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BlackBerry PlayBook

April 24th, 2011
RIM claims its stake in the red-hot tablet arena.

RIM has often been the definition of conservative: for the past few years, the BlackBerry has almost always been slight variations on a theme and still devoted to the suit-and-tie audience. The BlackBerry PlayBook is the first real sign of the Waterloo company trying to shake its stigma with a genuinely new interface and an emphasis on 3D games and other features that would have been borderline heretical in the past. And, for some, an admission that Apple caught it off-guard with the iPad. We'll find out in our review of the PlayBook whether the tablet is enough to break free of a limiting reputation -- and whether the iPad 2 should be looking over its shoulder. Hardware design

A first grasp of the BlackBerry PlayBook will confirm that RIM has at the very least nailed down the ergonomics and build quality. It's a bit heavy-feeling in the hand for the seven-inch display size, but at 0.9 pounds it's still noticeably lighter than the 1.3-pound iPad 2 and by extension much easier to hold if you're in a lengthy reading session -- appropriately, Kobo's e-book reading app is loaded from the start. We most liked the rubberized texture on the back. Unlike the slippery and slightly scratch-prone aluminum used by Apple or on one version of the Motorola Xoom, there's never a fear it will slip out of your hand through no fault of your own.

That seven-inch screen also makes it eminently more portable. We checked, and true to form, it will fit nicely in a typical coat pocket. If having a tablet always with you matters, the PlayBook has to be on the short list. RIM was even thoughtful enough to include a neoprene pouch that tightly wraps around the body so you never have to worry about whether or not the tablet is about to get scuffed or will break in a light drop. We wish Apple were so considerate. It's visibly thicker than the iPad 2 at about 0.39 inches versus the 0.35 Apple managed, although we didn't see that as a problem given how easily gripped the PlayBook was in our hands.

Visible controls are very few; the only ones visible are the power button, volume controls, and a play/pause button. There was never an issue of accidentally hitting the buttons even while using the PlayBook in a portrait ratio, but we ironically had problems hitting the power button on purpose. The power button is small on all PlayBooks, but review units like ours have it almost completely flush with the body. We got used to it quickly, but it's not confidence-inspiring when just putting your device to sleep is a challenge. RIM has said that production models have a slightly more raised power button, and we don't expect it to be a problem for most. It does show just how last minute some of the design decisions were.

What you won't find are regular hardware navigation buttons. Taking a strong cue from HP's webOS, app switching and other features are controlled by gestures on the bezels, all of which are touch-sensitive. We'll go into more detail with these when we look at the software, but we were glad to note that the sensitivity didn't result in accidental input. It does save you the trouble of using the power button to wake the PlayBook up, since a simple swipe from bezel to bezel will work.

Connection-wise, there's more than you'll get on some competitors, though it's kept to a minimum. A micro USB port is your chief source of charging and wired syncing. The diverse ecosystem of speakers, docks, and other add-ons from the iPad universe doesn't exist here, but the use of a standard connector does mean that many generic accessories like power packs will work. Audio isn't spectacular but is capably loud at higher volumes. One unique trick is a set of charging contacts used for two special accessories, the Rapid Charging Dock and the Rapid Travel Charger: plug the tablet into either and it charges up about twice as quickly as on the regular AC brick.

Video output comes from a micro HDMI jack. Once you have the necessary cable, sadly not included, you can show whatever's onscreen, including 1080p video. Moreover, RIM gives an exceptional amount of control that ought to be a lesson for not just Apple but Google and most everyone else. You can define seemingly every aspect of how video comes out, down to the aspect ratio and whether or not audio goes through HDMI. Mirror mode also isn't mandatory, so in contrast to the iPad's Digital AV adapter, you can use the PlayBook for dual-screen tricks like having presentation slides on a projector and your personal notes on the other.

The main display itself is certainly a selling point. While not as high resolution as the iPad's at 1024x600, 168 pixels narrower, it's very clearly using a high-quality IPS (in-plane switching) based panel. Colors are very rich without being overdone, and viewing angles are extremely wide; you have to be near-sidelong to see any change in the picture quality. The LCD is brighter than that on the already good iPad 2 and thus somewhat better for reading outside, though it's given a glossy glass cover and won't fulfill dreams of reading on a bright sunny day in the park.

BlackBerry Tablet OS: the core interface

Before we dip into actually using the interface, we'll note that setup is a slightly drawn out process. The PlayBook doesn't require a computer to start working -- something Apple could stand to learn from, if it hasn't already -- but it does feel more like setting up a computer, with walkthroughs of setting up a BlackBerry ID, Wi-Fi, and other features. We'll add that there's a frustrating first-boot update check that will force you to get the latest version of the OS if one is available. Over-the-air updating is wonderfully convenient, but not if you have to wait 10 minutes for a 200MB update to download and install before you can even get going. A check at the home screen with an option would have been wiser.

Quickly glancing at the OS gives the impression of a mix of old and new. The home screen has BlackBerry 6's app tray virtually intact, down to the category filters, but multitasking is now not only an important feature but a central one. Any running task appears as a card on the home screen that you can either tap to switch to or else close, either through an X button (the quickest) or an upward swipe. Also new is a top status bar that now lets you change some of the most commonly sought-after settings, or go to the deeper options menu, right from the home screen; it's a relief to turn on Bluetooth or the orientation lock without having to wade into menus.

Once again taking a cue from webOS, much of the between-app navigation and special app options are controlled from the bezel. You swipe from the bottom bezel up to the screen to return to the home screen and switch apps. A top-down swipe brings up the contextual menu for an app if it has one, and swiping from either side will switch to the next available app. You can even force the keyboard to come up at any point with a swipe inwards from the bottom left corner. It's not as immediately intuitive as on an iPad and even gets a tutorial on first boot. Still, it quickly became instinctual, and it does keep the on-screen interface free of clutter.

Arguably the single most impressive aspect of the PlayBook is simply how well it can juggle running apps. Blackberry Tablet OS is based on QNX, a very low-level, real-time operating system that's designed for car infotainment systems and other devices that need the most power out of what could be a very minimal chip. The PlayBook is fed by a dual-core, 1GHz TI OMAP 4430 processor, and the extra power lets it achieve feats that you wouldn't think are possible. We've seen it running a 1080p video, a 3D game demo, a browser, and other apps all at once without flinching, even when the apps are thumbnailed in the home screen. It normally pauses video when you swing away from it, but that's to avoid missing out on footage, not because of performance. There are very few instances in which the PlayBook will visibly bog down; we've seen that from the iPad 2 as well in most cases, but not as clearly visible.

Graphics aren't as powerful. Where the iPad 2 is using a very fast dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2, the PlayBook is using a single-core SGX540 that's roughly in between the original iPad's SGX535 and the iPad 2. In practice, that's enough to enable the dual-screen support and 1080p, but not enough to fundamentally change 3D. RIM bundles a copy of Need For Speed: Undercover with its tablet that runs very smoothly but, tellingly, isn't any more visually advanced than what an original iPad user would see. As such, this isn't a hardcore gamer's tablet, but that RIM takes 3D seriously is an important plus in itself.

Included apps, App World, and the seven-inch tablet debate

It's in the bundled apps that the bloom starts to come off of the rose.

We like the web browser; it's noticeably slower than on an iPad but, since it uses WebKit, is accurate and feels modern. Flash is onboard and for once is mostly usable, thanks largely to its integration with the OS itself and a dual-core processor. We still noticed some banner ads and video implementations struggling, but full-page Flash sites often load smoothly and work properly, if they're touch-friendly in the first case. RIM also managed to get that direct responsiveness to multi-touch pinches and swipes that's so coveted in the iPad but which Google has trouble with even today. The music player is considerably more polished than on BlackBerry 6. Even as it won't compete with what Apple has right now, it's clean and smartly designed for multitasking. A music store from 7digital is even built-in.

There's nonetheless a constant sense in many of the other apps that you're getting less than you should. The YouTube app, for example, will show comments but not let you make them, and you can't sign in to get your favorites or subscriptions. Both the photo and video apps are easy to navigate, but there's none of the sharing or editing options you would expect from virtually every other tablet OS either on the market or coming soon. Microsoft's Bing Maps provides navigation but doesn't have a street-level view or voice navigation and comes across as rough. Overall, there's the distinct sense that it's an experience you know from somewhere else, but just not as good.

We'll give credit to RIM for getting users started with a number of more specialized apps out of the box. Along with the aforementioned and generally well-done Kobo reader and NFS: Underground, there's also the tablet-optimized version of Slacker Radio for Internet streaming, Tetris, BlackBerry Podcasts, and even a National Film Board of Canada video viewer app. Appropriately given the business heritage, DataViz's Documents To Go suite is there to provide some basic Office file editing. If only other tablets were so ready to go in certain areas.

A visit to BlackBerry App World isn't quite so enthusing. It turns out that most of the truly quality apps are the ones that you didn't have to download. At launch, about 3,000 apps were on tap in the store. That sounds like a good selection until you realize that there are gaping holes in the app selection: as of this review, there wasn't a straightforward Twitter client, official or otherwise, and we saw a similarly poor mix in most other categories we checked. We were shocked at how little we could actually find that was worth getting.

Moreover, the app strength is decidedly hit or miss. For a company that was eager to tout "super apps" that allegedly gave the BlackBerry an emphasis on quality over quantity, both are difficult to find. Some professional apps like the Huffington Post and WeatherEye exist, but there are also quite a few prominently featured apps that feel more like their creators' first-ever mobile apps, rough, plain, and not very enjoyable. There's a disconcertingly large number of one- and two-star reviews on App World, and while we couldn't try every app, cursory looks often made it clear why they weren't treated so kindly.

Some of the issue may be the development environment, which isn't visible to the user but colors the entire experience. More than one developer has complained of an expensive and unintuitive development kit as well as of a lack of direction. Developers can write in Adobe's AIR (browser-free Flash), WebWorks, and to some degree, natively. But what's best for a given app isn't always clear, and the relative lack of help getting sorted appears to have left some apps in crude states. Apple's 65,000 iPad-native third-party apps are a testament to the importance of courting developers, and as an end user, you get the reward through having both sheer volume and quality at the same time.

Regardless of whether you're using an official or outside app, the debate exists as to whether or not a seven-inch tablet is even useful. Apple chief Steve Jobs is well known for having savaged them as impractical and too close to smartphones. In our experience, there's a bit of room for doubt. The seven-inch size is outstanding for books, very usable for music apps like Slacker, and even quite enjoyable for videos. We felt like the main interface made good use of the available space, too, and that users don't have to "sand down their fingers" to make it usable, as Jobs said.

Like it or not, though, Jobs is mostly right if the PlayBook is used as the example. Outside of games and media, the usable area is simply too cramped, whether it's in portrait or landscape. RIM was thoughtful enough to let you hide the web browser's address bar to make the use of the screen real estate in that area, but it always feels like you're looking through a porthole in the browser or any other app where visibility is important. Kobo's two-page landscape mode is near-useless since the size leaves just a couple of paragraphs on each page. Documents To Go at times feels too small. And third-party apps, even if they're designed to work like their counterparts on Android or iOS, usually end up sacrificing some usability to fit the tinier workspace.

That extends to the keyboard. It's quite comfortable for thumb typing and makes for probably the only tablet we know so far that's quick for thumbs-only use held in anything but portrait mode. For long-form typing, though, it's just not very practical. The small keys dictated by the seven-inch screen leaves you hunting and pecking if you're using your full hands where an iPad owner can go full bore. Different sizes have their own advantages, but for a company that's supposed to pride itself on keyboards ideal for writing, it's ironic that an iPad is much better in that area. You can use a Bluetooth keyboard and even a mouse. To us, though, that's defeating the point of having such a small device meant to be pocketable.

Glaring flaws: the lack of messaging and the need for BlackBerry Bridge

More irony comes in with messaging. There's no independent, native apps for e-mail, instant messaging, calendars, contacts, or even notes and to-dos. RIM, a company born on text-based communication, doesn't have a single, independent communication app built-in. Several icons sit on the app launcher for Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and other common mail services, but they're all just web shortcuts.

In their absence, RIM instead asks users to use BlackBerry Bridge, a suite of companion apps that effectively borrow mail, file sharing, and the other app services from a paired BlackBerry phone through a Bluetooth link; you use its 3G connection to send data. Bridge is simple enough to set up and does take advantage of the tablet screen area, with an iPad-style mail app and viable if not terribly complex equivalents elsewhere. There's even a browser much like the native version that gives you the sense you're tethering (which is also an option) on the cheap; whether it's actually cheap or not is another matter, since AT&T and other carriers were threatening to require the same $20 rate hike they normally do for anyone sharing a BlackBerry's data with the PlayBook.

Unfortunately, the notion that you can just use Bridge as a full-fledged replacement for native apps just doesn't hold up. E-mail quickly falls flat; it's a good app for basic messages and reading some HTML mail, but attachments, at least on an EVDO-based 3G connection, were excruciatingly slow since they had to transfer from the PlayBook on Bluetooth's 3Mbps maximum link before they could even leave for the mail server. The browser, even on a known fast connection, also regularly bottlenecked in our tests and refused to finish loading even simple websites after progressing halfway. BlackBerry Messenger is entirely off-limits; there's no app for it whatsoever in the early PlayBook firmware, Bridge or not.

RIM has tried to argue that the absences are acceptable since it's catering to existing BlackBerry users, and in fairness it has said there would be native apps for mail, BBM, and more coming within 60 days of the April 19 launch. We may revisit the PlayBook once they're added, but we still have to ask: why, then, not just wait until the apps were ready? Why sour the early adopters, the ones most likely to spread good or bad opinions and drive (or kill) the first wave of sales? More importantly, why not just focus on developing the native apps instead of their feature-equivalent but still limited Bridge counterparts?

Until that update arrives, and assuming it isn't delayed, the PlayBook is virtually neutered for anyone who isn't deeply interested the BlackBerry ecosystem or can thrive solely on a webmail interface. Even the loyal can also get burned. All it takes is to forget a phone at home or to wander outside of Bluetooth's 33-foot range, and all that messaging disappears. When every other company to have ever made a public-facing tablet OS has had native mail, to exclude it is unacceptable.

Camera apps and image quality

Things do get somewhat better when capturing photos and movies. The PlayBook's interfaces for still and moving images are very easy to use. You'll still look silly taking photos with a tablet, but it's not hard to grab photos. Settings are regrettably kept to basic components such as resolution and the aspect ratio, although there's a pair of unique presets to tune the sensitivity. The Sports mode is designed to catch fast action scenes at the expense of extra visual noise, while Whiteboard helps in properly contrasting and focusing on writing against a bright backdrop.

Sharing is, as we hinted earlier, the fundamental problem here. Without native options to upload to Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, or any other outside sites from within the photo or video viewers, your only options are to either e-mail them out using the slow BlackBerry Bridge link or to plug into a computer through USB to copy them over. Android and iPad users often have one or more of these to choose from with the default apps.

Video chat and post-shoot editing are equally missing and make the PlayBook feel underused. Implementations as deep as Apple's FaceTime or iMovie might be difficult, but we'd have at least hoped for something closer to Android 3.0's Gmail-derived chat and basic video editor, or else a third-party app like Qik.

Image quality is at least much better than it is using the iPad 2's anemic cameras, or even those we've seen on the Motorola Xoom or ASUS Eee Pad Transformer. The five-megapixel shooter on the back of the PlayBook is not only much higher resolution than what we've seen from Apple; it produces overall better image quality, too. You'll still see noise in low light, as well as that slight cameraphone-like softness. There's no flash or tap-to-focus, either. Still, the PlayBook can at least take photos we'd be happy to share at full size, which is more than we can usually say about the iPad.

That extends to the front camera as well. The three-megapixel sensor is the highest resolution we've seen so far from a front camera on a tablet, and it's also much better for photos and video than what's on the iPad 2. We could see visibly more noise than from the back camera, but it was good enough to focus properly on our faces.

Movies turned out well for the most part. As much as the PlayBook won't replace a camcorder, the HD video (up to 1080p) we shot was smooth, relatively artifact-free, and graceful in handling transitions between light and dark. There was a noticeable "tower of Jell-O" effect with rapid pans caused by the rolling shutter, though this is common to even the highest-end DSLRs so far. We'd post a video directly, but as you'll soon read, making that video accessible wasn't possible because of RIM's haste.

Notes on syncing and battery life

If you're a Windows user, you can use the official BlackBerry Desktop Software app to shuffle content or enable raw file sharing to drag and drop content. It's not as comprehensive as iTunes or as tied to the cloud as Android or webOS, but it's certainly very workable. The pure file support is definitely something we hope Apple introduces in iOS 5 or later, since the current iTunes file sharing option is a stopgap at best.

Mac users won't fare so well. Native support for the PlayBook in the Mac OS X version of BDS isn't coming until summer. Without it, there's just no incentive to shoot photos or video as you not only can't sync but can't mount the PlayBook as a direct drive. You can put it on the local network, but that's both slower for large files and will require the tablet to be charging to avoid killing the battery. Like we said, there's no built-in online sharing, and Bridge e-mail is too slow to be viable. Users of Apple's OS admittedly aren't part of the core target market, but it's another instance of RIM artificially limiting the scope of who can use it, at least for a few months. It very literally made it impossible to post a result for our review.

Battery life is generally good, though it falls short of the promises of iPad-level battery life at the start of the year. Officially, though it's well-hidden from public view, RIM claims an average of eight to 10 hours. We found that to hold up when browsing the web or using fairly low-to-moderate intensity apps.

Non-stop video runs under those expectations and might just illustrate a difference in software optimization. Apple promises the same 10 hours whether you're browsing the web or watching HD video, and in our experience largely delivers. The PlayBook gets slightly over seven hours, or enough for a long flight but without as much of a buffer as the iPad after you land.

Wrapping up

We wanted to like the BlackBerry PlayBook, and in some ways, we still do. The hardware is designed with a love and attention that's still rare in tablets from beyond Cupertino. It's genuinely unique. And while we think HP would like to have a word with RIM on originality, it's still true that BlackBerry Tablet OS is a solid nugget of a good idea that deserves to go far. BlackBerry phone die-hards may also be willing to jump in at this stage.

Regardless, we just can't give it a good grade. It's not finished, and RIM shouldn't be rewarded for being so overeager. RIM will say it began work on the PlayBook two years ago, but the sheer number of missing components make it clear that the real work began on January 27, 2010, when Steve Jobs was on stage showing an iPad that RIM had no answer for. You don't ship a tablet knowing it will be at least two months before many important features are ready. It's only done if you're either claiming a presence in the market simply to say you're participating or if you're trying to make an arbitrary quarterly shipping target to please shareholders. Neither are good reasons.

We're certainly interested in how the PlayBook turns out in the next few months and may even revise the review or follow it up once new features have come in. We nonetheless can't review based on promises, and there are far too many of them to make. E-mail is coming, BlackBerry Messenger is coming, video chat is coming, decent app selection is coming; that won't change the situation for someone buying in April 2011.

The pricing, starting at $499 for a 16GB Wi-Fi model, is slightly expensive for the size but would be reasonable to us provided we were getting software parity with an Android 3.0 tablet, an iPad, or the HP TouchPad. It would give the secure messaging of a BlackBerry smartphone with overall excellent hardware and interfaces underneath. As it stands, we're only getting a portion of what we need, even if what's there is often good. RIM has regularly liked to tout the PlayBook as a "professional-grade" tablet, but part of being professional is finishing what you start.

- Well-built body; grip-friendly back.

- Attractive IPS display.

- Wonderfully portable.

- BB Tablet OS is capable, clever at its heart.

- Fast; great at multitasking.

- Better than usual cameras for a tablet; 1080p.

- Solid battery life.

- Painfully unfinished software; no native e-mail, calendars, more.

- No BBM at all on launch.

- BlackBerry Bridge doesn't work as well as we'd need.

- Underdeveloped camera and image handling apps.

- Poor app selection triggered by poor developer tools.

- Screen too small for some (not all) tasks.

- No direct Mac syncing until summer.