24 Hours With the BlackBerry PlayBook

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I bought a Blackberry PlayBook yesterday, but I'll probably return it.

The decision is heartbreaking, because, for all of the PlayBook's crushing lows, there are just as many amazing highs. When everything's working, the PlayBook experience blows the iPad out of the water. The problem is getting to that point.

To be clear, I'm not writing a thorough PlayBook review. I didn't get a loaner from Research in Motion, and I don't intend to pour over every minute detail. What I can provide is the perspective of someone who spent his own money on the product, who doesn't own a Blackberry phone and who, after owning an iPad since launch day, is still enamored with the idea of a 7-inch tablet.

I was optimistic about the PlayBook before launch, largely because of its interface. Navigation is controlled by swipes from the bezel--swipe up to conjure the home screen, swipe down to open a menu, swipe sideways for fast app switching--and multitasking is as close to a computer as you're going to get. By default, apps freeze when they're not in the foreground, but you can toggle an option to let them to run at full capacity in the background.

This is awesome. While one app loads, you can do something in another, and small size of the tablet allows you to quickly switch back and forth between apps with thumb swipes. Last night, I watched a video on ComedyCentral.com (because the PlayBook runs Adobe Flash), and switched to the Kobo e-reader app during commercials while the audio played in the background. In terms of navigating from one app to the next, the PlayBook has no equal.

But those moments of tablet euphoria are hard to find, and that's largely because the PlayBook has hardly any apps. I'm not an app junkie. I can get by with a decent Twitter client, an e-mail app, some premium video sources and a few really good games. The PlayBook, as it stands, has none of those things, except for Tetris. And without a video chat app like Skype or Fring, you can't even take full advantage of the PlayBook's front-facing camera. The apps that are available have crashed on occasion.

Without a lot of apps, you're forced to seek refuge in the Web browser. In theory, this isn't a horrible setback because of the PlayBook's Flash support, but Flash still isn't ready for primetime on tablets, and it shows. An episode of "Community" at NBC.com froze up at the 20-minute mark. Grooveshark, a streaming music Website, repeatedly told me that the browser has a Flash blocker installed (not true) and therefore would not run. Flash game sites such as Newgrounds are unusable, unless you can find a mobile-optimized version like m.kongregate.com. Crashes are regular, and, even when Flash sites work, they often need a mouse and keyboard to run properly.

I must admit that I enjoy the Flash tablet experience as a sort of adventure. It's fun to see what works and what doesn't--my wife flipped out when she heard that the Los Angeles Times crossword is fully functional--but when a significant number of Flash sites cause problems, it's a letdown. Even some non-Flash sites, such as Gmail and Twitter, are sluggish and hard to use, so I can't say that the Web makes up for the PlayBook's app deficiency. The browser was also giving me some weird network errors that aren't even worth deciphering, but a recent software update (conveniently delivered over the air) seems to have alleviated that problem.

As for hardware, the PlayBook is not quite the iPad antidote for which I'd hoped. I do love the size. You can hold the PlayBook in one hand and navigate with a finger, or hold it in both hands and cruise around with your thumbs. But the bezel is so comically large that it took some serious maneuvering to fit it in my coat pocket, and the hardware is too heavy to hold comfortably in one hand for extended durations. I haven't done much battery testing, but after juicing up yesterday evening, I'll probably need a mid-day recharge if I stream much more video.

For me, hardware is the last straw. I can wait for bugs to be squashed. I can wait for apps to be developed. But if the hardware isn't absolutely perfect, I've got no reason to be patient. Fixing the PlayBook could be a matter of weeks, months or even years, and by then, there may be a bevy of awesome 7-inch tablets from which to choose--including a PlayBook revitalized by Android app support and native apps for e-mail and calendar. We're about to see a huge buyer's market for tablets. The Blackberry PlayBook hasn't convinced me to duck out early.

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