Review Roundup: A Closer Look at the BlackBerry PlayBook
By Martha Walz
Tablets are everywhere, and RIM is the latest player to throw its hat into the ring. RIM previewed its initial tablet offering, the BlackBerry PlayBook, at CES in Las Vegas, and the response was huge. From BlackBerry addicts to those who were using a BlackBerry device for the first time, reviewers saw the PlayBook as a completely new kind of tablet.
“The thinking behind the design of the PlayBook was not to scale up from a mobile device, but to scale down from a PC,” says Ryan Bidan, senior product manager for PlayBook at RIM. I met with Bidan in New York City last week for my own hands-on preview of the PlayBook, and Bidan explained all of the features of the tablet as well as how he believes they can add more value to business processes.
Read on for a detailed overview of the PlayBook and reactions from industry experts.
The BlackBerry PlayBook has a 7” 1024x600 WSVGA capacitive LCD touchscreen. Weighing in at 0.9 lbs. and with dimensions of 5.1”x7.6”x0.4”, it contains a 1GHz dual-core processor and runs the new BlackBerry Tablet OS, also referred to as QNX. It has support for 1080p HD video and comes with HDMI output. It has both a front- and rear-facing camera, 1GB RAM, and has both Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth connection capabilities.
Initial reactions to the PlayBook were generally positive. Some reviewers see PlayBook as a game-changer in the tablet space while others have reservations about some of its more unique features.
“This isn't just another new BlackBerry we're talking about here...the PlayBook is ALL new for RIM,” says Kevin Michaluk at CrackBerry.com.
“The BlackBerry PlayBook is surprisingly polished and responsive at this stage, even though RIM says it has a lot of work to still left to do,” agrees Paul Miller at Engadget.
“Research In Motion may have a contender in its upcoming PlayBook tablet,” says Rob Pegoraro at The Washington Post.
“While the PlayBook is not as physically unique as some tablets out there…it has one of the slickest UIs we saw at the show,” explains Casey Johnston at Ars Technica.
“But the PlayBook's proprietary operating system, based on software acquired during RIM's takeover of QNX Software Systems from Harman International in April 2010, is what makes the tablet stand out in a sea of Android and iOS rivals,” explains Nicholas Kolakowski at eWeek.
“The BlackBerry Playbook could well be the tablet that changes the game,” says the news team at TechRadar. “In a word, it’s a triumph.”
But some reviewers had reservations.
“It's a beautiful 7-inch tablet, says Jessica Dolcourt at CNET. “A sharp, high-resolution screen, pleasing rubberized perimeter, and gesture-based interface converge to create a piece of electronic equipment that I would proudly make my mini-computing companion.”
“However,” she continues, “the PlayBook comes with several thick strings attached that are awkward enough to trip up prospective tablet-buyers.”
“I was genuinely impressed overall with the hardware and the new QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS,” says Al Sacco at CIO. “That's even though I do have some reservations about the need to connect to a RIM smartphone to create a ‘BlackBerry Bridge’ for secure access to enterprise e-mail, calendar, contacts, and more.”
“Research in Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook has an uphill battle to fight this year,” agrees Devindra Hardawar at Venture Beat. “But I don’t think RIM is going to have much problem getting people excited about its device. The 7-inch PlayBook is a surprisingly sleek tablet.”
Overall look and feel
“My first impression of the BlackBerry PlayBook is that it does not feel like a BlackBerry,” says CrackBerry.com’s Michaluk. “Don't get me wrong, it still has a BlackBerry look and familiarity about it, and the hardware has that quality BlackBerry feel, but the second I touched the screen with my index finger I could tell this was really a NEW BlackBerry.”
“The BlackBerry PlayBook really does feel just awesome in the hands. It's not too heavy, not too light, not too small, not too big, it really is just right,” he continues.
“The hardware on the BlackBerry PlayBook seems to be incredibly well built,” agrees Joshua Karp at Boy Genius Report. “Honestly, it feels super solid, really good in the hand, and definitely has the weight and feel of an upmarket device.”
“The BlackBerry PlayBook is seriously snappy, thanks to its dual core processor, and seems to be very stable, thanks to its QNX OS,” says CrackBerry.com’s Michaluk.
Although many of the PlayBook’s competitors, most notably the iPad, have larger screens, reviewers generally liked the smaller dimensions of the PlayBook.
“I now think going 7 inches was a smart starting point for RIM though--the PlayBook is portable,” explains CrackBerry.com’s Michaluk. “I think the PlayBook really fits that take it with you everywhere you go niche better than the iPad.”
“The screen on the PlayBook is very crisp, rich, and bright, with text showing clearly and very easy to read,” says Boy Genius Report’s Karp.
“The screen itself is wonderful,” agrees Engadget’s Miller. “It's very bright, colors are pitch-perfect, and the viewing angle is all you could ask for.”
“The 1024x600 resolution is comparable to the 9.7-inch iPad, but because of the Playbook’s 7-inch display, the increased pixel density makes all the difference,” explains TechRadar. “It’s sharp and crisp, and HD video looks fabulous.”
“Touch responsiveness is amazing and anyone concerned that the somewhat dodgy experience of using a BlackBerry Storm or BlackBerry Torch touchscreen would be replicated on a larger scale here shouldn’t worry,” says Karp at Boy Genius Report. “The screen reacts beautifully to every input, and given the early nature of the software build, we have no doubt that this tablet will perform wonderfully in customer’s hands as far as touch is concerned.
“Touch responsiveness is mostly great, though we had a bit of trouble with some smaller controls at times, which could possibly be a software fault at this stage,” says Miller at Engadget.
“The touchscreen keyboard is very nicely laid out and super responsive, with possibly the best fake key tapping sound of all time,” he continues. “Unfortunately there's no word prediction or auto correction right now, but hopefully RIM will port in some of that functionality from its phone OS before launch.”
“The few seconds I spent typing on the software keyboard went pretty smooth,” says CrackBerry.com’s Michaluk. “Being able to pull out the keyboard with a gesture is sweet as well.”
“Scrolling, typing, and pinch-zooming were all smooth on the PlayBook, as were gameplay and media playback,” says Ars Technica’s Johnston.
The dual front- and rear-facing cameras brought mixed reviews.
“Both produced surprisingly decent images,” says TechRadar. “While we were unable to transfer the pics we took onto another device to have a proper look at them, they looked very good on the Playbook’s own screen. Even the front-facing camera was producing some very sharp shots.”
“We were in an admittedly dark room, but the 5 megapixel rear camera offered up some pretty horribly grainy images,” says Miller at Engadget. “Hopefully it can manage something better under nicer conditions.”
BlackBerry Tablet OS
The BlackBerry Tablet OS was developed by QNX and supports symmetric multiprocessing. The version currently running on the PlayBook tablets is still in beta, and there is still some tinkering to be done before the actual product launch later in Q1. Reactions to the OS were positive, with reviewers understanding that this was not the finished version of the product.
“It feels like a modern OS, and it’s definitely something that will be able to go toe-to-toe with the tablet-friendly Android 3.0 release and iOS on the iPad,” says Venture Beat’s Hardawar.
“While the software on the machine is a pre-beta build and not final, we came away with some pretty good impressions,” agrees Karp at Boy Genius Report.
“The most impressive part of the PlayBook demo was how its operating system, based on QNX's software instead of RIM's traditional BlackBerry OS, handles multitasking,” says The Washington Post’s Pegoraro. “A RIM rep launched a version of the game Quake III and began playing it, then started playing a high-definition video--then brought up the PlayBook's app-switching interface to position parts of the two windows side by side. Both continued without any hesitation.”
“For being a beta build of the OS that's not totally optimized, it runs pretty smoothly,” says Matt Buchanan at Gizmodo. “Apps open and expand, shrink and close, swoosh in and out as you swish between them without any stuttering.”
“Switching between them is quick as you like,” agrees TechRadar. “There’s no lag, there’s no brief pause. It’s just slick and easy. General multitasking on the Playbook really is fantastic.”
The BlackBerry Bridge is an innovation by RIM in which the PlayBook creates a secure Bluetooth connection with a specific BlackBerry smartphone. The connection is AES 256 encrypted and allows the user to access the native BlackBerry PIM applications on the PlayBook.
The PlayBook is BES policy-controlled: the IT policies that are enabled on the tethered BlackBerry transfer to the PlayBook and allow IT managers to set security policies. For example, they can set an expiry time for the data cached on the PlayBook or can set the device to wipe the data if it has been sitting idle for too long. All data stored on the PlayBook is encrypted.
The BlackBerry Bridge enables document viewing and editing on the PlayBook. At this time, only the native PIM functions on the BlackBerry, such as e-mail and calendar, are accessible over the BlackBerry Bridge.
Reactions to the BlackBerry Bridge are mixed.
“Pairing your BlackBerry to your PlayBook is going to allow your PlayBook to really be used as an extension of your phone,” says Michaluk at CrackBerry.com. “This is great for both enterprise and for individuals. For enterprise, it maintains security and for consumers, it's like having a monitor for your BlackBerry.”
“For business users who already own a BlackBerry device, the PlayBook's tethering abilities offer the prospect of a value-add, at least for those power users who want to sort through their deluge of messages and calendar appointments on a larger screen,” says eWeek’s Kolakowski.
“The only way to access 3G data on the PlayBook will be through a BlackBerry smartphone,” says CNET’s Dolcourt. “Tethering the PlayBook to a BlackBerry will work wirelessly through Bluetooth pairing, but it means that your BlackBerry needs to be powered on for you to use 3G on your PlayBook. On one hand, using your phone as a portable hotspot is handy--but only if you already own a BlackBerry smartphone. On the other, hotspot tethering also drains a phone's resources.”
The lack of native PlayBook apps for e-mail and calendar, however, is a glaring omission according to some reviewers.
“We're really glad to see that RIM has a solid implementation for this stuff, but that still doesn't detract from the fact that you need to own a BlackBerry to get all this functionality,” says Jacob Schulman at Engadget. “We understand that there are possible security issues (and let's face it, the company still caters mainly to the enterprise), but it just isn't acceptable for this thing to not have native apps for such no-brainer functions.”
RIM’s Bidan says that “there will be a native e-mail, calendar, contacts, all those similar kinds of apps as the platform evolves.”
“Apps. That's the big thing here,” says CrackBerry.com’s Michaluk. “…These days it's about expanding the out of the box experience with apps, apps, apps.”
Gizmodo’s Buchanan agrees. “This form factor is totally going to live and die by the apps, by the things you can do with it,” he says.
The PlayBook’s browser runs Adobe 10.1 and HTML5. PlayBook can support rich applications using Adobe AIR and BlackBerry Web Works technologies. Developers can also create immersive experiences using the native SDKs.
The support for developers and the potential for rich apps has garnered praise from reviewers.
“As for overall device strategy, RIM seemed to be pretty clear on their commitment to a well fleshed-out ecosystem,” explains Boy Genius Report’s Karp. “While the device we used didn’t have much in the way of apps beyond the basic OEM stuff, they assured us that, come launch time, Blackberry App World will be full of PlayBook-specific apps. We hope they stay firm to this commitment, as while the Playbook hardware is certainly impressive, the stock configuration does leave a bit to be desired in terms of extended functionality.”
“RIM is still going to need a BIG app catalog in order to be considered as a top player in the smartphone/mobile game for years to come,” agrees CrackBerry.com’s Michaluk. “It looks like they're doing the right things here by making it easy for developers to port over apps to the PlayBook and by giving plenty of options in developing for it. Off the bat it seems to about pulling in flash apps and turning them into PlayBook apps, but it seems pretty clear that RIM is going to support everything.”
“Because of 3G tethering, current BlackBerry owners will benefit from the PlayBook most, at least at the tablet's launch,” explains CNET’s Dolcourt. “There's an even more specialized case for corporate BlackBerry users, whose companies could control secured e-mail and calendar items on the tablet as well as on the phone.”
However, not all reviewers saw the PlayBook as a benefit to enterprise users.
“The BlackBerry Bridge currently provides secure access to corporate mail, calendar, contacts and tasks, but it doesn't offer a secure channel back to BES MDS without Wi-Fi and a VPN,” explains explains CIO’s Sacco. “If you're looking to employ the PlayBook along with custom business applications, RIM's tablet does not offer a secure channel back to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) Mobile Data Service (MDS)--unless you're connected to a corporate VPN via Wi-Fi.”
“In other words, when it comes to enterprise apps that access corporate systems--think: ERP, CRM, etc--the initial version of the PlayBook tablet will be nothing more than a 7-inch display for viewing data, unless you have access to a Wi-Fi network and VPN,” he continues. “So that field technician or sales rep out in the field will be able to send e-mail and view scheduling or inventory information via the PlayBook tablet, but he'll still have to use his BlackBerry smartphone to enter new information into those systems.”
“And that's simply not a good thing for a tablet that's largely targeting business users,” he concludes, “…though I do believe RIM will address this issue in future versions of the PlayBook.”
Looking to the future
While reviewers were left with an overall positive impression of the PlayBook, they were unsure of how it would play out in the wider tablet market.
“All in all, things are looking solid on the BlackBerry PlayBook,” says CrackBerry.com’s Michaluk. “For a person who wants an uncompromising mobile experience…I think the combination of BlackBerry smartphone + BlackBerry PlayBook will be hard to beat.”
“RIM is taking a risky (some might say daring) bet by linking the device so tightly to its BlackBerry franchise,” says eWeek’s Kolakowski. “That potentially offers a substantial built-in audience that might not exist for a stand-alone tablet--but those who own a smartphone other than a BlackBerry might not necessarily gravitate toward the idea of jumping so wholeheartedly into RIM's ecosystem.”
Gizmodo’s Buchanan agrees. “Even if they predominantly use Web mail and Wi-Fi, and don't give a hoot about missing out on BlackBerry Messenger, many people I've talked to still feel the alienating effects of being told what they can and can't have,” he says. “That's not encouraging for a company that's trying to appeal to first-time owners of any BlackBerry product…. RIM's got something here that could really stand on top of the bajillion other crappy tablets that are going to launch this year. They just have to take it the rest of the way.”
“If RIM doesn't carefully manage its perception, the PlayBook could well remain a hidden gem,” agrees CNET’s Dolcourt.
The PlayBook is scheduled to ship in Q1, and it will be “competitively priced.” A 4G version of the PlayBook is expected to launch on Sprint’s network this summer.