With the introduction of the PlayBook, RIM is hoping to start their comeback while at the same time introducing consumers to their next-gen smartphone OS – the QNX OS.
How did they do? Read on!
The PlayBook is packaged in a really nice box, just as with RIM’s unbranded BlackBerrys. You also get a nice sleeve case for the PlayBook along with a dedicated micro-USB charger (which we really appreciate), and a micro-USB cable.
The PlayBook is a gorgeous little piece of hardware. With a 7” screen, it’s a good bit smaller than the iPad or the Xoom. But the PlayBook does sport a relatively large bezel which happens to be touch-sensitive, making it a fundamental piece of the new QNX OS. The PlayBook is quite thin, coming in at 10mm thick – only 0.7mm thicker than the iPhone 4. The tablet is also relatively light, weighing in at 425g – the Xoom weighs 708g for comparison.
The front of the PlayBook is very clean, with the BlackBerry logo and name visible. A speaker sits on either side of the display, creating a nice symmetric look to the device. There’s also a small LED (as customary for a BlackBerry) and a front facing camera atop the display. Oddly, the LED only lights up while the PlayBook is first booting – it is not used as a notification light throughout the OS as with BlackBerry smartphones. This is pretty disappointing, and we hope RIM goes back to using the LED notification light properly in a future OS update.
Around back is the rear-facing shooter along with a chrome BlackBerry logo. The back is coated with a soft-touch material, which is really quite nice. Up top there are two holes for mics, the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the only physical buttons to the whole tablet right in the middle. RIM includes dedicated volume up/down buttons, as well as a play/pause button in the middle. These buttons work quite nicely and are easy to toggle while using the PlayBook. We did find ourselves hitting the the buttons at times when picking up the PlayBook, but that wasn’t a big deal.
The fourth and final physical button sits right next to the aforementioned media buttons – the absolutely horrendous power button. Not only is the power button entirely too small to be of any real use, it’s also flush with the device making it extremely hard to use. An entirely too large amount of force is required when trying to active the power button since it’s too small, flush (almost recessed even), and gives hardly any tactile feedback. It would’ve been nice if RIM had included a paperclip in the box for us to push the power button with.
Along the bottom are three ports. One is a dedicated fast-charge port for use with the fast charger or charging dock. Another is a standard micro-USB port for standard charging and syncing with a computer. The third and final is a standard micro-HDMI port for connecting the PlayBook to a TV for movie watching or presentation giving (the PlayBook’s display is mirrored over HDMI by default).
Internals / Speed / Display / etc.
The PlayBook is powered by a 1GHz, dual-core TI OMAP CPU. Combined with 1GB of RAM and the new QNX tablet OS, the PlayBook really flies. Everything is smooth as butter. Animations run at 60FPS without issue, apps open and close quickly, and the device even boots far faster than you’ve ever seen another BlackBerry boot. While we never managed to see the “low memory” warning other reviewers have seen, we certainly wouldn’t have an issue with RIM throwing in an extra gig of RAM down the road.
Animations and overall speed were far above what we’ve seen on our Xoom, and even our iPad. While iOS isn’t known for fancy animations, there are times when things get choppy. That never happened in our testing of the PlayBook – animations were always running at 60FPS and never once stuttered or hesitated. The PlayBook is really fast. We just wish there were more apps to take advantage of its power, but more on that later.
The PlayBook’s screen is by far the best we’ve seen on a tablet to date. It sports a 1024×600 resolution which is quite nice for the 7” form factor. The display is also of really high quality, especially compared to the Xoom’s rather poor display. According to Anandtech, the PlayBook’s screen clocks in at over 600nits brightness – that’s insanely bright! While we didn’t have a chance to test the screen in direct sunlight, we don’t think you’ll have an issue using the PlayBook outside.
The capacitive touchscreen on the device worked pretty well in our daily use. While most interface elements in QNX are big enough to tap without issue, some smaller pieces (such as selection boxes in Gmail) were a huge pain to deal with. We also found ourselves tapping multiple times when trying to active buttons in AppWorld (especially the back button). There’s definitely room for improvement here, hopefully through software and firmware updates.
The two stereo speakers mentioned earlier are really nice. Music and videos played clearly and without distortion even at high volumes. You certainly wouldn’t have any issue listening to music from the PlayBook while sitting across the room from it. Combine the small form factor, excellent display, and great speakers of the PlayBook and its definitely a fantastic multimedia tablet.
Battery life on the PlayBook is simply fantastic. It’s clear that the tradition of BlackBerrys getting phenomenal battery life has been carried over to the QNX OS. We easily got 10 hours of use out of the PlayBook with screen brightness set to auto (with the max at ~85%) and WiFi on and connected, with the occasional Bridge connection to our Torch 9800. We’re interested to see what adding a 3G or 4G radio to the PlayBook does to battery life, but we expect it will still be fantastic.
Charging the PlayBook can only occur while the device is turned on, which we find really annoying. We like to plug in our devices at night and then turn them off to charge. This isn’t possible on the PlayBook. Also, the only indication you have to charging status is with the status bar’s battery icon. The LED light does not turn on while charging, which we find really stupid. With the current OS, version 188.8.131.520, the battery meter is a little out of whack. It never shows the battery as being fully charged, constantly showing the charging icon even after many hours on the charger, and thinks 96% is full. Hopefully RIM can get this fixed up in an updated OS release.
The PlayBook sports two cameras, one front facing and one rear facing, as is common with most recent smartphones and tablets on the market. RIM touts both cameras as being “HD 1080p”, which is a bit of a stretch. The front-facing shooter is definitely a step up from what can be found on the iPad 2 or Xoom. The rear-facing shooter is a very nice 5MP camera which takes clear shots, albeit with a bit of noise when in darker environments.
Unfortunately RIM chose to stick with fixed focus shooters for both of the cameras, a decision we really wish would not have been made. While shots are pretty great as-is, they could be phenomenal with variable focus.
The camera software is quite nice. It’s easy to use and responds very quickly. There is a very noticeable delay when taking a shot though. The Photos app, which was designed by TaT, is really smooth and is really great for showing off the PlayBook’s performance.
Thoughts on QNX OS “BlackBerry Tablet OS”
The OS running on the PlayBook is all new for RIM. Developed by QNX, who is now a subsidiary of RIM, it’s billed as “Fast, agile, bullet-proof”. QNX is a very small and powerful OS which runs things like nuclear power plants, military aircraft, and even some of the systems on the space shuttle. Obviously the QNX OS running on the PlayBook is quite different from one running a nuclear power plant, but the foundations are the same. As such, we really think QNX is going to be a fantastic OS for the PlayBook as it matures, and for RIM’s next-gen smartphones.
The PlayBook’s UI is really fantastic. It’s very easy to use and is very fluid. It’s clear that RIM’s acquisition of TaT is already paying off big time. We can’t wait to see where RIM takes QNX for its phones.
The main homescreen is very reminiscent of BlackBerry OS 6’s. There is the default “All” category which shows all of your apps – which can be rearranged however you’d like. You can also delete apps by holding down on any icon and then tapping the trashcan below each installed app (built-in apps are obviously not removeable). Other sections include Favorites, Media, and Games, along with a specific Bridge category when bridge is in use.
Multitasking is incredibly easy and uses the touch sensitive screen bezel very well. If you’ve ever used HP/Palm’s WebOS, you’ll immediately be familiar with how the PlayBook handles multitasking. Each app is represented as a “card” with the UI allowing the user to scroll through the “cards” and very simply and quickly move in between apps. Swiping up from the bottom bezel reveals all of the open apps while swiping right or left from the side bezels moves between open apps without showing the main homescreen. While we do think RIM could’ve been a bit more original with its multitasking implementation, it’s certainly done very well.
Bezel gestures are really nice and something unique to the PlayBook. You can even wake the PlayBook from sleep by dragging up from the BlackBerry logo to the middle of the screen. This is especially nice since the power button sucks so much. Dragging down from the top bezel will reveal options for the current app, or open the main settings app when on the homescreen. Swiping diagonally from the bottom left corner will reveal the keyboard (more on that in a second). Swiping diagonally from the upper right corner will reveal the status bar (with time, orientation lock, bluetooth, WiFi, battery status, and settings access) no matter what app is open.
The PlayBook’s on-screen keyboard is really quite nice, but has quite a few limitations. First off, there is not only no auto capitalization, but there is also no, none, zilch auto correction. Yes, you read that right – there is no auto correction in the current PlayBook OS. While misspelled words are underlined with the classic red zig-zag line, the PlayBook offers no spelling assistance. It would’ve been nice if RIM had included a dictionary in the box as well since the PlayBook isn’t any help. The famed double tap spacebar trick first found on BlackBerrys is also oddly missing from the PlayBook’s keyboard. We really don’t quite understand how RIM didn’t add that to the PlayBook’s OS since its a classic staple of BlackBerrys. Thankfully, touch typing on the keyboard is a real pleasure, so it’s not a huge issue that there is no auto capitalization or double press space bar shortcut. We still hope RIM adds much needed improvements to the keyboard experience quickly.
Updating the QNX OS is really simple and is done OTA. The updates are rather large at ~300MB a piece, but are still half the size of iOS updates. RIM has been pumping out updates very, very quickly since launch with two updates already released and a third just around the corner. We really hope RIM keeps this fast paced update schedule as time goes on.
The PlayBook’s browser, complete with Flash 10.2 support, is the best we’ve ever used on a mobile device – which is a really good thing since you’ll be spending a ton of time in it due to the lack of a native email client and complete lack of 3rd party apps. The UI, as with the rest of the OS, is very smooth and easy to use. Switching between tabs is fast and we never ran into an issue where multiple open pages slowed the browser down. We did manage to crash it once while trying to play a video on Vimeo, but weren’t able to reproduce it.
RIM’s implementation of Flash is by far the best we’ve seen. In fact, we’d go so far as to say Flash works almost as well as it does on a Windows PC (which is to say, quite well). Using Vimeo or YouTube weren’t an issue, and the PlayBook handled 720p videos without issue. While 1080p YouTube videos didn’t go over as well, they did play normally after a (very) extended buffering period. Using the quality or size controls on YouTube wasn’t an issue, even though they’re quite small. Compared to how Flash performs on Android, and specifically Honeycomb tablets, RIM really got it right.
The browser is not without its faults though. Because RIM chose to ship the PlayBook without a native email client, webmail is your only option (unless you have a BlackBerry and use Bridge). We use MobileMe and couldn’t log in. Outless WebAccess for our Exchange accounts also wasn’t perfect. Many of the controls are very small and somewhat hard to tap and control. The same issues appeared in Gmail when trying to select the check boxes for multiple messages for instance.
The PlayBook ships with around 30 built-in apps. Those range from the browser, camera, music, and App World apps to Word/Sheet/Slideshow To GO, which are just like Data-Viz’s Documents To Go apps minus a bunch of features (like Google Docs and Dropbox integration). You also get NFS Undercover and Tetris preloaded, two apps developed with the NDK (native development kit) – and it shows. There’s also a nice weather app which uses AccuWeather.com for data. Because there is no native email client or Facebook/Twitter integration, RIM included links to Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Hotmail, etc. We really don’t think web links are at all a replacement for native apps. Unfortunately we can’t blame developers much here since the NDK has yet to launch, and won’t do so until this summer – at least a month after the PlayBook’s launch.
RIM also includes a Music Store app powered by 7Digital for purchasing music directly on the PlayBook. That’s a nice gesture, but it’s yet another service to sign up and create an account for. The same goes for eBooks where RIM uses Kobo’s software. While the software seems nice, you’re required to create an account to download the three free books – which we really didn’t feel like doing. As you can probably guess, there are no apps from B&N or Amazon around for reading Nook or Kindle books.
Bing Maps is nice but still no match for Google’s offering we think. Here, both iOS and Android are far ahead when it comes to mapping. Also, the PlayBook is said to sport GPS but it doesn’t appear to be working for hardly anyone. So unless your WiFi router has had its location registered, you’re not going to get a very accurate location fix.
As we’ve mentioned numerous times, there is no native email app to be found on the PlayBook currently. Let us say that again – there is no native email app anywhere on the PlayBook. Unless you own a BlackBerry, you are completely out of luck here. While webmail works reasonably well for most services, as we said above, as MobileMe users we were 100% out of luck. Good thing our iPhone never leaves our side and received email from all five of our email accounts just fine, and with push to boot. We really cannot understand at all why RIM did not include a native email client at launch here. It just makes no sense. RIM, the maker of BlackBerrys – which are the iconic messaging workhorse – seemed to stick its head in sand here and completely forgot what the BlackBerry is known for. We’re all for RIM reinventing itself with the QNX OS, but that absolutely does not mean forgetting what made RIM and BlackBerrys great. We desperately hope RIM gets it together and gets native email, contact management, and calendaring apps on the PlayBook stat.
RIM included Bridge on the PlayBook as a way for existing BlackBerry users to access their email, contacts, calendars, notes, tasks, and files on a largers screen. Bridge is reasonably easy to set up, although we were not able to use the automated pairing mode which implements the barcode from BBM groups. You can also use the Bridge Browser when not in a WiFi area which goes over your BlackBerry’s data connection. The PlayBook also has built in tethering capabilites with bluetooth, although RIM warns you that additional charges may apply.
As far as security goes, the bluetooth connection is encrypted with 256bit AES and all data remains on your BlackBerry. Because of this, corporate BES polices remain in effect. The PlayBook is simply a larger screen to view your BlackBerry’s content on.
By using Bridge, you have access to a native email client. And oh what a fantastic client it is. We really, really hope RIM gets this on the PlayBook as a native app without the Bridge requirement ASAP.
3rd Party Apps
Unfortunately there’s not much to say here. There just are no great apps for the PlayBook yet. We’ve scoured App World for days, begged and pleaded on Twitter for other PlayBook users to point us in the right direction, and every time come up with absolutely nothing. In our time with the PlayBook, we’ve come across two pretty good apps – Car & Driver’s Test Drive app, which is only a sampling of what a great magazine app could be, and Poynt. Poynt, unfortunately, doesn’t work all that well because of the extremely buggy GPS. We hear that Fourplay is a must for Foursquare fans, but we aren’t users of the service.
The app situation for the PlayBook is really dire right now. There just aren’t any apps. Looking through our notes for this review, three of the points (one of which we cannot reproduce here due to its language) are all directed towards the serious lack of apps. RIM claims App World on the PlayBook launched with over 3,000 apps. Not only do we not believe this statement, it’s an absurdly long stretch. The majority of apps are converted Flash or Air apps which simply do not compare to what is possible with the NDK. RIM’s promised ability to run Android 2.3 apps on the PlayBook? Coming later. RIM’s promised ability to run BlackBerry Java apps? Coming later. Also confusing to current BlackBerry users may be the fact that the PlayBook’s App World is not the same as your BlackBerry’s App World. When we let a friend use the PlayBook, they were completely confused that apps on their BlackBerry weren’t available on the PlayBook. “But isn’t this a BlackBerry, just in a tablet form?”, they asked.
We had a discussion with a few other PlayBook reviews on Twitter debating whether the sever lack of apps is the fault of RIM or of lazy developers. RIM has made Air and Flash SDKs for the PlayBook available for quite some time. Unfortunately many developers have said they are hard to use and the development process is long and confusing. It’s also very important to note that the best apps on the PlayBook currently, such as EA’s wonderful NFS Undercover, were built using the currently unavailable NDK. We think it’s an absurdly bad decision on RIM’s part to not release the NDK ahead of the PlayBook’s release. In fact, its release is still at least a month away.
It seems as though RIM is having a hard time getting developers excited about the PlayBook platform. Or at least getting serious developers excited about the platform. There are plenty of mediocre applications available on the App World, but we’re looking for full-featured applications from serious developers – and needs to do so with the NDK.
For now, if you’d like to see a lot of apps on your tablet of choice, we cannot at all recommend the PlayBook. But hopefully – seriously, we really, really hope RIM gets some great devs on board – RIM will get the NDK out the door quickly and somehow entice developers (maybe with even more free PlayBooks?) to write some great apps.
The PlayBook pricing is quite simple, just how we like it. $500 gets you a 16GB PlayBook, $600 gets you a 32GB unit, and $700 gets you the almighty 64GB unit. Keep in mind that Apple’s iPad 2 has the same exact pricing. When we asked our same friend from above about the PlayBook’s pricing, she immediately responded with “No way! That’s way too much for this little thing.” And we tend to agree. While RIM’s pricing isn’t completely out of line like with some other tablet makers, we think $500 for a 7” tablet – especially with the dire app situation and no native email – is just too much. Drop each price by $100 and then we’d say RIM is right on the money.
If this review seems to be half praise and half hates, that’s because we feel really split on the PlayBook. It seems like a half-baked product that RIM rushed to market so as not to be lost in the wave of tablets coming later this year. Unfortunately for RIM, the iPad 2 and Xoom launched weeks ago and are ripe for comparison with the PlayBook. We think the PlayBook hardware is really fantastic – RIM has always been known for fantastic hardware. The QNX OS is a fantastic foundation for RIM’s next-gen OS. But unfortunately, there’s still way, way too much missing or just not complete for us to recommend anyone other than BlackBerry diehards (and even then we think it’s a hard sell) buy. Hopefully RIM can work on fixing our biggest concerns, like the lack of a native email client for non-Bridge users, the complete lack of 3rd party apps, and the half-baked virtual keyboard. But until that time, our bottom line recommendation is to stay away from the PlayBook – for now at least.