I have a daughter whose sixth birthday is rapidly approaching and who is something of a technophile. She currently has an old iPhone which she is using as an iPod Touch (no phone call ability) and she jumps at every chance she gets to grab my wife’s iPad and load up Where’s my Water. She would if not kill, almost certainly maim for a tablet of her own. iPads, as we all know however, are rather expensive.
Consequently, when I was recently pitched a story about the PlayBase tablet (made by Karuma), the base model of which—the PlayBase Go—retails for $189, I jumped at the chance to see whether it is the sort of thing that would work for a younger audience. In point of fact, the device is specifically geared towards young people and the higher model, the PlayBase Plus, which retails for $229 boasts a “medical grade cover” and an anti-bacterial touchscreen. The Plus also comes preloaded with NetNanny and a bunch of apps designed for young users. It sounds completely brilliant.
Truth, as we all know, doesn’t always match up with reality.
With a resolution of only 800×480, the 7″ touchscreen display doesn’t match the Kindle Fire’s 1024 x 600 resolution on the same size screen. It also doesn’t match the Fire’s battery life (eight hours vs. six), but does manage to weigh somewhat less (14.6 ounces vs. 11.5) and costs $10 less (but includes a cover). As for that battery life, it takes far longer to charge the PlayBase than the amount of use time one gets on a full battery. Both devices have 8GB of memory, and the Go can take up to a 32GB micro SD card.
Do those differences really matter? The PlayBase costs somewhat less (because one would certainly want to buy a cover so their child doesn’t drop the tablet and break it), but has to be charged more and the visuals aren’t quite as good. To me, that makes it roughly a wash – there are advantages and disadvantages to both devices.
What cuts short this decision making process is actually using the PlayBase. The OS, a modified version of Android 2.3, is a disaster. It in no way functions how one would hope for it to function. On the customized menu screens, while one can certainly move the four or five apps per page up and down, left and right, they can’t be moved from one screen to the next except by deleting the apps and then going to the main app screen and creating a shortcut. Doing this though may lead one to having a few blank pages to scroll through on the device’s desktop, pages which seemingly cannot be deleted (an email to tech support, the only way to get help via the website, went unanswered). Downloading the Flixster app and trying to stream an UltraViolet movie leads to an error message saying that as the device is rooted (we did not root the device) and so movies won’t stream. A full reset of the device did not alleviate this error message. It may be though that streaming an UltraViolet movie would be a disappointment – Netflix streaming certainly sports substandard video quality even if it does work.
Put another, perhaps more simple, way, one of the points of Android, it seems to me, is to provide the end user with more power and choices than one gets with other OSes for tablets and phones. This device, however, completely locks the user out of that ability to customize things. It makes complete sense why a parent would want to lock their young child out of admin-type choices on a device (we’ve done that with my daughter’s iPhone), but to lock out the parents who are setting it up is completely unreasonable.
Beyond that, the display isn’t one that works for reading ebooks, it feels very much as though you’re reading on a below average computer screen. And, perhaps worst of all, the touchscreen and buttons simply aren’t responsive enough. Pulling back the slingshot in Angry Birds is more of a trial than a joy. The speakers are adequate, and the 0.3 megapixel touchscreen is equivalent to the front-facing camera on the iPhone 4, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.
As for the included cover? It is certainly nice that it doubles as a stand (provided that you want to stand the device up landscape, not portrait, because it doesn’t do portrait), but it isn’t tight fitting and far too easy to pull off.
I do see a world where the PlayBase tablet and its successors could be a monumental success, delivering on all its promises. But, that world is not yet here. With a better—more user-friendly—OS (there will be an upgrade to Android 4.x at some point in the future), with an appropriately sensitive and higher resolution screen, with a longer battery life, faster WiFi, or some combination of these factors, the PlayBase would be a great choice.
It isn’t a great choice today. There are a whole lot of Android-based tablets on the market, and even if some are moderately more expensive, the experience is a better one than what is delivered here.
I know my daughter wants a tablet of her very own, even if it doesn’t quite look and feel the same as an iPad. I also know that if I give her the PlayBase Go she’ll think it’s cool for about a day and then decide that since her mother’s iPad is so much better, she’d still much rather wait for the opportunity to jump in and grab the iPad than sit down with her own tablet. That decision wouldn’t be based on some notion that mom & dad’s is always better, but rather on the reality of the PlayBase.
For something that could be great, the PlayBase is terribly disappointing.