An Overview of the BlackBerry Playbook
The OS is QNX and the hardware is, of course, the BlackBerry PlayBook. It's an enterprise-friendly offering that's also out to conquer the consumer tablet ecosphere, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the BlackBerry handsets that have filled the pockets of corporate executives and BBM addicts around the globe.
It's something of a serious tablet when compared to the competition running software from Apple and Google and, while it certainly has games, its biggest strengths are rather more boring. It does a really great job at displaying PowerPoint presentations, for example, and has the security chops to keep last quarter's dismal sales figures from falling into the wrong hands. Exciting stuff? No, but useful features for sure, and regardless of whether you find those intriguing or boring this is RIM's seven-inch, Flash-having but 3G-lacking tablet clad in an unassuming but extremely sophisticated exterior. It's what's running behind the glass that disappoints.
The black PlayBook, with its angular edges and dark styling, looks decidedly nondescript, more likely to open up a wormhole somewhere in orbit around Jupiter than leap into someone's hands at retail. Only the chrome logo 'round the back adds some flare, with the word "BlackBerry" subtly embossed below the display on the front. The chassis is cool metal, ever so slightly rubberized, the edges squared off, and there is absolutely no flex or give anywhere. It feels perfectly solid and doesn't yield to any attempted contortions, despite being just 0.4-inches thick -- less than a tenth thicker than an iPad 2. At 0.9 pounds, it's considerably lighter, but a bit heavier than the .83 pound Galaxy Tab.
Debate about the perfect tablet size rages on, but we have to say the slightly smallish factor here creates a device that's comfortable to roam with. The light weight certainly makes it easier for reading and the more hand-friendly size makes it feel more comfortable to carry. That size, plus the dark coloring, makes this slate a bit less obvious than much of the competition, which is certainly part of its understated charm.
Up top are four buttons, the only physical controls to be found: volume up, volume down, play/pause, and an unfortunately small power button that's flush with the chassis. It's impossible to find by feel and, once located, difficult to activate. You can't really hit it without using a fingernail and even then it requires a lot of pressure to modulate. Plus, it's located centrally on top of the device, exactly where your fingers likely aren't. BlackBerry PlayBook vs. iPad 2
It sounds crazy, but this is, hands-down, the worst part of the hardware. Think about how often you use the power button on your phone to toggle the screen and then imagine having to stab really hard at it with a fingernail instead. It's hugely frustrating and, while you can turn the screen on by swiping all the way from bezel-to-bezel, even on this seven-incher that's a bit ornery -- and there's no way other than the power button to disable the screen.
A five megapixel camera peeks out the back, while a three megapixel unit handles front-facing duties. That one is tucked under the glass and situated just above the seven-inch, 1,024 x 600 display that will threaten neither rods nor cones when on maximum brightness. It does, however, deliver great clarity and excellent viewing angles.
Hidden away on the bottom are three ports: micro-HDMI, micro-USB, and a proprietary three-prong charging connector for use when the thing settles down in its docking cradle or gets cozy with the optional external adapter -- charging at twice the rate of micro-USB. Up top there's one more hole, a humble 3.5mm headphone jack, but if you look closely you'll also spot stereo speaker grilles cut into either side of the glass.
Running the show is a dual-core, 1GHz TI OMAP processor that's expertly massaged and manipulated by the QNX OS here. QNX is a decidedly efficient and bulletproof operating system that powers everything from jet fighters to, well, little black tablets. That's backed by 1GB of RAM and 16, 32, or 64GB of storage, with the smallest costing $499 and each subsequent step adding $100 to the cost of entry.
Graphics are handled by a PowerVR design, which quite handily offloads video decoding and gaming acceleration from the processor, enabling this thing to decode and display 1080p video over HDMI while still ticking along quite smoothly and running productivity apps on the seven-inch display. Not a hint of dithering or pixelation, of course. Apps load quickly, tend to be impressively responsive, and switching from one to the next is effortless.
Early builds of the PlayBook software (we're now on our third since taking possession of the thing) seemingly had some issues managing memory, and on multiple occasions we found upper corners glowing red. Our first thought was that the guns on our CRT had been misaligned by a wayward magnet, but this is just how the PlayBook alerts you to issues, in this case a lack of memory. Memory management seems to be much improved in the most recent build we've received, but you can certainly still kill unwanted apps whenever you want by simply swiping them vertically, off into oblivion.
There are various flavors of 4G coming down the pipe for the PlayBook later this year, including a WiMAX sampler for Sprint as well as HSPA+ and LTE for... well, for other carriers. That leaves us with 802.11a/b/g/n connectivity, plus Bluetooth of course. Using that last standard you can pair up a keyboard and mouse; do so and a microscopic cursor appears on the screen. Left clicks for taps and right-clicks for gestures, initiated at the edge of the screen rather than off of it. This, as you'd expect, turns intuitive gestures into clumsy mouse flicks.
Curiously, though, the device doesn't support simple USB mass storage -- you can't just plug it in to your laptop and dump a bunch of files on it. You can mount it as a drive over USB, but then you have only access to a small, read-only volume that contains a single driver. Install that and the PlayBook shows up as a network drive.
Deliciously, this driver allows you to access the device over the network or connected directly over USB, but if you're rocking something other than a Mac or a PC you're going to be disappointed the first time you try to tether here. And, with no simple mass storage mode, it's far more complicated that it should be if you just want to get a file off the thing.
With day-to-day usage, WiFi on, screen reasonably bright, checking out some websites and playing some tunes, the PlayBook has plenty of juice to get you through a couple days without breaking a sweat. It'll handily survive your all-day presentation at the office, make you look cool in front of your boss, then still have plenty of battery life left to chill out to some N.W.A. on the flight home.
But, compared to the competition, it delivers a solid mid-pack performance. We looped a standard MPEG4 video clip with WiFi enabled and screen brightness at about 65 percent, managing seven hours and one minute before everything went dark. That's about an hour more than the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but over an hour less than the Motorola Xoom. The iPad 2, meanwhile, manages ten and a half hours when similarly stressed.
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01 Apple iPad 2 10:26 Apple iPad 9:33 Motorola Xoom 8:20 Dell Streak 7 3:26 Archos 101 7:20 Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Like webOS? If so, you're going to love what's hiding under the PlayBook's (healthy) bezels -- capacitive digitizers that recognize a variety of gestures. System gestures originate to the side of the pixels and terminate on the screen -- except for the swipe to turn the screen on, which has you dragging from one bezel all the way across to the opposite one.
To switch from one app to the next you can swipe inward from the left or the right, which pops the app out of full-screen and lets you move forward or back in the queue. A tap then maximizes your new favorite app. Or, a swipe up from the bottom gives you an even higher-level view of your running apps, which you can again zing your way through. Grabbing one and throwing it upward sends it to the garbage collector, or you can tap the tiny X that appears next to its name.
Swiping from the top of the app brings down a context menu, extra controls that let you save files in Word to Go or jump from one album to another in the media player. Finally, swipe in from either top corner of the screen and you get a system context menu that displays the date and time, simple media controls, battery and connectivity indicators, and a little gear you can tap to tweak your system settings.
Ultimately it's very intuitive to use and, even better, it feels really good. The dynamic action of throwing a frustrating application right off of the screen is quite satisfying, and the lack of any multi-finger antics certainly makes task-switching a far surer affair. Everything is quick and responsive -- just what you expect on a tablet that costs this much money.
At first blush, the keyboard on the PlayBook seems quite good. In landscape mode the keys are spread wide but still reachable by thumbs if you hold this tablet by its horizontal extents -- well, if you don't have particularly short thumbs, anyway. Flipped into portrait it's an even easier reach, but obviously a bit more precision is required.
However, spend a few minutes pecking away and things start to look rather more dire. Neither numbers nor special keys are available without digging into the symbol menu -- even the exclamation point and the question have been driven to obscurity. This means if you want anything more exotic than a humble period or comma you're going to have to go find it. In fact, typing "you're" right there required hitting the symbol key to find the apostrophe -- there's no system-wide auto-correction here (it only works in some apps), no long-presses for alternate characters. What year is this, again?
There is, at least, copy and paste, and it's well-implemented, using a pair of blue tabs to highlight the text you want. Drag them to define the bounds of your text and then your selection is filed away into your clipboard of holding. Annoyingly, though, a double-tap on any word doesn't highlight it.
RIM has provided a full Webkit browser for you to get your surf on, and it's a reasonably good one. Pages load quickly and naturally are rendered in full desktop mode, with all the pinch-to-zoom goodness and snappy motion you'd expect. Flash Player 10.1 is on-board and works well. YouTube videos play perfectly fine and stutter-free when embedded within pages, though there is a dedicated YouTube app you can use if you like. Even Flash games like Bejeweled play well, important if you're still riding that particular horse.
We should note that we noticed some weirdness in the browser with the most recent (third) revision of the PlayBook software we received. When the system was running under load, with numerous other apps hanging around in the background, the browser would frequently and disconcertingly close. It would simply disappear about half-way through loading whatever page we tried. Closing a few apps seemed to fix it, but behavior like this is always a little unnerving.
Yes, we're really writing about the calculator app here. It's one of the many apps on the tablet developed by The Astonishing Tribe, a dev team acquired by RIM who previously worked to define much of the look and feel of Android. The calculator app in particular stands out with the team's patented style. Whether you're in standard or scientific mode, a "paper" tally prints each calculation, digital pulp that can be virtually torn off and disposed. Cute. Slightly more practical is the integrated unit converter, which means we'll never have to look far to get horsepower from kW, and the tip calculator could make your next night on the town go a little more smoothly -- assuming you didn't spend the entire meal playing with your tablet.
This is another of the TAT-developed apps, and though simple it shows some nice touches with overlaid transitions as you swipe from image to image. It's of course quite minimalistic, but a pleasure to use.
PDF and enterprises go together like executives and golden parachutes, so it's no surprise that Adobe is on-board here with a custom version of Reader. It's a PDF viewer at heart and, therefore, boring. But, performance is great, whether thumbing through boring statistics or pinch-zooming in on tables and charts, even with files laden with megabyte after megabyte of stock images of beautiful people smiling.
Open the music app and you have four big, handy buttons to choose from: artists, albums, genres, or all songs -- the latter for users who can't be constrained by such arbitrary classifications. Albums are simply displayed in a giant grid, tap one to play it, while artists and individual songs go into a long list. The lists are a bit unwieldy, especially since you can't jump to a certain letter, but there is real-time filtering via a search dialog.
Documents to Go suite
The PlayBook comes loaded with Word, Sheet, and Slideshow to Go from DataVis, giving you the ability to view PPT, DOC, and XLS files, even create the latter two right on the tablet. Viewing and editing documents is certainly easy enough and of course being able to do so makes for heightened productivity, but trying to enter Excel formulas using the on-screen keyboard will raise only your blood pressure.
Bridge was one of the last pieces of the puzzle to come together in the PlayBook, added mere hours ago, and it's one of the strongest yet weakest aspects of the device. Here you pair your PlayBook up with a phone running BlackBerry OS 5 or 6, which must itself be running the Bridge app. The two talk sweet nothings over Bluetooth and, once connected, a new suite of applications is enabled on the tablet.
In this way you get your standard productivity stuff: e-mail, calendar, contacts, tasks, and memos. There's also an option to run the Bridge Browser, viewing the web through the phone interface, but as of this moment that feature is simply busted -- the app crashed every time we tried it. The other apps, though, are good. Simple. They're exactly what BlackBerry smartphone users are going to want, but they're also exactly what non-BlackBerry smartphone users will want and, if you don't have a phone to pair, they disappear.
Yes, you can get to your web mail provider of choice here, but the lack of dedicated, basic productivity applications like these feels like a huge oversight. This is RIM expecting 100 percent crossover between PlayBook buyers and current BlackBerry owners, and that seems unnecessarily limiting. Yes, these apps are coming, but they should be here now.
Non-Bridge productivity apps (e-mail, calendar, etc.) are the biggest omission, but other things are missing too, like that awesome scrapbooking app from TAT that got us feeling all crafty. It's nowhere to be found. Also missing? The mysterious Android compatibility, support that is coming but sadly won't be working at launch. The ability to run Android apps could totally change the game -- or it could be a non-event. We won't know until RIM flips the switch and lets us all try it out.
Overall, the selection in App World and on the device itself is rather limited at the moment. RIM is quick to point out that there are thousands of apps in the pipeline, written in some combination of Adobe AIR or HTML 5 or Java or within the PlayBook's native compilation engine. We're sure they're coming, but right now it's slim pickins.
Again, the PlayBook has three megapixels up front and five around the back, enabling 1080p MPEG4 video recording in a tablet and, we must say, doing a fair job of it. You're going to want a lot of light but, if things aren't too dim, video quality is quite good, as you can see in the sample clip above. Images, too, need a lot of light to keep the grain monster at bay, and the lack of a flash doesn't help in that department, but get the lighting right and the results are decent. Focus is sharp and images look bright. This is definitely a tablet that you could use to take some attractive photographs, if you can get over the social repercussions of waving this seven-inch viewfinder around on vacation. BlackBerry PlayBook sample images
RIM kindly provided a few accessories for us to experiment with, including the $50 Convertible Case, which adds a good amount of girth to the tablet but also offers a lot of protection, and serves as a stand, too. But, $50 is a lot of cash for a case. (There is, at least, a thin sleeve included with the PlayBook.)
We also received the Rapid Charging Pod, a $70 magnetic stand that uses that three-pronged proprietary charger at the bottom. It's said to be twice as fast as micro-USB charging and its weighted, magnetic design holds the PlayBook firmly in place for watching content while charging. But, the lack of audio output is unfortunate and, again, $70 seems like a lot for a tiny little dock.
Writing this review has been a lot like trying to hit a moving target thanks to a series of software updates that have been dropping every few days. The PlayBook of today is considerably better than the PlayBook of yesterday, which also was a big step forward from the one we were reviewing two days before that. This is both encouraging and worrying -- encouraging that RIM is actively working to improve things, but worrying that things as critical as memory management are still being tweaked at the eleventh hour.
This means we're not entirely sure what the PlayBook that goes on sale next week will look like. We thought we had "final" software on Sunday -- and then we got another update. So, what we see at the moment is a framework with solid fundamentals but a framework that is, right now, unfinished. We have hardware that looks and feels great but isn't being fully served by the software. And, ultimately, we have a tablet that's trying really hard to please the enterprise set but, in doing so, seems to be alienating casual users who might just want a really great seven-inch tablet. Oh, and don't forget that bummer of a power button.
Right now, the BlackBerry PlayBook is a tablet that will come close to satisfying those users who gravitate toward the first word in its name: BlackBerry. Those who were more excited about the "play" part would be well advised to look elsewhere, at least until Android compatibility joins the party. Then, well, anything could happen.