Despite its Adobe Flash support, the BlackBerry Playbook is not the most anticipated tablet on the market, due to its small size (7-inch) and the relatively small number of applications available on its new OS when compared to major competitors such as iOS and Android.
However, I personally like the design, the user interface, and the screen quality – very much. The device also has the reputation to deliver very good multitasking performance, which was surprising for a BlackBerry device. That’s thanks to the Playbook brand new OS, which is based on QNX OS, and to the Dual Core TI OMAP 4430 system on a chip (Soc).
The Blackbery Playbook is positioned as a consumer device which also offers advanced security features designed to appeal to RIM’s traditional enterprise customers.
We all use gadgets in a different way, so “objectivity” doesn’t really mean much when reviewing a tablet or a phone. Instead, let me tell you about my tablet usage habits, and you can decide for yourself how that fits with your own usage.
Most of the time I use a powerful desktop computer with large displays (30-inch and 20-inch). When I am on the go, live blogging or in meeting, I use my Macbook Air (with Windows 7) and I check my emails on my iPhone. I mostly use a tablet as an additional device for entertainment, playing Angry Birds, watching Netflix in my bed, reading books, checking emails during breakfast or taking notes.
External design (very good)
We have seen tons of tablets at CES and MWC, so we have enough references for comparison. The Playbook is one of my favorite tablet in terms of design, I love the sleek form factor with the subtly integrated physical buttons on the side, and the concept of making the touch-sensitive black display bezel a part of the user interface. The black metal body has a subtle rubberized finish on the back side where an elegant chrome “Blackberry” symbol (without the brand name) is displayed. Both cameras are so well integrated that they are almost invisible, similarly, the stereo speakers are well hidden on the lateral edges of the front side. This is a great speaker location, by the way.
Like the Motorola Xoom 10-inch tablet, the Playbook does not have physical buttons on the front, the user interface is entirely digital and accessible from the capacitive touch-screen. The downside of its small size and subtle integration in the device makes the physical power button on the top difficult to operate: you will need to push it hard with the tip of your nail. Next to it, you will find the sound volume buttons as well.
RIM has successfully crafted an elegant, thin (0.4-inch), light (0.9 lbs) and small tablet (7”x5”), that delivers a higher quality external design than its direct competitor: the thicker (0.47-inch) Samsung Galaxy Tab (4.74” x 7.48”), which feels like plastic in comparison.
Some people would like to get a larger tablet, but personally, I like the compact size: it can easily fit in a purse and the display size is sufficient to watch video, read books and documents on the go.
When I saw the Playbook in action for the first time at CES, I noticed the high quality of the display: the colors are bright and well saturated, the definition is crisp. The Playbook’s screen is my favorite tablet display, along with the iPad 2. The iPad 1 and the iPad 2 have an IPS LCD display manufactured by LG. A similar technology is also used in the LG Optimus 2X. We don’t know exactly what type of LCD display RIM is using in the Playbook, but it looks very good.
Display in direct sunlight
In direct sunlight, the Playbook is still quite readable similarly to the iPad display. It’s much better than the Xoom which many xoom critics call “an expensive Android-powered mirror” (ouch). You can see from the picture above that the Xoom’s screen is more reflective.
User Interface – OS (very good)
Gesture interface (very good)
The Playbook is one of my favorite tablet in term of user interface, I enjoy swiping through the screen and the bezel to interact with the OS and the applications, it is very intuitive and effortless. The ability to make the navigation bar and the keyboard appear by touching the bezels is great, and going to the home screen from any application is easy: you just have to swipe vertically on the bottom part of the bezel.
To switch from an application to the next while using an application in full screen, press on the bezel and swipe inward from the left/right side of the bezel to directly access the next/previous app.
RIM did a good job on the user guide side as well: when you first start the Playbook, an animation is launched to show how the gestures work with the user interface. To close a running application from the home screen, you throw its thumbnail away toward the top of the tablet, and to re-enter a running app, you just have to drag its thumbnail toward the bottom of the display.
Look and feel (very good)
The overall look of the Playbook OS is really elegant. In fact, it was “love at first sight” when I discovered the demo at CES, and using it has confirmed my initial impression. The harmony of the Playbook home screen lies on how it has been divided in three main zones:
1. The top bar is very thin and semi-transparent, it displays date / time and various information icons including software update alert, orientation lock, Bluetooth, Wifi, battery life, and settings. It lets you see the background image in a darker tone.
2. The middle area is the largest, it is dedicated to the running applications thumbnails, to switch from one to the other, you flick trough the thumbnails. The background image is seen in its original colors.
3. The bottom area of the display is smaller than the middle area, and similarly to the top bar, it is semi-transparent and darker. From there, you browse the applications by category: All, Favorites, Media, Games. It is possible to extend the application zone by swiping vertically to the top of the display. The “running application” thumbnails then disappear to let you see the entire list of applications available (per section).
The appeal of the home screen design comes from the good proportions of these three areas, as you may know, humans have preferred proportions when it comes to design and architecture.
Additionally, the fact that the applications icons are displayed within a semi-transparent rectangle conveys a nice visual structure that is lacking on the Honeycomb (Android 3.0) home screen, due to the inconsistent shape of the icons “floating” on a large space – read my complete analysis of the design in the Xoom review.
Even though the Playbook’s icons do not have the same outer shape (like Android 3.0), the subtle visual structure provided by the division of the screen ensures a harmonious general look.
(comparison photo 2 home screen + icons)
When comparing the multitasking section in Android 3.0, from where you access running applications thumbnails, to the running applications zone in the Playbook, I can tell right away that the RIM version looks better: it is cleaner and nicer.
On Honeycomb, the dark gradient displayed on the background makes me feel that there is something wrong with the display and the blue halo behind each thumbnail makes it look even worse. On top of it, there is no little cross at the corner of each thumbnail to allow users to close the apps! You have to go to an obscure section of the settings to manage the running apps.
Multitasking (very good)
Switching from a running app to the next is effortless and the user interface makes it very easy to understand which ones are opened, more so than with iOS and Android (all versions). In fact, this is one of the best feature of the Playbook.
It is possible to have several heavy duty apps running at the same time such as local HD video, HD video streaming (YouTube) and a 3D game. Please note that the game is paused when the app is minimized on the home screen and still running in the background.
When I attempted to open the browser or the Bing Map app in addition to the three apps mentioned above, things did not work as expected: the OS automatically closed them a second after they started, it is in fact a good thing to have the OS manage the memory by not allowing additional apps to open when full processor and memory capacity have been reached, however, I would prefer to see an explanatory message for novice users.
Virtual Keyboard (good – needs auto-complete/auto-correction)
Typing comfort (good) – To access the keyboard, you have to swipe in from the bottom left of the bezel. I have tried the keyboard in the Word application and it is pretty good, even in portrait mode, which is very narrow, I managed to type without typos.
Lacking auto-complete / auto-correction – There is no auto-correction and auto-complete feature available while using Word To Go and Gmail. There was no auto capitalization either.
Sometimes auto-correction can be *very annoying*, the way Apple implemented it in iOS is a good example: it does not give users the choice to correct or not and that can be painful if you write in multiple languages (or when using words not present in the dictionary, like technical lingo). Both Android and Windows Phone 7 auto-corrections are better designed.
Copy/Paste – Thankfully, copy/paste is well integrated in the Playbook, the large selection blue cursors are very easy to operate, and the copy/paste buttons are quickly accessible.
Web Browsing (good)
Like most mobile browsers, the Playbook browser is based on Webkit, which is a great browser base code. That said, I tend to prefer the user experience provided by the tab-based browser of Android 3.0. I will admit that tabs may make more sense with a 10-inch device than with a 7-inch one.
Multitasking and web browsing (well managed)
Web browsing is fluid and fast, however, when a few other apps are running the browser closes unexpectedly. It happened when I was trying to open a particular page on the CNN website with roughly 6 other apps running. When I closed all the other applications I was able to browse all the pages without any issue.
It could be good that the browser closes when the OS is running out of memory and needs more resources to operate properly, but the user interface should display a message explaining it.
Web page loading time (very good)
Tested over WiFi against the Xoom and the iPad 2 while browsing the same content on the New York Times website, the Playbook had a comparable loading time than the two other tablets, give or take a couple of seconds.
Flash (good, could be faster)
Flash is supported, and to make sure it works seamlessly, I tried it with the site wechoosethemoon.org (image above). Obviously, the ipad 2 which doesn’t support in-browser Flash could not display the page as intended. On the Playbook, the animations were playing well and the site worked without jitter.
HD Video embedded in web pages (very good)
I played a few HD video trailers on the YouTube website and on the CBS website, the videos were fluid in full screen with no jitter (I’m not sure about the exact video resolution+bitrate). The display and audio quality makes it a great experience.
Email / Accounts Sync
Exchange support only for Blackberry Smartphone owners
There is no native email, calendar and contacts apps in the Playbook (yes, you read that right!). If you do not own a BlackBerry Smartphone and use Microsoft Exchange Server, it is impossible to get your emails from Exchange (except via webmail, obviously). Bummer, that is exactly my case.
One of my main activity on a tablet is checking emails, especially when I am having breakfast or while on the go. It is hard to understand why RIM does not offer Exchange support in the Playbook for non-BlackBerry users. Everyone else does. RIM risks loosing all these potential users right away, myself included.
No native app – Must use BlackBerry Bridge
In case you own a BlackBerry, getting your emails does not sound that great either: using the BlackBerry Bridge app you will have to pair your Playbook with your BlackBerry smartphone over Bluetooth. Then you will have access to email, calendar, contacts, tasks, the playbook acting just as a “mirror” for your smartphone. Watch the official RIM video to see how it works, we do not have any BlackBerry smartphones left in the office to try it ourselves.
Popular Email Services – web applications
Other popular email services available in the Playbook as web applications are Gmail, Yahoo mail and Hotmail. Basically, I read my Gmail from the Playbook browser, it is accessible from the icon shortcut installed by default on the home screen in the section “All”. Again, there is no email app: it’s “webmail” only.
Downloading and viewing email attachments
Downloading various documents from emails was easy, although the user experience is somewhat disturbing: you just have to click once on the attachment, then you get a screen with the keyboard pulled up to save the file with the option to change its name, until now everything is normal, but then, you land on an empty white screen (photo). The file has been saved, and if it is a Microsoft Word document, you can open it from the Word To Go app.
The download function does not work well when you have too many other apps running in the PlayBook, when I bumped into this problem, I solved it by closing all running apps. I could then download the files attached to my emails (GMail) again.
Computer Connectivity (files/content/internet sharing)
WiFi: The current Playbook is WiFi only, however several models with additional wireless connectivity are coming later this year, Sprint has announced its Wimax version for this Summer, and other carriers will offer HSPA+ and 4G LTE.
Bluetooth: With Bluetooth, you can pair a speaker for example, like the Jambox to get a better sound to listen to music or watch movie without a headset. There’s nothing out of the ordinary to report on this side.
Once you buy an HDMI cable, it is easy to connect the PlayBook to your TV screen and watch HD video stored in the device or YouTube video streamed over WiFi. Basically the PlayBook user interface is mirrored on the TV screen and it is well done, it does not look “blocky”. I tried playing a HD video stored locally and the result was near-perfect, it played smoothly and the quality on the large full HD screen was good (52”).
However, Watching YouTube HD video over HDMI on the big screen is not that great… From what I have experienced when trying it, the video is constantly buffering (only) when the Playbook is connected via HDMI. The same video plays perfectly fine on the Playbook when the HDMI cable is unplugged. We suspect that the device is not powerful enough (or optimized enough) to manage 2 displays while playing HD video.
To compare it with the behavior of another dual-core tablet (with Tegra 2), I tested the same YoutTube HD trailer streaming over the same WiFi network on the Xoom tablet connected to the same HDTV via the same HDMI cable, and it ran in the same issue: it was constantly buffering.
Conclusion: apparently, even the most powerful tablets cannot handle HD video streaming while managing two displays simultaneously.
Via USB – Device synchronisation (illogical) – no support for USB Mass Storage
Unlike Android devices, the Playbook does not support USB mass storage, which turns any devices into a USB drive. To mount the Playbook as a regular disk drive on your computer, you need to install the BlackBerry Desktop Software first (Playbook driver included). Then, you get access to the synchronisation application or you can directly access the Playbook as a USB drive from which you can simply drag the files you need from the Playbook into your computer, or vice versa.
Synchronisation: After shooting a few pictures and a video, I was hoping to simply synchronize my Playbook to automatically retrieve the files in the PC. Strangely, the BlackBerry Desktop application did not detect any media files in the Playbook, however I could clearly see all my photos and my video in the camera folder of the PlayBook drive mounted as a USB drive.
I had to copy a picture from the “camera” folder to the “photos” folder to finally make it visible to the Blackberry software! By default, all the photos and videos shot with the Playbook are stored in the “camera” folder, so I have no idea what additional process needs to be done to have them detected by the synchronization application.
BlackBerry Bridge / Bluetooth
We do not own BlackBerry smartphones anymore, so we could not try the Blackberry Bridge apps that mirrors one’s email, calendar, contacts apps from the BlackBerry smartphone into the Playbook. I will update this paragraph once I have got the chance to get my hands on a BlackBerry unit. Check the official RIM video that explains how it works.
Apps (we need a lot more)
Office Productivity Suite
I like the fact that the Playbook comes with a suite of productivity (office-like) applications: Word To Go, Slideshow To Go and Sheet To Go. All three applications are compatible with Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Microsoft Excel, respectively. I downloaded 3 documents from Gmail to test the compatibility and all files worked perfectly.
It is possible to edit Word and Excel documents on the Playbook, the To Go Suite provides a basic interface to do so, although I was not able to change font color. Slideshow To Go is a read only app, it is very useful to take PowerPoint presentations on the go, when you plug a HDMI cable to the TV, you can view it on the big screen easily.
On March 16, 2011, RIM announced that the Playbook would support video calls, but it seems that the application is not available yet. Searching in the BlackBerry App World, I only found a video conference app: Adobe Mobile Connect. We tried the free trial version, and we could connect easily in a meeting room with the video in a small window (top left).
Maps (could be better)
The map app is provided by Bing: getting a lock on the location is super fast, and the WiFi connection makes it speedy (when unfairly comparing with 3G…)
For getting directions to a restaurant, I just typed the restaurant name in the search box, and the app returned a page with the map and a list of two locations to choose from. From there, I could either click on “directions” or click on the name and go to the information page from which I could book a table online – service powered by OpenTable.
When requesting directions, the current location is not filled in the start box by default, unlike the Google map in the Xoom, and you have to select it, but it is a longitude/latitude number and it is not even labeled “current location”! I could not imagine that such a bad user experience for such a basic task could be possible.
Facebook: There is a Facebook app icon installed by default in the PlayBook, but it is simply a shortcut to the website – no native Facebook application. I am fine with it since at 7-inch, it is easy to navigate the regular Facebook site and upload photos taken with the Playbook in your profile.
Twitter: Similarly to Facebook, it’s a shortcut icon to the Twitter website is available in the “All app section” on the home screen. In the app store you can find a few Twitter-related apps (free or paid) that allows users to follow the trendiest topics or to follow a topic by entering a keyword. However, I could find Hootsuite, the Twitter management tool I use on the desktop and on my iPhone.
Foursquare: I looked for the foursquare app and I could not find it, it is possible to use Foursquare in the browser, although in this case I highly prefer the mobile version, either on iPhone, iPad or WP7.
Photo and Video Capture
User interface (basic): Photo capture on the Playbook is pretty straightforward, the user interface is (very) basic like the iPad’s, except for switching the front/back cameras, toggle the still/video shooting mode, zooming, and geo-tagging… There are no “advanced options” like those you can find on the Xoom.
Photo Quality (very good): The rear camera shoots 5 MP photos with a 16:9 ratio (2592×1456 pixels). The image quality is quite good, but a closer look reveals that images are noisier than those taken with the Xoom. For web usage, the noise should be practically invisible, but on print, it might be noticeable.
For those who are familiar with the iPhone 4: the phone produces images with even more noise than the Playbook, and the photo performance of the iPad 2 is inferior to the iPhone 4’s…
Video capture: as it is often the case, video recording often exhibits the same properties than photo capture. Again, the Playbook produces decent video footage, but the Xoom does better. We’ve uploaded some videos in Flickr if you want to look at footage from both devices.
Performance (very good)
We wish that there were more performance testing apps on the Playbook, but at the moment, we’re pretty much limited to web-apps. Still, this provides some interesting insight about the Playbook dual-core nature and the speed of its software.
Before we get into specific numbers, we want to make sure that you realize that “measured performance” should somewhat correlate to the user experience, but they are not an accurate measure of how much “better” that user experience will be. “Perceived performance” is more subjective, but it is much more telling about how users would feel about speed, responsiveness etc.
As you can see, the Playbook does very well against an array of devices (smartphones and tablets) recently tested – even if the Motorola Xoom and the iPad 2 are well ahead in both benchmarks.
Perceived UI speed
As for the perceived performance, there is little doubt that users will find this tablet zippy fast. It is very responsive and it feels faster than the Motorola Xoom, and even the iPad 2 sometimes. Overall system responsiveness is one of the great strengths of the Blackbery Playbook: the OS guys did a great job.
Photo gallery app (regular): The photo gallery is pretty regular and simple, nothing fancy here, I was wondering why the default background for the gallery is a picture of wood texture, and I did not find how to change it.
Video Playback (MP4) (very good): the video playback of HD files happens smoothly. If there’s a demand for it, we might go back and test for format compatibility. In the meantime, it’s fair to say that this is a great feature. The question is: where do you buy/rent content? Also, keep in mind that streaming while connected via HDMI is an issue with YouTube and might be an issue with other services as well.
Speaker Quality (very good): For a tablet, the speaker quality is pretty good and it makes the video experience even better. That is largely due to the speaker placement on either side of the screen. Other tablets have speakers on the bottom or the back. If you wonder, the audio quality with headphones is good as well.
Music (could be better)
Music application: The music app was almost empty and I did not take the time to download DRM-free songs from my iTunes using the Blackberry software, it looked like it was possible, since the software loaded a bunch of songs from iTunes. The music app user interface is very basic and most importantly quite ugly. it is disapointing to see how different it is from the elegant design of the home screen, I really wonder why RIM did not keep a similar style for its music application.
Music Store: There is a music store as well, and the look and feel is also disappointing. However it is easy to navigate albums, genres and artists, so i guess it gets the job done when you need to buy music.
Free Music Streaming app Slacker: I am a big fan of subscription based music since it is the most convenient way to connect to my playlist from any device, and switching mobile OS is not an issue any more. I looked for the popular music streaming paid apps, Rhapsody, Mog and Rdio in the App World without luck. I found one free app that I like: Slacker (similar to Pandora with a modern user interface).
Gaming: I tried the 3D car racing game that comes pre-loaded in the Playbook: Need For Speed Undercover. The experience was fluid although I would like to see a more complex user interface for controlling the car, but that has nothing to do with the hardware performance.
Online Videos (very good): HD video streaming is fluid and provide a great viewing experience, thanks to the display quality. I tried a few of them from the YouTube app, the YouTube website and the CBS website.
eBooks (regular): The eBooks application and store is powered by Kobo, the user interface is standard and you get all the features that you need from an eBook application to browse and buy books and to navigate through the pages and adjust the book reading experience (background and font color, font size, brightness etc).
Battery Life (fairly good)
The playbook gets half charged after 1h40 but then the second half of charging slows down dramatically: 2h later (3h40 after the start…) it was charged at 91% and it took 30 minutes more to reach 93%.
The battery life is fairly good, while performing basic tasks (no gaming and not a lot of video streaming or playback) it lasted almost two days, 41 hours to be precise.
Things that could be better (productivity)
We really need Exchange server support for people who do not own a BlackBerry and access to more apps, or at least the 100 most used apps. RIM needs to provide access to at least 5000 good applications if they hope to compete with Apple and Android.
I love the Playbook interface, the device elegant form factor, the great display, the compact size and the performance. However, the lack of exchange support and the absence of native email, calendar and contact apps is an adoption roadblock for non-BlackBerry users. Messaging and emailing is one of the regular activities that almost everyone performs on a tablet.
RIM has a short window of opportunity to make its offering better, and they are probably working hard on it. The Playbook hardware deserves it.