By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
To say that we were anxiously anticipating RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook would be an understatement. Ever since Research In Motion made overtures that it would enter the tablet market, we were stoked at the possibilities. This is Canada's very own tablet, how could we not feel a tingle of excitement. Especially once we heard that RIM wasn’t going to make a BlackBerry Tablet (oh, thank, God!) but create an entirely new device that used a completely new OS.
It was roughly seven months ago that the PlayBook was announced and since then speculation ran rampant about what the device would offer and how it would play into RIM’s future plans. It was estaliblished that it would not run BlackBerry OS nor be able to use any of the exisiting apps from RIM's smartphone OS.
We got a closer look at the PlayBook during CES 2011 when RIM took us on a feature by feature walk through of the device and back then we were impressed.
It was certainly the most complete looking tablet at CES (most of the Honeycomb devices were running looped videos and not actually operational).
What impressed us then was how well PlayBook managed multitasking assorted apps simultaneously without any apparent slowdown.
We like the 7” inch tablet form factor. We think RIM exercised prudence in avoiding a collision course with Apple's iPad by producing a more compact tablet but with comparable performance and capabilities.
In our experience, we would sooner grab our 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab (now orphaned on a non-tablet version of Android OS) to take along to a day out on the town than we would our iPad, even if the iPad had way more applications or featured a better on-screen keyboard experience.
A 7"inch screen tablet that has data connectivity, is just the right size to use in crowded trains, in a doctor’s waiting room or in the pub. It makes a great ebook reader because you can use it in one hand and it does a fairly decent job of managing e-mail and some light web-surfing.
In terms of styling and design, the stark rubber and glass clad PlayBook looks serious but elegant. Its lack of buttons on the screen surface makes it a better multi-orientation device. By design, the PlayBook's ideal use case is in landscape mode that's why it works so well as a web browsing device.
The 7″ inch tablet is powered by a dual-core TI OMAP 4430 processor, 1GB of RAM and is available in 16GB ($500), 32GB ($600) or 64GB ($700) capacities. It would run on the newly acquired QNX OS which is a rock-solid UNIX core operating system famed for its stability and robustness.
RIM has also created an impressive catalog of BlackBerry branded accessories and peripherals for the PlayBook but we found none of these in Best Buy or Future Shop but we chanced upon most of these cases, docks and knick-knacks in Staples.
One of the PlayBook’s key features is full-multitasking in a desktop sense, which means it can manage multiple applications running at the same time and also allows for instantaneous application switching, which has been one of the challenges faced by mobile operating systems.
Aside from this, the PlayBook also offered full HD video playback, stereo speakers, a front facing camera and a 5 Megapixel rear camera all in a purse and jacket-pocket friendly device.
At 7" inches, the PlayBook can carve a niche of its own with possibly a different use case and attract non iPad users. The competition in this space is limited to Android tablets from Samsung and HTC.
Even for non BlackBerry aficionados, unboxing the PlayBook is quite an exciting experience. RIM has packaged the device in a very classy and obsessively organized manner.
The PlayBook itself is an impressively well designed yet minimalist device. It consists of only three physical buttons. The recessed power button (which you won’t turn off or on by mistake as it is deeply receessed) and the + and – volume controls.
The device is framed by magnesium alloy or aluminum but you dont feel any of it as this is swathed by a layer of matte rubber which makes it easier to hold in one hand than any of the current tablets in the market. The rubber does attract smudges but cleans up easily.
At 0.9 pounds, the PlayBook is ideal consuming content on the go and makes a great eBook reader if Kobo is your cup of tea.
Amazon’s popular Kindle Reader has been announced as coming soon. The meager selection of apps has a decidedly Canadian flavour. Aside from Kobo, you get a stunning video app from the National Film Board of Canada as well as a few news apps from the CBC and Globe News.
Powering on the PlayBook, you are greeted by one of the clearest and brightest displays on any consumer electronics device. The 1024 x 600 resolution on a 7″ inch screen also has a higher pixel density than most tablets we’ve tried which simply makes HD quality video look stunning.
Battery life is solid with the device clocking 6 hours of heavy web surfing including a lot of Flash video playback and watching Despicable Me.
We're crossing our fingers that Canadian media outlets like CityTV, Global and CBC produce video playback apps similar to what they have made available on the iPad. The PlayBook's screen, size and above par battery life is ideal for streaming video.
The PlayBook's speedy performance and navigating around the OS is a joy. This device is about speed, precision and predictability and it is responsive as well as intuitive. The QNX OS on the PlayBook reminds us a lot of HP's (previously Palm's) WebOS card interface which is elegant and efficient and also does a slick job of multitasking apps.
RIM has enabled touch control to extend beyond the screen and over the to the PlayBook's comically large bezel. Without any buttons or controls, much of the navigation and accessing of features is done by swiping different areas of the screen’s black bezel.
The smart bezel can be used to invoke the software keyboard, switch applications and access the controls at any given time. Once you are done with an app, simply swipe it upwards and away and it is gone (much like how WebOS works). The gesture-controlled movements are instantaneous and responsive.
RIM also made a great decision of having front-facing stereo speakers on the bezel. These speakers may look small but boy are they loud! Louder, in fact, than the iPad 2′s singular rear speaker and comparable to the mini-boomboxes that ship with the Motorola XOOM.
All tablets from this point onwards should ship with two front facing speakers, the experience is 100% better than one or two rear speakers that are pushing the sound away from the user.
The PlayBook received a lot of flack for not shipping with an email client, a memo app, a BBM interface or not having the “basics” such as a Twitter or Facebook client or, Angry Birds for that matter. All of which are coming in the summer. Is this a problem, yes. Can users learn to live without these apps, there are workarounds.
Well, the good news for early adopters is that the browser of the PlayBook is nothing short of phenomenal. it is hands down the best browser on any BlackBerry device. It does a decent job of hacking web-based email like GMail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. It won't work with Apple's Mobile Me, however which is worrisome.
You can connect the PlayBook to PC's (no Mac support for now) in order to transfer apps, music or videos. The PlayBook does not have a microSD card expansion slot, which is unfortunate.
The lack of a built-in mail client gets in the way of the device's operation if you like sharing articles or websites. Some applications offer the option to "send via email" but all this brings up is a miserable pop-up stating that BlackBerry Bridge isn't connected. In other words, no BlackBerry smartphone, no e-mail and there's no workaround for that.
The 5 megapixel rear camera is capable of taking decent stills and recording up to 1080p HD resolution video while the 3 megapixel front facing camera sets a new standard for megapixels in a video calling camera.
We've not used a BlackBerry smartphone since 2007 and as much as we've fallen hard for the PlayBook, this isn't going to bring us back to the fold. BlackBerry Bridge is a patchwork solution to the PlayBook's lack of native apps and pushes your BlackBerry smartphone's mail, BBM, notes and calendar clients on the tablet's larger screen but these need to be paired through Bluetooth and WiFi.
We were also disappointed to realize there doesn’t seem to be a way to access the file structure so when using a webmail app like GMail, you can’t attach files from the PlayBook which makes it a pretty closed device. We hope this will change soon.
Approaching the PlayBook as a consumer device for non-BlackBerry users, we see that it could use a few more apps and more polish around the OS. The good thing is that once you set your accoiunt information,you can use the PlayBook right away. There isn't any need to interface with a pedantic and bloated desktop client like iTunes in order to get the device up and running.
We recently tested the PlayBook Facebook app as well as the video chat app and both work very well. Facebook is very similar to the iOS version and gives access to most features of the popular social network.
The video chat app, which appears after a sizeable software update, enables users to interact with other PlayBook owners using their BlackBerry IDs. We found video to be tack sharp when the tablets wee fixed, hats off to the high quality (3 megapixel) front facing camera. Audio quality, however, was sketchy and there were times that audio dropped.
Right now the BlackBerry PlayBook is all about the future. What it can deliver in 5-12 months and what RIM has promised users. Native apps should be coming specially e-mail, calendar and hopefully the hugely popular BBM service. We also need a good Twitter and Facebook application plus more games and multimedia features that really make use of the PlayBook's processing power. Then there's the promise that the PlayBook will be able to use Android apps in emulation mode, making it a triple threat device that's compact, capable in a business setting and open to tens of thousands of existing applications.
The hardware is everything anyone would want in a 7″ inch tablet. Incredibly well built, the BlackBerry PlayBook is fast and unmistakably powerful specially when dealing with games and processor intensive tasks like HD video.
This is the Mini Cooper of tablets, a device that shouldn't be underestimated for its size because it is just as fast or powerful as any tablet in the market today.
That's where early adopter's frustrations will stem from. The knowledge that so much is possible but the tools, even the most basic ones, aren't available to use. If you have a BlackBerry and love it, then the PlayBook is a no brainer but non BlackBerry users looking for their first tablet will feel clipped by the lack of basic apps and paltry third party app selection.
We feel that right now it is a promising platform but some major components need to included to satisfy non-Blackberry users who want a small yet powerful tablet. The big question is, can consumers wait or will something else catch their attention in the meantime?
Rating: 3.5 out of 5