Early reviews slate BlackBerry PlayBook

Canadian BlackBerry maker RIM handed out PlayBook tablets to a select band of tech hacks about a week ago and it would seem that today is the day on which the embargo on reviews was lifted, as a rash of them have started to appear.

The seven-inch iPad challenger has always had its work cut out stepping into the ring with Apple's veteran heavyweight - but the first round of reviews suggest that RIM's PlayBook won't be quite ready for the big time when it launches on 19th April.

Although most of the reviewers praised the device's rugged, rubberised chassis and classy, intuitive QNX operating system, they multilaterally decried the gadget's crippling lack of decent software at launch. They also questioned the whole concept of BlackBerry Bridge, which restricts the device to a permanent connection with one of RIM's suit-friendly smartphones when it comes to e-mail, messaging, or 3G web access.

Most had good things to say about the PlayBook's clear, bright seven-inch screen and impressive multi-tasking credentials, as well as the ability to mirror the device to an external display using the built-in HDMI port - but ultimately, all of the reviews came back to the worrying lack of software.

RIM has promised to add emulation for both native BlackBerry apps and those built for Android - but exactly when this will happen, and whether the overhead on the CPU will cripple all but the simplest of offerings, remains to be seen.

Another universal theme, and one which is cited again and again by the determinedly Apple-phobic, is the PlayBook's ability to play Flash content out of the box. The device allegedly does this better than any of the Android wannabes currently flooding the market - and certainly better than Apple's Second Coming, which remains steadfast in its insistence on shunning the one-time web standard.

Overall, most were partially impressed by the PlayBook but suggested that potential purchasers might like to adopt a 'wait-and-see' approach when it comes to jumping into the tablet ring swinging.

Rachel Metz from the Associated Press remarked, "Unfortunately, the PlayBook isn't yet much of a competitor on the app front: There are just 3,000 applications currently optimized for the tablet, and during my testing it appeared unable to download App World apps available for BlackBerry smartphones."

Metz wasn't alone in pointing out specific bugs in both the custom QNX operating system and individual apps:

"There are a few annoying quirks," she writes. "For example, the PlayBook took a long time when scrolling through long documents or Web pages.

David Pogue writing for the New York Times praised the tablet's seven-inch screen yet still bemoaned its lack of practical portability: "In principle, you ought to be able to slip the PlayBook into the breast pocket of a jacket - but incredibly, the PlayBook is about half an inch too wide. Whoever muffed that design spec should be barred from the launch party."

And Pogue came back to the recurring theme of the PlayBook's dependence on its smartphone sibling, writing, "At the moment, BlackBerry Bridge is the only way to do e-mail, calendar, address book and BlackBerry Messenger on the PlayBook. The PlayBook does not have e-mail, calendar or address book apps of its own. You read that right. RIM has just shipped a BlackBerry product that cannot do e-mail. It must be skating season in hell."

And it's not only BlackBerry's bomb-proof messaging service and e-mail which are conspicuous by their absence: "Unfortunately, there’s no video chatting app, as with Android tablets and the iPad. Similarly, the tablet has GPS, but without turn-by-turn navigation software, it’s not good for much other than the built-in Bing Maps app."

Pogue's conclusion is perhaps the most damning of all, signing off with, "For now, the PlayBook’s motto might be, 'There’s no app for that.' In its current half-baked form, it seems almost silly to try to assess it, let alone buy it."

Tech veteran and well-known Apple evangelist uncle Walt Mossberg is unsurprisingly dismissive about the PlayBook's credentials in his Wall Street Journal column.

"This odd system, aimed at pleasing security-concerned corporate customers, doesn’t work with other smartphones," he writes. "So, in my view, even though Bridge is a neat technical feat, it makes the PlayBook a companion to a BlackBerry phone rather than a fully independent device."

Mirroring most comments about the unfinished nature of the gadget in its current form, Mossberg continues, "RIM says it is planning to add built-in cellular data, e-mail, contacts, calendar and the other missing core features to the PlayBook this summer, via software updates. But until then, I can’t recommend the PlayBook over a fully standalone tablet, except possibly for folks whose BlackBerrys never leave their sides."

Rich Jaroslovsky from Bloomberg concurs: "There’s currently no software for accessing all your e-mail, calendars or contacts in one place. RIM says it will be available in the summer; in the meantime you can expect to be doing a lot of logging into websites to access your personal information."

Despite being one of the few reviewers to give the PayBook an overall thumbs-up, Edwad C Baig from USA Today still had his reservations. "For the most part like it a lot, though the not-quite-final software in my evaluation unit got a little cranky at times. The PlayBook browser crashed a few times. And when I tried to log into Gmail, I received a notice that said I had an error with my cookies settings," he writes.

And Baig was less than complimentary about the tablet's photographic credentials, remarking: "PlayBook has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera (no flash) and a 3-megapixel front-facing camera. Neither camera shoots great in low light, and I noticed momentary shutter lag when snapping a still."

All in all, no-one dismissed the PlayBook as a terrible device - but by the same token, no-one heartily recommended it either.

The overarching impression we get from reading reports by those who have lived with the device for a week or so is that RIM has rushed an unfinished product onto a soon-to-be-flooded market in an effort to head off the opposition - a decision the Canadian smartphone pioneer could well live to regret.