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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Despite AT&T's prohibition, I was able to install the BlackBerry Bridge software on a BlackBerry Torch, using instructions posted at CrackBerry.com. Once Bridge is installed on the BlackBerry and the two devices are paired -- a simple operation -- the BlackBerry's email, contacts, calendar, and file browser apps become available on the PlayBook. When you run them on the PlayBook, the apps take advantage of the larger screen and, thus, are more accessible than on the BlackBerry, at least for tap-oriented users.

You have to be careful about the distance between your PlayBook and BlackBerry -- the Bluetooth connection can't go much beyond 10 feet, at which point the BlackBerry apps disappear from the PlayBook. The apps don't automatically reconnect when you're back in range; you need to open one for Bridge to reestablish the connection, which can take up to a minute.

The few apps limit the tablet's utility
When not connected to a BlackBerry, the PlayBook is limited to running a Web browser and a few included apps: the music and video players, Twitter, YouTube, Bing Maps, Adobe Reader, the ancient Tetris game, and the trio of To Go office applications (Word, Sheet, and the view-only Slideshow).

Those To Go apps (developed by RIM) are based on the serviceable Documents to Go apps (developed by DataViz) available for iOS and Android, and they work similarly. It's not clear why RIM bothered to hire away most of DataViz's development team to bring these apps in-house; the PlayBook versions don't do anything more than the DataViz equivalents, other than look a little cleaner. They certainly don't hold a candle to the iWork apps on the iPad, which come close to desktop quality. And they lack the ability of DataViz's iOS and Android versions to connect to cloud storage services such as Dropbox, Google Docs, and Box.net; you're restricted to file exchange via email, Bridge tethering, and USB file transfer.

The PlayBook also comes with apps for Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and AOL Mail -- except they're not apps. Instead, they launch the Webmail pages for their respective services, whose Web interfaces are clunky and not terribly gesture-savvy. I felt cheated. Also, interacting with a Web page on a 7-inch tablet screen is no picnic -- you need a native client in that size.

The basic apps (the real ones, that is) on the PlayBook aren't terrible, but neither are they special. You could get these apps -- better versions, in many cases -- on an iPad or an Android tablet, plus a whole lot more. There's very little for the PlayBook on the BlackBerry App World store, and what there is are the kind of "lite" demo apps that serve to fill space on the virtual store shelves. There's no contest: If you want to do stuff, get an iPad or Android.

Developers of Java and Android apps can recompile their apps to run on the PlayBook, which might lead to many useful PlayBook apps at some point. But RIM's notoriously difficult app process has discouraged many developers, so even those who might consider porting existing apps as a cheap way to gain presence on the PlayBook are likely thinking twice about making the effort.

RIM provides desktop management software for the PlayBook for backup and file transfer (such as to import a music library), but that software does not see the PlayBook on either a Mac or Windows PC. The PlayBook does see the Mac or PC when connected, ironically, but can't do anything with it. RIM says PlayBook-compatible Mac desktop software will ship "this summer." The current Windows desktop software is supposed to work, but it didn't on my two XP PCs; the problem was the lack of a PlayBook driver, which didn't come with the PlayBook, wasn't available at RIM's website, and wasn't available to Windows Update. So I couldn't sync. Until RIM fixes these omissions, home users will be essentially locked out of using their music, videos, and other media files -- obviating the "play" in PlayBook.

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