Update: We refreshed our top 10 BlackBerry PlayBook apps list for the 2011 holiday season – some of them will look familiar, but there are a bunch of new ones too.
The BlackBerry PlayBook launched with a relatively meager selection of quality applications, despite RIM handing out the tablet to any developer willing to cook something up, but the tools have been improving, and gradually App World’s selection has been growing. As my first full-time tablet, I’ve been exploring the use cases a fair bit, and there are a couple apps that stick out.
The PlayBook is running a whole new operating system, so it’s a clean slate from the established BlackBerry app library. That’s both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it’s giving developers plenty of room to play, but on the other, it means that BlackBerry fans (who are already making jealous glances at the iOS App Store and Android Market) are hurting for good apps. Some great stuff is preloaded that I use regularly, like Slacker and Facebook, and even some RIM-made apps do pretty well, like BlackBerry News, but those are easy to find. The few quality third-party apps available can be tricky to find, but don’t worry – let me do some of the hunting for you.
If this was a list of one, GeeReader would be my pick. It offers full two-way synchronization with Google Reader, including read/unread, likes, shares and stars. Google Reader is the standard choice for keeping up to date with RSS feeds, and though there are a few notable alternatives available for the PlayBook, GeeReader maintains a high level of polish while remaining free. It’s been updated recently to include feed filtering and sorting, but there’s still a lot to improve on; stories aren’t marked as read as you scroll down, nor is there an option to mark stories as read above a certain point. I wouldn’t mind having the option to e-mail, Tweet, or share a story to Facebook, and like many PlayBook apps, there’s no portrait orientation support. None of that is really a dealbreaker. In bed at the end of the day, GeeReader is often the last thing I look at and the first thing I check when I wake up.
On that note, the amount of time I spend in Google Reader is probably disproportionate to most people, but basically anyone who has a set of sites that they visit regularly will recognize the usefulness of GeeReader. The PlayBook’s screen is big enough to show full content, powerful enough to handle streaming Flash video, and slim enough to hold for length reading sessions. The browser is great and all, but this is the way to go to keep all of your bases covered with minimal jumping around.
Blaq is hands-down my favourite Twitter application on the PlayBook, and regularly distracts me from my solemn blogging duties. It handles all of the core Twitter functions you’d expect, like check your timeline, lists, sending replies and direct messages, as well as more advanced stuff like multiple account support. The clincher is that Blaq’s UI performs very smoothly, and the graphics are both subdued but slick. In-line link and picture rendering is an especially nice touch if you just want to glance without jumping into the browser. It could still use some better conversation threading, and there are still a few feature gaps (like you can’t view the timeline for an individual user), but it’s the best of what’s available.
For all of the noise RIM makes about the PlayBook’s browser, it has a hell of a time loading up and navigating the full Twitter website. Initially, that’s what the preloaded shortcut pointed to, but shortly after launch, they changed it to the mobile site. A few early contenders stepped in to offer a Twitter app, but it was clear that many were having troubles working with the new OS. The Blaq Twitter app was later to the game on RIM’s smartphones, and was also fashionably late on the PlayBook; that’s totally fine though, because it’s polished, smooth, and mostly functional. It’s going for $1.99, which is entirely worth it if you spend a significant amount of time on the social network.
The BlackBerry PlayBook launched without any native calendaring options of its own unless Bridged via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry smartphone. The main reason for Bridge is security, but that whole thing is a can of worms. Anyway, RIM acquired Tungle.me, and shortly after, they launched an awesome stand-alone calendar app for the PlayBook. Tungle’s angle is that you can share your calendar availability (though not necessarily individual appointments) with people so they could intelligently propose meeting times. The PlayBook app’s UI is super-smooth, and pulls down events from Google Calendar, though you can’t add or edit existing events. While that’s a pretty big caveat, I do most of my scheduling on my BlackBerry anyway, so simply having a way for that data to trickle through the cloud to my PlayBook without having to pair up via Bluetooth is really nice.
Since RIM owns these guys now, it’s safe to assume the stand-alone calendar experience on the PlayBook will eventually behave and feel a lot like this app. Considering it’s free and polished (if a bit lacking in functions), there’s little reason not to pick up Tungle.me in App World at the link above. If visiting Google Calendar in the browser simply pointed to the full rather than the mobile version, my recommendation might not stand.
I was torn when I first found News360. I was already well-entrenched with GeeReader for keeping up on wireless news, but News360 offered a very fluid user interface with some decidedly different features. The app had one pane with a variety of standard categories, like news, politics, and tech. You could add more there based on keywords. On the larger right side pane, you got the top stories as decided by a variety of popular sources. With one tap, you’d get an excerpt, and with one more you’d get the full web page embedded within the app (but still taking up most of the screen). Being able to check a big story from multiple angles is a very interesting way of browsing the news, and much more comprehensive than relying on some of the dedicated single-publication apps that are currently available. If you’re looking for a more general interest news-cruisin’ app than GeeReader, give News360 a shot.
At launch, Poynt was the single polished app available for the PlayBook, and even now it’s hard to compete with in the looks department. Poynt, like its smartphone counterparts, focuses on local search across a variety of categories, like businesses, people, movies, and restaurants. The app also checks for your local weather and changes the background accordingly. What makes Poynt so much better than a regular ol’ Google search is that it provides deeply-tailored experiences for each category. For example, you can watch movie trailers, check reviews, and buy tickets for shows at nearby theatres. Business searches can pull up all of the usual contact info, offer turn-by-turn directions, and even send the call request to your phone without needing a Bluetooth pairing. Poynt, as always, is functional and slick.
6. Berzerk Ball
Berzerk Ball is a new find, but easily the most flavourful game that I’ve found for the PlayBook so far. At its core, the game is like the old club-a-penguin game where you hit your target at the best angle for the most distance. Berzerk Ball changes that up a bit by making you a muscley jock instead of a yeti, and the target is a fat nerd with a taste for Dungeons & Dragons. Even once Comeau is airborne, there are a few things you can do besides waiting for him to hit obstacles or aids. Each weapon will grant you a set number of extra hits, but you have to time it perfectly as he’s about to hit the ground. You can also slightly influence how fast the fatty is flying, but environmental objects come by so fast that it’s pretty much useless to try steering. You earn experience points and cash for every round, which can be used to improve and equip your warrior with more ridiculous batting implements.
Most Flash ports are at least a little lacking in responsiveness or smoothness, but Berzerk Ball’s animation keeps up, and the music is great. If you’re looking for a time-waster with some senseless rewards, Berzerk Ball is free in App World – just hit the link above.
Vector Runner was the first game I really enjoyed on the PlayBook. It had already found its way onto Android after getting established as a Flash version on the web, and on the PlayBook it retains the same intense speed, Tron-esque wireframe graphics, and visceral controls. It’s a simple game, really: tap to the left and right to steer around incoming obstacles and pick up power-ups. The speed increases gradually, as do the density and types of obstacles, but shield recharge and invincibility power-ups can help keep you alive. If you’re willing to risk it, there are score bonuses which add to your final tally.
I wish some of the Facebook and Twitter high score sharing on the Android version was available here, and performance lags up a bit when picking up items. Accelerometer steering like in the preloaded Need for Speed game would be cool, but very tricky at higher levels. Regardless, Vector Runner is a great way to stay entertained. You can nab it in App World at the link above for for $0.99.
FourPlay was available pretty early on in the PlayBook launch, and gained a lot of popularity for being the only Foursquare client available. Unfortunately, for a long time wasn’t particularly usable, but after the last few updates, it’s running like butter. You can do all the usual stuff, like check in to and share your current location, see where your friends are hanging out, leave comments on their check-ins, manage friend requests, and check the points leaderboard. My only complaint is that the PlayBook often has a hard time getting a GPS lock, and I’m generally more prone to checking in via phone. I’m still really active on Foursquare, and between Facebook and Twitter, FourPlay completes the trifecta of my social networking activity on the PlayBook.
The PlayBook kicked off RIM’s partnership with Microsoft to make Bing the default map and search application on BlackBerry products, but I’m still comfortable with Google. Again, the browser fails to fill the gap, which means a few third-party developers had to step in. MapApp provided something basic and free, but once I gave the premium Magellan Compass a shot, it was clearly worth the $3.99. It supports pinch-to-zoom (something even the handheld Google Maps app doesn’t have yet), multiple map types, directions, and bookmarks. The user interface is sharp and smooth, but the one caveat is that you can only look up specific addresses, rather than searching for businesses by category. If you have Poynt loaded up, that should be a non-issue. It would be nice to have some deep offline caching since the PlayBook is Wi-Fi only for now, and a big full-screen map view would be handy for those in the middle of driving. Like I said about FourPlay, I often have issues getting a GPS lock, but most people get by flawlessly. I imagine with the Bing partnership, Google won’t be in any rush to get their Maps app working on the PlayBook, but Magellan Compass will do very nicely as a stand-in.
10. File Browser
For whatever reason, RIM didn’t include a file system browser in the PlayBook, which means you need to plug it into your computer to copy, rename, and otherwise deal with locally-stored files. These are some pretty basic functions that you would find baked right into any BlackBerry smartphone, but QNX is a new operating system, so this is one of the gaps we’ve got to deal with. File Browser has a snappy and responsive interface, and a full suite of functions, including creating new folders, deleting files, compressing them into ZIP files, thumbnail view for images, multiple file selection, and launching files in their respective apps. The browser even lets you set up access to FTP servers, and access files stored on your BlackBerry smartphone when paired up over Bluetooth. For $0.99, this app can make your life a lot easier, especially once it gets loaded up with a bunch of documents.
And that’s about it! Hopefully that will steer you PlayBook noobies to some quality titles. Of course, I’m only one man, and can’t try out everything in App World. What are some of your top picks? If you’re looking for BlackBerry smartphone apps too, be sure to check out our top ten list for 2010.