BlackBerry’s first tablet is a great piece of hardware marred by poor software. But it’s set to improve, and BlackBerry fans will like it, says Matt Warman
BlackBerry were once titans of technology – a company that produced products which did everything their users needed. Then along came Apple, Google, even a resurgent Microsoft and the Canada-based company looked a lot less lustrous because email was no longer enough. Where their business-chic products were once aspirational, they started to look like a stuffy power-suit next to their cooler, business casual cousins.
Yet in fact, a generation of young people is so addicted to BlackBerry’s instant messenger tool, BBM, that Apple has even seen fit to copy it. And the loyalty of BlackBerry’s existing customer base cannot be over-estimated. They, for now, are the target audience for the company’s first tablet, the PlayBook. Manufacturers Research in Motion may be down, but they’re not out yet.
At 7”, the PlayBook is more portable than the best rival tablets, all of which are currently around 10”. It is as well built as the iPad or the Samsung Galaxy Tab and its screen makes for a bright, sharp viewing experience whether you’re playing games or watching movies. So it looks and feels like a really professional-grade device. You could justify paying £399 for it.
That’s until you turn the thing on. A series of shorthand gestures – swipe one way to get to a certain menu, another to get to another – is supposed to make using the PlayBook effortless. In practice it takes so much getting used to that one could be forgiven for giving up. Browsing the web is fine, but that’s really a basic requirement.
As has been much reported, the PlayBook also lacks the thing for which makers Research in Motion are so famed: email. If you tether your phone to your BlackBerry handset, software called Bridge means your email and calendar appear properly. Without a handset, you are left simply to access email via the web, as you could on any other device.
The logic behind this is that it’s more secure to keep your email on just one device, and simply use the PlayBook as a larger screen. This may be the way to the heart of a corporate IT manager, but users deserve better. Confronted with a security problem, BlackBerry have bodged a workaround rather than provided a solution. That’s a real pity, because the operating software itself is slick, whether its editing documents or playing music.
When it comes to apps, the secret to the iPad’s success, there simply aren’t enough for the PlayBook. Yet.
Critics, however, would be foolish to write off the PlayBook. Corporate apps, from RBS to many others, are already impressive because the company has capitalised on rich relationships in those sort of markets. Accessory makers, too, are excited by the PlayBook because its users are likely to be well-heeled. Proper email is coming soon as well. RIM are playing a longer game here.
So the PlayBook is in some ways a lovely device, whose fine hardware is wasted on today’s software. If you’re a BlackBerry aficionado, it is a product you may well want to buy. You should. Probably sometime just before Christmas, when it’s been fixed. RIM had better hope the world doesn’t pass them by.