BlackBerry's decision to forego Google's Android OS is both its strength and its weakness. A strength, in that the PlayBook is able to differentiate itself without simply adding annoying extra apps to the stock Android experience (as is so often the case on other tablets), but a weakness in that if the OS isn't up to scratch, no amount of good hardware design will save BlackBerry's tablet.
The good news is that with the 2.0 release of the OS, the PlayBook is finally a tablet that can hold its own among its rivals. I'd hesitate to say that BlackBerry's tablet operating system is perfect, but it's certainly now good enough to justify the £169 asking price of the cheapest PlayBook.
It doesn't hurt that the BlackBerry PlayBook itself gives a very good first impression, thanks to its sleek design. The 7in display and 130 x 194 x 10mm dimensions mean this isn't an imposing device, and while the 425g weight is enough to be noticeable, it doesn't make the PlayBook overly heavy. The small size of the screen means the 1,024 x 600 pixel resolution, although clearly not in Retina territory, produces images that are sharp, bright and vivid. The bezel around the screen is just large enough to accommodate a pair of thumbs either side, and both looks and feels the right size for a tablet of these dimensions. The matte black soft-touch finish of the sides and rear of the PlayBook not only looks fantastic but feels great too.
The power, volume and play/pause buttons on the top edge of the casing are equally impressive, with a solid feel. Their metal finish imparts a quality feel plastic can only dream of, too. The overall result is that, in its way, the physical design of the PlayBook at the very least matches that of the best Android tablets and Apple's iPad - a notable feat given the price difference.
In addition to a 16GB model, which costs £169, BlackBerry also supplies the PlayBook with 32GB of internal storage for £199, or with 64GB for £249. The price increases at each capacity are about on par with other tablets, and because the PlayBook has no memory card port it's important to ensure you get one of sufficient capacity initially - I'd advise ignoring the 16GB model if you plan to put much media or many apps on your PlayBook.
Aside from the omission of any way to expand the storage capacity, BlackBerry has been sensible with the ports on the device. A standard mini-USB port enables the device to be connected to a computer or charged without a proprietary cable, and a mini-HDMI port makes outputting video from the PlayBook to a television a snap. Wireless connectivity comes in the form of 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1. Although the lack of 3G will rule the PlayBook out for many, it shouldn't be a complete surprise or deal breaker at the price point.
A 1GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM mean that the PlayBook runs fast and smoothly. Even when multitasking, with apps running simultaneously, the PlayBook doesn't appear to struggle. The downside of this power is batter life that can range from as long as eight-plus hours of frugal use, to as little as three or four watching high resolution video or playing games.
The gesture-driven interface takes a short while to learn, but works very well. Swipes within the bounds of the display navigate within the active application, while swipes from the edges control OS features. A swipe from outside the left edge to the right, or vice versa, switches between currently active apps; swiping from the top down reveals an app-specific toolbar, and swiping from the bottom up reveals the app launcher, which displays the currently active apps, as well as shortcuts to all those installed on the PlayBook.
Swiping from the top corners brings up a status bar that enables quick access to the current date and time, battery level, orientation lock, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connection status, current battery level, and quick access to the settings menu. It's not much different to iOS or Android, except that because this status bar is usually hidden, it leaves a few extra pixels available for apps to use.
This status bar also serves as a notification centre for the PlayBook. In a nice touch, as well as a software indicator (a red strip in the top left screen corner) the PlayBook also flashes the LED to the left of the front-facing camera to alert that there is a notification to be viewed. The implementations on iOS and Android are a little more advanced - there are no message snippets on the PlayBook, for example - but it's a good effort by BlackBerry.
An addition in PlayBook OS 2.0 is a native email client. The is fairly comprehensive, with features such as threaded conversations (if enabled), a unified inbox and tabbed browsing. This latter ability makes it easy to move between a received and new message, for example, without having to save a draft, then return to it - a lesson iOS could learn. The provision of a rich text editor is nice enough, but the lack of a plain text sending option will irk some users.
The calendar app is attractively designed, but still functional. In particular, a range of different view options makes it easy to organise a schedule. Also useful is Documents to Go, which enables the creation and editing of Word and Excel files on the PlayBook. This couples with a Print to Go app, that enables wireless printing of documents (with a piece of desktop software installed).
BlackBerry's OS also offers integration with social networks including Twitter and Facebook, such that the contacts app will display status updates from those networks if available. Contacts from other accounts can be linked to social networking identities, much like on Windows Phone 7, and Exchange support enables syncing of contact details with providers such as Microsoft and Google.
The browser persists as a fair rival to Safari and the stock Android browser (I give Chrome the strong advantage, though). Pages render as quickly as the data connection allows, switching between tabs is uncomplicated, and like Safari, there's a "reader" mode that pulls text out of web pages removing visual clutter. Like Android, and unlike iOS, PlayBook OS supports Flash, although of course the usual caveat that touch-driven interaction doesn't work with all Flash applications and games applies.
The PlayBook video player supports a good number of formats, including DivX and h.264 in an appropriate container and playback quality is as good as the source input thanks to the great display. Better yet, thanks to the HDMI output, 1080p video files can be pumped to a TV - you'll have to buy your own cable, though.
The built in music player makes good use of the PlayBook's multitasking ability, and keeps running in the background of any other app that doesn't produce sound of its own. Audio quality is acceptable from the device's speakers, and better using the headphone output. A Music store is available to download audio directly to the PlayBook, but the pricing and sparsity of content makes it of limited appeal.
Usefully, the PlayBook somewhat circumvents its lack of removable storage by making its own file system accessible over Wi-Fi, making it easy to transfer media to or from it, even without a memory card. Without a device password set, enabling this on public Wi-Fi could be risky, as anyone will have access.
A let down for the PlayBook is the BlackBerry AppWorld app store. Although easy enough to navigate and install apps from, it suffers from three major issues: the number of available apps is tragically low, the number of those that could be considered worth installing lower, and the price of PlayBook apps is very steep compared to Android and iOS. Machinarium, for example, available on the PC (Windows Mac and Linux) for £6.50 and iOS for £2.99, costs £5 for the PlayBook.
There are a couple of other disappointments: a video chat application is provided, but as it only works with other BlackBerry devices its utility is limited, which in turn makes the 3-megapixel front camera fairly useless, thanks to the lack of third part video chat apps from the likes of Skype. The rear 5-megapixel camera is also underwhelming; it works, but the PlayBook is hardly going to become a dedicated photography device, so it's curious why RIM bothered including the sensor in the first place.
The quality of some of the apps that are available isn't outstanding either. The RIM-provided Facebook app, for example, even makes the notoriously buggy and flawed examples on iOS and Android look good. However, these are all minor gripes and don't detract from the positive core experience of using the PlayBook day-to-day.
For all of its faults, the PlayBook is a very likeable product. It's fantastically well made, its operating system is a pleasure to use, and the features it does offer are almost universally well implemented. The lack of apps, and greater lack of show-stopper apps, is a potential problem, but for users just looking to watch videos, browse the web and send the odd email, the PlayBook is a perfectly viable alternative to an Android tablet or iPad - especially given the price.
Price: From £169