BlackBerry PlayBook review roundup

The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet is set to go on sale April 19th with a starting price of $500. The tablet has a speedy dual core processor, supports Adobe Flash, and in addition to native apps, it will eventually be able to run Android apps. So how does it compare to the Apple iPad, Motorola XOOM, and other recent tablets?

The reviews are starting to roll in, and overall the impressions appear to be that it’s a powerful device with excellent hardware and software design — but almost no good apps so far.

Here’s a roundup of 13 early reviews:

According to Engadget, the tablet is well positioned to make BlackBerry users happy, and it has powerful multitasking and multimedia capabilities. But it has a few flaws including an awkward power button that’s difficult to press and software that’s not quite ready yet. With less than a week to go before Research in Motion launches the tablet, reviewers are reporting that the company pushed out a number of software updates during the review period.

Engadget managed to get about 7 hours of battery life during a video run-down test. The Webkit-based web browser was a little slower than the iPad or XOOM browser, but not much slower, and Adobe Flash Player works well with Flash-based video and games.

Gizmodo reports that the RIM has put more thought into the PlayBook than anything the company’s released in a long time. The tablet apparently handles multimedia better than any other tablet in its class, even letting you display 1080p HD video on an external display via an HDMI cable while running separate apps on the tablet itself.

GigaOm says the tablet is attractive and the user interface should be familiar to BlackBerry users. While the display is smaller than the Apple iPad’s, the tablet also weighs less than a pound, which reviewer Om Malik says makes it very comfortable to use.

He was blown away by the multitasking capabilities and the Flash capable web browser.  But he’s frustrated that the device doesn’t have its own calendar, email app, or to do list. You need to sync with a BlackBerry phone to get those features and standalone native apps won’t be available until later.

David Pogue points out that the software owes a lot to the Palm webOS and Apple’s iOS, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But he seems frustrated with some of the software. For instance, not every app has a toolbar — but you won’t know if there’s a toolbar until you swipe down on the screen to see if it’s there.

TechCrunch reiterates that the power button is horrible, but reports that the speakers are better than the iPad’s, and the camera is much better than the one on Apple’s tablet. Unfortunately the web browser crashed from time to time, and while Adobe Flash reportedly works better on the PlayBook than any other mobile device, many Flash-enabled sites just aren’t optimized for touch input.

Walt Mossberg says he likes the user interface, but he’s disappointed at the lack of standalone personal information management apps, as well as the fact that you need a BlackBerry phone to pair with the tablet in order to use an email or calendar app. The tablet is also WiFi-only for now, which means if you want 3G access, you’ll need to make a Bluetooth connection to your Blackberry phone.

The folks at Wired Magazine had nice things to say about the sleek design of the tablet, but along with the usual gripes about the lack of good apps for the platform, they point out that you’ll get low memory notifications if you try running too many apps at once. That’s what happens when you enable support for full fledged multitasking.

Former Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky may be in between professional blogging jobs at the moment, but he managed to get his hands on a PlayBook demo unit anyway. Interestingly, it reads a lot like the Engadget review… except Topolsky somehow got 11 hours of run time from the battery while playing a video loop. This is a reason why I’m reluctant to attempt to give precise battery life estimates in tablet reviews. Things are much more variable on this type of device than with a typical PC.\

Laptop Magazine got about 8 hours of run time, helping me prove my point that it’s tough to tell how long the battery will last. Editor Mark Spoonauer felt that overall the software felt rushed, but he really liked the on-screen keyboard.

The CNET review stands out from the crowd in suggesting that the 7 inch display isn’t big enough — but I suspect this will be a matter of preference for most users.

AnandTech has put together one of the most detailed reviews around, but the short version is that the tablet feels like a work in progress which will appeal mostly to existing BlackBerry users.

BGR experienced several browser crashes and memory errors and suggests that the PlayBook is a good start, and that future products based on the PlayBook software could be much better.

The folks at CrackBerry have decided to challenge AnandTech for the coveted title of the most detailed review. While the reviewer is clearly a Blackberry fan, he’s not thrilled with the new software. While the web browser, media apps, and other official Blackberry apps are solid, the lack of good third party apps limit the tablet’s utility.

Overall it sounds like the BlackBerry PlayBook is a mixed bag… like virtually every other tablet on the market today, although it’s hard not to compare it with the gold standard that is the Apple iPad.

It’s not surprising that there aren’t many high quality third party apps for the platform yet. That’s a problem that plagues devices with brand new operating systems, but it will be interesting to see whether developers flock to the PlayBook in the coming months — or whether the ability to run Android apps on the tablet changes things at all. But I’m surprised at how many reviewers were frustrated not just by the lack of 3G modem or an email app — but by things like the tiny, hard-to-press power button which you think RIM would have spent some time thinking about before finalizing the tablet design.

What do you think? Are you still excited about the BlackBerry PlayBook now that the reviews are in?