A Hands-On Pre-Release Review of the BlackBerry PlayBook

BlackBerry PlayBook

I've FINALLY gone hands-on with the BlackBerry PlayBook and thus it's time for me to report back with my initial review and impressions of Research In Motion's first tablet device featuring the all-new QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS. The time I had to prep this post to go live for the embargo was tight and we'll have even more opportunities throughout CES to play with the PlayBook, so I'm going to keep this initial review as concise as possible and we'll likely add to it over the days ahead. Oh, and as for those questions of pricing and release date, those are still TBA, though RIM is still sticking to their Q1 release which means you'll be able to buy a PlayBook before the end of March.

This isn't just another new BlackBerry we're talking about here... the PlayBook is ALL new for RIM. Suffice to say, the way too long review will be coming once we log some real hours on it. But in the meantime, we still have a lot to say (hint: it's pretty awesome!!), so start reading!

BlackBerry PlayBook Technical Specifications and Features

BlackBerry PlayBook

If you're not familiar with what the BlackBerry PlayBook is packing for heat, here's the quick recap of its key features and specs:

  • 7" LCD, 1024 x 600, WSVGA, capacitive touch screen with full multi-touch and gesture support
  • BlackBerry Tablet OS with support for symmetric multiprocessing
  • 1 GHz dual-core processor (Cortex A9 Processor), w/ GPU
  • 1 GB RAM
  • Memory: 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions to be available
  • 5300mAh battery
  • Dual HD cameras (3 MP front facing, 5 MP rear facing), supports 1080p HD video recording
  • Video playback: 1080p HD Video, H.264, MPEG, DivX, WMV
  • Audio playback: MP3, AAC, WMA
  • HDMI video output
  • Wi-Fi - 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • Connectors: microHDMI, microUSB, charging contacts
  • Open, flexible application platform with support for WebKit/HTML-5, Adobe Flash Player 10.1, 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)
  • Additional features and specifications of the BlackBerry PlayBook will be shared on or before the date this product is launched in retail outlets.
  • RIM intends to also offer 3G and 4G models in the future.
Unlike BlackBerry Smartphones where RIM has typically been a bit behind the ball in terms of technical specs, with the BlackBerry PlayBook they're much more positioned on the leading edge of hardware. The dual-core processor makes for a SNAPPY user experience.

BlackBerry PlayBook Hands-On Videos

Before personally getting to hold and go hands-on with the BlackBerry PlayBook for the first time, we got a nice tour of the BlackBerry PlayBook by Ryan Bidan, who is the Sr. Product Manager on the BlackBerry PlayBook team for RIM. Check out the video below:

After Ryan walked us through the PlayBook, it was my turn to touch it. Seriously, I'm not sure I've ever been so excited to play with a new gadget before.  It was a bit overwhelming... even though I was prepped for the event, I went a bit blank. I didn't know where to begin! Ahh well, you can see the excitement for yourself below:

After the videos above we're recorded and my excited hands calmed down, I spent some more time on the PlayBook getting to know it and experience its, for lack of a better word, pure awesomeness. 

BlackBerry PlayBook First Impressions

BlackBerry PlayBook
Yes, it really is a BlackBerry!

My first impression of the BlackBerry PlayBook is that it does not feel like a BlackBerry. Don't get me wrong, it still has a BlackBerry look and familiarity about it, and the hardware has that quality BlackBerry feel, but the second I touched the screen with my index finger I could tell this was really a NEW BlackBerry. When I think back to all of the BlackBerry Smartphones I have owned since my first BlackBerry 7290 (old blue), every one of them has largely delivered the same experience. Within BlackBerry 6 was OS 5, and within 5 was 4.5 and within 4.5 was 4.2, etc. While the graphics got prettier, the camera megapixels went up and the experience got snappier (and on some devices slower), it was largely the same BlackBerry experience. The good things were always good about BlackBerry and the bad things were always bad about BlackBerry (random lag, not being able to install apps on flash memory, etc. etc.).

The PlayBook is different. There is no longer any BlackBerry baggage of the past. RIM got 10 years out of the old BlackBerry OS and they're setting up this QNX-based OS for the next ten years of BlackBerry. It's still in its infancy, and there are a lot of things in the works and still to come (we'll get into that below), but RIM's future is looking much brighter now in my opinion. To me there's no doubt that the QNX-based OS will make its way into BlackBerry phones. I hope RIM can make that happen on the next generation of phone hardware to hit the market, but I digress. We're talking PlayBook here!

BlackBerry PlayBook Hardware and Performance

Overall, after having used the BlackBerry PlayBook I'm wayyy more excited for it than I was prior. Though I detest the iPhone for use as my primary mobile device (I've tried it, I hate it... too inefficient for me for what I do with a phone when it's in my hand 90% of the time), I also own an Apple iPad which I really enjoy using (especially for killing time on flights). Steve Jobs' comments of 7" isn't big enough for a tablet had me worried that RIM went the wrong direction with the PlayBook and that they should have started out with a 10" model. I now think going 7" was a smart starting point for RIM though - the PlayBook is portable.

BlackBerry PlayBook BlackBerry PlayBook
BlackBerry PlayBook BlackBerry PlayBook
I'm starting to think 7" is a good thing

It fits in my coat pocket and is light enough that I'll actually carry it around with me on a daily basis. When I walk out of the house, I'll toss my Bold 9780 in my front pocket, and my PlayBook in my coat pocket. The iPad just sits around my home (where it doesn't get used that much as I have computers and laptops around) until I'm going somewhere like a trip where I then pack it into a backpack.

A BlackBerry Smartphone in my front jean's pocket and PlayBook in coat pocket will fill out my
hierarchy of mobile needs nicely!!!

For a person who wants an uncompromising mobile experience (filling out both the top and bottom of CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs), I think the combination of BlackBerry Smartphone + BlackBerry PlayBook will be hard to beat. The BlackBerry Smartphone maintains its status as that uber-efficient communication tool (get sh!t done fast), while the PlayBook becomes that ultimate killing time device BUT ALSO an extension for my BlackBerry in the form of a bigger screen. Let's look at some of the hardware specifics.

BlackBerry PlayBook Exterior/Build Quality - The BlackBerry PlayBook really does feel just awesome in the hands. It's not too heavy, not too light, not too small, not too big, it really is just right. BlackBerry has always had a knack for making their phones feel nice to hold, and they've done the same with the PlayBook. The back of the PlayBook has a nice rubber-touch finish to it that makes it easy to grip (not slippery at all). There are very few buttons on the whole device, which is very un-BlackBerry like but works with the BlackBerry Tablet OS experience. In using the PlayBook I actually found myself initially looking for that home button at the bottom like on the iPad, but instead RIM uses a gesture to bring you back home (only took a few seconds to get used to that). The device definitely has a quality feel about it. I think on BlackBerry phones the sheer number of buttons (keyboard, convenience keys, menu/back keys, etc. etc.) could sometimes give off a feeling of plastic-ness that could come across as cheapness, but the PlayBook is a lot more like a solid object. The lack of a removable battery door also lends to that feeling.

BlackBerry PlayBook BlackBerry PlayBook
BlackBerry PlayBook BlackBerry PlayBook
BlackBerry PlayBook BlackBerry PlayBook
A tour around the BlackBerry PlayBook's Hardware

Processors / Performance - The BlackBerry PlayBook is seriously snappy, thanks to its dual core processor, and seems to be very stable, thanks to its QNX OS. Unlike the traditional BlackBerry OS, which tends to have a bit of a glass jaw (it's fast until something glitches or hangs up), you can tell the QNX OS has a stableness about it. The PlayBook I went hands-on with was still running some unfinished apps, but you could tell any glitches weren't going to slow things down or cause a hiccup. I have a lot of faith RIM will be able to deliver a super polished user experience with the PlayBook and new OS. Again, this isn't a BlackBerry Smartphone where we sometimes need to wait for a couple OS updates to leak out before things get rocking - with this OS we're starting a lot further ahead to begin with and further improvements are going to make it that much better. 

Touchscreen Display - The 1024 x 600 display looks really great. Colors are bright. CrackBerry.com looked stellar when loaded up in the web browser. The touchscreen performance is EXCELLENT. Super smooth, super fast. It's very iPhone/iPad like in terms of the feeling of use. It doesn't feel like it's translating your finger's touch into an input and then moving the display - it feels like it moves with you. Part of this smoothness must come from the GPU on the processor, and it sounds like RIM is going to open that up to developers as well to take advantage of. It should make for a great UI experience everywhere. The gesture areas outside of the display work smoothly as well. Would a bigger display/device be better? Hard to say... if you think about the existing BlackBerry operating system, I'd argue that the bigger the display, the more enjoyable the BBOS experience is and with a lot more screen space you can do more with apps. But I do think the 7" experience on the PlayBook is REALLY awesome. I could see it being even better if RIM builds a bigger tablet down the road (which I'm sure they will - just look at how many form factors they have for their phones). But tablets are definitely different than phones. Once a tablet is too big too carry, then it almost makes sense to just go as big as you can. I think the PlayBook really fits that take it with you everywhere you go niche better than the iPad. So a bigger RIM tablet would come at that expense of ease of mobility. 

Can you use the BlackBerry in portrait mode? That's been a hot question these past couple of months as RIM has only ever shown off the device in landscape. Currently they have not enabled portrait mode, but it will be there and there will be detection for orientation switches and movement. I really want to see it in portrait.

Battery Life - RIM is targeting 8 hours of battery life with the PlayBook (I'm **assuming** based on video playback), so it should have plenty of power to get people through a day or two or three of normal type use between charges.

Memory - The PlayBook will be available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB configurations and.... wait for it.... all of that memory is shared! So if you want to, you could use it all for apps, apps, apps if you want to, or music, movies, etc.

Keyboard - There's no physical keyboard on the PlayBook (I wonder if RIM will ever make a tablet with a sliding form factor and physical keyboard?! :)) but the few seconds I spent typing on the software keyboard went pretty smooth. Being able to pull out the keyboard with a gesture is sweet as well.

Everything Else - In the limited time we had with the PlayBook, it's pretty hard to get into too much detail on it, but everything seems to be in check. WiFi was working well for our web browsing, and the camera seemed to be snappy and grab a decent photo. All in all, it's looking real good!

BlackBerry Tablet OS First Impressions

BlackBerry PlayBook BlackBerry PlayBook
Un-BlackBerry like, yet still familiar

I'm liking the BlackBerry Tablet OS a lot. At first glance, it does seems a bit non-BlackBerry. If the PlayBook didn't have any branding on it and you handed it to somebody and told them to use it, I'm not sure if they would even realize it was a BlackBerry device. The touchscreen is silky smooth and really built for a touchscreen experience. The multi-tasking card/app metaphor should remind people of the Palm Web OS homescreen experience, though Palm's re-launch with Palm WebOS gained so little traction among the mass consumer audience that I'm not sure it's even relevant to compare it to that - people will just accept the PlayBook as having a new BlackBerry homescreen.

Traditional BlackBerry influences to do start to appear after a few seconds though. The homescreen maintains the "views" that are in BlackBerry 6, and icons have that BlackBerry feel about them. When you open an app, like the web browser, then things feel very berry again - the web browser has the same sort of look and feel to it as it does in BlackBerry 6, except of course for the fact that on the PlayBook it runs flash and seems to be super duper fast. There are lot of little touch points that look promising and I'll need more time on the PlayBook to really explore them all. Tapping the gear icon in the top right corner of the display brings up device options, which seem very logically laid out. Tapping the date on the homescreen pullls down a calendar - a very nice touch. 

BlackBerry PlayBook BlackBerry PlayBook
The browser rocks! I like the little calendar drop down

Tapping around the PlayBook, opening apps, using the gestures, the keyboard, using native apps and utilities like the camera, etc., really made for an enjoyable experience. It's definitely a different feeling though for me. I am SO USED to the traditional BlackBerry experience that any departure from it seems abnormal, and the PlayBook is definitely different. But it seems to be different in a good way. Having used most smartphone platforms a decent amount (iOS, Android, Palm Web OS, etc.), you almost get a feeling that the PlayBook has a bit of all of them in it. It'll take some getting used to, but it seems very complimentary to the existing BlackBerry operating system. I'll be curious to see how the homescreen experience feels in portrait. I have a feeling it'll feel a bit cramped in comparison to landscape mode, especially for the sliding card apps, but I could be wrong there. While Ryan didn't have too many details to share with us on this, it does sound like the PlayBook/Tablet OS experience will offer at least some homescreem experience customization. I'm not sure we'll see theming to the extent we have on BlackBerry Smartphones, but hopefully there'll be enough customization offered that themers will be able to put their talents to use on the PlayBook as well.

I was hoping to see more of the talked about BlackBerry PlayBook/BlackBerry Smartphone syncing in action today, but that wasn't shown to us just yet. It could be still under construction, but will be there for launch. Pairing your BlackBerry to your PlayBook is going to allow your PlayBook to really be used as an extension of your phone. This is great for both enterprise and for individuals. For enterprise, it maintains security and for consumers, it's like having a monitor for your BlackBerry. We'll definitely dive more into this in our next hands-on.

** Update: We were able to see the pairing in action the next day at the BlackBerry booth at CES:

The paired BlackBerry Smartphone/PlayBook experience allows you to use your PlayBook as a big screen for your BlackBerry phone. The BlackBerry bridge is carried out via bluetooth, and the means for pairing is really simple. You'll download a BlackBerry Bridge app onto your phone from App World. On your tablet, you'll tap the options icon on the top right corner of the PlayBook (the gear) and from there will be an option to display a barcode. You'll scan the barcode of your PlayBook with your BlackBerry and that will pair the two devices. From there, you can run BlackBerry Messenger, your calendar, emails (and maybe more??) from your PlayBook. Check out the video above to see it in action! (note, we do the BBM pairing at the very end).

Apps. That's the big thing here. I have no doubt that the native BlackBerry PlayBook experience is going to be awesome. The hardware rocks, the homescreen experience is cool, and the user experience is fluid, fast, silky and smooth. It'll be a great device out of the box. But these days it's about expanding the out of the box experience with apps, apps, apps. With a web browser that embraces flash, the need for a lot of apps goes away. In the Apple world people tend to look for an app instead of a website. That lack of support drove a need for apps. So immediately the PlayBook's support of flash allows for flash games, etc. to be played. That said, RIM is still going to need a BIG app catalog in order to be considered as a top player in the smartphone/mobile game for years to come. It looks like they're doing the right things here by making it easy for developers to port over apps to the PlayBook and by giving plenty of options in developing for it. Off the bat it seems to about pulling in flash apps and turning them into PlayBook apps, but it seems pretty clear that RIM is going to support everything.  Given a few months time, it's going to be a no brainer for every decent app on other platforms to be pulled over to BlackBerry. So I really think we'll see some huge numbers fairly quick on app count. It may not bad that mobile developers build for BlackBerry first (although I'm sure thousands will), but it should be a no brainer for them to also build their app for BlackBerry. That should lead to a big app catalog and a lot of quality apps. Interesting to note is that it sounds like RIM is only going to allow apps to be installed onto the PlayBook via App World. At least at launch. Hopefully they'll extend this functionality so other app vendors (like the CrackBerry App Store!) can also offer free and paid PlayBook apps. On the gaming front, the BlackBerry PlayBook should live up to to the play in its name - with its awesome processor and support for 3D graphics, the PlayBook will be a gaming machine which is something that has never been said about BlackBerry before.

All in all, things are looking solid on the BlackBerry PlayBook. We'll have a lot more to say once we have a chance to spend more time on it.

Concluding BlackBerry PlayBook Thoughts for Now 

BlackBerry PlayBook > Apple iPad
I like my iPad, but have a feeling I'm going to LOVE my PlayBook

My brain was in ga ga land while playing with the PlayBook for the first time. Now that I'm writing this intial review, a million more little questions are popping up that I want to address. We'll have more time to play with the PlayBook throughout the week, so you'll want to stay tuned for our follow-up posts. If you have questions, be sure to let us know in the comments.

RIM is really introducing two products with the PlayBook. A new operating system, and new hardware in a different sector. There's a lot of new-ness here. It definitely feels like they're doing the right things. The hardware has great specs and the operating system is fast and stable already which means it's only going to get better as it's refined and more and more features get added.

It's a new race for BlackBerry, and with the PlayBook they've come out of the starting gate sprinting.

Related BlackBerry PlayBook Links

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