BlackBerry PlayBook review

Sure, the PlayBook from RIM might have been released a couple of months ago. Sure, it isn’t exactly selling as well as anyone predicted. Sure, we might have slammed the tablet from Canada a couple of times here at NBT, but does all of this mean RIM didn’t get anything right? Of course not! After having a PlayBook available to me for some time now, I wanted to let you guys know how RIM’s first venture into the tablet arena shakes out. Oh, and a review might be more relevant this time around considering RIM has updated the firmware a couple of times to benefit the 7-incher. Let’s see if RIM has improved the slate up to this point

Hardware & Design

RIM has ventured into an area they’ve never been before. The company that’s known for corporate users and BBM adicts is venturing into a new arena. Needless to say, tablets and computers are not its area of expertise. Fortunately, you’d never know this if you had a PlayBook in your hands.

Instead of bringing out a powerhouse media centric sized tablet like most every other manufacturer, RIM opted for a much more travel friendly 7-inch size. Whether this is a benefit depends upon your needs, but this is definitely more portable than any iPad or 10-inch Android tablet. The smaller overall size is much easier to grab and go, toss in a bag or purse, or even fit into your jacket pocket. Coming in at 10mm thick, this is by no means a candidate for “world’s thinnest” tablet though. The iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 come in leaner than this slate. Even with the extra thickness, I have no problems bringing this around with me when I go out. I can’t make the same statement with those 10-inch tablets though.

While that’s a huge benefit for those that need their tablet with them wherever they go, the 7-inch size becomes somewhat annoying when actually using the tablet for the intended purposes. RIM has done some excellent work to negate these issues, but they’re still there and should be pointed out. This is where pros and cons come in, so a smaller portable size is great, but of course becomes a trade off at times. For instance, text input in the browser leaves half the screen, at best, for actual viewing with the rest being engulfed by the keyboard. There’s even less room if you don’t minimize the browser toolbar.

RIM decided not to get overly fancy with the design of the PlayBook, instead giving customers a pretty nondescript black slate. The front is dominated by your typical glass display, which is surrounded by a pretty healthy bezel. At first look, the bezel seems enormous with the smaller 7-inch screen, but it comes in handy keeping your paws off the screen when using the tablet. The BlackBerry logo sits on the bottom of the bezel (when held in landscape), with the light sensor and front-facing 3MP cam sitting up top. In a surprising move, RIM is the only company that positioned their stereo speakers in a meaningful location……front-facing around the edge of the bezel. The sound from a tablet is finally directed at your ears like it should be. Thanks for that addition! Hopefully other tablet makers will take notes.

The rest of the tablet is made of a premium, soft touch rubber-ish plastic, that feels excellent in hand. Going the opposite direction from the TouchPad, you feel the top notch quality every time you hold the PlayBook. The rear of the Playbook has an elegant chrome  BlackBerry logo in the middle, with the 5MP shooter above that. The camera is like every other tablet camera, which is to say useless. While better than the iPad 2’s, this one takes mediocre shots outdoors with poor quality indoor images.

Around the rounded edges is where you can find the charging port, mini HDMI, port volume up/down buttons as well as the play/pause buttons. Physical buttons like that are always a nice feature, especially for those that like to listen to their music on the go. If you look closely enough, there’s a power button situated near these media control buttons. The problem is, you just can’t feel it. Fortunately RIM has gesture support from the bezel, so a swipe up lets you wake the PlayBook. But, most people will likely go for the power button which is nearly impossible to press on the first or second attempt.

Display & Audio

With a 1024 x 600 resolution, the PlayBook should satisfy pixel peepers anywhere. It’s incredibly bright, and frankly stunning. Full frame rate playback of 1080p High Profile H.264 never hurts for the video buffs either. This is the first tablet that I’ve been able to use outdoors in bright light. It’s not just usable though, it’s a normal experience.  Colors, text and video are all viewable. Even white text on black gave me no problems in the Atlanta sun, which is really saying something. Colors are vivid, albeit a little over saturated. Viewing angles are top notch and give me no problems until the screen’s almost out of sight. I’d have to say that I prefer the screen on the PlayBook above all others. The extra brightness is extremely beneficial in every day use.

As stated before, the front-facing speakers are hugely beneficial. The sound is actually directed at the listener, and not away from you like the XOOM (and upcoming HTC Paccini) and the iPad, or to the sides like the Asus Transformer. Audio comes through richer, and louder because of this, even providing a little more depth than what other setups do. When headphones are plugged in though, everything sounds like you’d expect. There isn’t much to complain about as it sounds similar to every other decent DAP without any sound enhancements. This is a good thing as the XOOM wasn’t able to come across that way, and neither was the HP TouchPad with its Beats by Dre “enhancements” which only muddied the sound.

Video Out

If at times you want that 7-inch screen to get blown up to something more group friendly, the PlayBook is the best in town. Full 1080p UI mirroring from the PlayBook to the screen is in effect. There’s even a presenter mode with select apps which lets you display one thing on your monitor, while working with the PlayBook without interruption. It’s a great tool for the meeting room.

Software

QNX

When real reviews started pouring in for the PlayBook, it was pretty apparent it was a dud. The potential was there, but there were too many issues that needed serious repair. It seems as consumers have the same ideas as the tablet is selling dismally, even by RIM’s expectations. We decided to pass on the PlayBook saga, figuring the ill received information was already widely available.

Fast forward to July, and the PlayBook has received a couple of updates. The version I’m reviewing is 1.0.7.2670, which has brought significant performance enhancements from the original version. The OS runs smoothly now with none of the stubborn glitches that were apparent on the original firmware. Touches are registered as quickly as they are on the iPad, and keystrokes and swipes are smoother than Honeycomb. I haven’t seen a single hiccup since the PlayBook has been powered on, which is something I haven’t been able to say outside of Apple’s ecosystem. You really see where the 60 fps the UI runs on helps out. Point is, RIM has addressed most, if not all of the original stability issues. Kudos for that.

With that aside, QNX is basically WebOS. RIM used the same card style layout that is found on the TouchPad and every other WebOS device since the beginning. If Apple is able to sue Samsung for “copying” the iPhone, then HP could have an easy case to go after RIM for the same, if they so choose. With that said, multi-tasking with the PlayBook turns out to be a fantastic experience, just like in WebOS. Any app you may have open is laid out nearly identically to Card View, where you can swipe from left to right to pull up any open app. If you’re done with it, swipe it up and off the screen. Simple and smooth.

One difference between the competing platforms is the home screen’s app launcher. This launcher sits at the bottom like iOS and WebOS, with several quick access tabs to call your apps from. You can choose from All apps, Favorites, Media, and Games as the launcher. From any of these options, you can call up (or swipe up) the remaining apps in the launcher grid. From here, apps are launched to full screen in a smooth transition which quickly jumps from the launcher, to card view, and finally the full screen view of the app. It sounds tedious, but works smoothly. Folders however, are not supported.

At the top of the home screen is the notification bar that houses the clock, orientation lock, wifi, bluetooth, battery status and the settings menu. All simple stuff really. Unfortunately, there is no direct email support from the Playbook. So the only notifications you’ll receive are app updates and a battery level indicator if it falls down to 6%.

Gestures

RIM has gesture support built into the bezel, which really helps the overall usability of the PlayBook. Thankfully you don’t have to use the barely noticeable power button to wake the PlayBook, rather this can also be done with a swipe up from the bottom bezel. The same gesture returns you to the home screen from within an app. A downward swipe from the top bezel loads the OS menu from the home screen, while the same gesture in the browser and other applications pulls down the main menu.

These are simple, but the real benefit comes with switching applications. If there’s an app loaded (in card view), then you can shuffle left and right from app to app. No need to go back to the home screen to find the other open app you’re looking for. Simply swipe left and right from the bezel, and you can fly through apps. This is an improvement over WebOS’ card view.

Browser

If anyone knows anything about mobile computing, they are pretty aware that WebKit based browsers are on the top of the heap. iOS, Android and HP all use the WebKit based browser on their mobile platforms, leaving only Microsoft out of the fold. RIM also joined the party with the launch of their BlackBerry Torch, and has used that browser to build up to the PlayBook.

The browser is one of the finest aspects for the new tablet platform. Pages load fairly quickly, even for heavy, flash-based sites. I haven’t noticed the push for mobile sites on the PlayBook either like I get when using Android or iOS. That’s extremely refreshing. Feel and response are top notch, with no lag whatsoever. Scrolling is very smooth, albeit you can scroll too quickly and be met with the checkerboard screen until everything catches up. This also happens when using the iPad 2, and it’s quick to catch up, so no complaints there.

There isn’t tabbed browsing like Honeycomb offers, rather a button tap (tab button) or a swipe gesture down from the top pulls down your tabbed pages and browser menu. While I prefer Honeycomb’s implementation, there simply isn’t the screen real estate to do the same on the 7-inch tablet. Compared to the iPad though, it’s a breath of fresh air. It all moves quickly and smoothly, so opening multiple tabs just seems natural. The only option left out is the ability to open a tab in the background. Even private browsing has been implemented.

As good as the browser is, it’s not all roses. The 7-inch form factor being the biggest trade-off here, when held in portrait mode expect to do plenty of zooming as text isn’t very reader friendly. Sure you can see images and videos, sort of. But text is small and needs the zoom to work for you.

If you’re a Google Docs fan, or if you tend to leave your mark on the internet world with opinions and comments, you won’t be left much room to see your text once the soft keyboard gets pulled up. By my account, you have roughly 1/3 of the screen left in the browser (at most) during these occurrences. If you had the address bar (button located top right in browser), you can manage a little more room. Google Docs becomes pretty much pointless to use though.

Media

Pictures, music and video all represent a pleasant, albeit simple experience. The music player is simple and bare bones. You basically get a list of songs or albums with a little album art on the side. Shuffle, random and the usual options are there.

Your album hub displays your stacks of pictures like a set of cards sitting on a wooden desk. Scroll up and down to navigate, with really minimal eye candy. Again, bare bones with the picture viewer with the only real options being pinch to zoom and the slideshow.

Pretty much the same story with videos. The only difference being three tabs for all videos, downloaded videos, and recorded videos. Video capture is actually fairly decent. You don’t get control of anything other than to start and stop recording. The quality is definitely usable though.

Keyboard

The keyboard on the PlayBook is arguably the best available. Perhaps the 7-inch size in landscape mode does the trick, but it’s more pleasurable than even the famed iOS system. Button taps register quickly and accurately. I haven’t experienced any lag whatsoever when typing, something only iOS can say at this point. Numbers and symbols are brought up with a keystroke, which is fine because it wouldn’t work with an integrated number row on the small screen.

email

With the original PlayBook software, RIM decided to opt out of email. This is the same for the calendar and contacts as well. If you’re a BlackBerry mobile owner, you can download the BlackBerry Bridge software to tether your phone to the PlayBook and open that possibility up. However, this only works when the phone is “bridged.”

As for the rest of us, we get an email icon for Gmail, Hotmail, AOL and Yahoo! Mail. This is all good and dandy, but when you open the make believe email app, you just get redirected to the browser. The results of this poor attempt for a necessary function are no notifications, no ability to email a web page/article, and no ability to send a picture or video. This was a huge shock after capturing some video of my daughter playing in the backyard and finding out I could only share this with my wife when she got home from shopping. I couldn’t email the video clip or even the picture I captured. This my friends is an epic fail.

RIM says tablet users won’t want a WiFi tablet for push email. I laugh at this statement as they are the only ones not to offer it. Perhaps this has led to the dismal sales numbers. Apparently RIM has found it doesn’t make sense either though, as they’re supposed to bring that availability to the tablet later this summer.

Free Tethering

While I don’t have a BlackBerry phone myself, the BlackBerry Bridge brings email, calendar, and contact support as well as another benefit……free tethering. You don’t need an additional tethering plan as everything runs through your phone and the BlackBerry Bridge application. Of course, AT&T (among others) seems to be looking for a way to stop this. Apparently the data you pay for through the network can only be used the way they would like it to be used. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this as data is data. So whether you pay for a fixed amount which is used by your phone, or another tethered device, it shouldn’t really matter. But, the PlayBook does have this feature which is great to have.

File Sharing

Something we usually don’t touch upon here is file sharing. Generally it’s a straightforward affair where you plug your iPad into your computer to sync with iTunes (so much for post PC device huh?), or your Android tablet to sync with any other media management service, or just folder browsing. The Playbook takes it all a step further though.

You don’t need another computer to setup the tablet, just like Android. However, if you want to get your media back and forth, you just plug in through the included USB cable. The tablet acts like a shared drive on your computer. You have access to docs, downloads, photos, and videos. Anything necessary, but not as open as Android, which give you access to the whole system, much like a Windows PC.

This is good enough for most, but for the cord cutters it’s unacceptable. That’s why RIM enabled network sharing over WiFi. All you need is a password and you get full access to the PlayBook’s NAND. This process isn’t as quick as the cable route, but works without a hiccup.

Apps

There aren’t many. There’s a reason RIM has been forced to bring Android to BlackBerry devices, and it’s because there is a dearth of applications available in the App World. Unlike WebOS, the ones available aren’t all top notch. Some available apps have an excellent look, feel, and polish that are enjoyable. Others are poorly developed with little imagination.

The bundled apps are all pretty decent though. Kobo books, YouTube, Bing Maps, Need for Speed Undercover are all excellent representations of the few quality apps available. Then you have the Twitter icon which looks like an app, but just takes you to the mobile twitter site, just like the email icons in the app drawer. RIM was nice enough to bring functional Office software in the form of Word/Sheet/Slideshow to Go. These all work decently at best, but by no means will replace your Office suite on your computer.

Conclusion

After having spent plenty of time with the updated PlayBook, there’s lots to like, and plenty to not. RIM has made improvements with the software. I can take this with me when I head out the door. I don’t do the same with the iPad 2 or the Transformer. I don’t have a BlackBerry phone th0ugh, so I don’t get email updates through it, nor the ability to quickly send someone an email. I don’t enjoy the mobile browser version of Gmail, so I don’t use it. Beyond Need for Speed and News360, there aren’t any other apps that draw me to use it outside of the excellent browser that can play Flash.

Not all is a letdown though. This is by far my favorite tablet to hold, simply because of the quality of materials. While I appreciate the cold feel of the aluminum rear on the iPad, the soft coated finish on the PlayBook just screams for it to be held. Not only that, I can take this with me wherever I go because of the smaller footprint and the insanely bright screen that’s been perfectly readable outdoors in the sun. Seriously, this blows away the previous outdoor color screened leader, the Nook Color. There isn’t a reason to have e-ink with this. And within that beautiful display is a polished and smooth OS with respectable battery life.

I just don’t want the PlayBook though. That’s indicated by my lack of use. I never reach for it over the Transformer or iPad 2. The smaller screen has trade-offs, which I’m fine with. I’m just not cool with no email, calendar, and contacts. I’m not cool with the lack of applications, especially with no Netflix support. I don’t like having to run Android, more specifially Gingerbread (the phone version) on the PlayBook just to get some quality apps. That’s just telling the world that you aren’t ready to compete with the big boys by actually installing your competitor on your own platform. Not cool.

The PlayBook  is only a good thing if you’re a BlackBerry addict. If you live by BBerry Messenger, then this might be for you. After all, you can tether for free, have an actual email client, and have a pretty excellent piece of hardware. For the rest of the world, this isn’t for you. It’s that simple.

 

 

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Allen Schmidt

Allen is a former contributing editor at Nothing But Tablets, which was merged with Pocketables in 2012.