When the BlackBerry Playbook was announced last year, there was a lot of talk about it being an ‘iPad killer'. At the time, the main contenders in the smartphone category were Apple and BlackBerry. This week, the Playbook was finally officially launched in the Indian market. Unfortunately for BlackBerry, the dark horse better known as Android has in that time, leveraged its way up to the top of the ladder. All anyone can talk about these days are Honeycomb tablets, and of course, the formidable iPad 2. So does the Playbook have what it takes to stand its ground?

Hands-on

Like the iPads, the Playbook is available in three storage capacities – 16GB, 32GB and 64GB. Unlike the iPads, the Playbook has a nice selection of connectivity ports – mini USB, micro HDMI and a three-pronged port for the optional docking station. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack, and grilled stereo speakers on either side of the black bezel, which deliver great sound - for a tablet. Crisp, clear and with ample loudness, it was great to watch a movie or listen to our favourite tunes. The only physical controls are a power button, volume up and down, and a play/pause button in between. These were really iffy, and caused a lot of frustration after many futile attempts jabbing at them. They work ok if you manage to get a fingernail into the picture, but if you're not one for manicures, then you might find it a problem. There are two cameras, a 3-meg front camera and a 5-meg rear cam. Videos displayed a lot of detail, with good colour reproduction. The best part, both the cams support Full 1080p HD recording.

Now let's look at the screen. Saving the best for last really applies in this case. The 7-inch 1024x600 HD screen not only feels as smooth as silk, but is one of the best I've seen on any tablet so far. I spent hours watching videos on the Playbook – trailers on YouTube, episodes of Grey's Anatomy on Sidereel, and media that I loaded on – two entire seasons of Archer and even an HD version of Tangled. Excellent colour reproduction, sharp detail, no stagger between frames. Unlike the Acer Iconia Tab I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, there was no visible pixelation on the screen. One of the USPs of the Playbook of course is embedded Adobe Flash 10.1 support – you don't even have to download an update. Over a high-speed Wi-Fi connection, I was able to load Cartier's Flash website in under a minute.

User interface

First time users of the Playbook are likely to get a tad befuddled by the tablet – primarily because there are no indicators or buttons to enable navigation. Instead, the Playbook functions on an entirely ‘gestural' interface. So even though you can lock or unlock the screen by depressing the power button on top, you can also swipe upwards on a blank screen to revive the Playbook. Like the new BlackBerry smartphone interfaces, the Menu screen displays the first row of icons at the bottom of the screen. You swipe upwards to bring up the entire Menu screen, and downwards to close it. Swipe downwards on the notification bar, and you get the settings menu. Similarly, to close an application, you just swipe upwards, which will minimise it as a large-ish icon on the top half of the home screen. To close it completely, you swipe it upwards again. You can navigate between open apps by swiping from side to side. I know this must sound complicated, but trust me, it takes just a couple of minutes to get the hang of it. The only thing I would advise is that if you're planning to buy a Playbook, make sure you get a demo first.

Performance

The processor is a snappy dual-core, 1GHz TI OMAP. The Playbook runs on the QNX OS, with 1GB of RAM. Our team got this unit a few weeks before the launch date, and even though earlier review units have had updates to the software, we were prompted to download another update a few days after we started using it. Overall, the tablet is quite zippy on the performance front. I managed to use it without any glitches with three or four apps running in the background. Occasionally, I'd notice the corners of the screen glowing red, but this is only BlackBerry's way of telling you that the memory is running low, so you just need to zap out a few running apps and then everything goes back to normal. You can also delete any media content you've downloaded on to the Playbook, a win for someone who's used to the iPad's strict interface.

The Playbook as of now has only a Wi-Fi model, so you won't be able to insert your 3G SIM card for fast browsing speeds. The idea is of course, that you buy a Playbook because you're an existing BlackBerry user. You can use Internet Tethering to utilise your BlackBerry's data plan once you pair them up.The Playbook offers approximately seven hours of battery life. I only had to charge it once every two days, with a few hours of video playback and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled.

The biggest boo-boo of the Playbook is of course the lack of a dedicated email app. That's right. You can't configure an email account to the tablet unless you ‘Bridge' your smartphone to it. Setting up the Bridge was a relatively simple procedure. Download the free app on your BlackBerry, and then follow the steps on the Playbook. It'll prompt you to ‘scan' a barcode, after which it pairs. You'll immediately see a bunch of new icons at the bottom of the menu screen – your Email, Calendar, BBM, etc. On the Playbook's larger screen, these apps actually look pretty impressive. The Playbook stores only a cached copy of your inboxes, so the data gets wiped clean once you unpair your phone. The downside of course is that if you don't have your phone on you, you won't be able to access any of the BlackBerry services.

Media

The most disappointing thing about the Playbook was the App World. Because QNX is a new OS, a lot of the BlackBerry apps aren't compatible with it yet. So that means you don't have a Twitter app, Angry Birds and Skype (as of now you can only make video calls to other Playbook users, since the tablet doesn't support VOIP). There isn't much to choose from in the App World, and most of the paid apps have terrible reviews. The few free apps that we downloaded were quite disappointing, and apart from Need for Speed, we didn't find anything interesting.

The WebKit browser was quite peppy, and it (sort of) offers tabbed browsing. The two cameras gave good results in bright light, although the only mode options are Auto and Sport – a weird combination. The HDMI-out lets you stream high-def content on to your telly via the Playbook, or even presentations at the office.

Our Verdict

The biggest issue with the Playbook, as with all other RIM devices, is that you don't get to exploit its full potential unless you subscribe to the BlackBerry services. So while this means that the tablet is the obvious choice for BlackBerry users, it's not the best option for the vast majority tablet buyers who are not.

Love: Crystal clear screen, good connectivity options

Hate: Disappointing App World, not so attractive for

non-BB users

16GB: Rs 27,990; 32GB: Rs 32,990; 64GB: Rs 37,990

Mail feedback to ketaki@thehindu.co.in

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(This article was published on June 29, 2011)
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