With a name that sounds like something you'd use at a sporting event, the BlackBerry PlayBook is the latest – and most unique – Apple iPad 2 challenger.
Running a new OS called QNX, with quirky features like bridging to a BlackBerry phone for secure email and an oddly confusing initial setup, the PlayBook is a stark departure from the more iPad-like Motorola Xoom. Business-minded features such as built-in viewers for spreadsheets and word processing files are welcome, and the PlayBook gets extra credit for being fast and nimble on a dual-core 1GHz processor.
Throw in a 3MP front-facing camera, a 5MP rear-facing one, a bright and crisp 1200x600 resolution screen, a light 425g body and all the typical gyro, accelerometer and GPS sensors and you have the makings for a powerful 7-inch tablet.
As we discovered in our first hands on test, the PlayBook is sorely lacking third-party apps, but does show promise.
The powerful multi-tasking, where you can run a video in one window and play a game in another with both apps running concurrently, is a first of its kind for a mainstream tab.
File storage capabilities, support for an HDMI connection for playing 1080p video and a slick interface make the PlayBook an interesting anomaly. Unfortunately, the overall experience can't compete with either the iPad 2 or the Xoom, and even falters compared to the original Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Saying that the PlayBook's OS – called QNX – is a revelation might be a bit strong. It is more of an iteration, specifically of Palm webOS with a dash of Windows 7 and a touch of the iPad 2. The gestures are similar to the Palm OS in that you swipe to put apps in a window (aka, card).
Like the iPad, you press and hold down on an app icon to move it (the apps throb like a sore tendon) and click a small trash icon to remove them. Swiping worked remarkably well, though, and the QNX interface is quite responsive.
There's no question that RIM was shooting for the moon when it designed this OS, because it's highly intelligent. We just can't recommend the multi-tasking features enough. It's amazing to record a video, swipe to the left and play a game, go back and see that your video is still recording.
Multi-tasking is not just a gee-whiz feature for swiping open apps. It also means that as an app loads, you can decide to close it as it opens. Or, you can start one app, switch to the home screen, start another, then go back to the first app. It has a robust next-gen tablet feel.
That said, we do have a few complaints. One is that the interface tends to assume a lot of previous knowledge on the part of the user. You never know when you swipe from the bezel down to see settings if the app even has any settings.
The piecemeal part-Apple/part-Palm/part-Android interface sometimes causes confusion. For example, in the browser, you can swipe down to see tabs. When you add one, you'll see buttons for new pages (think iPad and Palm) but then you can see open tabs like on Android 3.0 devices such as the Xoom.
The PlayBook does support copy and paste, and the interface for this is very simple. You just longpress on an email address or text portion until you see the copy-paste window. Then you can copy the selection or paste. The interface for this works better than the Apple iPad 2 or Motorola Xoom.
The PlayBook comes with a selection of apps.
There's a music player, the Kobo e-book app for buying and reading books, a YouTube app, Bing Maps (which doesn't include turn-by-turn navigation), a weather app, a clock, the game Need for Speed: Undercover, an app for taking voice notes, the Adobe PDF Reader, Tetris, links to webmail services like Hotmail and Facebook and Twitter shortcuts.
RIM also includes viewers for Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. You can't edit these documents, but you can open them and play slideshows. The productivity apps are integrated into the BlackBerry Bridge system, so when you receive an email with a Word doc, you can open it from the email.
Third-party app availability is abysmal. There's no Skype client, nothing for checking flight status, no official Facebook or Twitter apps, nothing from Google, very few games and few business apps.
There are a few minor exceptions, however. The Adobe Connect app is supposed to let you connect to a web conferencing portal to collaborate on documents and even video chat. But we couldn't get the app to connect to our test account, even though we could from a computer.
For games, there are one or two good options: Bubble Birds is a Tetris-like puzzle game, and then there's Tetris itself. App World on BlackBerry phones is not exactly a raging success – there may be a few apps available, but their quality is poor. For the PlayBook to succeed, it needs more apps.
Games on PlayBook – the few that are available – worked well. Need for Speed looked smooth, and the controls for steering worked reliably as expected.
The browser supports Adobe Flash and, for the dozens of sites we tested, worked well. We did have some trouble with sites that block access from tablets, including Hulu.com. And, the more intensive Flash sites, like GamesRadar.com, were a bit slow to load but eventually worked.
The 7-inch screen on the BlackBerry PlayBook is remarkably bright and clear.
The bezel around the screen looks fairly innocuous, like a picture frame. Yet it's also touch sensitive: you can swipe up from the bottom bezel to minimise an app (it actually raises the app icons and puts the window up above them), swipe left or right to see open apps and move between them and swipe from the top bezel down to see the settings for each app. (Some apps don't have any settings.)
There's no question the WSVGA, 1200x600 touchscreen is a marvel – rivaling even the Apple iPad 2. It's bright and clear, responsive, and colourful. In a side-by-side comparison to the Motorola Xoom and the iPad 2, we found that the PlayBook screen is noticeably clearer, thanks to the smaller size and high resolution.
There is a trade-off in that there isn't as much room for full tablet apps. If the PlayBook did support something like a flight tracking app, the 7-inch space would be cramped if you wanted to pull up flight info on one side and a map view on the right.
The PlayBook uses a smart interface paradigm – like the Apple iPad 2 and Motorola Xoom, it is gesture-based and logical. You swipe to move about the screen, press app icons to start them and spread fingers out to zoom in and pinch to zoom in. Overall, the QNX interface is highly useable and easy to learn.
One of the most puzzling usability flaws is linked to BlackBerry Bridge. The idea is that your PlayBook can connect to your BlackBerry phone over Bluetooth from about 200 feet away. Once you form the connection, you can then view contacts, check email and open tasks and notes.
The reasoning for this is sound: it means one less device to manage in IT. The email and contacts are secure because they're not housed on the PlayBook at all. Consumers can still use the browser for email, and RIM helpfully includes icons that link to these services.
The problem is that not everyone has a BlackBerry, or you might decide not to take one with you. It's also confusing for non-technical users. And, we even wonder if it's that secure. Once you connect to your phone and open an email, you can copy the email or save it locally.
The Bridge apps also tend to run slowly – while every other app opened almost instantly, the email client took at least three seconds to open, no matter how many other apps were running.
Another usability issue is that there is no Home button. Instead, you have to swipe up to see the app list and the currently running apps in a window. As a design convention, it works ok. Users of Apple iPads who decide to switch over will find they are constantly looking for a Home button.
Battery life on the PlayBook was not quite up to par. We played videos and music continually on the device, and found it only lasted about six hours. However, for everyday use such as checking email and browsing the web, the PlayBook lasts for more like nine hours on a charge.
Flash Memory Capacity 16 GB
Processor Manufacturer ARM
Bluetooth Yes Wi-Fi Yes GPS Yes
HDMI Yes Webcam Yes
Product Family PlayBook
Processor Model A9 Colour Black
Operating System BlackBerry Tablet OS
Brand Name BlackBerry Form Factor Slate Processor Speed 1 GHz Processor
Type Cortex Screen Size 17.8 cm (7") Screen Resolution 1024 x 600
Standard Memory 1 GB
Weight (Approximate) 408.0 g
Processor Core Dual-core (2 Core)
Touchscreen Yes Display Screen Type Active Matrix TFT Colour LCD
Wi-Fi Standard IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth Standard Bluetooth 2.1
Multi-touch Screen Yes
Height 130.0 mm Width 193.0 mm Depth 10.2 mm