The BlackBerry PlayBook 7" tablet is here, and you can pick one up in stores in the US and Canada today. RIM may be late to the game, but they've got a fresh new OS powered by QNX and a divine user interface that's we'd applaud even more vocally were it not such a blatant rip off of webOS. The PlayBook is available in WiFi-only models (3G versions are coming in a month or so, with Sprint being first), and the 16 gig WiFi version we have for review sells for $499. A 32 gig model will set you back $599 and a 64 gig model is $699, similar to the iPad 2 pricing.
The tablet has a quality feel to it with a soft touch finish and understated design that reminds us of the Motorola Xoom (that's not a bad thing). It doesn't have the plastic look and feel of the 7" Samsung Galaxy Tab, and at 14.9 ounces it has some heft. The PlayBook runs on a 1GHz dual core CPU that's quickly become the standard for tablets in various operating systems, and it has a healthy gig of RAM. It has a rear 5 megapixel camera and a 3 megapixel front camera, though there's not much you can do with it beyond take photos of yourself.
Early reviews of the pre-release product noted copious bugs and the absence of BlackBerry Bridge that allows the PlayBook to grab PIM data and email from a BlackBerry smartphone. Happily, the release version we have (after downloading a 287 update out of the box) has been fairly stable with no out of memory errors even when running several programs simultaneously. Flash 10.1 playback is very impressive and we didn't feel like we were suffering through yet another lame mobile implementation of full Flash. The webkit web browser does have a tendency to silently crash and disappear taking all its tabs with it however.
BlackBerry Bridge is available for Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon OS 5 and 6 BlackBerry smartphones, but not AT&T. AT&T is still testing the app, according to their PR team. Hmmm... without Bridge you won't have contacts, calendar or email unless you can access them via the web browser. With Bridge you can use your BlackBerry phone as a wireless modem for the tablet, though your carrier may require that you pay for a tethering plan to do so.
How is the PlayBook? It's fast, easy to understand and use and it excels at multimedia. The stereo speakers sound great, HDMI out via the micro HDMI port works well for movie playback and this thing eats Adobe Flash for breakfast. Gaming is pretty smooth too, though there aren't many titles out yet. And that gets to the catch: there just aren't many apps for the PlayBook yet. Granted, this is release day, and we're sure titles will follow (RIM says 3,000 apps will be available). At some point, they also say the PlayBook will be able to run Android apps, which would really open things up. But for now, if you don't have BlackBerry smartphone, you're looking at a fast and portable tablet that's wonderful for web browsing and video playback, but not a heck of a lot more. In the coming months, RIM says they'll release PIM apps and an email client for the PlayBook... we though the Xoom was released a bit too soon, but it at least had the full suite of core apps available at launch. RIM has pushed the PlayBook release up a bit too soon, and that's the main thing hurting an otherwise promising tablet.
Here's our 18 minute BlackBerry PlayBook video review:
-------------------- Lisa Gade Editor in Chief, MobileTechReview