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Friday April 15, 2011 11:46 am

BlackBerry Playbook review

Posted by Andru Edwards Categories: Handhelds, Product Reviews

BlackBerry Playbook review

After months and months of anticipation, Research In Motion's debut tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook, is finally here. The good news is that the user interface for the new BlackBerry Tablet OS is beautiful, graceful, and operates with a simplicity that rivals that of the Apple iPad 2 ($499) and bests the Motorola Xoom's ($599-$799) oft-cluttered screens. The bad news is that, at launch, there's a lot missing. First, there's no native e-mail support. (Didn't the RIM usher in the era of mobile e-mail with the BlackBerry?) The PlayBook also suffers from a dearth of compelling—or smooth-functioning—apps. Then there's the absence of should-be-standard features—why include a front-facing camera, but no video-chat app? Updates, RIM promises, will bring much of what's missing to the PlayBook in the near future. Throw in some better app selection, too, and the PlayBook may be worth revisiting down the road, but right now, it's unfinished.

The Wi-Fi-only BlackBerry PlayBook comes in three storage capacities—16GB ($499), 32GB ($599), and 64GB ($699). The PlayBook is priced identically to the Wi-Fi-only Apple iPad 2 for the same storage capacities. Currently there's no version with cellular service, though BlackBerry users can use their smartphones as hotspots for the tablet at no extra charge. RIM has announced a 4G PlayBook that's scheduled to launch this summer, along with LTE and HSPA+ versions that will be available later this year. Sprint has confirmed it will carry the WiMAX 4G model, and Verizon and AT&T are widely rumored to pick up the LTE and HSPA+ models respectively.

A very good-looking, well-built tablet, the 14.4-ounce, 5.1-by-7.6-by-0.4-inch BlackBerry PlayBook features a black frame and contour and feels comfortable in hand. Its 7-inch screen has a resolution of 1,024 by 600 pixels, which is lower than the iPad 2's 9.7-inch touch-screen LCD, but since it's a smaller display, it actually seems sharper. One thing you won't find is a Home button, like on the iPad. To get back to the Main screen, you just need to sweep your finger up from the right corner of the display. The back panel features the BlackBerry logo and houses a 5-megapixel camera—far higher resolution than the rear-facing lens on the iPad 2, but comparable to the Motorola Xoom's rear camera. The 3-megapixel front-facing camera sits above the screen, and blows away the VGA-quality lens on the iPad 2 and is a slight improvement over the Xoom's 2-MP front lens.

The bottom panel houses a micro HDMI output, a micro USB connector, and a magnetic charging port similar to those on Apple's MacBooks (it works with an optional dock accessory, but the included charging/sync cable is micro USB). The headphone jack is up on the top panel along with Volume controls and the Power button. Internal stereo speakers project sound through thin slits on either side of the display—they can get quite loud for a modestly sized device. There are no included earphones, but the tablet does ship with a screen-cleaning cloth and a protective carrying pouch. The tablet supports 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.

The Power button is a bit of an issue on the PlayBook. It is tiny and recessed just enough that it's difficult to press. Of our two review units, we finally determined that one, on which the button became jammed, was actually defective. But the button is still tough to use on our non-defective PlayBook. It's not necessarily a reason not to buy the tablet, but is a notable and surprising shortcoming from a seasoned hardware manufacturer.

Internally, the PlayBook is armed with a new Texas Instruments processor. The OMAP4430 is a dual-core, 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 chip, like the Nvidia Tegra 2 found in the Motorola Xoom. The graphics processor TI includes is different than Nvidia's, however—it's Imagination's PowerVR SGX540. The whole chip set utilizes a dual-channel memory controller rather than the single channel controller Nvidia employs.

BlackBerry Playbook review

BlackBerry Tablet OS
The user interface for the PlayBook is quite impressive. Not only does it run smoothly, but the graphics are simple and visually interesting. Even better, the layout is very sensible. It's not quite as dead simple to navigate and organize as the Apple iOS UI, but it's easy to figure out where your apps are and makes more sense than the overly busy Honeycomb Home screen. You can navigate them by four categories: All, Favorites, Media, and Games. A dock at the lower portion of the screen expands to fill the screen with the tap of an arrow, showing you more than the six apps the minimized dock displays.

It's a bit of a bear to set up, but we were able to get the wireless sharing feature up and running after some tinkering. The PlayBook can share files and wirelessly download files from computers on the same Wi-Fi network. The set up process on the tablet is simple and requires very little effort—just some quick adjustments in the Storage and Sharing menu. It's getting the computers to cooperate that can be frustrating. We managed to get the PlayBook to show up with relative ease on a Windows 7 machine, but some earlier tries on an iMac and a Windows XP system were not initially successful. The recognition process between tablet and PC took a few minutes in our tests. Regardless, once it was set, we were able to move files from computers on the network to the PlayBook wirelessly—this is a step above the iPad 2's wireless sharing abilities, which allows for streaming between iTunes libraries and devices on the same network, but not actual file transfer.

Multitasking on the PlayBook is good in theory, but weak in implementation. The view you get of open apps is similar to that on the Xoom—meaning, you typically will get a "live" view of what you were most recently doing in each app. However, RIM made a fairly crucial mistake here—the apps are all actually running, it seems, even when in the background. Not only is that a suck on the battery, but it hobbles the tablet's basic functional abilities. On the Xoom, you can have plenty of apps "running," but they really go into a sleep-but-quick-to-wake mode whenever you're not actually using them, thus saving power and not taxing the processor. The PlayBook keeps everything running until you get a notification in the form of a flashing red signal in the upper left corner of the screen: "System is running low on memory—please close some applications." We've never seen a tablet ask that of us, and it goes against the very concept of multitasking. The best example of how this is not a good thing: Say you're playing a video in an app and then you minimize it to go to another app, it doesn't stop playing. You will hear the audio in the background as you are performing other tasks. For music, that makes sense, but not video. You must pause the video or close the app to fix this, but the general point is, not only can several apps not be open simultaneously, but the ones that are open, are actually running and using up the tablet's processing and power when they needn't be.

BlackBerry Playbook OS

There are some settings to control how apps behave when in the background—this is one of the only items in the General settings menu—but they don't seem to remedy the issue. For instance, Paused mode, which pauses every app in the background, should solve the problem, but while it did seem to make the warning messages cease, app performance (particularly the browser's) seemed to suffer when apps were un-paused for use.

And then, there are the bugs. Sometimes, your computer will not recognize the PlayBook when connected via USB cable—a problem you never encounter with the iPad. Sometimes, it shows up as a drive on your computer just as it should. Sometimes, the PlayBook can't find a wireless network when it's in a room filled with them, despite having been connected to one moments earlier. The bugginess is annoying, but that's what updates are for, so it's likely that most of these types of issues will eventually be addressed.

Performance and Speed
It's somewhat difficult to compare tablets in terms of speed and performance across different platforms. Running the SunSpider Javascript Benchmark test online, the PlayBook's score was 2473.2ms, compared with the iPad 2's 2224.0ms and the Xoom's 2075.6ms using the same Wi-Fi network. This test is a complex mix that determines how long Web pages take to load and the overall performance of the browser; lower times are better, so the PlayBook is at the bottom of the curve. Checking out the Flash tests available at CraftyMind.com, the Xoom edged out the PlayBook in the vector test, handily beat it in the bitmap test, and crushed it by almost triple the score in the text column test. As for processing tests, there aren't many available in App World, but the PlayBook seems generally fast, though the aforementioned issue with having too may apps open at once tells us that the OS probably could have been better designed to handle current tasks and shelf others in the background, as the iPad 2 and Xoom do effectively.

App World, the BlackBerry answer to Apple's App Store and the Android Market, has plenty, if not a plethora, of apps made specifically for the PlayBook at launch. That's better than the Xoom's debut. But not so fast. Many of these apps were designed using a developer's kit that was based on a PC, not a touch-screen device. Often, touch points don't match where your finger taps, probably because they were designed with a mouse and not fully tested on the PlayBook itself before launch.

The selection and quality of apps is not overwhelming, but RIM reps claim to have submissions for more than 3000 apps. Some companies launching apps for the PlayBook include: Atari, Huffington Post, Mattel, Sports Illustrated, Time, and The Weather Channel. A selection of Android apps will arrive sometime this summer and play via an Android App Player for PlayBook#151;but it's not preloaded on the device. Generally speaking, however, the apps seem a bit simple for a tablet. There's a Periodic table of Elements app that pales in comparison to the iPad's stunning Elements app. The Xoom suffers from a similar lackluster selection and wow-factor in the Android Market. Apple developers have had a year-plus jump on Android Honeycomb and BlackBerry Tablet OS app developers, and the glaring gap in functionality, selection, and overall quality is clear.

The apps loaded on to our test unit include Browser, Pictures, Music, Camera, App World, Videos, Music Store, Podcasts, YouTube, Kobo Books, Calculator, Bing Maps, Help, Weather, Clock, Need For Speed Undercover, Tetris, Voice Notes, Adobe reader, Word to Go, Sheet to Go (mobile Excel), Slideshow to Go (mobile PowerPoint), Slacker Radio, NFB (Canadian film app), along with some non-app shortcuts to browser functions, namely: Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL Mail, and Facebook. Some apps we downloaded and played around with included: Perfect Ricochet, GeeReader, SketchBook, Scroodle, Johnny Video, iRok2, SoundStorm, gNotes, and Page3.

The Music Store is affordable, has a decent selection, and allows you to sample songs before purchasing them. I was impressed by the timeliness of the options, there were lots of brand-new releases when I was browsing. It's definitely one of the bright spots in the preloaded line-up. Less impressive is Need For Speed Undercover, a first person driver game that actually doesn't let you wipe out. It's like every other first-person car-racing game, but with training wheels. I am a horrible virtual driver and always crash, but Undercover made me look like Jeff Gordon without much effort. Apps like Scroodle demonstrate the touch screen's strengths—your finger mimics a chalk stick on a realistic blackboard backdrop. Yet the touch-point issues are also exposed—as well as the chalk follows your finger's movement, it's often difficult to select a new color from the side panel. The apps, in other words, show promise, but RIM needs more selection, and more popular or compelling titles, like Netflix and Angry Birds.

One seriously painful omission: a video-chat app. Why is there a 3-megapixel front-facing camera, if there's no way to videoconference with it? RIM reps hinted at updates in the coming months when we inquired, but surely you are noticing a trend: the PlayBook is missing quite a bit of functionality compared with its competitors.

The saving grace here was supposed to be that current BlackBerry users would be able to sync their phones to the PlayBook via Bridge, thereby receiving e-mail, calendar, and contact sync directly on the PlayBook via Bluetooth. We were only able to check out this feature in a very limited beta that will not be the final version consumers receive, and RIM reps were unsure when the final Bridge functionality would be ready. When it is, e-mail, contact, calendar, and BBM chat can be pushed to the PlayBook from a paired BlackBerry phone. Since we didn't actually get to test the real thing, we'll have to revisit the PlayBook's rating when it becomes available. We were able to successfully pair the PlayBook with a BlackBerry Bold and view e-mail messages and notifications synced to the phone on the tablet, but again, functionality on the beta version was quite limited. As for non-BlackBerry Bridge e-mail integration: Yikes.

By far, the greatest shortcoming of the PlayBook is its e-mail options. Preloaded on the device, you'll find icons on the main screen that seem promising: Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail. They're just customized shortcuts to the browser, however, nothing more. There's no Microsoft Exchange, no way to sync accounts. Granted, the shortcuts appear in the browser as specialized versions of whatever service you use, like Gmail. The screen looks like Gmail on the iPad, for instance, but it is really just a shortcut to the browser, so there are no push notifications. In fact, the PlayBook cannot currently sync with any e-mail accounts without the help of BlackBerry Bridge, which isn't ready yet. RIM reps insist an update will be pushed out some time in the summer that will give the PlayBook full e-mail and contacts sync, but for now, nothing like that exists, and nothing appears on the screen to tell you when you have new messages. You have to open the shortcut to the browser and check your mail manually. In a $500-or-more tablet, this omission is hard to swallow.

As for attachments, there's no way send them from Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Hotmail using the shortcuts, which makes otherwise great apps like Word To Go far less useful. And that means you can't e-mail photos you take with the camera.

So, currently, there's really no way to access corporate e-mail, contacts, or calendar info in a professional manner, nor is there a way to get e-mail notifications or use attachments. Using the PlayBook in its current state for work would be a stretch.

The Internet tethering feature works, however. If you own a BlackBerry phone, you can use its signal as a hotspot for the PlayBook via Bluetooth. There is no extra charge for this, so for BlackBerry owners, the Wi-Fi-only PlayBook is a better deal than it is for anyone else. Eventually, you'll get the BlackBerry Bridge e-mail and contacts sync, and in the meantime, you get free signal to surf the Web. You can tether other mobile devices to the tablet, but charges will almost certainly apply.

Web Browsing
The Browser app on the PlayBook is a bright spot. Not only is it intuitive and simple, as all tablet browsers should be, but it's the first device featuring a tablet-specific OS to offer full Flash support. Video playback occurs inside the browser, not in full-screen mode like it does on the Xoom, which is still awaiting full Flash support. Granted, the PlayBook supports Flash 10.1, not 10.2, which is what the Xoom supports in Beta mode, but the experience is more seamless and closer to what browsing on a laptop is like—no need to watch everything in full-screen mode as the current 10.2 beta requires.

Bookmarking, creating new tabs, and general navigation are all a snap, though one gripe is that the screen doesn't seem to resize as seamlessly as it does on an iPad or Xoom when you double tap it—sometimes the content looks too large for the screen even after it's resized. It's not always easy to select the story you want, as the touch points are quite small for most pages' default sizes, so your best bet is zooming in before trying to select a new link. But you do get the full versions of most Web sites with the PlayBook's browser. Sometimes with the Xoom, the default is to a stripped-down mobile site.

Minor quibbles aside, the browser bests the Xoom's currently clunky Flash experience, and since Safari has no Flash support at all, the PlayBook does offer a great advantage in the Web-surfing realm—at least until the Xoom gets out of beta Flash mode.

The PlayBook's rear-facing camera isn't a viable replacement for your typical point-and-shoot camera, but its 5-megapixel shooter is better than the iPad 2's weak, sub-1-megapixel offering. What's not quite as good are the onboard options for the camera—there are far fewer shooting modes than there are on the Xoom, and, as previously stated, there's no e-mailing photos or videos as attachments from within the app. Video is captured in full 1080p HD, so you can use the HDMI out connect the tablet and view footage on your HDTV. In video mode, there is a significant delay between what you see on-screen as you film and what is actually happening in real time. RIM acknowledges this and plans to fix it in an update.

The real issue here is the 3-megapixel front-facing lens. Even the Dell Streak 7 ($199.99, 2.5 stars) offers video chat, though it does rely on some pretty horrible Android apps to do so. The PlayBook may have a better front-facing camera than either the iPad 2 or the Xoom, but it's useless without video chat, unless you're really into self-portraits. Both FaceTime on the iPad 2 and Google Talk on the Xoom have proven reliable videoconferencing options. If video chat is a priority for you, it's probably time to check out those reviews, as there's no telling when this functionality will arrive on the PlayBook and how well it will work.

Music, Photos, and Video
Video looks excellent on the PlayBook's screen and the HDMI output supports full mirroring—in HD. This is particularly useful for PowerPoint presentations, but just as good for watching HD video. If video chat ever becomes a reality, the higher res front-facing lens will offer video quality more suitable for a large television than the iPad 2's FaceTime-on-TV experience.

The Pictures app is not as interactive as the photo browser on the iPad 2, but it gets the job done and images look bright, crisp, and beautiful on the excellent screen. Unfortunately, due to the lack of e-mail integration, you can't currently send photos to friends within the app. Photos are more or less stuck on the PlayBook until you sync the tablet with your computer.

The Music app is organized in a sensible manner—nothing quite as stunning as Apple's CoverFlow, but even the iPad lacks that, so we won't knock RIM for keeping things simple. And the PlayBook provides solid audio playback via the integrated stereo speakers, but there aren't too many adjustments to the audio, like user EQ, that you can tinker with.

File support on the PlayBook is strong, but not mind-blowing for audio, which only supports MP3, AAC, WMA, and PCM files. For video, H.264, MPEG4, Xvid, and VC1 files are accepted, and there's support for JPG, BMP, GIF, and PNG for photos. The video camera records H.264 video and AAC audio in the MP4 format.

RIM unofficially rates the battery life for the PlayBook at 8-10 hours; our own test results yielded 8 hours and 15 minutes of continuous video playback with Wi-Fi on, so RIM's estimates are pretty accurate.

From its multitasking abilities to extra features like video chat to quality of apps, the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook is bested by both the iPad 2 and the Xoom. Where the PlayBook succeeds, aside from the jammed Power button issue, is in overall design. The RIM tablet has a more portable and, arguably, comfortable overall size than much of the competition, save for the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab ($399.99), along with a far-friendlier user interface than Google's Honeycomb OS. The browser, despite its shortcomings, also offers the best support for Flash thus far on a tablet. Software updates can fix the bugs, and developers may be lured to make more compelling and better-functioning apps, so there truly is room for growth here. But the big question is how RIM, a company synonymous with mobile business e-mail for the last decade, could launch its first tablet without a true native e-mail solution. The updates may be on the way, but until they're here, we have to rate the PlayBook based on what we've seen. It handles some tasks gracefully, but currently lacks the features and functionality of the iPad 2 and Google Honeycomb tablets, so it's difficult to recommend right now.

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