Update: We've taken a second look at the BlackBerry PlayBook now that its price has dropped and its significant new firmware has been released. So before making your decision make sure to check that out.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is a schizophrenic tablet that will bring great joy to some users but utterly baffle others. For some tasks it outclasses almost all other tablets yet it lacks some of the most basic functions offered by every other alternative. Certainly if you're a BlackBerry phone owner it's going to be tempting but for the rest of us it may not be the best choice, until it gets updated.
Style isn't something the PlayBook struggles with. The bezel round its screen may be a tad chunky but otherwise the plain black glass covered front - with its subtle BlackBerry logo – is pure minimalist class. Likewise the matt black back is a lesson in muted elegance. Yes, it's all a bit staid but black has, and always will be, the "new black".
It's also a lovely device to handle. Where the iPad 2, with its 9.7in screen, feels too heavy and large for comfortable one-handed use the PlayBook's 7in form factor is much more manageable. This is also helped by the soft-touch finish of the back, which lives up to its description perfectly.
Talking specifics, the PlayBook has dimensions of 194 x 130 x 10 mm (HxWxD) and weighs in at 425g. In contrast the iPad 2 is 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8 mm and 601g, and the Motorola Xoom – the flagship Android 3.0 tablet – is 249.1 x 167.8 x 12.9 mm and 730g. Clearly different people have different requirements for a tablet but to our minds the size of this device (shared with devices like the HTC Flyer and Samsung Galaxy Tab) has always been more desirable both for its out-and-about portability and its general round the house ease of use.
Connectivity is also decent. Along the bottom – the PlayBook is designed to be held in landscape mode – are sockets for miniHDMI, microUSB and a docking port. Pleasingly, RIM includes in the box cables for both the HDMI and microUSB sockets, which is still something of a rarity. You also get a rather nifty neoprene sleeve to keep the tablet protected.
Up top, along with the volume and power buttons, is a headphone jack. The only missing piece is a microSD slot for expanding the tablet's storage. This means, for instance, that you can't use a microSD to SD adapter like the OCZ Trifecta to take photos straight from your camera and load them onto the tablet.
What you get instead is a choice of 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of inbuilt storage. Sadly, while the 16GB version is competitively priced, at £357, the 32GB is set to cost £479 and the 64GB rises all the way to £559. There's no two ways about it; those prices are crazy! We'll talk more on price a little later, though.
Getting back to the physical controls, the volume buttons are nice and responsive – though given the tablet's landscape leanings, it would've been more sensible to have them on the sides, where your hands rest. Likewise, the tiny power button is a bit inconveniently placed, given it's used to lock and unlock the screen – something you do every time you pick the tablet up and put it down. More positive is the addition of a play/pause button nestled between the volume controls, which gives you quick access to halting and commencing your tunes – it would be particularly nice to see a double-tap of this opening the music player.
Above the screen is a 3-megapixel front facing camera along with an oddly prominent hole for the ambient light sensor that optionally controls the screen brightness. Meanwhile round the back is a 5-megapixel camera. Both will shoot 1080p video and all told they far outclass those of the iPad 2, though are about on-par with other premium tablets. Regardless, nice to have though they are, we're yet to be convinced of the use for cameras (particularly the rear facing one) on a tablet. Only with the application of some particularly clever apps may they come into their own, and we're yet to encounter any.
Of course video chat is one option for the cameras and this is available on the PlayBook. However, it only works from PlayBook to PlayBook.