Officially announced in September of last year, the long-awaited BlackBerry PlayBook was released on April 19th 2011, with a starting price of $499. It featured the all-new BlackBerry Tablet OS, the PlayBook sports a 7" display that makes this tablet more portable for everyday use than Apple's iPad. With the addition of the BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 Software released on February 21, 2012 -- the PlayBook gained native email, calendar and contacts, the ability to run Android applications and much more.
With solid hardware specs, an operating system that utilizes a gesture-based user interface to deliver true multitasking capabilities and a web browser that supports Adobe Flash, on paper the PlayBook appears to have the raw talent to be a contender. Heck, it even won the first ever Tablet World Series before it was ever released. But pre-release hype is one thing and real-world performance is another. RIM hopes to leverage their success in smartphones and emerge as a major competitor in the tablet game when it steps up to the plate. Does the PlayBook have what it takes to crank out a homerun? Read our full review to find out!
Intro - Getting Ready to Play Ball With the PlayBook
Research In Motion is going through a major transition right now. While much improvement has come to BlackBerry Smartphones over the years and the upcoming BlackBerry 6.1 OS looks to push things even farther, the traditional BlackBerry OS on phones is hitting a point of maturity where RIM's only option is to start with something new. For companies like Motorola, HTC, Samsung and LG, Google's Android operating system has been the life-saving fresh start that has allowed them to compete against Apple's iOS. Not wanting to lose control of their destiny and be regulated to an Android hardware manufacturer trying to differentiate itself from other Android hardware manufacturers, RIM made the decision to play the game on their own terms. Over the past few years RIM has been building up its team, acquiring the players it needs to fix their historic weaknesses and "future proof" the company (a term RIM's Co-CEO Jim Balsillie used on their last Earnings Call). Some of the acquisitions relevant to the BlackBerry PlayBook include:
QNX - makers of the powerful MicroKernal QNX Neutrino operating system upon which the BlackBerry Tablet OS is built
Torch Mobile - WebKit browser gurus who fixed up BlackBerry's traditionally poor web browsing experience
The Astonishing Tribe - Creative geniuses and UI experts who, while arriving a little late on the PlayBook project, helped shape some of the aspects of the user experience and will play a much larger role in this moving ahead (a company called Teknision is responsible for a lot of the user interface design on the PlayBook).
Dataviz - While RIM didn't buy DataViz outright, they bought a lot of their talent and assets including Documents To Go, which allows for Word, Excel, Powerpoint creation and editing (the premium version of these apps are included free on the PlayBook)
If you look at RIM's long list of recent acquisitions (there are more than just the ones mentioned above - Dash Mobile, Viigo, Gist, etc.), it appears that RIM has bought the players needed to have a winning team, stacking their roster with some real superstars. But turning great players into a winning team doesn't typically happen overnight - teams need time to gel, they need practice, they need coaching and they need some experience in real games to see what's working and fix what's not.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is the first product from what I like to think of as the new RIM team. And it's clear that RIM has really been hustling to pull things together for the PlayBook's first game on April 19th. While the hardware appears to have been good to go for a while now, we've already seen tons of changes happen on the software side since the device was first announced and we know more are coming still.
So from the outset, it must be said that the software on the PlayBook isn't fully finished. If making money didn't matter, I'm sure RIM would rather wait a few more months to release the PlayBook once native email and PIM support was present (read my editorial on why it's not here at launch) and some of the other apps were in perfect form.
With under two weeks to launch when receiving my review unit, it was on pre-release software that didn't feature BlackBerry Bridge (I actually received an OS update last night that enabled a fairly completed version of Bridge), nor was there any sign of Video Chat yet, which we know is coming. The good news here is that unlike their smartphones, RIM doesn't need to deal with carriers when it comes to releasing software updates. I'm expecting over the next few months we'll see a whole lot of software updates get pushed through to the PlayBook. Ideally things would be perfect at launch, but the good news here is that unlike BlackBerry Smartphones the software update on the PlayBook is dead simple (more on that later).
From my observations since being around the smartphone/tech sector, it seems to take most companies some time to get things right. The original iPhone didn't have apps, nor did it have copy and paste. It took a few iterations for Android's phone operating system to smooth out the rough edges it started with, and their Honeycomb tablet OS is still under development (talking to Phil over at our sibling site Android Central, he says at this point it's still safe to call Honeycomb "unfinished"). With the BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM is on version one of their BlackBerry Tablet OS. As a consumer thinking about picking up a new tablet, you'll need to decide if the PlayBook's strengths and potential to improve outweigh its weaknesses and gaps at launch, knowing the hardware is pretty solid and the BlackBerry Tablet OS software is only going to get better.
What are those strengths and weaknesses? Keep reading to find out!
BlackBerry PlayBook Overview
BlackBerry PlayBook Review Unit Unboxing Video
While BlackBerry Smartphones have traditionally lagged the competition on the hardware specs front, RIM has packed a lot of punch into the PlayBook's 7" form factor.
BlackBerry PlayBook Key Features & Specifications
7" LCD, 1024 x 600, WSVGA, capacitive touch screen with full multi-touch and gesture support
BlackBerry Tablet OS with support for symmetric multiprocessing
Open, flexible application platform with support for WebKit/HTML-5, Adobe Flash Player 10.2, Adobe Mobile AIR, Adobe Reader, POSIX, OpenGL, Java
Ultra thin and portable:
Measures 5.1"x7.6"x0.4" (130mm x 193mm x 10mm)
Weighs less than a pound (approximately 0.9 lb or 400g)
At launch on April 19th, WiFi-only versions of the BlackBerry PlayBook will be available, priced at $499, $599 and $699 for 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions. The BlackBerry PlayBook will first be available within North America (see a list of retailers where you can purchase the PlayBook) and should roll out internationally in the near-ish future.
The PlayBook won't fit all pockets, but it will fit a lot of them.
For their first ever tablet, Research In Motion chose to give the BlackBerry PlayBook a 7" display with an HD aspect ratio (16:9). At 5.6" tall and 7.6" wide, the PlayBook is small enough to fit in many coat pockets, purses, handbags, etc., making it much more portable for out-of-the-home use than Apple's iPad. Having tag lined the PlayBook as the First Professional Grade Tablet, I think RIM's aim here was to differentiate from the incumbent iPad by selling a tablet that you're more likely to carry with you everywhere you go (as in a business person carrying it in their inside suit jacket pocket). Being an owner of both the iPad and iPad 2, I can honestly say the only time I ever leave home with my iPad is when I'm traveling (it's definitely a great device for killing time on an airplane). It's too big to carry around with me and a little too ostentatious (for my tastes anyways) to bust out in public. With the PlayBook's smaller size and unpretentious styling I can actually see myself putting it in my coat pocket before I leave the house and actually putting it to use when out and about.
The trade off of having a more portable tablet is having a smaller screen.
While portability and in-hand comfort are the major benefits of the PlayBook's small-by-tablet-standards stature, the consequence is that you have a smaller screen for when you're actually using the device. Are all 7" tablets DOA as Steve Jobs has suggested? I personally don't think so (neither does RIM - see their response to Steve Jobs' comments), but there are definitely certain apps/tasks (like web browsing) where having a bigger screen on the PlayBook would make for a more enjoyable experience. Knowing RIM and knowing that the company has always offered a variety of form factor options on their smartphones, I guarantee a 10" tablet is on the BlackBerry product roadmap.
Appearance, Form Factor, Build Quality
The PlayBook looks like a digital picture frame. Well, maybe a digital picture frame on steroids!
The best way to sum up the appearance of the BlackBerry PlayBook is to say that it looks like your typical digital photo frame. It really does. It's a flat, black, slate. Mount it on a Charging Stand, put it on a counter in your home or office with a slide show turned on within the photos app, and no visitor would think the device offers anything beyond rotating photos. Unlike smartphones where you can spot a BlackBerry from a hundred yards (especially the models that have keyboards), it's only the BlackBerry logo on the front and back that really tell you this is a BlackBerry device. All in all it's not a bad look - I do like the unassuming nature of the PlayBook, though I think in a sea of tablets it would also be better for RIM to come up with a subtle yet iconic look that's all their own vs. blending in to the crowd (not an easy task).
Without the BlackBerry logo you wouldn't know this was a BlackBerry device.
Picking the PlayBook up, it has a dense feeling. It's definitely heavier than it looks, though weighing in at less than a pound I wouldn't call it heavy. If anything, this slightly high weight to size ratio gives off a feeling of both quality and durability, and I do think the PlayBook will be able to stand up to some abuse. I accidentally dropped the PlayBook while setting up to film one of my videos for this review (sadly I wasn't recording when I dropped it!) and it hit the ground with a loud thud but emerged unscathed.
You can use the PlayBook in portrait orientation, but the natural tendency is definitely landscape.
Between the HD-proportioned form factor, and the placement of the cameras, buttons and logos around the device, the natural tendency is to hold the PlayBook in landscape orientation. Even though you can use the BlackBerry Tablet OS in portrait mode (in earlier pre-release software builds that wasn't the case), it sort of feels odd to navigate the OS on the device this way. The 16:9 ratio feels and looks a little too skinny-tall when held in portrait. This is in contrast to the iPad, where the natural tendency is to hold it in portrait due to its 4:3 proportioned size (more like a piece of paper or magazine). Though the natural tendency is to hold and use the PlayBook in landscape, it does still feel comfortable when held in portrait, which is how I have been holding it for reading books or playing portrait-built games like Tetris.
Curse that tiny power button! Luckily, you can pretty much avoid using it (details below!)
Centered along the top edge of the device are the volume up/down buttons which have a play/pause button sandwiched in the middle. The buttons are quite small, but still useable as the volume up/down keys extend from the device at a slight angle (tip: press the volume up and down buttons at the same time to take a screen capture!). To the left of the media buttons lies the power button, which between being tiny and mounted flush to the device makes it extremely annoying to use. The good news here is that you don't actually have to use the power button when bringing the device out of standby (the device is on but display is powered off). Simply swiping from bezel to bezel, either top to bottom or left to right wakes the display up. And instead of putting the PlayBook into standby by tapping the power button, I simply lowered the default 2 Minute Standby Time-out to 30 seconds (to save battery life). With this approach to powering on and off the PlayBook, the only purpose of the power button now is to fully Turn Off or Restart the device, which are the options presented when you hold down on the power button for 2 seconds, or to hard reboot the device (if it should ever freeze up on you - which hasn't happened yet) by holding down on it for ~10 seconds. Along the top right edge of the device is a standard 3.5mm audio port for plugging in headphones.
Remember. The microUSB charging/syncing port is the one in the middle. MicroHDMI on the left.
Along the bottom edge of the BlackBerry PlayBook are three ports. In the middle is a microUSB port for syncing to a computer and charging. On the left is the HDMI output port which fits a microHDMI connector. While RIM was good enough to include a microUSB cable and new BlackBerry PlayBook Travel Charger in the box, you'll have to buy your own HDMI cable if you want to hook the PlayBook up to a tv (we're told DLNA support is coming, so hopefully soon you won't even need a cable and can stream content from your PlayBook to your TV wirelessly). The remaining port is a three pin connector which is for mounting the BlackBerry PlayBook to the BlackBerry PlayBook Rapid Charging Stand (the equivalent to the charging contacts on BlackBerry Smartphones that are there for use with BlackBerry Charging Pods), which is likely to become a best-selling accessory for the PlayBook.
Don't worry. This is a review unit. The PlayBook you buy won't have the extra stickers on the back.
The back side and edges of the device are coated in a soft touch rubber, which is grippy and comfortable to hold. In addition to the BlackBerry logo planted smack in the middle of the back of the device, there is a five megapixel camera (no flash) centered at the top. In some of our earlier encounters with the PlayBook we noticed the back of the device tended to get pretty hot, but were told that's because power management was not yet enabled on the demo units reps were using. I haven't noticed my PlayBook getting excessively warm yet, so I'm assuming that things are all good there. The front of the device features a three megapixel camera. Both cameras support 1080p video recording. To the left of the front facing camera is a small LED light, which for now I've only seen turn on when the device is powered up on a re-start, as all notifications at the time of this review are actually shown on the top left corner of the display. Speaker ports are mounted on both the left and right side of the 7" display, with the display taking up the majority of the real estate on the PlayBook's front side. The edges of the display/bezels are touch sensitive, allowing for the BlackBerry Tablet OS' gesture-based navigation. One slightly annoying thing that was pointed out to me about the display was the fact that while the corners of external glass on top of the display have been given a rounded look, that if you look down at the actual LCD below the glass from an angle you can see the edges of the OS have been left coming to a point. It's one of those things that once you notice it's hard not to notice - it would be great if the BlackBerry Tablet OS could round out its edges with a couple dark pixels to match the look of the glass (we saw this rounding out happen to the Torch on recent OS builds, so hopefully this is already in the works for the PlayBook). There's no Gorilla glass on the PlayBook, so while the glass does appear to be pretty tough you'll want to take care of it. Oh, and smudges happen. Deal with it. At least a cleaning cloth is included in the box.
Aside from the few minor gripes mentioned above, overall I'm pretty happy with the design and build quality of the PlayBook. I think tablet size, be it 7", 10" or something in the middle is going to play a big part in the tablet purchase decision for consumers, so I hope RIM doesn't wait too long to make a larger BlackBerry tablet available. There's a trade-off with whichever size you go with, so the only can't lose solution is to offer a tablet at both sizes (or take a page from Samsung who's now going to offer their Tab in 7", 8.9" and 10.1" varieties just to make sure they have everybody's wants covered) and let consumers pick the tablet best for suited to their needs.
Touchscreen Display and HD Aspect Ratio
The PlayBook's touchscreen display is super bright and responsive.
At 1024 x 600 pixel resolution on a 7" display, the PlayBook is packing a pixel density of ~170 pixels per inch (compare to 132ppi on iPad) through which it delivers a crystal clear and bright picture. Photos and HD videos look amazing on the PlayBook.
The overall performance of the PlayBook's touchscreen controls on the BlackBerry Tablet OS are pretty smooth (much better than any touchscreen BlackBerry Smartphone to date) and appear to me to be improving as RIM continues to optimize the QNX operating system for the PlayBook. Since I first went hands-on with the PlayBook, I've noticed the homescreen GUI has become much more fluid and the sensitivity to touchscreen inputs has been refined (I noticed it initially didn't respond to my index finger taps as nicely as when I tapped the screen with my thumbs (maybe I tap too fast with my index fingers?), but on the latest software builds the PlayBook is responding very well for me.
I can't tell if it's just my imagination, but it does feel like the smoothness of the scrolling and graphics within the OS can vary depending what app you are in. For example, while the homescreen UI experience is now extremely fluid while scrolling through a long page of icons, it appears a little more choppy when scrolling through a long list of songs in the Music app. Again, this could just be my imagination... I'll be curious to see what others have to say about this.
In addition to the touchscreen display supporting gestures and up to four multi-touch points, the edges of the PlayBook's screen are given special gesture-style functions for multi-tasking and bring up app options, the status bar and more (more on this below).
The decision to go HD vs. 4:3: Like Android tablets, RIM has gone with a 16:9 HD aspect ratio on the BlackBerry PlayBook. When getting briefed by RIM on my review unit, I was told they went with the HD aspect ratio on the PlayBook as the HD format has emerged as such a major digital standard in the world. And while I don't deny that 16:9 displays are awesome for consuming movies and media content (it's also nice for games where you steer with the device), I can't help but feel they're less friendly for things like web browsing or using productivity apps like Word or Excel.
The PlayBook's HD form factor is a little less friendly web browsing tall websites than the 4:3 aspect ratio.
In the web browser for example, if you hold the PlayBook in landscape you only have 600 pixels of height to work with. With most websites these days (including CrackBerry.com) having pretty tall headers and long pages, it means you're doing a lot of scrolling in landscape mode, and if you tilt the PlayBook sideways to browse in portrait mode the text is so small you can't read it without first zooming in (at least the PlayBook's web browser makes this an easy task with a quick double tap). Or if you're holding the PlayBook in landscape and need to pull up the keyboard to fill in data - - like logging in with your BlackBerry ID to purchase an app in App World - - it means you're going to have to actually hide the keyboard before you can tap the Sign In button as the keyboard is covering it. With the keyboard visible it takes up half the display - leaving only 300 pixels of height to work with. In comparison, using the BlackBerry Torch's slide out keyboard you have 480 pixels of height to work with on the display.
With the keyboard pulled up in landscape, you're down to 300 pixels of space on the display.
These are all issues that are easy enough to maneuver around while using the tablet, but they're symptoms of going with a 16:9 ratio on a 7" display that make certain experiences less enjoyable than they could be. While the 4:3 proportion of the iPad or the upcoming HP TouchPad may not fit the digital standard of HD, I do think there's something to be said about it as a real world standard. For example, one of the activities I enjoy on my iPad is reading magazines (I actually prefer them over paper as the photos are more vivid and publishers add in things like movies and extra photos beyond their print editions). The magazine experience translates over really nicely to the iPad due to its 4:3 ratio, as it's similar to your standard piece of paper (an old school standard, but a standard nonetheless). So just as the overall physical size of a tablet is going to affect its portability, the aspect ratio is going to determine some of the specific activities/apps where the tablet is going to be really enjoyable to use, or maybe a little less ideally suited.
Size and aspect ratio play a big part in the overall experience of a tablet
Keyboards / Typing
Another benefit of the 7" form factor is that it makes typing on a touchscreen not too bad! I actually don't mind typing on the PlayBook's landscape keyboard, and really enjoy typing on it in portrait mode - it's narrow enough that you can use both thumbs like a traditional physical keyboard on a BlackBerry Smartphone.
Swiping up from the bottom left corner of the PlayBook reveals the keyboard in any app.
A nice touch RIM put it into the BlackBerry Tablet OS is contextualized keyboards, as in when you're in the web browser you get the .com button which helps speed up the process of typing in URLs (it's not present outside the web browser). Within the device settings you can easily change up the Keyboard settings to Qwertz or Azerty if that's what you prefer.
One not so cool thing related to the keyboard is the complete lack of automatic word suggestion/correction while typing. I'm guessing this one is in the works and will come to the PlayBook via a future software update.
Dual Core Processor
I think a lot of people we're surprised when Texas Instruments announced it was supplying the OMAP4430 as the processor for the BlackBerry PlayBook. Without getting into the details (those who do want the full details can read about them on TI's site here), the OMAP4430 packs a ton of processing capability into the guts of the PlayBook. Support is there for full 1080p video recording and the graphics accelerator guarantees the BlackBerry PlayBook can power 3D games user interfaces without skipping a beat (be sure to check out this 3D UI demo on the BlackBerry Playbook). And despite the power, it has a very low battery draw, helping to maximize time between charges.
Between the native apps that come pre-loaded on the PlayBook and the third party ones that are currently available in App World for it (mainly flash web apps that have been ported over - no Open GL/3D graphics in them), I get the sense that the PlayBook as it ships on April 19th will barely be tapping into the capabilities of what the hardware is capable of supporting. Once the Native Development Kit gets released into more developers' hands, we should see some really awe-inspiring apps get built for the PlayBook. Hopefully that's the case, as we know the hardware can support it.
As for the basic task of powering the BlackBerry Tablet OS through its everyday multitasking ways, the processors seem up to the challenge. The basic user experience is snappy and the PlayBook handles running and jumping between multiple apps with ease. It sometimes feels like opening apps takes a little longer than it should (for some reason the web browser is always kind of slow to open up), but I think things like this have more to do with further optimizing the BlackBerry Tablet OS than they do guts under the hood.
Available memory after a fresh restart.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB configurations and that storage memory can be used for anything from video, photo and file storage to gigabytes worth of apps. Finally a BlackBerry that's not limited to 512MB or less of room for apps!
Looking at the About > Hardware screen on the system settings, on my 32GB review unit it shows the Total Available storage as being 29.6GB. I assume this means the OS and native apps eat up about 2.4GB of space, meaning you can expect a 16GB PlayBook to have 13.6GB of free storage out of the box, and a 64GB PlayBook to have 61.6GB. We'll confirm that's the case when commercial units starts selling. There is no expansion slot for an sliding in a microSD card.
As for RAM, the PlayBook has 1GB of it, and after a few days of use I'm starting to think the PlayBook would benefit from a second gigabyte. On a few occasions now while running multiple apps I have received the notification that the "System is running low on memory - please close some applications." On these occasions I've only had maybe five or six apps running (mainly media apps and the web browser) so I was almost surprised to see this message pop up. We've seen so many PlayBook demos over the past six months when multiple apps are running at one time that I was sort of under the impression the PlayBook could never run out of RAM (it should be noted that I did have background apps set to Pause when not active - so it wasn't like the demos where there's videos and youtube movies all playing at once). The silver lining here is that despite getting the notification for low memory, the device never actually slowed down. If available memory does get to low, it looks like the BlackBerry Tablet OS just closes one of the inactive but open apps at random (I'm guessing this might change in the future - doesn't seem totally user friendly).
Low memory? Not cool. I think the web browser is the main memory-eating culprit.
After a fresh restart, and again looking at the About > Hardware screen, the PlayBook shows 535.6MB of Free Memory (RAM) of the 1GB of the total 1GB. This means with no apps running at all, the BlackBerry Tablet OS is eating up over 650MB of memory. That's a lot. If the BlackBerry Tablet OS is that memory hungry, it really makes me wish RIM would have upped it to 2GB. Seeing a low memory warning doesn't feel very "professional grade" to me, and having a BlackBerry that's low on memory feels more like the old RIM than a new RIM.
After a lot of rumor and speculation that the BlackBerry PlayBook would suffer from horrible battery life, the rumors seem to have been unfounded. RIM has rated the PlayBook's battery life for 8 to 10 hours of continual use (it's going to be better/worse depending on exactly what you get up to on the device) and during my few days on the device I've found the battery life to be acceptable. I haven't done a straight out battery drain test on it or head to head tests against the iPad to see how the drain compares for similar tasks, but during my review use (where I go pretty hard on the device) I've found it can take anywhere from 2.5 to 6 minutes to kill a single % off of the battery life indicator depending what I'm doing. This jives with hitting up to 10 hours of battery life, but also being able to drain it quite a bit quicker if you really try to.
The average person who puts the BlackBerry PlayBook to use each day should be able to get away with just having to charge it at night. And for those who use it less, the battery level barely moves when you leave the device in standby overnight. It should be noted that when in standby mode the device isn't totally powered down - the PlayBook's bezels are "alive" enough to be listening for the gesture to power it back up, and we're told that even in standby the WiFi and Bluetooth connections are kept alive (maybe not fully alive, but they're not totally dead...). This enables the WiFi File Sharing to become a really neat feature of the device. You can literally have the PlayBook packed in your travel bag by the door the night before you head out on a flight and be dragging files onto to your PlayBook from your desktop computer on the other side of your home.
Unlike BlackBerry Smartphones, the PlayBook does not feature a removable battery that can easily be replaced. I'm not sure yet on how many recharge cycles the battery is rated for (I'm guessing it should be good for a few years even if charged daily) and as I write this I'm waiting for a response on RIM as to what the procedure will be on getting the battery replaced should it ever need to be replaced (my guess is through RIM directly per this information we posted recently that RIM will handle BlackBerry PlayBook warranty directly).
Unlike Apple on the iPad 2, RIM didn't cheap out on the cameras on the BlackBerry PlayBook. With a 3 megapixel forward facing camera and 5 megapixel camera on the back, both capable of recording up to 1080p resolution, the PlayBook takes some solid photos and videos. There's no flash, but the photos and recording are pretty decent even in low-ish light. A benefit of the PlayBook's smaller size is that I don't feel like a tool using it for snapping photos or taking videos (its footprint isn't all that different than my SLR). On a device like the iPad 2 you can't help but feel a little dumb holding it at arm's length and snapping a photo. The PlayBook is small enough that if you bust it out in public to grab a photo or video you won't get that many onlookers staring at you like you're crazy.
Using the BlackBerry PlayBook to snap a quick photo.
And here's the actual photo that was taken on the PlayBook (resized but not edited)
Bluetooth Fun: Controlling the PlayBook w/ Mouse and Keyboard
With Bluetooth support you can wirelessly connect your PlayBook to an array of different devices. We already mentioned audio devices above, but you can also pair with input devices, such as a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. It turns out the BlackBerry Tablet OS has full mouse support! Check out the video below where I connect the PlayBook to a TV via HDMI then control it from across the room via a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. It's pretty crazy! As you'll note in the video, at first I couldn't figure out how to do gestures with a mouse - it turns out you go to the edge of the display and hold down the right mouse button and then swipe. I'm not sure this is a feature I'd use on a regular basis, but it definitely shows off some of the power in the platform.
WiFi - Hooking up the Gogo Inflight
As you would expect with a WiFi tablet, the PlayBook supports 802.11 a/b/g/n. My first test for the PlayBook was on the flight home from NYC after receiving my review unit, where I hooked it up to Delta's Gogo Inflight service.
For the most part I've found the WiFi performance of the PlayBook to be pretty good, though I have found on a couple of occasions where the PlayBook didn't want to automatically rejoin a previous network (coming back to my office from my home, it was stuck on the networks near my home until I turned off and turned back on WiFi). I haven't found this to be an issue recently though, so hopefully it was a fixed issue in the latest software builds.
Other Hardware Internals
GPS: While GPS wasn't on the specs list when the PlayBook was first announced, it does in fact have GPS and the PlayBook comes loaded with Bing Maps. I wasn't very impressed by the Bing Maps app during the time I spent with it (it was more frustrating than helpful - I'm pretty sure it was just a WebWorks-built app that was piping in the bing.com/maps site), so for now I'll stick to Google Maps and BlackBerry Maps on my BlackBerry Smartphone until a better mapping app gets released for the PlayBook.
Speakers: The built-in speakers on the PlayBook do a good job of getting sound out of the device. Other sound options of course include plugging in a set of headphones, hooking up the PlayBook via HDMI to a more serious entertainment system, or connecting via Bluetooth to audio output devices (stereo Bluetooth headphones, Bluetooth speakers, etc.).
Wrap-Up Unlike BlackBerry Smartphones where it often feels like the hardware specs trail the competition by a year or more, with their first tablet RIM made sure to build a device that is current and will remain competitive over the next year. It's definitely a positive sign that the new RIM really wants to play ball, and knowing that the QNX operating system upon which the BlackBerry Tablet OS is built already has support for up to 32 cores, it means we should see RIM take a leadership position on the hardware side of things in the future.
As for the BlackBerry PlayBook's hardware specifically, my recommendation is to head to the store and pick one up for yourself and see how you like it. The 7" HD form factor is one you're likely either going to love or hate. Coming from the iPad to the PlayBook it took some time to get adjusted to it, but the more I use the PlayBook the more I see the value in its smaller size, which makes it both more portable and comfortable to hold than larger tablets, and also makes it a device I'm more likely to take with me and use in more places (which is a pretty huge thing). At the same time, I also see the limitations attached to having a tablet with a smaller display. The 7" screen does sacrifice the experience of some applications - for something like web browsing more pixels is always better -- but other apps and games actually feel enhanced by it. The preloaded racing game Need For Speed Undercover is a great example of this, where the size of the PlayBook is just perfect for a game where you steer by tilting the device.
That said, I still hope we see RIM follow-up the 7" PlayBook with a larger version down the road. When it comes to tablets, size matters so it's best to give consumers their choice.
With the introduction of the BlackBerry Tablet OS on the BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM now has two operating systems to manage and develop on internally, which it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out is not an ideal situation. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, RIM is going through a major transition right now. And if you believe the rumors we post on at CrackBerry.com, you'll know what they are transitioning to is one operating system, currently rumored to be named BlackBerry 7, that will power both BlackBerry tablets and phones.
Built upon QNX, the same platform that the PlayBook's BlackBerry Tablet OS is built on, the aim of BlackBerry 7 will be to merge together the best features of the legacy BlackBerry experience with the best emerging features and capabilities of the new BlackBerry Tablet OS so that there is only one platform for RIM to push forward (and only one for third party developers to worry about). Until RIM gets through with this platform upgrade and consolidation, I'm sure things are pretty chaotic within RIM - a major transition like this can't be easy (so kudos to all the RIM employees who are working around the clock to make it happen!).
So what does this mean for the BlackBerry Tablet OS version 1 on the BlackBerry PlayBook? It means that it's a work in progress. What's there is there and for the most part is working really well - it's a night and day difference compared to the old BlackBerry Smartphone OS. Some things are built but are bound to change. Even while having this review unit just days before the device goes on sale I received a software update that brought forth quite a few subtle UI changes and performance enhancements. And some things are still missing altogether that need to be there asap, like native email and core PIM apps.
You can look at the cup as being half empty or half full. I'm sure we'll see a lot of BlackBerry PlayBook reviews come out that rag pretty hard on the BlackBerry Tablet OS for what it's still lacking in terms of features and overall experience. And while I'd rather see a completely finished and polished OS on the BlackBerry PlayBook at launch over one that still has some gaps, what makes me extremely excited is the rate of development RIM is showing on the new QNX platform. As an outsider looking in, it almost feels as if RIM has been able to do as much in six months working on QNX for the PlayBook as they have in the past six years working on the old BlackBerry OS for their phones. With that being the case and knowing the direction RIM is heading with their overall operating system philosophy, I'm actually more excited for the future of RIM products than ever.
Let's take a closer look at the BlackBerry Tablet OS!
Finishing up with the Setup Wizard
The first time you start up the BlackBerry PlayBook you're taken through a Setup Wizard. In addition to setting the date and accepting the legal jargon, it forces you to create or login with your BlackBerry ID. BlackBerry ID is becoming incredibly important to RIM as they roll out more cloud-based services and also get setup for multiple device management. BlackBerry ID will ultimately manage and map several devices to one identity, so you could have a BlackBerry Smartphone and BlackBery PlayBook (each with their own device pins that communicate back to RIM's servers), but still only one BlackBerry Messenger list of contacts running on both devices. While PINs will continue to be on devices, the need to know somebody's PIN will go away - you'll need to know their BlackBerry ID. Expect this requirement to login to BlackBerry ID during Setup to also be present on all future BlackBerry Smartphones running BlackBerry 6.1 or greater.
Unlike the traditional BlackBerry Smartphone OS which was never originally designed for touchscreens (even though RIM has now managed to make it relatively touchscreen friendly), the BlackBerry PlayBook's Tablet OS has completely been designed for touchscreen use. The best way to learn about the new homescreen experience and multitasking friendly gesture-based UI is to see it in action, so check out the video above and/or read our BlackBerry PlayBook Gestures and Navigation Tutorial.
The PlayBook's basic navigation gestures include:
Showing the homescreen - swipe up from the bottom frame onto the screen
Show the options menu within apps - swipe down from top frame
Switch between open apps - swipe left or right from the side frames
Show the status bar - diagonal wipe onto the screen from top left or right corner
Show keyboard - diagonal swipe onto the screen from the bottom left corner
Beyond the bezel gestures, the PlayBook of course includes the expected on screen gestures like swiping, pinching and dragging. You can close open apps by swiping them from the screen up to the top bezel.
After using the PlayBook for a few days, I've come to enjoy the user interface on the PlayBook, though it did take a little getting used to. It's funny - as a BlackBerry Smartphone user I'm accustomed to pushing buttons. The BlackBerry menu key and back button get a workout all day long on my Bold 9780 and Torch. The PlayBook UI has no buttons. That's even fewer than Apple's iPad, which still has the single return home button at the bottom of the device.
The bezel gestures are not exactly what I'd call intuitive - I'm pretty sure if you hand a PlayBook to somebody without first explaining how to use it they're going to get confused real quick as they attempt to swipe around the device. But once you invest a minute into learning the bezel gestures and actually use the device for a bit, they become natural. Having to push a button on the iPad to return to the homescreen seems so old school now compared to swiping up from the BlackBerry logo on the PlayBook. I really like that within apps you can always pull in the main status bar (swipe in from an angle from the top left or right corner). I was concerned at first that the PlayBook didn't have a physical button for locking screen orientation (I thought I would have to exit an app and relock it from the homescreen and then re-enter an app), but this ability to pull down the status bar means you can do this from within any app.
Arguably the most important bezel gesture on the device is also the one that's somehow the easiest to forget about, and that's the swipe down gesture from the top bezel that reveals an app's options. Swiping down from the top on the homescreen brings down the settings screen (also accessible by tapping the gear in the top right corner of the main status bar), but within apps it brings down an app's options if there are any.
Swipe down for app options!
There's a pro and a con associated with this gesture. The benefit is that it maximizes the physical size of the screen, as you're able to leave the less important items off of the main UI of the app that would take up real estate if they were always present. This helps get you more bang for the buck out of the 7" display. The problem is that you have to think about swiping down, which isn't necessarily the first thing on your mind. Seriously, I used the camera and video app for three days before I realized you could swipe down to change up the settings. Or take the calculator app for example. Calculators are typically pretty simple apps that don't really need options (they're all present on the calculator keypad buttons). Yet swiping down within the Calculator app reveals that there is also a Scientific Calculator, Unit Converter and Tip Calculator. You could easily miss these if you didn't think to swipe. Compounding this issue is that it's not a consistent implementation. For example, swiping down within App World does nothing, which almost makes you think something is missing since most other apps seem to have swipe down menus. And then you have the case of the Music app, where swiping down when on the Music App's homepage does nothing, but once you click into a section like Albums then the swipe down gesture provides navigation to jump around within the Music App. I'm not sure what the remedy to this issue is, or if it's even an issue at all (I just think it forces me to think too much, when it should be laid out in such a way that it seems natural). The main homescreen uses a little up arrow indicator letting you know you can tap up to expand the homescreen icon trays. Maybe when there's an option menu present there needs to be an indicator of some sort letting you know you can swipe down? That sort of defeats the purpose of intuitive gestures - they shouldn't need calling cards tied to them... but I don't know... it just feels like this is an area of the user experience that can still be improved.
The basic homescreen experience is pretty straight forward and does maintain some of that BlackBerry 6 feeling by introducing different views for All, Favorites, Media and Games. Moving and deleting apps is easily done from the homescreen (tap and hold to put them into a breathing/editable state). Knowing which apps are open and jumping in between them is really simple and intuitive thanks to the WebOS-like navigator area of the OS. When you tap an app open it goes full screen, but when you return to the homescreen is stays in a floating minimized view above the icon tray. Within settings you can choose if you want to leave minimized apps running, paused or active until another app goes full screen.
While there is an LED light on the PlayBook, notifications are done much more visually on the top left corner of the display itself. If you're in apps when a notification comes through the top left corner of the screen glows red and you can swipe in the notification, or if on the homescreen it's an exclamation point alert you can tap. Device settings on the PlayBook are basic, if not limited compared to the plethora of options on BlackBerry Smartphones. You can change the wallpaper but there's no themes as there are on the phones. You can't change the default font sizes (you can for the browser with in the browser app itself), etc. I'm sure a lot of this customization will get built into the operating system as RIM pushes the OS through from where it is today to get ready for QNX on BlackBerry Smartphones. App options still live within apps. So to clear your web browser cache for example, you do it within the web browser app vs. the main system settings.
Settings on the PlayBook are straight forward andbasic.
One of the things lacking from the homescreen experience that I'd still love to see implemented by RIM is the use of widgets. The BlackBerry Tablet OS homescreen experience makes opening apps and jumping between open apps very fluid and smooth, but with tablet-sized screen real estate I'd love to have the option to get my critical info at a glance from my homescreen, be it weather updates, breaking news headlines, stock quotes, etc. vs. having to open apps to retrieve that data. While that's more of a wish list item, another more critical feature that's missing is Universal Search, which I've now become spoiled with on BlackBerry 6 and am missing on the BlackBerry Tablet OS.
Also new to the setup process is checking for software updates, and if available, downloading and installing them directly during setup. I'm betting that come April 19th, the first thing new PlayBook owners will be doing is updating their OS. Luckily, this process on the PlayBook is dead simple.
Software Update during the initial setup of the PlayBook
Also in the setup process are tutorials for learning about the homescreen and how to access menus with apps. Both are important as the PlayBook's gesture-based interface does require a little education up front. The PlayBook definitely offers a much more friendly straight out of the box experience than BlackBerry Smartphones.
The PlayBook's web browser likes browsing the FULL internet.
When we ran a poll on CrackBerry recently asking readers what the top three things they planned to do with their BlackBerry PlayBook are, the #1 popular vote was Web Browsing. So how does the PlayBook's web browser standup to real world use?
Long story short, it's good, but it would definitely be better if you had a 10" PlayBook rather than a 7" one. The Tablet OS' browser is similar to the BlackBerry 6 web browser, but the Torch mobile team has pushed it much further to take advantage of the PlayBook's hardware capabilities. Unlike Apple's Safari mobile browser, the PlayBook supports Adobe Flash, and when you visit websites you typically get served up the full website and not a mobile version. Anybody who owns an iPad and has tried to watch a video from within Facebook knows it won't play - on the PlayBook you can watch them straight in the stream. And on sites like CrackBerry, where we embed a lot of youtube videos directly into blog posts, they load and play smoothly, and scale up easily to full screen viewing (tip: swipe down to return to web page view). I haven't tested out every site on the web just yet, but most seem to work quite well on PlayBook's browser, including Amazon's Cloud Player (so if you have more music than you can fit on the PlayBook you can still access it).
You also have the ability to disable flash, which is a good option to have and one you may want to put to use if you mainly visit sites that don't use flash, other than in ads. When we put the PlayBook head to head against the iPad 2 in a browser shootout (see below), we saw pretty comparable page load times but did notice on websites where there were flash-based advertisements present, this would slow down the PlayBook by a few seconds while the iPad 2 would serve up a faster loading static image. Disabling flash evened out the load times. I found an online flash test and loaded it up on the PlayBook, and had Phil do the same test on the Motorola Xoom. The PlayBook beat the Xoom, scoring 4438 and failing on the medium test (the Xoom scored 4048 and also failed on the medium test). In comparison, my computer scored 26,920 via Firefox passing with an Awesome rating. Looks like there's still room to further improve flash on tablets!
I have been finding that while having a web browser capable of browsing the full web is a good thing, it can also make for some added frustrations vs. just sucking it up and going to a mobile site or using an app, if available for that site, instead. For example, while Facebook chat works on the PlayBook's web browser (so does Farmville), I found actually using Facebook chat to be more of a challenge than its worth (I'd rather have a Facebook Chat app).
Facebook chat in the web browser - sometimes an app is better than the full web.
In the same vein, I've been wanting to upload a video from the PlayBook straight to youtube, and apparently that's something you cannot do at this time (it is pretty sweet though that the web browser does allow for attachments). The native youtube app doesn't have a built-in uploader, and when I go to the full youtube.com website on the PlayBook I can login, go to the upload page, select the video I want to upload from the PlayBook's file browser, and then nothing happens. While it may not have been working for me in youtube, the browser does support the PlayBook's built-in file browser. You can upload pictures in facebook, or send attachments via gmail (though you'll have to click back to the Basic HTML gmail app as the default mobile one that loads does not support attachments).
Accessing documents via the PlayBook's File Browser via the Web Browser.
Attaching a file via Gmail from within the web browser.
I found it interesting to see within the web browser that the old tap and hold gesture from BlackBerry 6 has carried through to the BlackBerry Tablet OS, which pops up a menu displaying options. You can tap and hold on an image to save it, or tap and hold on a link to open in a new tab, or tap and hold on paragraph text to bring up the select text cursors for copying text to the clipboard (this tap and hold gesture also works in other apps where text is present, like copying and pasting within a Word document).
I've played with the PlayBook's web browser every chance I've had since first going hands-on with it in January, and it's continually improved. That said, I think it'll just keep getting better. Right now I've noticed it seems to be a fairly slow app to load when first launched off the homescreen. I also managed to crash it a couple times (running multiple tabs, watching videos on each tab, attempting to Facebook chat in another, etc). Well, technically I don't think I crashed it, but rather that the PlayBook's web browser eats up the available device memory and when the PlayBook begins to run out of memory it begins closing apps at random (and if the browser is the only one open it'll close the one you're in). I've received the low memory alert quite a few times on the PlayBook now, and it definitely seems to occur more readily when the browser is one of my open apps and I have a couple of tabs open. I'm not sure if the browser has a memory leak or it's just a hog on memory, but hopefully RIM can clean it up a bit still. At least when it does crash there's no need for a battery pull. Props to the QNX-based OS for maintaining its stability.
One thing to be aware of with the web browser, that won't be fixed with software updates, is accidental gesturing out of the browser. In the web browser I find myself doing a lot of zooming, and when working at my normal pace that means I'm pinching in and out and scrolling fast. On quite a few occasions now that's lead to me accidentally bezel gesturing my way out of the browser and back to the homescreen, or pulling down the options menu unexpectedly. If the form factor was smaller (ie. a phone) this probably wouldn't happen as I'd be forced to really be careful with my finger tips, or if it was bigger I'd be ok as there would be more room on the display, but the PlayBook is just big enough where you're very quickly working on the screen but then if not paying attention can run your fingers off it onto the those touch-sensitive edges.
Another really strange quirk in the web browser is the fact that if you hold the device with one hand (say your left hand) and hold it in such a way that your thumb lies flat on the bezel (not touching the display, but getting close), that you can no longer scroll in the web browser. It's tripped me up a few times and is hopefully something that can be fixed with a software update, as it seems to be just within the web browser that this happens.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is a media-friendly tablet, and comes preloaded with a bunch of media apps. In true media tradition, we'll look at the majority of them in video:
Camera, Pictures and Videos
Music App and Music Store
In addition to all of the above, the PlayBook also comes pre-loaded with a basic YouTube app for browsing and watch videos, and Slacker Radio which allows for free music streaming. Unfortunately the YouTube app currently lacks an uploader, so at the time of this review I couldn't figure out a way to directly upload videos I recorded on the PlayBook to youtube.
All in all the media experience on the PlayBook is compelling thanks to the smooth touchscreen UI, bright display and nice looking apps, though it still feels a little bit empty in that without integration of core apps there's no real way to share anything. As a gmail user, if I snap a photo on the PlayBook and want to send it to a friend via email, as of right now I need to login to gmail on the web, which defaults to the mobile site which doesn't allow for attachments, so I need to click over to the Basic HTML version of gmail that supports attachments, add the photo to the email and send it. Bollocks. Native core apps can't come soon enough. The BlackBerry Smartphone OS almost has too much interconnectivity between apps and sharing options built into it, and the PlayBook has not enough. Hopefully this functionality will come soon.
In addition to capturing your own pictures and videos, or buying music on the device, you can sync the PlayBook to iTunes via Desktop Manager as you would with a phone to move content over. You can also connect your PlayBook to the computer via USB to transfer media over. Note, the PlayBook doesn't act as a USB mass storage device, but actually installs a driver onto the computer that sets it up as a network drive, which you can then connect to without a cable via WiFi (pretty cool, though also sort of annoying to not just be able to use it as a usb storage device - there may be situations where you do not want to install drivers onto a computer).
One of the areas where RIM still needs to really improve the media experience is by aiding in the ease of purchasing content directly on the device. With BlackBerry ID I can buy apps from App World. RIM needs to extend this so I can easily buy Music and Movies. Essentially, they need their own iTunes. Or if that's not in the cards anytime soon, they need to at least work more closely with partners to integrate services into a unified account/checkout process. Instead of me having to create a new account with 7 Digital Music store for buying music on the PlayBook, or with Kobo to buy books, RIM should make it so my BlackBerry ID login/credit card info works on those stores directly. Especially now that I'm forced to create a BBID at setup of the device, it should carry through and work with any services RIM chooses to offer natively. There's some irony in buying a tablet in the HD format, but not being able to buy and download a movie directly on it.
BlackBerry Bridge and Native Email, PIM, and BBM
Pairing your BlackBerry Smartphone to the PlayBook unveils the Bridge Apps
For people who own both a BlackBerry Smartphone and a BlackBerry PlayBook, the BlackBerry Bridge provides a set of additional apps on the PlayBook that allow you to interact with many of the core native apps on the BlackBerry Smartphone, including email, calendar, contacts, BlackBerry Messenger and more (no SMS app at this time to send texts from your phone via your PlayBook, though I'm told they could technically build one).
The connection between the two devices is made wirelessly via Bluetooth. When the Bridge connection is active, the PlayBook acts as an external terminal for the BlackBerry Smartphone - both displaying your phone's data on the PlayBook and allowing you to enter data on your phone from the tablet via the PlayBook's bridge apps. These apps have been enhanced to make use of the tablet's touchscreen and larger screen real estate. No data is actually ever stored on the PlayBook - the PlayBook simply acts as window to the BlackBerry Smartphone. You can almost think of it as Go To My PC for your BlackBerry Smartphone (or RIM's version of Palm's Foleo, if you remember that).
Viewing email on the PlayBook via the BlackBerry Bridge Email App
If that still sounds confusing, the best thing to do is visualize it with an example. With the BlackBerry Bridge connected, you can have your BlackBerry Smartphone in your pocket or purse but be emailing and BBMing to your heart's content from the PlayBook in your hands. The phone in your pocket is actually still doing the sending and receiving of emails and BBMs back and forth to RIM's servers via your phone's carrier connection, but it feels as if it's happening from the PlayBook directly.
Only last night did I receive a software update on my PlayBook that enabled an almost-complete version BlackBerry Bridge (it was missing BBM and file attachments - will do up a new video once I get a final version of Bridge). Enabling the Bridge definitely added an extra feeling of fullness and life to the BlackBerry PlayBook. Until I hooked up the bridge, the only notification icons I saw on the PlayBook were for bad things (low battery life, low memory). With Bridge now hooked up, my PlayBook started to feel like a true BlackBerry device, with a notification light that calls out to me when I have an incoming message. There's definitely lag in using the Bridge apps, but I wouldn't call them entirely slow. They'd be much faster if native though, and the fact that the Bridge apps fill up the PlayBook's screen so nicely just make me wish they were native. I was hoping enabling the Bridge might also add more connectivity and sharing options throughout the OS, like being able to send photo via email directly from the photos app, but that appears not to be the case. Once the initial Bridge has been made, the Bridge menu option and Bridge apps are permanently placed on the homescreen - disconnecting the Bridge doesn't remove the Bridge apps, it just grays them out. Tapping on an inactive Bridge app will actually restart the Bridge and open the app. That being the case, it actually does a very good job of simulating the feeling of native email and PIM apps on the PlayBook. Assuming your BlackBerry is always with you (which it usually is), and you keep Bluetooth enabled on your phone and tablet, the experience feels almost, but not quite, native.
Why No Native Email, Calendar, Contacts, BBM on the BlackBerry PlayBook? RIM has christened the BlackBerry PlayBook as The First Professional Grade Tablet. To be able to lay claim to that title and to get to market sooner rather than later, RIM has to ensure the BlackBerry PlayBook is secure. The BlackBerry Smartphone and traditional BlackBerry Operating System (as found in phones) are trusted and battle tested by enterprise. For the past decade they have proven their security. The BlackBerry Tablet OS is built upon the QNX operating system, not the traditional BlackBerry Operating System found in phones. While RIM is working hard to secure up QNX and to hook the PlayBook up directly to RIM's servers (and as discussed above also needs to deal with the issue of multiple pins working together for one user), the quickest way for RIM to create a secure environment on their tablet was to piggy back on the security of the phones. Because none of the critical BlackBerry Bridge data is actually stored on the PlayBook or transmitted to servers directly from the PlayBook, the device is as secure as BlackBerry Smartphones since the paired BlackBerry Smartphone is the secure tunnel connection back to RIM from the PlayBook. So in enterprise, the PlayBook represents the best of both worlds - all of the security of BlackBerry Smartphones combined with the benefits of the tablet form factor and new operating system. RIM has already said that native email, PIM, BlackBerry Messenger, etc. support will come to the PlayBook, but in the meantime the BlackBerry Bridge allows them to get into market quickly and securely. For consumers however, especially those who don't have a BlackBerry Smartphone to bridge to, it means you're going to be stuck using webmail via the web browser for the time being, or hopefully some third party developers will build some apps. The good news is that once native email and PIM support is rolled out by RIM, it should be made available to all PlayBooks, even the WiFi-only versions, via a software update. Here's to hoping that happens asap.
The WiFi only version of the BlackBerry PlayBook does not have a cellular radio in it like a smartphone does. When you are out of a WiFi zone, the tablet has no data connection. Internet tethering is a mode of connectivity that allows the BlackBerry PlayBook to make use of/share another mobile device's data connection. The connection is made between the PlayBook and other mobile device via Bluetooth. The PlayBook can tether via any mobile device that supports Bluetooth tethering via the dial up networking protocol. It does not have to be a BlackBerry Smartphone. Once tethered, the PlayBook can now run applications that require data, including the web browser.
Tethering the PlayBook to my Bold 9780 was a pretty simple process as demonstrated in the video above. The speed for web browsing is OK, but not super fast. At least with full multi-tasking you can leave the web browser while a page is loading, do something else for a few seconds, and come back to it when it's done.
Productivity Apps & Presenter Mode
The premium versions of Word, Sheet and Slideshow To Go are included FREE on the PlayBook
As the First Professional Grade Tablet you'd expect to be able to get some work done on the PlayBook, and RIM has included premium versions of Word To Go, Sheet To Go, and Slideshow To Go on the device, as well as Adobe Reader. Heck, I guess we could even consider the Calculator, Weather and Clock apps to be productivity apps too (click the links to see a video of each one).
Presenter Mode is an awesome feature on the PlayBook which allows you to deliver presentations from your BlackBerry via the HDMI output. Rather than the external display just mirroring what's on the tablet, you can actually put your PowerPoint presentation or videos onto the external display and then continue to use the tablet. You can even jump seamlessly between video and PowerPoint. Check out the video below to see it in action!
BlackBerry App World, 3rd Party Apps, and Apps on Android
BlackBerry App World on the BlackBerry PlayBook
Installing apps onto the BlackBerry PlayBook is done directly via BlackBerry App World which comes preinstalled on the device (see video above). At launch RIM says there will be over 3,000 tablet apps in App World for the PlayBook, which is more tablet-specific apps than both Apple and Android had at the launch of their tablets. As I write this review prior to the release of the device I don't think the full 3,000 have been made public yet (it's up to individual companies to publish their apps as live), so hopefully come launch day the selection of PlayBook apps will be larger and more enticing than what I have experienced so far. The App World app itself is really nice, and the process of downloading, installing, and deleting apps is straight forward. You can check out the video below to see it in action. One thing I have to admit I found funny with App World on the PlayBook was Support. If you click the Support button on any app page, you'll get the developer's name and email address. Unfortunately, with no native email support you can't do anything with it. You literally have to copy it down on paper so you don't forget it, then go to your email and type it in. Not cool.
Browsing through App World on the PlayBook so far it's mainly games that I have come across, and to be dead honest most have been not very good (I'd say two are acceptable for every 10 downloaded - a few were so bad they made me laugh out loud). From what I can tell, most of the apps currently in the catalog look to be web flash games that individuals have ported over via the Adobe Air SDK. Hopefully once the Native Development Kit gets released we should see the quality of apps and games improve. Need For Speed Undercover, which comes pre-installed for free on the PlayBook along with Tetris, was built on the NDK and looks great! (see video).
While the world does seem to be obsessed about the quantity of apps in an app store, I'm personally more concerned about the handful of critical apps that matter to me and I'm sure most of you reading this have your own handful of must-have apps too. Amazon announced previously they would be building a Kindle app for the PlayBook - I don't see it in App World as of now but hopefully it's there soon. No sign of Angry Birds yet, but hopefully the folks at Rovio will do it up for the PlayBook.
RIM let us know that the following companies are working on PlayBook apps (this doesn't mean they'll necessarily be there at launch, but they will be announcing/releasing PlayBook apps sooner rather than later):
Adobe Connect & Lifecycle, Airplay, Atari, BoxTone, Cerner Corporation, Digital Chocolate, EA, eBay, EpixHD, Evernote, FGL, Fortune, Gameloft, Globe & Mail, HFMUS - Car and Driver magazine, Huffington Post, Loblaws, Mattel, MediaFly, OpenText Everywhere, Post Media, Salesforce.com - Chatter, ScoreMedia (ScoreMobile), Slacker Radio, Sports Illustrated, Telicost (Anomalous Networks), The Weather Channel, The Weather Network, Time, Unity3D
Seeing Atari, EA and Gameloft on the lists should mean for some solid PlayBook games, as does the fact RIM announced support for AirPlay and Unity, which are leading game engines. RIM also announced recently that support for Android Apps is coming to the BlackBerry PlayBook. We're still curious to see how Android apps will run and play on the PlayBook and what sort of ongoing impact this is going to have on the BlackBerry app ecosystem moving ahead. BlackBerry World is coming up the beginning of May, where we should get our first glimpse of the Android App Player on the PlayBook. In addition to support for Android apps, RIM will also be putting an App Player on the PlayBook for existing BlackBerry Smartphone apps.
I was really hoping RIM's offer of free PlayBooks to developers who submitted PlayBook apps to App World would result in 50,000 awesome apps for launch day on the 19th. It doesn't look like that quite happened, but hopefully once the PlayBook hits store shelves and developers take a look at the device we'll start seeing more pickup on the app front.
BlackBerry Desktop Manager
BlackBerry Desktop Manager does work with the BlackBerry PlayBook, allowing you to make Backups of your device (application data, settings, media) and to sync over Music, Pictures and Videos from your computer. I'm sure once we see core apps hit the PlayBook you'll be able to back those up too. A nice feature here is that you can actually continue to use your PlayBook while files are syncing over.
BlackBerry PlayBook Software Update
One of the most complicated processes on BlackBerry Smartphones has always been the procedure for upgrading software. On the PlayBook it's a straightforward and simple process. You check for updates, and if there are any, you download them and hit install. You can watch the video above to see the process in action.
I'm guessing the simplicity and control RIM has over the update process means we won't see any leaked OS's hitting file sharing sites anytime soon. I also can't help but wonder what happens if somebody manages to brick their device. The QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS does seem pretty stable, but I'm sure somebody in our CrackBerry community will figure out how to brick one. If you brick it, can you fix it yourself by reloading the OS via a computer, or do you have to send it back to RIM? With such a new platform it's going to be interesting to see what pops up in the CrackBerry Forums surrounding it. I wonder if the hacker community is going to be able to jailbreak or root the PlayBook? Interesting times ahead for sure.
Overall BlackBerry Tablet OS Impressions
After a few days of BlackBerry Tablet OS on the PlayBook, here's where I'm at:
Stability and Peformance: From a stability and performance standpoint, I've been quite happy with the BlackBerry Tablet OS on the BlackBerry PlayBook. If you think about all of the historic gripes we've had with the traditional BlackBerry OS on Blackberry Smartphones, the BlackBerry Tablet OS solves them all. The OS seems very stable. After six days of abuse there's been no need for a battery pull, not that you could pull it if you had to. I have had a couple of apps crash on me, but again, the OS itself hasn't skipped a beat when that's happened. Apps can be installed onto storage memory and there's no need to reboot after installing or deleting apps. I can download and install multiple apps at once from App World and still do other things on the device at the same time, and can still use the device while syncing files from Desktop Manager. The OS upgrade process is super smooth, and it won't wipe out app settings after upgrading. Likewise, memory management seems to be well taken care of. Running low on memory doesn't slow down the user experience (though they should just add more memory or fix the memory leak so low memory isn't an issue!). It prompts you to close apps or it closes them for you, but the actual operating system just keeps humming along nice and smooth. It runs Flash in the web browser. For all these reasons, I'm going to do a happy dance the day I can buy a BlackBerry Smartphone running BlackBerry 7 built on the QNX Platform. It's clear that QNX has some serious capabilities.
User Experience - From a user experience standpoint, I'm less sold on the BlackBerry Tablet OS than I'd like to be. Part of this is due more to the size of the PlayBook's display than anything else - at 600 pixels tall when held in landscape you just don't have a lot of pixels to work within the web browser, or in apps where the keyboard is displayed which takes up half the screen. It doesn't kill the experience, but it certainly makes the experience less enjoyable than it would be if you had a larger display. And while it took a little getting used to, I personally enjoy the gesture-based navigation. But I'm a 30-year old wannabe techy (who acts like he's 19 most of the time). My main concern here is that between the bezel gestures and multi-tasking homescreen there's a lot going on. It's a bit "gadgety" for lack of a better word. One of the reasons Apple's iOS products are so successful is that people of all ages, literally from 2 to 92, can figure them out quickly with little frustration. Gadgets are cool and can sell based on some sexy features, and the PlayBook does have some very sexy features, but easy to use is what makes for happy customers. My mom's in her sixties, and being the proud mother that she is, she wants a PlayBook. The thing is, I know she could figure out an iPad. I'm not convinced she would have as easy a time on the PlayBook. I could be completely wrong on this, and I'll guess we'll know soon when she gets a PlayBook. Regardless, I still have the feeling that RIM has too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to designing the BlackBerry user experience on its devices (BlackBerry 6 gave me the same feeling - they added a layer of complication to the OS instead of simplifying it).
Functionality (and lack thereof) - As for functionality, what's actually on the BlackBerry Tablet OS is really quite good - the web browser, the media apps, the multitasking prowess, the crazy Bluetooth mouse control, and heck, even the calculator app that I'm in love with... they all offer really pleasant experiences and run smooth. Where things take a turn for the worse is when looking at what's lacking. I had hoped not having native email and PIM apps at launch wouldn't be **that big** of a deal, but it definitely compromises the experience. It's tripped me up several times now, like when I forgot my password for Kobo Books and had to send an email from within the Kobo app to reset it. Instead of seeing the message arrive in my inbox and tapping the reset link, instead I had to open the web browser and login to gmail (I didn't have Bridge at the time, which would have solved this issue... assuming you own a BlackBerry phone) and access it from there. On a mobile device in the year 2011, that's just annoying. Furthermore, the presence of email and PIM apps when the BlackBerry Bridge is active makes you realize just how empty the device feels without those core apps present and connected. The thing is, while the BlackBerry Bridge is cool value-added feature and does make the PlayBook feel much more alive and connected, it comes across as more of a stopgap band aid solution that will go away once RIM gets core apps running native on the QNX OS and gets BlackBerry ID managing multiple devices. The concept of what Bridge is and how it works isn't simple for the average person to grasp, and while it does seem like it should work ok, the inherent lag of the Bluetooth connection means I'd personally rather just handle these tasks on my phone directly or on a computer. Also lacking from the Tablet OS experience right now is any sort of interconnectedness between applications. RIM is always talking about "super apps" on BlackBerry Smartphones, and how part of that definition is the integration of the app throughout the device experience. Beyond super apps, the BlackBerry Smartphone OS itself is extremely connected. Every app connects to every other app wherever it makes sense to. The BlackBerry Tablet OS is currently the complete opposite. Every app runs in its own silo. I haven't come across one instance yet where an app talks to another app. I think this is an attribute of the QNX platform (it keeps things secure so no single app can affect another app or crash the system), but someway somehow RIM is going to have to get apps talking to each other if they want to deliver a compelling user experience. As for the app situation on the PlayBook, from what I've seen so far there's still a long way to go.
BlackBerry PlayBook Closing Thoughts
So did the BlackBerry PlayBook hit the ball straight out of the park? Not quite. To me it's looking more like a line drive and an easy run in to second base. But you never know. With some hustle in the form of software updates adding more features like native email, PIM and Video Chat, it might be able to round third. And if RIM can get some more momentum going for the PlayBook on the app front, be it from native BlackBerry app developers or its support for Android apps, it might even have a shot at sliding into home plate.
As a BlackBerry fan and somebody who wants to see RIM hit nothing but pure homeruns, I'm of course a little choked up over the PlayBook's first at bat performance. There's no doubt it has some raw talent and killer moves that are going to attract some fans and loud cheers from the crowd (including me of course), but to be a real superstar it's going to have to mature a little more and roundout its skill set. A little more practice time in the batting cage before stepping out on the field may have been the call to make on this one (as in waiting until native email and core app integration were complete before hitting the market).
But honestly, overall I'm more excited than ever about the future of BlackBerry. While the BlackBerry Tablet OS is still a work in progress as RIM works like mad through a major transition, it's showing HUGE potential. The PlayBook as it'll launch on April 19th doesn't fully reflect the potential of RIM's superstar team just yet, but I'm still confident they'll get things into championship form. Of course, the competition won't sit around waiting for RIM to catch up, so RIM is going to have to hustle double time if they want to win another World Series!
BlackBerry PlayBook Summary
Smaller tablet form factor makes the PlayBook more portable for everyday use
Well-built hardware with solid specs, great display
QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS solves all of the historical complaints of the BlackBerry Phone OS - feels like a modern OS and a solid base platform for RIM to build off of for the future
Smooth UI and gesture-based navigation, very fast device experience
Intuitive multitasking - fast and easy to jump between apps
Flash support in the browser allows you to experience the full web
Smaller form factor means a 7" display which makes some activites less enjoyable than they could be on a bigger display (ie. web browsing)
Tiny flush-mounted power button is annoying to use
BlackBerry Tablet OS is still young and has many gaps that need to be filled in which currently takeaway from the overall experience:
Lack of native email and core PIM apps negatively impacts the overall user experience
Lack of integration between apps is the opposite of the BlackBerry "super apps" philosophy
Lack of everyday expected features - autocorrect text, universal search, youtube video upload
Too many accounts required to buy media content from pre-loaded apps -- App World for Apps, 7Digital for Music, Kobo for Books -- and no way to buy movies directly on the device. Needs a more unified content purchasing experience.
Overall user experience feels a little more complicated than it should be - swiping down for app options seems to be an easy gesture to forget about
Currently a lack of quality apps in App World for the PlayBook
Low Memory notification is not cool!
Head to the store come April 19th and try a BlackBerry PlayBook out for yourself. If you like the size of the device and feel of the BlackBerry Tablet OS, it may be the tablet for you, especially if you plan to use it mainly for web browsing, media consumption, and if you own a BlackBerry, to take advantage of the Bridge functionality. Just keep in mind it's a new device on a new platform, which means it's missing some things at launch, as noted in this review, that will likely become available with time via software updates and a growing app catalog.
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