RIM BlackBerry PlayBook: Unfinished, unusable

The BlackBerry-tethered tablet can't do very much, and its tethering requirement means few users can actually use it

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Note: Many websites won't know the PlayBook's unique user agent and thus will think it's a BlackBerry, presenting you with the mobile version of their sites. (You can see its user agent via InfoWorld's free Web-based user agent checker tool.) On the 7-inch screen, such "mobile optimized" sites often display awkwardly, and you can bet any Flash content is excluded.

On the bright side, the PlayBook supports Flash, with no need to download a player as on Android. But Flash objects are often slow to load, and some would not function. That's an issue Flash also has on Android, as my colleague Neil McAllister discovered in his extensive Flash tests. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that Flash and mobile don't mix.

The physical device is a bland black slab, with a too-small power button that's hard to press when the screen goes to sleep. The storage is fixed, as in the iPad, so you can't insert an SD card later on. Battery life is good, easily matching the iPad's 10 or so hours a day. There are front and rear cameras, along with a Mini HDMI port for screen mirroring. The PlayBook nicely mirrors its screen to a TV or monitor via an HDMI cable connected to its MiniUSB port. The text and graphics are crisp, even on a 46-inch HDTV. Also, the mirroring is automatic: Plug the cable into the two devices and you're done.

Glitches suggest a rush job
Beyond the limited functionality of the PlayBook, I was repeatedly struck by the number of glitches I experienced, even after running the OS update released the same day as the tablet. The PlayBook simply felt as if it debuted before it was ready. That's very troubling for a product intended to lead RIM's charge into the tablet era.

For example, after I set up Bridge and opened my BlackBerry apps on the PlayBook, the email screen often displayed as a blank white screen, and selecting or scrolling messages resulted in spastic flashing for several seconds each and every time. There was no way I could read or compose email. Powering down and restarting didn't help. Fortunately, the problem resolved itself by the next day, with the gremlins disappearing overnight while the PlayBook was left on and asleep.

I also experienced system memory issues. Running more than a half-dozen apps prevented new apps from opening and interfered with apps in operation; for example, the calendar closed when I tried to add appointments and videos didn't play. It's been more than a decade, during the days of early Windows and Mac OSes, since I saw such memory-handling issues in an operating system. Again, the next day, these issues disappeared, and I could run a dozen apps simultaneously without issue.

One issue that hasn't resolved itself: The PlayBook does not handle single-orientation apps well. For example, if I launch the portrait-only Tetris game when in landscape (horizontal) mode, the basic PlayBook controls move as if I had turned the PlayBook to portrait (vertical) orientation. Thus, the normal navigation gestures no longer work until I either rotate the PlayBook to portrait mode or shake the PlayBook to force it to return to landscape mode. This kind of glitch never occurred in iOS or Android devices I tested, not even in first-version models.

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