We are now well into the second month since the release of the BlackBerry PlayBook into the hands of the BlackBerry user. I'd like to approach this review with some simple and brief explanations on how far the PlayBook has come in the relatively short time since it's been available, as well as go over some of it's main features. I've had the PlayBook for about 4 weeks now and I feel like I'm ready to throw in my hat to be able to give an honest and informative review. Below, I'll be going over the main categories I feel most important that cover the basis for the PlayBook experience, as well as a few rants of my own. The tablet I have in hand for this review is a 16GB WiFi model that sells for $499 retail. Current PlayBook OS is OS v126.96.36.1994, which was released on 6/7.
Let's get to it!
Hardware / Design -
Being into the darker side of devices, I always thought the pictures of the PlayBook before it was released looked very slick. BlackBerry is well known for utilizing dark interiors and exteriors into their devices. It's a patented look that brands the RIM device. As I was unpacking the PlayBook and picked it up in my hands, the first thought that came to my mind was that it was a bit heavy for a 7 inch tablet, and the weight gave it a sense of solidness and quality. The chassis is dark metal, edges are nicely squared off, and there is very little give. When compared, for being just 0.4-inches thick - less than a tenth thicker than an iPad 2, at 0.9 pounds, it's substantially lighter.
At the top of the PlayBook are four buttons, which are the only physical controls to be found: volume up, volume down, play/pause, and power button. Yes, I said the POWER BUTTON! Now, if you read many of the first reviews of the PlayBook, there was a lot of criticism on the power button. The complaint was that it was too flush with the chassis so therefore it took a finger to dig at it to get the power button to function properly. I find this to be quite an over exaggeration to say the least. To me it seemed that reviewers were looking for anything at all to complain about on the hardware design of the PlayBook, and the power button gave them their outlet to rant. Without rapping on the power button too much, I made a video a couple weeks ago that explains what I mean when I say it's stretching it to call the power button a negative aspect of the PlayBook's hardware (see below).
Down at the bottom of the tablet under the BlackBerry logo are three ports: micro-HDMI, micro-USB, and a proprietary three-prong charging connector - charging at twice the rate of micro-USB. Up top there's one more inlet, a 3.5mm headphone jack. The speakers are very well positioned in front at each side on the edge of the glass. I have to say that having the speakers on the front of the device provides a much better audio experience when compared to the iPad, which has the speaker at the bottom. With the PlayBook, I don't have to tilt the device in a weird position just to hear the audio.
Overview of the some of the main features are:
Dual-core, 1GHz TI OMAP processor
OS QNX (QNX is a powerful OS that is integrated in Cars to Fighter Jets)
1GB of RAM - with models 16, 32, or 64GB of storage
5-megapixel rear camera, a 3-megapixel front-facing camera
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
1080p HD video playback with an HDMI-out port
7-inch display with 1024 x 600 resolution
The display is amazing! The tablet comes with a HD video installed for you to preview right out of the box. It had me scurrying to upload a few HD movies to watch that night as I lay in bed. I was also impressed by the 1080p playback on my flatscreen TV using the HDMI-out port. It's pretty awesome to be able to use my PlayBook as a controller when playing Need for Speed on my TV. No need for a game console.
Getting around the PlayBook is just as fun as it is a learning experience. The PlayBook has bezels that help you navigate through apps and screens through a variety of hand gestures. Under the bezel are capacitive digitizers that recognize a variety of gestures. System gestures start to the side of the pixels and stop at the screen. Depending which bezel one swipes from, will perform a certain action. For example, swiping down from the top bezel will bring down the options menu. And while inside an app, it will bring down the options menu for that specific application. The PlayBook is naturally better used in landscape view and comes with an option to lock the screen into either landscape or portrait orientation. If you notice, even the PlayBook logo is placed in landscape orientation, telling us that the tablet was designed more for this view.
Something else to mention is multi-tasking - which on the PlayBook is by far the best experience I've had with a tablet. If you are the type that likes to have way too many apps open at once, you'll love the PlayBook's ability to multi-task. I consider this as one of RIM's greatest selling points about the PlayBook when up against it's competitors. I performed my own multi-tasking stress test and had open the game EA's need for speed, a movie, browser, and several apps without noticing hardly any lag at all. Of course I don't recommend this type of usage unless you have the charger plugged in, or you'll see the battery level evaporate before your eyes. But this goes for any device that can multi-task so much media content at once. If you need multi-tasking, consider the PlayBook first.
Keep in mind, I'm currently running OS 1.0.5. Earlier OS versions brought on complaints about memory errors, random native app crashes, ect. It seems at this point, the OS has been refined rather well to handle more interaction. There still is an issue that involves the device falling asleep when watching video on the browser. I'll explain more on that when I get to the browser section below.
Native Apps / Apps -
PlayBook users will be happy to know that the tablet comes preloaded with EA Mobile's games, Need for Speed: Undercover and Tetris. Both games are top sellers, hours of fun to play, and well known for those who are familiar with the mobile game world. At this point in time, there are well over 2,000 apps available for the PlayBook in BlackBerry App World. Not a lot by all means, but getting better considering there were reports that the PlayBook would launch with over 3,000 apps. The upside for the future of apps is there are a multitude of ways to develop for the PlayBook. The PlayBook supports Adobe AIR, WebWorks, and HTML5 apps with Java apps and Android apps coming soon. At BlackBerry World 2011 last month, RIM presented the Android Player for us to get a sneak peek at what will be powering the apps submitted to App World from Android platform developers. If you have a PlayBook now and don't have enough apps to satisfy, just wait till the Android Player software update comes out, giving access to thousands of rich-content apps. We were also told at the BlackBerry World 2011 event that the iOS and Android OS hit game Angry Birds would be coming to BlackBerry App World as well - finally!
One of the best moves that RIM has made so far for the PlayBook OS is acquiring TAT (The Astonishing Tribe), a dev team who previously worked to define much of the look and feel of Android. They are the team that has given the PlayBook it's navigational friendly UI, as well as the Scrapbook and Calculator apps, which are just a couple of the many great native apps developed by TAT. Using these apps gives me a playful and entertaining experience, while being very useful. I hope to see more from the TAT team moving forward.
What's missing among native apps isn't so much as what isn't there, but what can't be used without bridging a BlackBerry device to the tablet. I'll explain more on this below.
BlackBerry Bridge -
BlackBerry Bridge is the software that enables your PlayBook and Smartphone to sing in unison over Bluetooth. By that I mean the bridge software allows you to use your PlayBook as an extension of your BlackBerry Smartphone. This is great, if you happen to have a BlackBerry. But if you don't, you will not be able to take advantage of many of the native apps that require the Bridge connection - such as; BlackBerry Messenger, Email, Contacts, Calendar, Memopad, and Tasks. The good news is, RIM has promised to push out an update in the next few months that will allow these native apps to be used without a BlackBerry. This will draw in many consumers who are currently on the fence without a BlackBerry in hand. It would also be great, and I'm sure this is something RIM is working on, to have cloud capabilities so that the BlackBerry smartphone and BlackBerry tablet sync without having to pair at all. Users would be able to keep all devices in step with just a single BlackBerry ID.
Battery Life -
Battery life on the PlayBook is better than I expected for such a powerhouse device. On light-med use you will get by a day and a half no problem. With heavy usage, such as when bridging with a smartphone and playing rich media, expect having to recharge between 6 - 8 hours of use. Overall the battery life is comparable to that of the iPad, perhaps a bit less.
I'm a surf junkie, so naturally the Browser on the PlayBook is one of my favorite features. The browser loads pages quickly in full desktop mode, and Flash Player 10.1 is loaded so web pages running Flash come through flawlessly. This is also a contention of mine with Facebook and Native social web apps on the PlayBook - they really aren't needed. Why? Because the PlayBook can run Flash content so well in the Browser, it's a better experience to simply use the full Facebook webpage. There is also a native YouTube app, but currently no native Twitter app. The Twitter icon in the app menu is only a launcher that opens up to Twitter's mobile site.
I told you earlier that I would touch on a issue with the browser that many have been reporting. Let's say you are on YouTube, or just watching a video from the browser. What happens is that if you don't wake the screen before a certain allowed time (5 minutes) with a gesture of some sort, it will automatically fall asleep, stopping the video in it's tracks. Not an issue if you are watching short video clips, but an issue for those who are watching anything longer than that 5 minute mark, as it can become annoying having to remember to wake the screen up every so often.
Coming into a market that has been dominated and innovated by Apple, RIM has done a very good job at releasing a competitive and useful product. Not only because it is pound for pound just as powerful as anything out there, but also because RIM has made the PlayBook into it's own creature. They could easily had made a iPad spinoff, but they didn't. RIM also gets bonus points for making the PlayBook with first the BlackBerry smartphone user in mind. It's this type of integration that will allow RIM to hold onto their own loyal subscriber base, and also cling tight to their most robust niche, the business market. But by having their BlackBerry user base in mind first will bring some challenges ahead on how RIM can capture the interest, and pocketbooks, of non-berry users. Don't get me wrong, the PlayBook is a great all around tablet, but having the ability to function solo - no strings attached - is what will carry it farther into the tablet market as a standalone product. Good news is that RIM promises a more independent device in the coming months ahead. What also is promising are reports of a 10 inch PlayBook as well as 4G versions are next to hit the market!
This review isn't suppose to be a 'cover everything possible' review. I just wanted to touch base on a few of the main features of the PlayBook to give the reader an idea where it sits at within it's current OS. I also wanted to give you a bit of perspective from my own experience so that you can go out and make an informative decision when up against what tablet is right for you. For those who already have the PlayBook, hopefully I have given you insight to something that you weren't aware of. I'll also be looking forward to updating this review as RIM pushes out some of the new features that I've outlined above. If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and please leave any feedback, questions, rants, in the comments below.