BlackBerry PlayBook

Six months after it was first announced in San Francisco, Research In Motion’s tablet is finally here. But has it been worth the wait, should you be resisting your urges for an iPad, and has RIM with its new operating system got what it takes? We’ve been living with the new tablet for the last week to find out.

Design

The 7-inch tablet from RIM is flat, black, and minimal in its design. The front is a sheet of glass; the rear is a slab of plastic. Measuring 194 x 130 x 10mm the PlayBook is around the same size as a paperback novel, a large Moleskine notebook, or a DVD case. Weighing in at 425g it is light and easy to manage. You aren’t going to notice this in your bag and depending on your suit, you should be able to fit it in your pocket even if your tailor will cringe at the thought. Those who opt for a more causal work attire will be happy to hear it’s combat trousers (pants) friendly too.

By now you will have worked out that the dimensions give you a device that offers a frontal area that could hold a larger screen than the 7-inches RIM has opted for and that’s because the designers have gone for a large black bezel around the screen. “You hold a book on the margins and it’s the same here - it’s so you don’t get your fingers in the way,” Todd Wood, RIM’s chief designer and the man behind the PlayBook explained when we asked him why.

He’s right: the extra margin around the screen gives you plenty of hand space and certainly means that we don’t cover any element of the display when we are using it. Not a complete waste of space, the bezel is touch sensitive too and is used to control elements of the interface (more on that in a bit).

There are just four buttons recessed into the top of the device: on/off, play/pause, and volume up and down. All four can be bypassed with onscreen gestures. It’s a good thing too, for while we personally experienced no difficulties in using them we know others who have reporting the buttons are too stiff to use or a little too recessed - a fact RIM has acknowledged and is fixing on the production line right now. The top also offers a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The bottom of the device features the Micro-USB power connector, a micro HDMI socket and an intelligent docking connector. Stereo speakers - either side of the screen - are tucked out of the way while two microphones are pin holed out of sight. Unlike the iPad 2, there is no home button to jump start the device into life.

All this minimalism gives the PlayBook little character. It’s like the monolith from Space Odyssey 2001. In fact it’s so simple in its design, so basic, so effortless, that there is little to say about it. You’ll either like the sheet of glass approach or you won’t. If it’s the latter you will be able to jazz it up with a number of different cases so don’t panic too much and you can see a quick round up of those on our cases feature.

 

North, East, South, West

With virtually no buttons - yep you’ll get people saying “how do I turn it on?” – it is the screen and an array of gestures that are the key to using the BlackBerry Playbook interface. A quick swipe top to bottom or bottom to top on the device turns it on for example. Left to right switches between apps, while top towards the middle reveals the settings and menu pane.

It might sound complicated, but in reality it is incredibly easy with the OS revealing more as you learn. What we mean by that is that it took us a couple of days and a helpful hint from the chief designer of the PlayBook to find out that we could turn it on without the use of the power button. All the functions are there from the start, but RIM doesn’t detail them in any of the accompanying literature.

It also means that RIM should be able to add more gestures to the device as they develop and build the OS. While the browser comes with pinch to zoom for example, we could easily see a strong focus on the number of fingers you use or additional directions being implemented.

 

Specs

The usual buzzwords are here, however there are some noticeable ones missing - mainly the ability to opt for a version with a 3G or 4G (US) connectivity to make calls or surf the Internet without being connected to a Wi-Fi network. Also missing is NFC, but as NFC has yet to become a mass consumer technology and isn’t available on any other tablet, we aren’t going to dwell on that – except to say it’s found its way into RIM’s latest BlackBerry handset, the Bold 9900.

What the PlayBook has got though is a 7-inch capacitive touchscreen display, 16GB of internal storage, a dual-core 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM that helps the operating system zip along with little signs of breaking a sweat regardless of what you are doing. On the connectivity front you get b/g/n wireless and Bluetooth 2.1 - handy as you’ll need that to connect to a phone or Mi-Fi so you can surf the Internet on the go - and the ability to connect an HDMI cable to the device and then mirror that content on a TV or projector.

There is a 3-megapixel front camera for video calling via BlackBerry Video Chat and a 5-megapixel rear facing camera that is capable of recording 720p video. It’s questionable whether you would use the latter as a camera replacement, however at 7-inches you don’t feel as much of an idiot as if you do with the iPad or something larger. Still, it’s there for those moments when you need it.

Picture quality on the whole is good. There’s a basic digital zoom, you can switch between the front and rear camera, as well as setting your aspect ratio (16:9 or 4:3) and whether you want it to be auto, sport, or whiteboard. With no flash indoor shots have to be held steady to work, but it’s better than nothing, and probably better than many camera phones - including your BlackBerry.

But all that is irrelevant if the screen isn’t up to scratch and thankfully it is. The PlayBook has a 1024 x 600 pixel resolution display that is bright, crisp and clear. That resolution puts it above the iPad 2 in pixel density (169ppi) thanks to the smaller screen size. In the real world it’s hard to notice the difference unless you are looking really closely, but you certainly will notice that you’ve got a decent screen in front of you and that can only be a good thing.

We found the viewing angles to be similar to the iPad 2 and we have used it outdoors in bright conditions without problems seeing what's on the screen.

 

QNX

RIM’s operating system BB 5, BB 6, and now BB 7 may be the answer for its phones, but it’s certainly not the answer for its tablet. Thankfully RIM agrees and following the buy-out of QNX last year that’s the operating system of choice here. Rather than a grid of apps, or a selection of widgets, the PlayBook balances a grid app offering with what is best described as a “Cover Flow” approach to displaying the applications you have open.

If you’re familiar with all the mobile phone and tablet operating systems the PlayBook OS is really a mashup of all of them taking the best bits to create what you get here: there are bits you’ll recognise from BlackBerry OS, webOS, iOS 4, Android Gingerbread and Android Honeycomb and some new bits in between.

The home page is very similar to your average BlackBerry with a top line showing your status (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc.) and a bottom line showing you six apps from the bigger app tray/menu. Like BB 6 you can manage your apps to determine which ones appear here and swiping from left to right reveals apps spilt into categories pre-determined by RIM. There’s All, Favourites, Media, Games, and BlackBerry Bridge.

Between the top and bottom lines are the apps that you are running. So you know what they are the last state of the app is always displayed, be it the camera, a web page, or a word document. The way the system works allows you to not only quickly see what apps you are running, but also see what state they are in. Interestingly apps like the camera continue to run even in this reduced mode.

 

BlackBerry Bridge

Out of the box and the PlayBook comes with some apps to get you going, but not all the apps that you would expect to have on a standalone tablet. The PlayBook doesn’t, for example, currently come with dedicated email, contacts, or calendar apps instead relying on a feature called BlackBerry Bridge to do that for you. RIM has confirmed (and we’ve been demoed the fix) which is due some time over the “summer” with all three coming to the PlayBook via a free download.

Until then the only way you are currently able to get access to your email, contacts and calendar on the device is to either go through the browser, or by connecting your BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook via Bluetooth. To do that you have to download BlackBerry Bridge on your phone via the BlackBerry App World and then sync the two. If your BlackBerry smartphone doesn’t have access to the App World then you won’t be able to use this feature.  

Once connected you can then see your phone’s messages, contacts, browser, calendar, BBM, MemoPad, tasks and even files. All remain viewable on the device until the connection is broken. Once that happens they disappear from the PlayBook as they are never physically copied to the tablet. The idea is that companies will be able to roll out the PlayBook without the worry of another device to support and without the worry of another device with company data to lose in a bar.

If you’re a BlackBerry user we can see how this makes perfect sense, after all why do you need two copies of your emails on a device when chances are you’ve got your phone on you as well? However if you haven’t got a BlackBerry at the moment, you’re left with a device that’s a bit lacking on its own, certainly from a “keeping in touch” perspective.

Regardless, the situation is being rectified. RIM has shown Pocket-lint that the interface will be identical to how it is now, just without the BlackBerry Bridge logo turned on. The email, calendar, and contacts apps take advantage of the tablet design giving you a split view as already present in iOS and Android so as to make best use of space. New messages are highlighted by the top left corner of the screen glowing red whatever app you are in, and currently via Bridge everything is secure and safe.

 

Apps

Forget the lack of mail, calendar, and contacts for now and the PlayBook comes with a selection of apps preinstalled. Key apps are the browser, Kobo Books, Music, Music Store, Need For Speed Undercover, Tetris, Adobe Reader, Word To Go, Sheet To Go, Slideshow To Go, Slacker Radio, Video Chat, Weather, Clock, Voice Notes, Calculator, YouTube, Bing Maps, and then App World to get more. UK options may vary, however that’s still to be set in stone, and likely to be very similar.

If you’re thinking that’s quite respectable selection pre-installed, then there is a reason for that: the App World store doesn’t offer up many more. One of the biggest problems for the PlayBook is  there currently there aren’t many apps to choose from and certainly not the usual set that you’ll want if you are an iPhone or Android user. No Dropbox, no Kindle, no Twitter, no Skype, no Spotify, no Sonos, no Sky remote, no dedicated BBC iPlayer app and very few games.

Now you could argue that those apps don’t interest you, however chances are the apps that do won’t be there either. If you thought your Android chums had to wait a long time for apps, you’ll have to wait even longer. That’s not to say there are zero apps, or zero apps in development and there are some gems to be found. The Facebook app, for example, is the first app designed specifically for a tablet and lets you keep in touch with your friends while utilising the screen size available.

We also really like DoodleBlast, a puzzle game, and Scrapbook - an innovative way of putting together mood boards. Mrs Pocket-lint is also addicted to Pixelated. Most major business software manufacturers have said they are developing - think IBM and SalesForce - while RIM has confirmed that from the summer Android apps and BlackBerry 6 apps will work on the device as well, as long as the developer has submitted the app to the App World. That opens up a massive opportunity for users come the summer users will be able to access more “fun” offerings on the PlayBook or access the mass of apps BlackBerry users already use.  

Apps will just appear in the App World regardless of how they’ve been coded with the end user none the wiser to its origin. It’s certainly one way for RIM to tackle the lack of app choice in the App World at the moment and if they can pull it off, could be the killer feature for the tablet ending RIM’s current app woes.

 

Browser

With a real lack of apps for the moment all eyes will turn to the browser. After all it’s how you are going to get your email, your tweets, and many other things in the short-term. The bottom line is that the browser quick, supports Flash for that “true web experience” and tabbed browsing among other things.

We had no problem going to the BBC iPlayer website and loading up content as though we were on a desktop PC. Websites like wechosethemoon.org, one of the heaviest Flash sites we know, launched with little effort something that’s not possible on the iPad. While you might not be going to heavy Flash sites all the time, Flash is helpful in other places like seeing the graphs in Google Analytics, or live data in services like ChartBeat, and of course adverts on websites.

It’s surprising to say this, especially as it comes from RIM, but the browser is very good.

Battery life is good - around the same as the iPad 2, however when using it with Bluetooth turned on - something that you have to do when using BlackBerry Bridge there is a noticable power drop off as you've got an extra connection running. 

Verdict

Reading the US reviews of the BlackBerry PlayBook you would have thought that the launch of the company’s first tablet was a train wreck of massive proportions, a device that you shouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Strangely we don’t hold those views and we’ve played with a lot of tablets. The PlayBook is well built, has masses of potential, but it’s not quite there yet.

In use it is fast, agile and a really simple OS to use with plenty of features. The lack of apps is a worry, but RIM has confirmed that it is solving this both by adding new apps, adding new features, and adding Android and BlackBerry 6 app support too. It has already proved that it plans to release updates that add rather than just bug fix, and you can expect that there are plenty more updates to due in the coming weeks. Thankfully it looks like the hardware will amply cope with the new features RIM and third party developers throw at it.

RIM’s UK MD put it nicely when we chatted with him recently: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” and that seems to be the experience we’ve had as well while testing the PlayBook. Would we choose this over the iPad 2 or the Motorola Xoom? That’s a very tough question. We certainly love the portability the 7-inch screen provides - it’s a better experience than the Samsung Galaxy Tab - and we like the potential the PlayBook offers.

Ultimately, it’s early days for the PlayBook, if RIM can live up to their promises this is one tablet that could be the main set for businesses everywhere. But if those promises aren’t kept and the apps fail to materialise you’ll be left with something that’s really only good for surfing the web.



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