REVIEW: BlackBerry PlayBook – RIM’s First Steps into Tablethood

BlackBerry-PlayBook-title

The BlackBerry PlayBook is launching on April 19 after a long six months of anticipation. As Research In Motion’s first tablet and the initial release of their new QNX-based operating system, it will be setting the bar for many future BlackBerry devices to come. Tablets are still a nascent form factor, with lots of room for competition even though Apple has a steep head start. For the launch of the BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM has been billing the device as the only enterprise-ready product in the category. The many companies that have been trialing iPad deployments may disagree, but RIM still has a huge installed base there to appeal to.

The biggest way RIM is doing that is by funneling all e-mail, contacts, calendar and other PIM data into the PlayBook through a pairing smartphone app called Bridge. This in theory equates to higher security (since once the Bluetooth pairing is broken, all data is wiped from the PlayBook), more savings (since companies don’t have to pay for additional data plans or tethering premiums), and enterprise server admins don’t have to babysit any more devices. Of course, for your average consumer, these sensibilities are nonexistent, and all they see is a tablet that can’t do e-mail unless you launch the browser.

I’m a daily BlackBerry user, but have yet to take the tablet plunge, partly due to cost, partly because I haven’t been able to spot the utility of one between a smartphone and a laptop or netbook. That being said, a lot of my time with the PlayBook has been as much about exploring the next generation in mobile form factors as it has been about RIM’s latest product.

With a mountain of doubt and no lack of competitors, the BlackBerry PlayBook is a huge step for RIM and its success or failure will have long-lasting implications for the wireless industry veteran.

BlackBerry PlayBook
Available in North America April 19 for $499 (16 GB), $599 (32 GB), and $699 (64 GB)

Specifications (Specs-sheet)

  • 7-inch capacitive touchscreen WSVGA (1024 x 600)
  • 1 GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 processor
  • 5 megapixel rear-facing camera with 1080p video recording (no flash)
  • Front-facing 3 megapixel camera
  • 1080p video capture (both cameras)
  • 16, 32, or 64 GB of on-board memory (no microSD)
  • Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n)
  • GPS
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, with DUN support for 3G tethering
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Accelerometer
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack
  • Notification light
  • BlackBerry Tablet Operating System based on QNX Neutrino


The Good

  • Sturdy construction
  • Smooth, simple user interface
  • Solid video recording
  • Excellent video playback and stereo speakers

The Bad

  • No e-mail or other PIM without using BlackBerry Bridge
  • Lack of quality third party apps
  • Twitchy Flash performance in Browser
  • Missing some advanced functions

 

(N.B.: We’ve got videos processing on YouTube currently, should be available soon. Sit tight!)

Hardware

Build Quality and Style

Out of the box, the BlackBerry PlayBook feels solid and dense. The rubberized backing provides decent grip, and a raised strip separating the frame from the nearly-featureless glass screen adds some protection when face-down. MicroUSB, mini HDMI, and magnetic power outlet are all lined up along the bottom for easy docking access. The few hardware keys on the top are a classy brushed metal, and tightly hug the tablet. In terms of sheer style, the PlayBook scores major points. It stays minimalistic without skimping on important hardware functions, and is subdued and small enough to not be a gaudy thing to pull out in public. The overall shape is a little blockier than I would like, but the lines are sharp and smooth.

The one problem area of note when it comes to construction is the power key. It’s a hair away from being completely flush, which at first I was happy about; ever since the original BlackBerry Storm, mute and lock keys have been notoriously easy to accidentally activate, either in the pocket or through normal use. With the PlayBook, that concern has pretty much disappeared, even when your hand is pressed against it in portrait orientation. The downside to this is that it’s a fair bit harder to lock the screen when you’re in a rush and can’t sit through the timeout period. This locking issue is compounded by an alternative unlocking measure: by swiping the front screen from one bevel to another you wake up the PlayBook, which is easy to do accidentally when you’re trying to put the thing away.

Usability and Size

As my first tablet, it took some mental rewiring to use the PlayBook on a regular basis, despite being surrounded on all sides by readers and fellow bloggers that have fallen in love with the iPad. After the first day of initial explorations, I was already asking myself “Now what am I supposed to do with it?” Since this is prior to official launch, there are very few apps, no Bridge (so no e-mail outside the web browser), no video chat, and no stand-alone 3G. I still haven’t figured out why I’d drop $500 on a PlayBook, let alone any tablet, but I’m sure the use cases will become apparent in time as the platform evolves.

The seven inch size has become the PlayBook’s major differentiator to the iPad, and to a lesser extent the Motorola Xoom. In the hand, it’s a comfortable size, and weighing in at under a pound, it’s easy to hold up for long bus rides. While it definitely equates to greater portability, it’s still too big to fit in my coat pockets comfortably, leaving my back pants pocket as the only viable option before diving into the dark and forbidden world of man-purses. That’s a place I’d rather not go, and the PlayBook is nowhere close to being the siren that lures me there. If it were, then I would just as well hold out for a 10-inch version.

Camera

The BlackBerry PlayBook hosts a 3 megapixel camera on the front and 5 megapixel camera on the back, boasting 1080p video recording on both of them. Combined with the PlayBook’s proven video playback power, the upcoming Video Calling app, and the lack of a flash on the rear camera, it’s clear RIM is interested primarily in pushing the tablet as a video conferencing device. This was one of the use cases illustrated at launch, and I could certainly see the PlayBook being a cornerstone mobile video calling device once the Skype app is released. Unfortunately, this device is pre-launch, so neither Skype nor the RIM-made Video Calling app are ready, but I’ll be sure to update this section with my impressions when they’re out.

As for stills, the PlayBook isn’t particularly good (especially without the flash in low light), but it’s an awkward thing to try to hold up and stabilize anyway; I get the feeling RIM would rather leave the point-and-shoot functions to smartphones. Here are some video samples for your perusal. Here are some video samples of both cameras, along with a still shot.

Battery Life

The BlackBerry PlayBook’s 5300 mAh battery is highly respectable, and got me through a full, busy day with no problems whatsoever. The projected 8-hour battery life lines up with what I’ve experienced when keeping screen brightness between 40% and 50%, even with a solid couple of hours streaming music through Slacker. Your mileage may vary with brightness cranked up all the way. This is also the first time RIM isn’t allowing the battery to be user-replaceable, but that seems to be par for course in the tablet world. I would be curious to see how a BlackBerry handset would fare after a whole day of being Bridged and/or tethered to a PlayBook, but that will be something I try out after launch on April 19.

Software

Keyboard

I wrote the better part of this review on the PlayBook in Word to Go, switching regularly between landscape and portrait modes. At seven inches, the screen isn’t quite big enough to comfortably type in the default landscape orientation for an extended period of time in the classic hand position, but after awhile I adapted a two-fingers-per-hand typing style that I have lovingly dubbed “T-Rex Typing”.  There’s a key for changing keyboard languages which I think they could skip to afford more room for things used more regularly, there are still a few graphical glitches (pictured), and typos are not uncommon, but by and large the keyboard works fine.  When I’m not diving into one of the auto-correct suggestions, I find cursor repositioning is a little oversensitive for easy manual corrections. Unfortunately, RIM’s patented SureType predictive typing system doesn’t feel like it’s fully deployed on the PlayBook, resulting in less accurate typing than I’m used to on a BlackBerry. On the plus side, the audio feedback for the keyboard is particularly good, and doesn’t have me missing vibrating haptics at all.

Navigation

The core user interface and operating system is really slick. The similarities with webOS are readily apparent, and that’s not a bad thing by any means. A touch sensitive frame surrounding all four sides of the display offers a variety of new interactions and gestures. Here’s a quick walk-through of the major gestures.

There are really no complaints to be had with the PlayBook’s overall user interface; graphical elements are polished, there are lots of smooth transitions, everything is laid out logically and simply, and despite similarities with Palm’s webOS, the four touch frames create a truly unique experience. The performance in multitasking, navigation, and launching apps is very smooth; I can’t recall a single instance of having lags or hang-ups when simply moving around (though I have had plenty of apps crash quietly and discreetly). Although it feels nice and looks nice, the PlayBook OS is missing some basic features that BlackBerry users might expect. There is no “send to…” option anywhere for those times you might want to transfer a picture via Bluetooth straight from the native gallery or e-mail a website link directly from the browser. You can’t drill into individual file information, nor copy, rename, or delete anything. The core, important stuff is all there, like copy and pasting text, but the lack of more advanced functions makes me rather do some stuff on a BlackBerry smartphone.

Apps

The PlayBook I used was pre-launch, so even though App World was up and running, the selection was pretty barren. What was there wasn’t particularly impressive, but to be fair, developers have only had simulators to test with. FourPlay, an unofficial Foursquare client, was choppy and couldn’t get a location lock. Vector Runner, a popular 3D racing game built on Flash was playable, but not as smooth as I’ve seen it on Android. Many of the other third party apps I’ve tried have been basic, unresponsive, and lacking in polished UI, which gives the impression developers were doing the bare minimum they needed to get a free PlayBook from RIM.

Still, RIM has preloaded the PlayBook with a wide selection of applications out of the box. Many of the “apps” are just browser links, which is an utter and complete cop-out. Sure, the webmail clients are tablet optimized (thanks in no small part by the trail blazed by the iPad), but the browser is no substitute for a purpose-written program. The built-in 7digital music store and Podcasts app follow a nearly identical layout, and both operate smooth and stable. Unfortunately, Slacker, an established and otherwise reliable streaming music service, crashed regularly through normal usage. The Kobo e-book app is also preloaded, and though it didn’t have any crashing issues, I found the lack of search filters or sorting options made it hard to find books that I might like. The most interesting app RIM included on the PlayBook was Bing Maps, in addition to Bing being the default search provider. Typically BlackBerry and Google are pretty tight, but it’s not hard to imagine Microsoft burying RIM’s doorstep with cash-money to push Bing instead. The map app is basic and polished, yet not particularly useful since it seems like geolocation isn’t activated on the device just yet. I’ll be happy once Google cranks out a Maps app for the PlayBook, or better yet, if RIM makes their app wrapper coming this summer work for Honeycomb, and we can just use the Android version. Speaking of Google, a YouTube app is on there, and is fully stable and functional, but like Kobo lacks some key features, namely the ability to log in so you can view subscriptions, leave comments, or mark favourites.

RIM is aiming the PlayBook squarely at enterprise users, and as such, the tablet is armed with word processing, spreadsheet, PowerPoint and PDF reader apps. Word to Go has been my favourite of the batch since it comes with the full complement of font, alignment, and document information features. Sheet to Go is similarly useful, with support for multiple pages, cell formatting, and unit designation for particular values. Adobe Reader works, but lacks functions beyond simple viewing, like access to a table of contents or text selection.

I hope the selection and quality of apps improves after launch, but there are no promises. For all of the noise RIM has made about QNX being stable, I’ve experienced an awful lot of app crashes, however tidy and non-disruptive they may have been. I’ll update this section on April 19 to let you guys know if the situation gets any better. Here’s a look at some of the apps you’ll find preloaded on the BlackBerry PlayBook.

Multimedia

The BlackBerry PlayBook handles movies and music very well. The lack of a microSD memory card slot may put off those with large music collections, but access to a variety of cloud services through future apps and 4G connectivity starting this summer should meet those needs. As is, you can sideload tunes through the BlackBerry Desktop Software with relative ease, or you can download stuff online through the built-in 7digital music store, or regularly updated shows in the Podcasts app. It needs to be said that the external stereo speakers on the PlayBook are phenomenal, and take me back to the glory days of the BlackBerry Bold 9000. I’m not even kind of tempted to plug in the headphones if I’m comfortably at home (shunting it out to the big speakers through the Stereo Bluetooth Gateway isn’t an option; by the looks of it there isn’t any A2DP support just yet). There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack if you want to plug in standard headphones, but my in-line mic’s button didn’t work to pause or play; at least the hardware controls are right there on top of the device. The only problem I’ve had with those keys is that it’s easy to accidentally hold the play button for too long and end up muting your music rather than pausing or playing. As for the music app itself, it’s a bit hard to edit playlists, and I would like to have at least some preset equalizer options, if not a fully-featured one like you would find in WinAmp or Windows Media Player.

RIM’s favourite demo over the last six months has been showing the PlayBook running multiple 3D renderings and HD video running concurrently in real-time, and in practice, it lives up to this expectation. I got it to not only run plenty of a variety of rich video formats (XVID, MP4, MOV, and WMV), but fed them all out to my HD TV through micro HDMI too. Here’s what it looks like in action.

Browser

RIM places a lot of value in the PlayBook’s browser. Flash support was meant to be a competitive advantage versus the iPad, and in the absence of many key apps because of Bridge, it’s the only place to go for basic stuff like e-mail. Although Gmail was reasonably tablet optimized, it still lacked some functions (like attaching files), and Yahoo!’s webmail wouldn’t let you upgrade to their latest Beta interface. Facebook worked reasonably well, but the Twitter website was a little choppy when something in the right-side frame was open, and you can just forget about rich Twitter web clients like Hootsuite. Blogging through the full WordPress web dashboard was a lost cause; letters would appear on screen long after typing, and adjusting the cursor or panning was pretty much impossible due to lag. Despite having Flash 10.1 support, Grooveshark, a popular web music service, wouldn’t load, and the lack of Silverlight support meant it won’t load Netflix in the browser either. Although I don’t have access to Hulu up here in Canada, I hear it works. Scratch that. Looks like Hulu has blocked the PlayBook browser now. By far, my worst experience with Flash was when out of the blue at 4:30 AM, the PlayBook’s browser decided to continue running the CBC News video I demoed in the HDMI test and still had open in the browser. There’s nothing quite like waking up to Peter Mansbridge making political commentary at top volume. In a stress test, I managed to get up to 10-12 tabs going with as much Flash and rich HTML5 content as possible before things started to get unusable. On the whole, Flash support is generally good enough to stream embedded video and show ads, but not much else. Although games can work in theory, I wouldn’t rely on playing anything more reaction-sensitive than FarmVille, as I’ve found interactions with Flash objects to be rather laggy.

Bridge and Tethering

The BlackBerry Bridge application isn’t out yet, but I can give you the gist of what it’s planned to do. The address book, e-mail, BlackBerry Messenger, memos, calendar, and tasks apps will only appear on the PlayBook when it’s paired with a BlackBerry smartphone. As soon as that Bluetooth connection is broken, any data on the PlayBook disappears. In this way, the tablet is little more than an exploded screen for what’s residing on a BlackBerry handset. There are a lot of reasons RIM set it up this way, but the main one is enterprise security; if IT administrators only see the PlayBook as a Bluetooth peripheral that doesn’t store any data locally, they don’t have to worry about remotely wiping the PlayBook if it gets lost, and they don’t have to otherwise manage it. The strategy might work for CIOs, but for your average consumer, it seriously sucks. I found that without e-mails to comb through in a native app, I had very little use for the PlayBook; sure the browser-accessible webmail would do the job in a pinch, but without notifications or the ability to attach files, it was a lost cause for accomplishing anything serious. Even once the Bridge apps for tablets and smartphones are available, I’m going to resent having to make sure Bluetooth stays on all the time on both devices. There’s some promise in Bridge as a developer tool, which could offer some communication between apps on both devices, but that’s purely hypothetical for the time being. I’ll be sure to update this section with my impressions once Bridge is out.

UPDATE:

So, the PlayBook has launched, and I’ve had a chance to try out Bridge with my BlackBerry Torch 9800. AT&T users will have to wait for access to this, as we’ve been told “AT&T is working with RIM to make the BlackBerry Bridge app available for AT&T customers. We have just received the app for testing and before it’s made available to AT&T customers we want to ensure it delivers a quality experience.” RIM promises that standalone PIM applications will be available within the next 60 days, which will make the PlayBook a viable choice for anyone not owning a BlackBerry smartphone, but even for those that do have one, there are still a few holes in Bridge. For one, only e-mails show up – that means incoming instant messages through Google Talk, text messages, or Facebook alerts don’t show up. That’s too bad, because consolidating all of those disparate communications under one roof is a big selling point for BlackBerry. Even BBM has yet to make an appearance. When just looking through e-mails, you can’t swipe to go to the next message, or pinch-to-zoom like touchscreen BlackBerrys can do now. It doesn’t seem like tapping an e-mail address will let you copy it or launch into composing a new message, either. The other PIM apps, like memos and tasks all work fine, but the unexpected surprise was access to the smartphone’s microSD memory card. Unfortunately, you can’t play audio or video files, which would have solved my issues of redundant music collections between phone and tablet, but still, access to documents and presentations is always nice to have on a bigger screen. Another nice and subtle feature is that incoming calls pop up on the PlayBook, and offer the ability to mute the ringer.

I still think it’s hard to swallow RIM’s pitch of Bridge as “feature” and not just their eternal slavery to corporate-grade security, but down the line, I expect RIM will enable software developers to use Bridge to pair smartphone and tablet apps, which should generate some pretty unique products that you won’t find on many other platforms. That day is a long ways off, however.

Tethering to a smartphone via Bluetooth for 3G connection went reasonably well, but despite RIM saying it would work with any handset with the right Dial-Up Networking profile, I could only get it to work with a BlackBerry, and none of the three Android devices I tried. Set-up was simple enough with the Torch, but what really got me were all of the warnings about additional tethering charges. RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie has been saying in interviews how the PlayBook will be a free extension of the BlackBerry experience, but if you’ve got to pay for the phone, pay for the tablet, and carriers can still tack on $30/month for tethering rights, then there’s really nothing free about it.

Conclusion

RIM has been big on calling the BlackBerry PlayBook an uncompromised web experience, but honestly, the millisecond you put a browser on a seven-inch screen and make people use their fat fingers to navigate, it’s already compromised. It almost feels like RIM is making the same mistake that Windows Mobile did: assuming that you can miniaturize the desktop experience directly, and everything still works just as well.

Even putting that aside, the Flash performance is nowhere near what it’s cracked up to be, though I’m glad to at least have it there to stream web video when I need it. When it comes down to it, a mobile web browser, no matter how powerful, is no substitute for purpose-built apps, which the BlackBerry App World is lacking in quantity and quality. Good luck to RIM if they think they can reduce the global addiction to downloading apps with a browser-centred experience and sub-contracting Android for additional “tonnage”; one can’t blame them for trying to sidestep the app game considering iOS has an insurmountable lead at this point.

As is, the BlackBerry PlayBook is good but not great, and if you’re paying 500 bucks and up for one, it really has to be something you’re fully convicted in. The only people I could comfortably recommend the PlayBook to are folks whose lives revolve around a BlackBerry smartphone (be it for business or pleasure), and even then, they’d better be ready to endure some growing pains over the next couple of months.

I’m sure the platform and device will mature through a series of software updates, but out of the gate the PlayBook feels premature. It’s disheartening to say that after RIM has had such a long pre-launch period, and it’s especially unfortunate for the folks who have held out for the PlayBook despite tempting Android and Apple alternatives hitting the market. Don’t get me wrong, the horsepower is clearly there, but the software isn’t taking advantage of it in a stable and consistent way just yet. I appreciate RIM’s placement of the PlayBook as a smartphone companion, rather than just a bigger data-only alternative to a  smartphone (a position currently held by most of the competition), and I suspect it will become a viable pitch in time.

I can only speculate as to why the PlayBook still isn’t fully ready after all of this waiting, but if I had to take a guess, it’s that RIM bit off more than they could chew. They wanted Flash, they wanted a tablet, they wanted to make CIOs happy, they wanted a new operating system, and trying to meet all these challenges at once with anything more than mere adequacy has so far proven to be too much. Sure, the hardware is solid enough to support a series of updates to reach those goals eventually, but in its current state, the PlayBook isn’t even a 1.0 product – it’s a beta. I can only hope that launch day radically changes that status.

  • Tyagss

    even RIM wants a slice of PALM OS card like UI features

  • KENADIAN

    WHERE DO I PLUG IN MY EAR PHONES ON MY 32 GB BLACKBERRY

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