To say that the BlackBerry PlayBook — and a review of the PlayBook — is something of an anticipated event would be an understatement. From the first moment the tech community caught wind (and sight) of Research In Motion’s first foray into the tablet world, everyone seems to be on pins and needles. It’s not just that another company is making a charge at Apple’s iPad — it’s also that RIM has been in something of a bind lately. The once-unassailable company has watched marketshare slinking away in the direction of iOS and Android, due at least in part to a current crop of devices and new OS which leave much to be desired. But RIM hasn’t been sitting still, either; the Canadian phone-maker has been snapping up software companies like QNX and the impressive UI team of TAT, all in service of supercharging the next lifecycle of BlackBerry products. And the PlayBook is the… ahem, fruits of those labors.
As RIM’s first tablet, but also the first of its products to tout a wholly different OS and underlying architecture, the PlayBook might symbolize the company’s rebirth into the world of the now — a world where just being first doesn’t mean you’re the best (or best loved). So is the 7-inch slate all its cracked up to be? Is this the moment where RIM saves itself? Or, is the PlayBook too little, too late? All those questions — and more — will be answered in my full review, so read on!
Note: In February, 2012, the PlayBook OS was updated to version 2.0. Among other things, PlayBook 2.0 adds an email client to the device, and supports Android apps through a custom player. Be sure and check out our review of the updated software here!
The PlayBook is a sleek and stylish little tablet
You can look at the PlayBook’s hardware in two ways. The first (my own), is that it’s an incredibly sleek and stylish little tablet, solidly built and smartly unadorned — a great demonstration of chic utilitarianism. The second view, one taken by my good friend Chris Ziegler upon first seeing it up close, is that it looks something like a $99 photo frame you might find on the shelves of Walmart. We obviously differ in opinion on the device’s industrial design.
For my money, I think RIM has mostly made the right decisions with the PlayBook. The 7-inch rectangle is — as stated — not exactly fanciful, but it is nice to look at, and a pleasure to hold in your hands. The majority of the tablet (the back and sides) is covered in a smooth, soft-touch material, while the glass display eats up the front of the slate. Hiding on either side of that glass is a set of speakers, a front-facing camera, and a light sensor. Along the bottom of the device you’ll find a mini HDMI port, Micro USB, and dock connector, while up top you have a minuscule power / sleep button, and a volume rocker with a pause / play switch sandwiched in the middle. On the back of the device there’s little more than a silver BlackBerry logo and 5 megapixel camera.
The tablet is 7.6 inches wide (in landscape) by 5.1 inches tall, and has a thickness of just 0.4 inches, making it fairly lean. The PlayBook weighs 0.9 pounds (compared to the iPad 2′s 1.33 pounds and the Xoom’s 1.6 pounds), so it feels fairly substantial in your hands even with its smaller size.
The slate is highly desirable
Everything works about this design… except for the power button, which is not only tiny, but nearly impossible to casually press. You might think that’s a positive feature, but not when you’re trying to wake the PlayBook up or put the thing to sleep — I had to dig my fingernail into the button with considerable force every time I wanted to activate it. It’s as if no one ever tested the hardware before sending these to production — the button is an awful design flaw in an otherwise well executed product. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it was a constant source of annoyance when using the tablet.
In all, however, the PlayBook look and feel more than holds it own against competitors like the iPad 2 or Xoom. While not nearly as thin as the former, and not as big and robust as the latter, the combination of materials, shape, and general layout make the slate a highly desirable object for geeks and non-geeks alike. Just don’t clip your nails too much.
Internals / display / performance
The device feels snappy and well put together
It might come as a minor shock to some that RIM has actually outfitted the PlayBook with a relatively hardcore set of specs. Given recent additions to its family like the woefully underpowered Torch, this was a pleasant surprise. Inside the slate you’ll find a 1GHz, dual-core TI OMAP 4430 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a flash storage configuration of 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB (I tested the 32GB model). As you would expect you get a typical compliment of radios, including WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, and a GPS chip onboard. There are WiMAX, LTE, and HSPA+ versions of the PlayBook in the offing, but right now the model you can purchase is WiFi-only.
The display of the device is a gorgeous 1024 x 600 capacitive touchscreen which sports brilliant, bright colors and deep, dark black ranges. The resolution doesn’t seem limiting, but that’s helped by the fact that RIM is relying on lots of smaller fonts — particularly in its bridge apps. Users with bad vision might have some difficulty with some of the more diminutive text on the display, but I prefer a daintier font. Touch sensitivity was excellent in most cases, though the rhythm of the new QNX-based OS seems to be tuned to a more casual experience, making things feel a little more sluggish than I suspect they actually are (more on this in the software section).
External audio on the PlayBook was something of a revelation. Since RIM provides not one but two speakers, you get full stereo when using the device in landscape mode (the preferred orientation for this OS). I was stunned by how good the device sounded when playing back music or watching video. If you throw this on a dock by your bed, you’ve got the perfect nighttime companion for music and audiobooks. I was also pleased to discover that the device not only sports stereo playback, but has two microphones, allowing for some interesting audio recording options. When it comes to sound quality, the PlayBook blows away the near competition of the iPad 2 and Xoom — it sounds far better.
In my testing, the combo of that dual-core CPU and the QNX architecture seemed to deliver on all the promises of speed and flexibility that RIM has been touting. There aren’t any real benchmarks to run on the platform at this point, but I can say that the PlayBook feels extremely snappy in most scenarios. Apps open quickly, and switching between the truly active programs is instantaneous. The cameras have little lag when snapping photos, and 1080p video playback worked without incident. Most notably — and something I’ll dive deeper into in the software section — the PlayBook showed almost no signs of struggle with full Flash content, even 720p and 1080p YouTube clips, and that’s something I can’t say about any other tablet on the market.
Overall, RIM has done a fantastic job on the hardware front. The device feels snappy and well put together, the screen looks terrific, and the sound is best-in-class. This isn’t breaking any real new ground as far as tablets go, but it’s more than enough to be competitive right now.
The battery life on the PlayBook is outstanding. In my testing, which ran a video on loop with the display set to 65 percent brightness, WiFi on, the battery lasted nearly 11 hours — an outstanding run for a device of this type. Of course, having a 5300mAh cell inside doesn’t hurt anything.
In general use, I found the PlayBook to be comparable in battery performance to its closest competitors (the iPad 2 and Xoom); it actually bests the iPad in video playback, and that number would only climb higher if you were to tweak the brightness further and kill WiFi.
The battery is comparable to competitors
Snapping photos in bright rooms or daylight was a cinch
The PlayBook sports two shooters — a front-facing 3 megapixel camera, and a rear cam that has a 5 megapixel sensor. Both cameras are fixed focus, which was an immediate disappointment for me. This is the first tablet (besides perhaps the Galaxy Tab) which feels like you might be able to get away with using it as a camera or video camera — but the lack of focus makes taking really great shots nearly impossible.
On the back camera, the general clarity and color reproduction was excellent, and snapping photos in bright rooms or daylight was a cinch. When it came to lower-light settings, however, I felt like there was a substantial amount of visual noise — enough to make me want to avoid those situations. Since there’s no flash present, you don’t really have a lot of options here. Overall, expect the quality of a decent smartphone shooter; not amazing, but not terrible (and far superior to something like the iPad 2), though hampered by the lack of auto-focus and flash.
The front camera, while higher resolution than most other tablets out there, didn’t fare much better in low light — but I don’t expect to be using that shooter to do anything but video calls (and for applying my makeup). Interestingly, there’s no software on the PlayBook which allows for video calling, so the front camera is a bit useless at this point. RIM says it will offer a video call app post-launch as part of an OTA software update, and the company has expectations that third-parties will deliver some options as well. While it’s surprising that RIM would ship the PlayBook without taking advantage of the front camera, in the context of this tablet, it’s sadly par for the course. That is to say, much here feels unfinished.
The PlayBook's software feels unfinished
While the PlayBook is meaningful from a hardware perspective, what really matters here is the brand new OS Research In Motion is introducing. Built atop the supposedly rock-solid QNX platform, this tablet’s operating system is a fresh start for the company, touting a completely revamped look and feel, and new application frameworks, including support for native development, Adobe Air, Java, and RIM’s WebWorks… oh, and Android too, as a virtual machine at least.
Not only is the underlying architecture new, but the user interface has been rebuilt as well, and now features at least a few flourishes from the recently acquired TAT. It’s pretty clear The Astonishing Tribe has been at work in the PlayBook OS, and there are lots of playful little touches that make this device feel far more polished and modern than anything RIM has done in a long while.
Overall UI / look and feel
To understand the PlayBook UI, you need only really understand Palm’s (and now HP’s) webOS. This tablet’s interface owes much to its underdog competitor, but most obvious is the way in which this UI deals with multitasking, application switching, and task management. When you first boot up the PlayBook, you’re presented with a homescreen that isn’t wildly dissimilar from BlackBerry OS 6. Along the top of the screen is a status bar with the time and date, orientation lock, Bluetooth control, WiFi indicator, battery indicator, and settings icon. Below this is a space for your applications when running — applications exist in a "card" view which can be navigated left to right, like Cover Flow. Underneath that section is a drawer for your apps which can be raised and lowered with a swipe of the finger. Those applications are further grouped into tabs depending on their category.
There are five gestures which allow you to navigate the OS. A swipe up from the bottom bezel while in an application will take you to card view (and your homescreen), while the same gesture in the card view will bring up your app drawer and also close it. A swipe downward from the top of the bezel while in an app will reveal more chrome, allowing you to explore options or make other selections (in the browser, for instance, it brings up your tabs and option icon). If you perform the downward swipe on the homescreen, you get a dropdown menu of all tablet settings. While in an application, a swipe from the left or right bezel will take you to another application, while swiping down from the upper right- or left-hand corner will reveal your status bar. A swipe from the lower left-hand corner brings up the keyboard. Other than those special gestures, the PlayBook features pinch-to-zoom in the browser, maps, and photo viewer.
Getting around in the OS is intuitive and elegant, but truth be told, webOS does a better job with managing cards, both in the feel of moving through them and with the new stacks feature in webOS 2.0, which lets you group related activities. Weirdly, the PlayBook has this flowing sense of over-inertia, as if RIM hasn’t cranked the physics down, so that when you’re flipping through cards you often miss the one you wanted to select and it goes flying by you. In general, the PlayBook OS feels like it’s on the ice level of a Mega Man game — everything seems to be sliding away beyond your control. It’s a sloppy feeling, and that’s compounded by the fact that the OS doesn’t seem to be fully optimized for touch input yet; I found myself tapping and re-tapping on UI elements and web navigation with no result. In web apps like Gmail (which RIM provides a direct link to on the homescreen), I couldn’t get to certain message checkboxes even after double-digit attempts. Whether this is the overall UI acting buggy or an issue with the way the browser is interpreting touches is unclear, but it’s that sort of behavior which makes the product feel unfinished.
On the plus side, the OS shows tremendous promise, and some of the UI touches that TAT has brought to the table are really charming, like the history of your calculator functions which you can virtually rip off to discard. Other places you see the TAT brilliance poking through are in the photo browser, where pictures don’t just scroll left to right, but overlap each other, shadows and all. It’s those kinds of details that breathe life into this device, and show a path to a brighter future for RIM — unfortunately, there’s just not enough of it to go around right now.
BlackBerry Bridge / Email / Calendar
One of the most astounding oversights with the PlayBook is the fact that there’s no native email, calendar, or contacts for the device out of the box. The only way at launch to use those services is to pair the device with a BlackBerry handset over Bluetooth, using a protocol RIM is calling BlackBerry Bridge. I only had a short time to test this functionality, as the early version of the PlayBook software did not have access to Bridge mode.
Firstly, it’s inconceivable to me that anyone at RIM thought it was a smart play to cut off non-BlackBerry users from the most basic functionality you expect on a device of this type. Not being able to access your email via a native client is insanity as far as I’m concerned, and the first few days I had the PlayBook without email, contacts, or my calendars, the device felt nearly useless.
Once the Bridge was enabled, the shared content was relatively easy to work with, though I did notice some issues. For starters, if you’re a Gmail user utilizing RIM’s Gmail plugin, you’ll be out of luck on the PlayBook — it formats your messages to standard BlackBerry style (no threading, no stars, no labels). More frustrating is the fact that there seems to be lag between when you delete or move messages on the PlayBook and when they’re actually dealt with on the phone and server. I had some troubling moments at the start where I simply couldn’t extinguish emails — the headers just sat in my inbox, empty but unmovable. I eventually had to reconcile the messages on my Torch to get them cleared. That’s not to say the implementation is clunky — it isn’t — but it isn’t exactly perfect. It’s unclear why RIM couldn’t simply allow you to plug in your account information on the device itself, but I assume it has something to do with the company’s high security standards. It’s nice of them to think of it, but for most users, the lack of an easy option for email will be more troubling than security concerns. Even for current BlackBerry users, this seems like a roundabout way to get at your important content.
And for you BBM fanatics, some bad news. At this point in time, Bridge requires that a new version of BBM be used to get those message on your PlayBook… so using that functionality on your new tablet is in the hands of RIM now, and it was unclear if that would be resolved by the launch date.
The PlayBook’s browser is a modified and enhanced variation on the Torch’s new Webkit-powered version — and it’s come a long way. For starters, most pages I visited were displayed perfectly on the device, with tablet-enhanced sites such as Gmail displaying as they do on the iPad. Page load times were snappy, and scrolling and pinch-to-zoom worked flawlessly, though occasionally there did seem to be some of that UI sluggishness / touchiness that I mentioned earlier.
What’s most impressive about the PlayBook’s browser, however, is that it’s probably the first mobile web browser I’ve ever used that actually handles Flash properly. In fact, this is as close as you can get to a desktop / laptop Flash experience on a tablet — at least with video. That means full 1080p YouTube playback in the browser with no stutter, no lag, and no slowdown on the device overall. Unfortunately, the PlayBook isn’t quite as adept at handling other types of Flash content, such as games — in fact, most online Flash games I tried to play were far too sluggish to have any real fun with. It’s clear that RIM has optimized around video playback (it’s hardware accelerated), and that’s nice, but it still doesn’t prove that Flash works for mobile devices.
Music / Video / HDMI out
It's no iPod, that's for sure
The music and video players on the PlayBook are barebones but handsome. You won’t find any shockers here, but they look nice and get the job done for dealing with content. RIM has entered into a deeper partnership with the music service 7digital, and the company now offers a dedicated music store for the PlayBook. It’s a nice addition, and prices as well as selection seem comparable to other services out there.
The ability to play back 1080p content on the device is quite nice, and since you can easily attach a mini HDMI cable directly from the device to a TV, you can quickly get your content onto a big screen. Of course, that means you need either a long cable, or don’t mind getting up to make changes on the device. RIM says that they’ve got a multimedia dock coming for the PlayBook (along with ways to control the tablet remotely), but right now if you want to use your PlayBook as a media hub, you’re running cables and going hands-on.
Most of the third-party apps are awful
I’ll just put this as plainly as I can: the majority of third-party apps I tested while using the PlayBook were simply awful. It’s quite clear that many of the 3400 applications that will be available at launch are converted Flash and Air titles, and many are truly not ready for primetime, nor are they really developed with a touchscreen in mind.
I won’t go into specifics on which apps were the worst of the lot, though I must point out a few. Particularly, the Google Reader client GeeReader, which is simply unusable, and the apparently-Java-based game JetFighter, which has onscreen controls but no multitouch functionality, meaning that you cannot move and shoot at the same time… which would be fine if this weren’t a top-down shooter. Other app issues included icons which didn’t appear, sluggish performance, and an overall sense that many of these titles had been rushed into RIM’s App World.
There were some bright spots, however. The natively coded Tetris and Need For Speed: Undercover were both solid, and the memory game Cardster worked well enough. I also enjoyed Vector Runner, which has a throwback, retro look and feel — though I’m confused as to why the devs didn’t tap into the accelerometer for controls.
Overall, the app selection and functionality left a lot to be desired. In terms of wow factor, there’s nothing here that’s within the vicinity of GarageBand for the iPad, or Angry Birds on any platform. There isn’t a single piece of software I saw on this platform that showed me how it’s better than existing products like the Xoom or iPad — in fact, the effect was rather the opposite. Even Kobo, the e-reader app, felt more sluggish and less intuitive on the PlayBook than other tablets. I will say that RIM is coming out of the gate with more tablet-specific applications than Google did for the Xoom… but quantity is not quality, and that’s demonstrated quite clearly here.
Let me say first and foremost that the PlayBook is a really solid device with a handsome and clean industrial design, a hefty set of specs, and a new operating system that shows tons of promise. RIM has absolutely delivered in many areas here, proving that as a company it can do a lot more than just utilitarian smartphones. The value of the acquisitions of both QNX and TAT are clearly represented in this product, and it’s clear that this is just the beginning of long relationships between these companies. Relationships that can obviously yield great results. Additionally, the PlayBook is priced right — at $499 for the 16GB version (and $100 with each additional 16GB), it’s definitely in the ballpark.
But the PlayBook isn’t hitting home runs just yet. The OS is still buggy and somewhat touchy. Third-party apps are a desert right now, if not in number, then certainly in quality. The lack of native email and calendar support hurts. The worst part, however, is that I can’t think of a single reason to recommend this tablet over the iPad 2, or for that matter… the Xoom. And that’s what it really boils down to here; what is the compelling feature that will make buyers choose the PlayBook over something else? I don’t have that answer, but that’s not what’s troubling me — what troubles me is that I don’t think RIM has the answer either… and they should by now.