A look at one of the most popular accessories for a tablet, as well as an evaluation of the device after its OS 2.0 update. WITH VIDEO

Review: RIM PlayBook wireless keyboard, tablet

Does size matter? In the decision to buy a media tablet, it’s the key question.

With their large screens the roughly 10-in. units like Apple Inc.’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1,  are easy to read, perfect for multimedia but awkward to hold and input text with one hand.

The 7-in. devices are lighter and easier to hold, but can be less easy to view some Web sites and pluck things on the touch screen.

Research In Motion’s Wi-Fi only PlayBook tablet, with its new optional wireless keyboard, is one of those tempting 7-inchers, particularly because it’s price has been deeply discounted since December.

The 16 MB version is going for $199, which is $300 off the original list price. That makes it a heavy, but fast and flexible ebook reader in addition to a multimedia player.

Pilloried by reviewers when it was released in 2011 for lacking an integrated email and calendar client, that was remedied last February with a major version 2.0 upgrade to the operating system.

More about that update in a minute.

First, I want to turn to the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard. At $119.99, it’s not an inexpensive accessory. But it does come with a case that securely holds the both the tablet in one half in a hard plastic frame and the keyboard on the other half with a set of elastic straps. If you have one, it’s slightly thicker than RIM’s PlayBook Convertible Case ($48.99).

The Mini Keyboard connected quickly via Bluetooth to the tablet – you go into settings, and search for new devices. A pairing passkey will appear on screen when the keyboard is discovered that has to be entered, and you’re away.

Because its size is restricted by the width of the PlayBook, the chicklet-sized keys are tightly together. The F and J keys have indents that help your finders find the right places for touch typing, but it isn’t easy. I found myself hunt-and-pecking more often than not.

You’d use the keyboard for quick notes (or the on screen keyboard, for that matter) but not a report – unless you’re a very patient typist.

The Mini Keyboard does have a feature that two other PlayBook keyboards offer, a small touchpad that also works as a mouse: Use one finger around to place the cursor, move two fingers to scroll. One tap works like a mouse left click, two fingers for a right mouse click.

But I found scrolling finicky rather than smooth when going through email and Web sites. Scrolling was easier flicking a finger on the tablet. More useful was the ability to use the touchpad to move the cursor precisely when I wanted to tap on a hyperlink rather than use a gesture to increase screen magnification.

There are competing keyboards from third parties, but none have a touchpad.

However, the protective case and keyboard make the PlayBook a hefty unit – together they weigh about 870 grams, and the tablet is slightly less than half of it.

The keyboard, whose battery is supposed to be good for 30 days, uses the same charger that comes with the PlayBook.

Then there’s the PlayBook. As I said earlier, the 2.0 OS upgrade added some long-needed additions. The new email client syncs well with our Exchange server, and events logged in Outlook popped up on the tablet as expected. But it has some quirks. Tapping on a folder outside the Inbox didn’t do anything. It might have been configuration problem.

The Documents To Go word processor/spreadsheet suite had a few that capabilities added, but while the a spell-checker has the smarts to underline suspect words, on my machine it won’t auto-correct them.

But one thing the OS upgrade did that is intolerable is radically extend my boot time from 65 seconds to about 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s the same as my four-year old Windows Vista laptop.
As I write this, RIM has just released a minor 2.01 update that users say has significantly improved browser speed, but has done nothing for my boot time.

BlackBerry AppWorld still lacks many of the applications you can find for the iPad and Android, notably Skype. That’s not a big thing for me, but for others it might be a deal-breaker.

I like my PlayBook. The screen is bright and detailed, there’s no problem multitasking, the built-in speakers deliver nice sound. During the week I take it on assignments and if I can get Wi-Fi it’s faster for checking email than my iPod Touch. On a weekend, though, the Touch slips into a pocket.

Still, I dream of an iPad and some of the photography ebooks written expressly for it. But $519? Nope.

If you can put up with its limitations, PlayBook might fit your needs for a 7-in. tablet.

Meanwhile, BlackBerry World starts May 1 in Orlando. I’ll be there looking for news of the promised 3G version.

 

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