Review: BlackBerry PlayBook.

  • April 26, 2011 8:31 am
  • by: Mike
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No tablet since the release of the iPad has garned as much media attention as RIM’s PlayBook. While the Motorola XOOM certainly had its fair share of limelight, the PlayBook has been herald not only for it’s powerful hardware, but all new QNX-based operating system. With RIM’s future hedging heavily on how well the PlayBook (and QNX) do, failing now could mean big problems in the near future.

With that said, we’ve given the PlayBook a heavy flogging in hopes of discovering every nook and cranny this device and new OS have to offer. Hop inside for the full Gadgetsteria review…

Initial Impressions & Hardware

Upon picking up the PlayBook for the first time, you’ll notice many small, minute characteristics that when added together as a whole, deliver a very professional and complete experience. For example, the rear of the PlayBook’s casing is layered with a rubberized finish that is neither too slippery or grippy — it’s just right. The screen itself is vivid and the seemingly large bezel surrounding the screen is actually functional. Yes, the PlayBook is a sight for sore eyes.

On the bottom of the device you’ll find the microUSB, mini-HDMI, and a dock connector. Flip around to the top and you’re greeted with the dreaded (and yes, it’s quite hard to push) power button, volume up/down, and headphone port. Both the left and right sides of the device are sleek and smooth.

Diving deeper into the software side of things we can’t begin to describe how much we love the new QNX-based BlackBerry OS. In fact, after having the PlayBook in hand for days on end means every BlackBerry released from this day forward with the same old stodgy BlackBerry OS of years past won’t even register on our radar. It’s that good (and that important).

Half-Baked

We’re off to a fantastic start, right? Well, let’s just say the honeymoon ends rather abruptly. While the hardware is powerful and the new OS is a joy to behold, RIM failed in numerous key areas.

For starters, the PlayBook doesn’t feature any native contacts, calendar, or email applications. It relies on BlackBerry Bridge — tethering through bluetooth to bring said functionality to the tablet. Building on that topic, we noticed many minor inconsistencies and areas from the start that we felt RIM could have provided a more user friendly approach.

For instance, it’s been a while since we’ve used our BlackBerry ID. We forgot it. No big deal. We’ll reset it on the device as we go along, right? Wrong. Resetting your BlackBerry ID requires an internet connection, which, when first setting up the device you won’t have gotten to yet (and you can’t skip forward). So off to the computer we went. After we reset our password we again had to stay next to the computer because (1) we couldn’t skip the BlackBerry ID sign on and (2) there’s no native email on the PlayBook anyway.

While we can certainly appreciate RIM being quick to update the PlayBook with up-to-the-minute bug fixes and added features, the first thing we see after turning on the tablet is a 25-minute wait as a ~300MB update downloads and installs. As much as RIM has denied it thus far, little things like this prove to us that the OS has in fact been rushed to market in a half-baked state.

BlackBerry Bridge

Another problem we found lies with BlackBerry Bridge, or more specifically, why we should even need it in the first place. For customers who already own a BlackBerry, Bridge is quite useful as it manages to keep a fairly secure environment intact.

In our brief hands-on time with BlackBerry Bridge, we found the feature to be hit or miss. Leave the PlayBook sit for a bit and you may have to disconnect and reconnect over Bluetooth to regain access. While this only happened on a couple of devices we have access to, it’s disheartening that a feature as major as Bridge still has issues that require you to restart the app entirely.

As far as the need for BlackBerry Bridge in light of RIM’s strong corporate ties, we understand why they went the route they did. But here’s the thing. The PlayBook isn’t really geared towards the enterprise market. It’s meant to hit the Apple iPad’s home turf — consumers. With that said, RIM’s biggest problem isn’t necessarily retaining current BB customers. Instead, they should be most worried about winning over Android/iOS/webOS/Windows Phone 7 fanboys. To that degree, requiring a BlackBerry smartphone to get the full experience out of the PlayBook was a failure of epic proportions, and frankly a stupid mistake to make at this stage in the game.

Perhaps the most minor yet most frequently observed issue we observed during our time with the PlayBook was inconsistant touch performance. Click a link or button one time and it’ll work fine. Come back 5 minutes later and the story could be very different. There were countless times we had to press 4, 5, or more times on a button or link to get the device to register it — not good.

Lack Of Apps

Flash is touted as one of the major features of the PlayBook. In RIM’s defense, Flash worked better on the PlayBook than any Android device we’ve tested thus far. But that doesn’t mean it makes up for the various shortcomings of the PlayBook.

As of writing, the availability of premium, high quality PlayBook apps within App World is abysmal. There isn’t a single “must have” app. Even worse, we felt extremely isolated with the PlayBook seeing as how there weren’t any multi-account IM apps or any other messaging app to converse outside of RIM’s newly walled garden with.

As for the highly touted Android application support, we were sorely disappointed to learn that it too is not ready for prime time. Instantly having access to an extra 100,000+ Android apps via virtual machine is a blessing for RIM and PlayBook customers alike, and we found it a shame yet another key feature couldn’t be made ready in time for launch. (Beginning to see a pattern here?)

Not All Bad

By now, you’re either whole heartedly agreed with us or come to the conclusion we’re a bunch of ranting lunatics who don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. Whichever side you sit on, you can’t deny the fact that RIM’s PlayBook is still causing quite a stir.

We’ll reiterate that we absolutely love the QNX undertones and what RIM has managed to transform the future BlackBerry OS into. It’s looks and feels like a truly modern, unique OS. One feature that perfectly illustrates this claim is the bezel-based gesture commands such as swiping up for the app dock/drawer and swiping down to reveal individual in-app menus. The methods in which you reveal and kill currently running apps are also fluid and intuitive. Using the bezel for navigation was a good idea on RIM’s part.

Moving back to the PlayBook’s hardware, not once during our time with the PlayBook did we ever notice any slow downs or stutters from the dual-core 1GHz processor. In this regard, RIM nailed it. The hardware (and software) is perfectly tuned to an almost Apple-like state. Reaching this sort of “perfection” is hard to obtain. Frankly, we’re quite impressed that RIM was able to do it. Though to be clear, this “perfection” is how the hardware and software work together, not that the software is perfect. (Because it isn’t.)

After experiencing the QNX operating system, we can only beg RIM to get this software onto phones ASAP. After going back to even the latest 6.x release feels like stepping back into Windows 95. Please RIM, get your ducks in a row.

Conclusion

Getting right down to the nitty gritty, can we say we’d recommend the PlayBook to anyone? In all truthfulness — not at this point. RIM simply left out or failed to develop various key areas of the PlayBook including several major marketing points.

The simple fact is this: RIM should not have released the PlayBook until all of the marketed features/services were fully operational and meticulously tested. Instead, RIM felt the pressure from the iPad 2 and dozens of Android tablets and decided to act prematurely. No matter how you slice it, the BlackBerry PlayBook is half-baked in its current form. The lack of apps and inability to do simple tasks such as send/receive email without being tethered to an aging BlackBerry smartphone platform are huge knocks against RIM’s attempts to break free of their quickly dying brand reputation.

But don’t take these criticisms as a blatant writing off of RIM’s tablet ambitions. While we believe the PlayBook was grossly over-hyped and under-developed, we believe the PlayBook (and RIM’s tablet plans as a whole) have a ton of potential. The PlayBook hardware and underlying core software are phenomenal. The various dots which connect to form the larger picture, however, are not.

Perhaps 6 months down the road RIM will finally have all the key areas of the PlayBook’s software up to snuff. But at that point, the hardware will be 6 months old in a sea of ever-changing Android tablets. Can the PlayBook keep up? And will RIM have another QNX-based tablet in the works? That is why in its current state we simply cannot recommend the PlayBook to non-BlackBerry smartphone users. For those who do currently own a BlackBerry smartphone with which to access basic email/calendar/contact features, we just say “wait”.

Rating:

  • Business: 7/10
  • Consumer: 5/10

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  • Guest

    “The hardware (and software) is perfectly tuned to an almost Apple-like state.”

    That pretty well sums up the whole problem that RIM is facing.

  • http://www.gadgetsteria.com The Gadgeteur

    No, RIM’s problem is that they over-promise and under-deliver. They also add one small feature like a revised keyboard and new battery cover and call it a new phone.

    Not to mention, RIMs unique handsets (Torch) are few and far between.

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Author: Mike

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Gadget lover, smartphone collector, and beer connoisseur. I've been writing about gadgets for three years now and loving every minute of it. Outside of the digital landscape, I enjoy being active outdoors. I'm always up for a good conversation, so feel free to drop me a line!