Apple’s selling a lot of iPads right now. For the quarter ended in June 2011, more than seven million of them. To put that in perspective, Apple’s iOS business (which includes iPad and iPhones) was reported online to be, by unit sales, larger than the PC businesses of HP and Dell, combined. That’s a staggering figure for a combined tablet and phone offering that, four years ago, simply didn’t exist — and in the case of the iPad, that figure is only 18 months.
In other words, that’s a whole lot of tablets, and where there’s that kind of market momentum, there are going to be plenty of firms lining up to grab some of that market for themselves. To date there have been a number of Android tablets, but few that could entirely match the iPad experience, whether that was down to the plain nature of the Android OS supplied or a variety of hardware quirks.
Blackberry maker Research In Motion (RIM) has its “PlayBook” tablet in the marketplace now, and for the past couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to give it a longer than usual test. As a disclaimer, this is because RIM supplied me with a long term review unit.
The PlayBook is a 7″ tablet, putting it in company with Samsung’s original Galaxy Tab, the very cheap tablets that Telstra and Optus offered late last year, Viewsonic’s ViewPad 7 and Huawei’s upcoming MediaPad. 7″ tablets may have been dismissed by Apple’s Steve Jobs as not worthwhile, but that’s just his opinion; there’s undoubtedly some appeal in a smaller, more portable tablet option.
The best thing about the PlayBook? The hardware. This is easily the best 7″ tablet on the market right now, from the build quality to the use of the entire screen, even the bezel sides, to perform tablet functions. The core operating system that runs it all is slick and fast and very easy to learn, even if you’ve not used a tablet before.
The currently available $579 PlayBook is WiFi only, and works best in concert with an existing Blackberry smartphone. That’s quite a deliberate decision on RIM’s part, as the mail and calendar clients on the PlayBook rely on having a nearby Blackberry to draw data from via Bluetooth connectivity. The idea is that if you lose your PlayBook, your most sensitive data doesn’t go with it, while at the same time tying you closely into the Blackberry ecosystem. With a Blackberry this does work well enough, although Bluetooth isn’t the fastest transmission protocol, and without it you’re limited to web-based email clients only.
Applications are the lifeblood of any tablet, and here the Playbook has some catching up to do. The number of available applications and their variety is somewhat dwarfed by the iOS and Android marketplaces, although there’s a curious feature of the PlayBook that could equalise that difference rather quickly. Aside from natively developed applications, RIM’s promising in a future update that the PlayBook will be able to run Android applications from the Android marketplace. They’ll have to be slightly re-optimised for the PlayBook, but making it easier to develop for in any way makes for a better future.
As it stands, the PlayBook is a great bit of physical hardware, and one of the best challengers to Apple’s near dominance of the tablet market on hardware terms alone. It’s not without its flaws, though, and unless you’re already a Blackberry user it’s limited in its overall utility thanks to the reliance on a Blackberry for vital email and calendar functions.