I’m on a one-man mission to find out if the BlackBerry PlayBook can act as a reasonable replacement to the new iPad, for the benefit of anyone who suddenly wants to join the tablet brigade but doesn’t want to spend their life savings. Today’s test: can the £169 PlayBook keep up with the iPad in terms of multimedia? Read on to find out.
When Amazon launched its 7-inch Kindle Fire, founder Jeff Bezos was keen to point out that the smaller form factor made it perfect for consuming, rather than creating, content. That’s certainly true for eReading, but is the same true for other types of content? It depends on the usage case, but I will say this: The PlayBook’s form and screen are pretty good for holding and viewing comfortably.
The most obvious way to do this is to break up the topics, so I’ve cunningly done so…
I’ll be blunt: the PlayBook has suffered from a lack of apps. If you stack it up alongside the iPad its app catalogue looks embarrassing. That’s slowly changing, but to say that it’ll ever catch up, that developers will ever see it as a priority, or that it won’t be completely neglected within three years, would be to say three very big lies.
That said, looking at the BlackBerry App World of OS 2.0 is a far healthier sight than it was when I first got the PlayBook about a year ago. It’s far better laid out now, for one, with a more image-lead ethos. It looks curated, like there’s actually someone at RIM looking at and promoting new apps.
‘Games’ is arguably the category that seems to have had the most significant injection of content. For a start, RIM’s done a deal with Gameloft to bring Asphalt 6 and Modern Combat 2: Black Pegasus to the platform. These translate very well to the PlayBook’s size, especially when you connect it to your TV via the Micro HDMI output.
There are other great mobile games onboard now, too. The brilliantly presented point and click adventure Machinarium is now on the PlayBook, as are Cut the Rope and Angry Birds – even if the latter is a whopping £5. There’s certainly enough to keep you entertained, then, even if there’s still a huge disparity between it and the iPad, or it and the Google Play store.
But… And there is a but… The worst part of it all is the knowledge that the reason these games are present is all thanks to a concerted effort on RIM’s behalf to coerce developers in; giving PlayBooks away, reassuring devs with conferences, doing deals and spending cash to try and get new games into the ecosystem. And, like that bit in Titanic where Kate and Leo are dancing a merry jig, there’s an unsettling feeling that the good times aren’t going to last very long.
There’s no natural developer interest here. It’s all prompted. Social games like Draw Something and Words with Friends are missing – the PlayBook has home-brewed clones, but then you’ll be stuck playing people with PlayBooks, which we’d wager you won’t know many of. Modern Combat 2’s on the PlayBook, but not Modern Combat 3. There’s no Angry Birds Space, nor will there ever be, I’d imagine.
In short: the influx of games is a false promise – it’s a nice way for RIM to have celebrated OS 2.0, but it’s really not going to be a long term trend.
Movies and video
This is a mixed bag. In the US, the PlayBook now benefits from the official Video Store for PlayBook, which proffers more than 10,000 movies and TV shows to rent or buy for iTunes-matching prices. That’s great, but it doesn’t help me here in the UK. As it is, I’m at the mercy of my own digital movie collection.
It’s pretty easy to put files onto RIM’s tab, and playback is straightforward. No complaints there. What’s more, if you’ve got the official quick-charge dock, you’ve got a nice little stand for movie and TV watching, with decent viewing angles. The YouTube app is fairly swish, if basic in functionality – although it often shows videos without the option to reduce or increase the volume once you’re in full screen. But then other times it’s there. Weird.
In terms of online content, the PlayBook’s compatibility with Flash does help out somewhat. In addition to the likes of YouTube, the PlayBook will play nice with UK-based streaming website Blinkbox in an in-browser way, while the TV Catchup website gives you free (if ad-supported) access to most UK Freeview channels – essentially making it a 7-inch TV that’s ideal for the bedroom or office. It takes some of the strain off of the App World store.
That’s nice, but the main problem with all of this is the same as the games: the fact that developer support, while fine for business and productivity apps, is lacking. There’s no Lovefilm or Netflix apps, for instance, and there’s not going to be, either. When I interviewed Netflix last month, they said their goal is to be on ‘every relevant screen’. If that had ever meant the PlayBook, it certainly doesn’t now – the company is still working on a Windows Phone 7 app, for a start.
What am I really talking about here, when I say social media? My day-to-day usage will probably differ from yours, but I need access to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Skype. That’s kind of it. If you use more social networks and want to comment on your experience with the PlayBook, please do so below, but I’m not going to write about services that I’ve not used.
The Facebook app for PlayBook is passable. That’s about as good as I can say: it’s distinctly last-generation in design, defaulting to the panel of options rather than the side-loading tray found on newer iterations on other platforms. The rest is fine to the standard that Facebook is: it still requires you to install a separate app to use Facebook Chat, while some photo options are touchy.
The official Twitter app seemed to update as I was using it. First it was just a mobile version of the site, and then a day later it changed suddenly to be a more app-like experience. Am I going mad, or has anyone else had this? Either way, it works, but it’s hardly the prettiest thing in the world. I’m not exactly a power user, though. Or not on a tablet, anyway. Likewise, Reddit has a couple of apps, the best being I Like Reddit – an Android port. It does the job, but there are far nicer apps out there on other platforms – AlienBlue for iPad being one.
Skype is a glaring omission. The PlayBook has a front-facing webcam, but unless you’ve got loads of contacts with PlayBooks it goes completely unused. That’s because Skype only exists as part of an extortionately expensive version of IM+ (£8.00), but even then it’s text only.
There are websites that claim to be able to hook you up to Skype in the browser, but they’re all fiddly and I couldn’t manage to get the webcam working in a call on any of them. That’s just terrible for a tablet designed to be used in the workplace, and it really lets the experience down.
Games, movies and social media on the PlayBook all leave the same taste in the mouth: there’s enough for you to get by and be happy – especially considering the PlayBook’s low price tag – but the question buyers need to seriously ask themselves here is whether they want to spend £169 to merely ‘get by’ or splash £399 for a device with the most developer interest in the market. My verdict on that will have to wait until the end of the whole test.
- Saving the PlayBook: Games, movies and social skills