painless.
Back to TAT for a moment, this was a key strategic acquisition for RIM and I think it will pay off big time. Historically, the BlackBerry UI has been somewhat, well, boring and ugly. This is putting it mildly. RIM seems to be well aware of that however, and the PlayBook UI is already a 180-degree turn from the stale BlackBerry UI of old. But there is plenty of room for innovation there, and that’s where TAT comes into play. “TAT is an integral part of the RIM PlayBook strategy,” RIM’s Vice President of Handheld Software Product Management Andrew Bocking told BGR. “We continue to add TAT into the PlayBook UI as well as applications such as ‘Scrapbook.'”
In the meantime, even as it stands today, the PlayBook is the one-eyed man in the country of the blind.