Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
6/9/2011 4:01:20 PM
Great at multitasking, with an intuitive, gorgeous-looking display, it?s also dinky enough to fit comfortably into any average size bag
The BlackBerry App World is lacking in apps when compared to Apple and Android?s offerings. The fact you can only get online via Wi-Fi may put off some
This tablet malarkey is really taking off isn't it? Anyone who's anyone is getting involved with increasingly mixed results. The latest to make a splash in this convergence pond is RIM, which is surprising in itself as it's a manufacturer who has never been known for its innovation, but has rather stuck to a tried and tested (albeit consistently good) recipe. So what of the PlayBook?
We deliberated over RIM's branding for their tablet device, before deciding it's actually a clever piece of marketing. Sure 'PlayBook' sounds like something you might buy your four year old niece, but RIM has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the idea that their devices are solely for the business user. That's not to say the suits among you won't be taken care of ('Documents To Go' is preloaded complete with Word and Adobe Reader). Rather, the point it wants to make is that there's far more to the PlayBook than spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.
With the tablet revolution still in its early stages, manufacturers are still sussing out the optimum size. Indeed, it's fair to say that we as the consumers are still deciding. While Samsung for example, has unveiled 10.1-inch and 8.9-inch tablets (the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9), RIM has opted for a more modest seven-inch display. Though this is surrounded by a thick border (more interesting that it seems - more on that later), it's still a very transportable device. You'll struggle to fit it into your pocket, but a bag would be no problem and it certainly won't weigh you down. It's also on the right side of skinny, measuring just 10mm thick, which though not as svelte as the iPad 2, is more size zero than most of its competitors.
Hold the PlayBook horizontally so the BlackBerry logo is positioned underneath the screen, and at the top of the device you'll find a power button - a quick press of which will lock the screen, while a longer press will turn it off or restart it - three media keys including volume controls and a pause/play button and on the far right hand side a 3.5mm headset jack. At first we were unsure about the positioning of this port. You don't want the lead of your headphones obstructing the display when viewing a video for example. However, here comes the clever bit. No matter what way you hold the PlayBook, the screen will re-orientate, so you can effectively have your headset port at the bottom of the device, a far less obtrusive way of watching your movies. On the opposite side are a microUSB port, an HDMI port and a docking port that suggests, unsurprisingly, that we'll be seeing a number of accessories accompanying the PlayBook in the near future.
Up in the intro, we accused RIM of previously lacking innovation. Well that's certainly not an accusation that can be thrown at the PlayBook. That thick border that encompasses the display actually doubles up as the navigational controls. A swipe from various positions of the border onto the display will result in various actions. For example, swipe from the top border downwards and you'll bring up a list of all your connectivity options. Likewise, swiping up from the bottom border will bring up a full menu. However, swipe from the bottom left hand corner and a full QWERTY keyboard will appear. There's no illumination or icons to help you along, so it will take a while to get used to, but once you do it's a slick satisfying method of navigating around your tablet.
The display itself is not only beautifully vibrant with a noteworthy resolution of 600x1024 pixels and up to 16 million colours, it's also impressively tactile. Swiping through menus and windows is fluid and the QWERTY keyboard, when in landscape mode is perfectly sized so that each of our thumbs could reach the middle keys without having to stretch or adjust our hand positions. Rather than the standard haptic response a press of each character results in a satisfying tinny sound that still assures you that your key press has been recognised. One aspect that did take a bit of getting used to was the fact that when you press the symbol and numeric key, all the numbers keys are actually grouped together on the left of the keyboard, rather than at the top which is more the norm. Of course this is no biggie, we're merely pointing out that it's something else you will have to get used to.
While the tablet market is getting saturated with Android-toting devices, the BlackBerry PlayBook, like the iPad, uses its own OS, called QNX. Multitasking is at the heart of the PlayBook's operating system and with the aid of a 1GHz dual core processor my how it zips along. We've had it on good authority that up to 50 browser windows (expect a full desktop-like browsing experience), applications and programs have been opened at any one time without any detriment to speed or prowess. We have to admit we quit after 15 and were still whizzing between the various pages at a phenomenal rate. You can skip between programs by two means. One by firstly minimizing them by sliding from the bottom border onto the screen and then simply skimming through them from left to right, which also gives you access to the menu thus being able to open up more programs. Or by simply sliding from either the left or right side of the border, which will keep the programs fully open. You can decide whether you want your programs to continually run in the background when you minimize them, or for them to automatically pause.
Some of the criticism thrown at the BlackBerry PlayBook is what it lacks, rather than what it does. It's true there is no native email client - though there is direct access to Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and even AOL Mail - no calendar and no contacts facility. However, pull down the connectivity page and you'll find an option titled BlackBerry Bridge. Via Bluetooth you'll then be able to pair your PlayBook to your BlackBerry smartphone and then access all your content including email, contacts and calendar on your PlayBook. It was a cinch to set up and played fantastic on the device. Any changes you make on the PlayBook will be saved on the smartphone and as soon as the Bluetooth connection is broken, the PlayBook will automatically be rid of any of your information, which is reassuring in a security sense. Of course, this function is limited to people who already have a BlackBerry phone, but it's not a criticism that gets thrown at Apple and in a dog eat dog world fair play to RIM for recognizing an opportunity to shift more smratphones. Indeed a RIM spokesman told us that he expected dealers to offer packaged deals consisting of both a PlayBook and a BlackBerry smartphone.
Another string to the PlayBook's bow is its HDMI qualities. Hook the PlayBook to any HDMI TV (sadly no HDMI cable is included with the PlayBook) and you'll be able to play any media content, view images or browse the web on a bigger screen. Nothing groundbreaking there we hear you say? True, but what is pretty cool is that you can have one particular program open in full on the TV, while having full access to the rest of your PlayBook on the actual tablet. This means you could conduct a presentation for example while having complete access to all your notes and auto-cues, or even Tweet your thoughts while watching a streamed football game (the PlayBook can play flash video).
The PlayBook has both a front facing and back camera. The back camera with its five-megapixel credentials is actually quite impressive. It's got no kind of flash and we didn't like the fact you had to open up the gallery to check the quality of the photo you had just snapped, but in truth you're more likely to use your smartphone to capture those magical moments rather than pulling out a tablet, even if it is less conspicuous than say the iPad. Of more interest is the three-megapixel front facing camera which enables you to conduct video calls with other PlayBook devices. Of course, key to this function taking off is people buying the PlayBook, and it only highlighted the fact that at present there's no Skype application available from BlackBerry App World.
Which leads us nicely to our biggest, and perhaps only real noteworthy grievance with the BlackBerry PlayBook. RIM claims at launch there will be 3,000 apps available for the PlayBook. Well we're not far away from that day and the developers need to get their skates on. Even if that figure is reached, it's still shadowed by the numbers available on both the Android and Apple App markets. As well as Skype, BBC iPlayer and the ever popular Angry Birds are glaring omissions from the BlackBerry App World. However, with RIM claiming Android apps will soon be available to the PlayBook, at least the issue of lack of apps looks as though it's being addressed.
We have to admit, we had our doubts as to whether RIM could pull of a tablet device. We're big fans of their Bold, Curve and Pearl ranges, but as yet haven't felt that they've nailed either the touch-screen or consumer friendly OS. That was until now. The BlackBerry PlayBook looks great and has an intuitive sparkling interface. In terms of size, it's on the smaller scale - not necessarily a bad thing - and the fact it runs solely on Wi-Fi are factors that need considering. Yet if you take RIM for their word about more apps becoming available in the near future, the BlackBerry PlayBook is a welcome alternative to the iPad and Android tablets and well worth a punt.