Amongst the slew of tablets that have been announced over the past couple of months, the BlackBerry Playbook has been one of the most anticipated, and for good reason. Unlike the plethora of tablets running Android, the PlayBook brings a fresh new OS experience courtesy of the BlackBerry Tablet OS. Under the hood, the device sports a 1GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of ram, an accelerometer, 6-axis motion sensing (gyroscope) and digital compass, GPS, WiFi, a 3MP forward-facing camera and a 5MP rear-facing camera, Flash Support, and a 7″ display with a crisp 1024×600 resolution. By now, we’ve had two weeks to play with the Playbook to put it through its paces, and here are our thoughts.
Design & Form-factor
The PlayBook’s design is hardly exciting, but this understated black design is also very handsome. In comparison to other 7″ tablets on the market such as the Samsung Tab, we wholeheartedly prefer the BlackBerry PlayBook’s simple but classy design. Its soft umber grip finish is especially appreciated since it makes the Playbook comfortable to grip.
In total, the device weighs 0.9lbs, and measures 7.6″ x 5.1″ and is only .4″ deep. The top of the device holds the power/wake button, as well as dedicated keys for volume control and play/pause. Our biggest issue with this design is that the power/wake button is a bit too recessed and is difficult to operate, but fortunately this isn’t too much of big deal. At the far top right of the device, a 3.5mm jack can be found for connecting a pair of headphones. The device also sports a micro HDMI port for 1080p playback through an external display. An HDMI cable isn’t included, but BlackBerry does throw in a snug fitting neoprene case to carry your PlayBook in.
The 7″ LCD display on the PlayBook sports a 1024 x 600 resolution which produces visuals that are super crisp. Colors pop and the display is able to get plenty bright too. It also features an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts screen brightness. Overall, the display is excellent with good viewing angles too. The display especially excels when watching HD video.
The capacitive screen sports 4-finger multi-touch and gesture support and is super responsive. The black bezel that surrounds the display is actually touch sensitive too. This is a change of pace from other tablets whose bezels are traditionally non-responsive. However, with the Playbook, the top and bottom of the 0.7″ bezel play an integral part of operating the U.I.
That said, 7″ tablets aren’t for everyone, and some do prefer larger 9″ and 10″ tablets. However there is plenty of appeal for the 7″ tablet and that is that it is very travel friendly. I love my iPad but I don’t travel with it because I feel like its redundant to have it tag along with my laptop. On the other hand, the 7″ PlayBook is the perfect size for a travel companion, even if you’re already traveling with a laptop.
When you first turn on the PlayBook, the PlayBook starts you off with a tutorial. The tutorial is pretty quick to run through, but you’ll definitely not going to want to skip through it, or else you will likely not figure out how to navigate the user interface properly. But once you have gone through the tutorial, you will find that the Playbook’s Tablet OS is super efficient and easy to operate. To that effect, the U.I. does an excellent job of multitasking.
When you’re running an application, the app will automatically fill the entire screen. To switch between apps all you need to do is swipe upward from beneath the screen, and the app gets minimized into a “card” which can be closed. You can easily switch between apps by flying through these “cards”. Yes, the OS has plenty of similarities to HP’s WebOS. You can also switch between apps by swiping from the left and right areas of the bezel. Another common gesture includes swiping down from the top bezel to access menus. This multitasking experience is actually superior to iOS’s.
Overall, although the PlayBook’s tablet OS is not quite as intuitive as iOS, it’s definitely a lot easier and more intuitive than Honeycomb’s U.I. We were operating the PlayBook with aplomb within a minute of using the tutorial. This is unlike our initial experience with Honeycomb, which took us a while to get used too its U.I. We’ve also yet to experience any freezes or crashes on the PlayBook, and overall, the OS feels much more stable than Honeycomb. In general the U.I. is also very fast and responsive, although there is a slight lag when switching between landscape and portrait modes.
Disclaimer: These are our own opinions regarding the PlayBook’s U.I., and we understand that opinions will vary widely about the different tablet OS’s. However, the general consensus at Chip Chick is that the PlayBook Tablet OS is polished and easy to use.
The web browser on the PlayBook supports HTML 5 and Adobe Flash 10.2. The browser does a very good job of rendering web sites in all their original glory and sports the now standard pinch to zoom gesture, as well as the option to jump between different tabs, or web sites. Unfortunately, in comparison to the iPad 2, web sites do load a bit more slowly on the PlayBook, but that can always be improved with software updates. Also, unlike other tablet browsers, such as Safari on the iPad or Honeycomb’s built-in Chrome Browser, the web browser on the PlayBook doesn’t default to mobile, instead provides a true desktop-like surfing experience.
The PlayBook’s onscreen keyboard is a pleasure to use. It’s super responsive with well-spaced out keys. We’re really, really enjoying the onscreen keyboard experience on the Playbook.
As of the date of this review, the PlayBook comes bundled with a lot of standard apps including a web browser, picture app, video app, YouTube app, weather app, clock app, calculator etc. Some other bundled apps include Kobo Books for downloading ebooks, Bing maps, Tetris, NFS Undercover (which does great job of showing the devices gaming prowess), Slacker Radio, Adobe Reader, and Documents To Go for editing and viewing Word, Excel and Powerpoint docs.
Unfortunately there is no dedicated email client yet available for the PlayBook and it is surely missed, although it’s supposed to be coming within 60 days via a software update. For the meantime the device comes with dedicated shortcut icons to popular mail services like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and AOL mail, but these are just links to the services.
Speaking of apps, BlackBerry App World does come preloaded on the device. Unfortunately the selection of PlayBook apps in Appworld is pretty dismal at the moment. Even the most popular of cross platform apps such as Angry Birds, Twitter, and Foursquare are nowhere to be seen yet. And from the small selection that is already available AppWorld, the selection is pretty undesirable and includes some pretty unpolished apps. That said, we’re super confident that the selection of quality apps in BlackBerry App World will grow in number and quality very quickly. To that effect, RIM says that there have already been 3,000 PlayBook apps submitted for App World, which to the best of their knowledge, means that there will be a larger selection of tablet-optimized apps available for the PlayBook than any other tablet at the time of its debut. But until then, the iPad pretty much trumps the Playbook to dust in this respect.
Also, we noticed that BlackBerry App World on the PlayBook isn’t available everywhere. We initially tried to access it in Israel where we were visiting and we got a message saying that it was not available yet. That is something to take into consideration if you’re living outside of the U.S. and are ready to buy a PlayBook, you might want to hold off until you know that the BlackBerry App World is definitely available inside your country.
Social Networking on the BlackBerry PlayBook is pretty much non-existent outside of the web browser, at-least for now. The device does come with icons shortcuts to Twitter and Facebook, but there are no dedicated Facebook or Twitter apps available yet, nor does the device offer any real social network integration yet.
The device comes with both stereo speakers and stereo microphones built in. In particular, the stereo speakers are very powerful, much more so than the iPad 2’s speakers and many other competing tablets. But instead of the usual Amazon music store that you find on many competing Android devices, the PlayBook comes preloaded with the the Music Store by 7 Digital. 7 digital’s music catalog isn’t quite as vast as iTunes, but it’s still impressive and sports a pretty slick interface which lets you browse artists and preview and purchase tracks. A BlackBerry Podcast app is also preloaded on the device, as well as a video and music player.
The BlackBerry Playbook sports a 3 MP 1080p HD forward-facing camera and a 5 MP 1080p HD rear-facing camera. We found the rear-facing camera to be very good compared to other tablets on the market now. Although its megapixels are similar in number to the competition, in practice, the PlayBook’s rear-facing camera produces much better photos and video than the iPad 2 and Motorola Xoom. Photos tend to be sharp with good color reproduction and they are not too noisy either. Outdoor shots tend to be very sharp with great color reproduction. Unfortunately, indoor shots tend to be very grainy, but they’re still pretty sharp too
Videos taken outside with the rear-facing camera are very, very good, and they can be recorded in up-to 1080p. Videos have sharp visuals and great color production, and overall, the PlayBook’s cameras are superior to the iPad 2’s cameras.
BlackBerry smartphones have a great reputation when it comes to battery life, and so far we’ve been pretty impressed with the PlayBook’s battery life too. We have been getting an average of 6 and half to 7 hours of battery life with WiFi on.
Even though there is no dedicated email, calendar, contact or messaging app yet for the PlayBook, by using the BlackBerry Bridge function, you can access all of those apps that are located on your BlackBerry smartphone. The idea here is that you can pair your BlackBerry with the PlayBook over bluetooth and the Playook will let you securely access and manage your phone’s most essential apps. Once you’ve severed the pair, all of that important data will disappear from the PlayBook, which is supposedly ideal for security. But who are they kidding, BlackBerry Bridge is a nice option to have available, but users want all of those essential apps on their Tablet too – without having to pair their BlackBerry to the device.
When you connect the PlayBook to a Mac or PC via USB cable, an installer comes up which prompts you to install drivers. Once you’ve installed the appropriate drivers, you can drag an drop files to the PlayBook as if it is a virtual drive. Alternatively you can also download BlackBerry’s Desktop Manager software (available for both Mac & PC) which will let you sync music, photos and video with your PlayBook. It will even let you sync iTunes music and playlists. The PlayBook also comes with an option to enable WiFi sharing, which will transform the PlayBook into a networked drive on your network. That means that from then on you can wirelessly access and transfer files on your PlayBook when it’s connected to your home network, sans cables. Some other notable features on the PlayBook include bluetooth tethering, so that you can have the PlayBook piggyback off of your smartphone’s 4G or 3G internet connection.
We tested the WiFi only version of the BlackBerry Playbook with a 16GB capacity, although 32GB and 64GB versions are also available, and 3G and 4G models are also on their way. Overall, we’ve really taken a liking to the BlackBerry Playbook. The device is a pleasure to use with a fast and pleasant easy to use U.I., an excellent display and its design is super comfortable to hold and practical to travel with. Unfortunately the lack of a dedicated email and calendar apps, real social networking skills, and the very limited amount of available apps for it at the moment, manage to really hold back the PlayBook, atleast for now. In a few months – or maybe even weeks, once the PlayBook’s software has been updated with a dedicated email client and App World offers more apps, the PlayBook will be a serious alternative to the iPad, especially for those looking for a 7″ tablet device. Furthermore, RIM has stated that the PlayBook will soon be able to run Android apps in virtualization, and that will extend the device’s value and versatility tremendously. Unfortunately for now, the PlayBook has a lot to grow into. That said, despite its business suit and tie heritage, the PlayBook does offer plenty of multimedia chops that can easily woo the masses. At the end of the day, the BlackBerry PlayBook is no iPad 2 in terms of Apps, but we consider it to be one of the best tablets on the market so far, with tons of potential just waiting to be unleashed.
Pricing for the PlayBook begins at $499 for the 16GB WiFi only model. So far the PlayBook can be purchased at RadioShack, Best Buy, and Amazon. We wish that they had priced more competitively, since the WiFi only iPad 2 model start at $499 as well, and is already supported by a massive app catalog. If only BlackBerry could lower their pricing a little bit, that could help balance out the fact that the device is sorely lacking when it comes to apps.
The Good: Great design and form-factor, U.I. is polished and easy-to use, fast performance, excellent display that is complimented by a set of powerful built-in speakers, Android app compatibility is coming.
The Bad: No dedicated email or calendar apps yet, hampered by lack of apps at the moment but that will surely change quickly, power/wake button is a bit too recessed, pricing could be more competitive.