RIM's faster, app-ier new PlayBook tablet comes at a price
With each successive month, the fate of BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion seems to get gloomier.
Continual product delays, declining market share, cost-cutting layoffs — the former star of the Canadian technology sector just can't seem to catch a break.
The company's management seems to have placed all of its collective eggs in one proverbial, hope-for-a-turnaround basket: the new BlackBerry smartphones that are promised to arrive in early 2013.
Depending on how they are received, these long-awaited devices will likely either provide RIM with a lifeline or serve as the final nails in its coffin.
In the meantime, there's the new 4G LTE BlackBerry PlayBook, launching in Canada today (Aug. 9) through Bell, Rogers and Telus, as a placeholder for the faithful until the new smartphones arrive.
It's a nifty gadget, but RIM clearly hasn’t learned from past mistakes, in particular the way it overpriced its first PlayBook.
This new one will be coming in at $549 (without a three-year carrier contract) and is probably going to have a tough time positioning itself at that high end of the market.
After spending some time with this newest tablet, it's clear that it's fun to use. But is that enough for the price?
Like its predecessor, which launched a little over a year ago, the PlayBook's screen interface is different from the iPad and many Android devices in that it organizes open apps in a horizontal carousel.
This way you can have email, photos and a website running at the same time and switch between them with horizontal swipes.
App menus, meanwhile, are accessed by swiping down from the top of the touch-enabled frame. Swiping up from the bottom summons the home screen.
Taken together, these horizontal and vertical swipes combine into a more engaging experience than that found on many competing tablets.
The LTE PlayBook also has the same crisp, seven-inch high-definition screen and stereo speakers as RIM's first effort, so it's good for watching videos, looking at photos and listening to music.
The micro-HDMI port means all of that content can easily be piped to an HDTV as well.
The PlayBook also has a three-megapixel front-facing camera for video conferencing and a five-megapixel back camera for taking pictures and HD videos, as well as all the standard tablet features: GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth.
Unlike RIM's first effort, the new PlayBook also comes with email, calendar and contacts all built in, thanks to the updated operating system released earlier this year.
The decision to omit these key features in the original device partly explains why it flopped.
RIM has also put considerable effort into stocking up its App World, its official BlackBerry app store, partly by making it easier for people who develop apps for Android devices to convert them for a BlackBerry.
There are now more than 15,000 apps available for the PlayBook, including those that many users would deem necessities, such as Facebook and Twitter.
That said, many of the most popular apps on other tablets — including Flixster, Jango, Dropbox, Netflix and Amazon Kindle — are still missing.
The key new feature, of course, is the 4G LTE wireless connectivity. Cellphone carriers boast download speeds of up to 40 megabits per second, with connections more likely coming in between 12 and 25 Mbps.
In strong coverage areas, the PlayBook does indeed post some impressive speed results in both downloads and uploads.
However, those speeds dial down quite a bit in areas of weaker reception. My test runs showed significant variations, with downloads clocking in as high as 19 megabits per second and as low as three Mbps.
LTE is still a new technology and not yet ubiquitous, which makes the extra monthly subscription cost questionable at this point. Not surprisingly, most tablet buyers have been opting for Wi-Fi-only versions instead.
The LTE focus seems to be where RIM may be repeating its past mistakes.
None of the three carriers have officially announced pricing, but agents at Bell and Telus stores confirmed on Wednesday evening that the tablet will sell for $549 without a contract.
Bell also plans to sell the device with a contract, with up to a $150 discount on a three-year agreement.
For consumers, such prices, and contracts, have proven to be non-starters for just about every tablet that isn't an iPad. Even devices with superior hardware to Apple's tablet have failed to make much headway with this strategy.
With an initial price tag of more than $500, RIM's original PlayBook sold poorly last year and accounted for less than five per cent of the Canadian tablet market and less than one per cent globally, according to research firm IDC.
After a price slash of as much as $300, the tablet finally bounced back to take about 15 per cent of the market in Canada, Toronto-based Solutions Research Group tracking consultancy reported later.
For its part, however, RIM had to lower the value of its PlayBook inventory, taking a $485 million writedown in the process. That charge on the books led analysts to proclaim the tablet as the worst mistake the company had ever made.
So, is LTE enough to spur consumers to pay the sorts of prices they scoffed at only a year ago?
Not likely, especially when the older, Wi-Fi-only PlayBook, which otherwise sports much of the the same hardware and features, can be had for around $200.
Moreover, other tablets with similar or superior hardware and app offerings — notably Google's recently launched Nexus 7 —have it beat on price.
In fact, Google has been having trouble meeting the demand for its hit tablet, which is priced under $250.
The 4G LTE PlayBook tablet may well appeal to BlackBerry aficionados, hungry for something new. But at its price points, it's unlikely to result in the sort of good news that RIM is after.
The long wait for a new BlackBerry smartphone and the hoped-for turnaround continues.