First Impressions: BlackBerry PlayBook

The BlackBerry Playbook has been generating a great deal of interest here in Malaysia and that’s not really a surprise considering that the BlackBerry brand has a bit of a cult following in this country. There are people out there who would not even consider anything else other than a BlackBerry device. And then there are others who use other devices but will never give up their BBs for things like instant messaging and email.

You can chalk the success of the brand here in Malaysia to the popularity of BlackBerry’s proprietary BlackBerry Messenger service. Or it could be that most, if not all, BlackBerry users prefer a tactile physical keyboard over a virtual replacement. Whatever the reason may be, there are a lot of Malaysians out there that are just waiting to get their hands on the PlayBook.

The PlayBook is unlike any device RIM has ever produced. It is the company’s first tablet device and with it RIM debuts its QNX platform. So does this first attempt to enter into the tablet by RIM a worthy contender? Can the PlayBook live up to its hype? Would it be able to woo non-BlackBerry users to jump ship?

Head on over to after the jump to find out. This is our first impressions of the BlackBerry PlayBook.

Display, Design and Built-Quality

The PlayBook is a 7-inch tablet with 1024×600 pixel resolution LCD display. Although, in the pictures you’d be mistaken to think that the PlayBook has a smaller screen. That was the first impression that we got. The thick bezel surroundings the screen makes it appear smaller than it actually is, but this bezel is necessary because, as you will learn later, it is an essential part of the PlayBook’s interface .

In terms of display, despite being just a standard LCD, as opposed to a Super LCD on the HTC Flyer for example, we find very little to complain about the PlayBook’s screen. The screen is bright and sharp and colours are as rich as the best of them. Viewing angle is good too not that it’d matter much with a tablet device.

The one issue that we have with the screen is the apparent lack of any special coating to resist fingerprint and smudges. The PlayBook’s display is a fingerprint magnet, a very good one at that. It gets really annoying that we have to wipe the screen often to clear the accumulated smudges and grease. The lack of an oleophobic coating make these smudges more difficult to get rid off as well.

Design-wise, there’s really not a lot to say about the PlayBook. It is as plain as a tablet gets with a design that is more akin to a digital photo frame due to its lack of buttons on the front fascia.

The PlayBook is square with rounded edges and a matt-black rubberised back panel, and that’s the general description of the device. With the PlayBook, function comes before form and as a result you get a device that is devoid of any stylised accents or design elements to make it look interesting.

It is simplistic but not in a aesthetically pleasing way. Simply put, the design is plain and drab. If understatement is something that describes you then the PlayBook is the perfect device to make that statement.

What you get at the front is a “BlackBerry” word type logo along the bottom bezel and a discreet 3MP front lens at the top and that’s it. At the back there’s the trademark BlackBerry “B” logo and a 5MP rear camera port.

Flanking the left and right side of the screen are the two stereo speakers which rests within the front bezel. The distance between the speakers means that the PlayBook produces a more convincing stereo sound stage compared to the others allowing the device to deliver a stereo experience that is much better than its competitors.

Having said that, the PlayBook is nice to hold in your hand with the rubberised back panel giving users extra grip. As always, 7-inch tablets are more portable and comfortable to hold with one hand compared to ones with a larger screen, say the iPad 2 for example. In this respect, the PlayBook is no different.

The orientation of the buttons, the locations of the front and rear cameras and the location of the 3.5mm headphone jack and the various connectivity ports on the PlayBook suggests that the device is to be used primarily in landscape mode. We note that on the units that we tested, the power button is flush with the device’s top edge making it difficult to access.

In terms of built quality, the PlayBook feels solid and on par with what you would normally expect from a BlackBerry device.

Internals and User Interface

Powering the BlackBerry PlayBook is a 1Ghz TI OMAP 4430 dual-channel dual-core processor based on the same ARM Cortex A9 core as Apple’s A5 chip that is in the iPad 2 and NVidia’s Tegra 2 dual-core processor. Graphic processing is handled by a PowerVR SGX 540 GPU. As with the current crop of tablets, there is a healthy helping of 1GB RAM to play around with.

Like Apple, RIM offers a selection of on board storage starting from 16GB to 64GB with a 32GB option in between. Also like Apple, the PlayBook’s 5300mAh battery is not removable and the device doesn’t have an option to supplement its on board storage with a memory card.

Imaging on the PlayBook is handled by a 5MP rear camera and 3MP front camera. The PlayBook has a video chat client but like Apple’s FaceTime, video chat is reserved for PlayBook to PlayBook users only. Although we must point out that this feature was not available for us to test in the demo units.

Interestingly, both front and rear cameras shoot 1080p videos at 30fps.

The PlayBook runs on the QNX (pronounced que-nix) platform that that RIM acquired about a year and a half a go. We were told that in the units that we tested during the preview were loaded with an unfinished version of the OS.

When we heard about RIM opting for a completely new platform for its first tablet device, we were curious as to how it would deliver a seamless feel for users who’ve become accustomed to the trademark BlackBerry OS interface.

It turns out that the QNX OS on the PlayBook is very different from any BlackBerry device or tablet OS that we are used to. The main difference with the PlayBook is instead of relying on navigation buttons to navigate through the OS, QNX relies more on gestures with the bezel of the PlayBook being an essential component of the user interface. Hence, the PlayBook has no navigation buttons whatsoever.

To call up different functions in the PlayBook you will need to swipe your finger from outside of the screen. Depending on where you swipe, the PlayBook offers you different options. Any gestures done within the perimeter of the 7-inch screen controls whatever app that is currently running.

To unlock the PlayBook for example, you swipe across the screen from one end of the bezel to the other either horizontally or vertically.

Once unlocked, there is no home screen to speak of in the PlayBook. To see available apps, you swipe up from the bottom bezel. If you have multiple apps running, the same swipe up gesture will reduce the active app to a thumbnail and offer you a side scrollable app switcher display for you to start up more apps.

While in an app, you swipe down from the top bezel to open available options for that particular app. If there are no options or you’re not currently in an app, the same gesture pulls down the system settings menu.

To quickly switch between running apps or to see what apps you have running, you swipe across from either the left or right side of the PlayBook’s bezel. To bring up the keyboard you swipe up diagonally into the screen from the lower left corner of the bezel.

In case you’re wondering, BlackBerry keyboard shortcuts that you are used to on BlackBerry phones don’t work on the PlayBook. Speaking of keyboards, the one on the PlayBook is not particularly outstanding. That is not to say that it is bad either. It works and it gets the job done.

Using this new bezel gesture interface for the first time, we have to say that it is very easy to get confused with what gestures do what because the same gestures do different things when you’re in different applications. It definitely takes some getting used to. Comparing between the iPad, various Android tablets and the PlayBook, the PlayBook rates as the hardest to use without first reading the manual in our oppinion.

Also, its very different from what BlackBerry users are used to. On a BlackBerry smarphone, the “execute” and “menu/options” buttons are very important and to see these buttons get replaced with gestures on the PlayBook means that veteran BB users will have to change their user habits.

This is a bit of a surreal experience because, visually, the interface on the PlayBook looks similar to what you seen on BlackBerry phones but in actual fact, almost everything is different.

Having said that, the PlayBook supports all of the basic gestures we’ve come to expect from tablets running iOS or Android. Flick to scroll, pinch to zoom and pretty much anything else are standard on the PlayBook.

Multitasking on the PlayBook is the best we’ve ever seen on any tablet. It is generations ahead of what the current crop of iOS and Android tablets can muster and is really impressive. Where on other tablets, multi-apps support means that apps that are currently running in the background are merely suspended, the multiple apps environment in the PlayBook allows for apps to be fully running in the background just like on a desktop PC. This is real-time multitasking on a tablet device.

With the PlayBook, you could work on a presentation and edit a document while a movie in running at the same time. We noted that it was even possible for you to run a full driving simulation game while at the same time have the camera and movie running simultaneously in the background.

Another nifty QNX feature is the option to control how apps behave in the background. By default background apps are set to pause once you put them in the background. Alternatively, you have an option to keep them running all the time even when they are relegated to the background. Or You can even set the apps to pause immediately upon activating the task switcher.

Despite the stellar multi-app performance we note that games and certain applications took a really long time to start on the PlayBook. Running numerous multiple apps — sometimes more than ten — the test units that we played with would eventually hang for a good one to three minutes.

We were surprised that the PlayBook would hang given that one of the benefits of the QNX OS it in its modular structure allowing applications to run separate of each other, which means that if an app crashed, it won’t affect the whole system. During the couple of hours that we had with the PlayBook, this didn’t seem to be the case.

Another feature where the PlayBook leaves all other tablets wanting is in the web browser performance. In the PlayBook, users get true web fidelity. What this means is that you’d see content on the PlayBook browser as it was intended to be seen. There’s no watered down light, mobile versions of Facebook or YouTube here. When you open up a browser, the PlayBook displays exactly what you see on a PC web browser. Websites treat the PlayBook as a desktop browser and don’t force you to a mobile version of the site.

Rich content on pages with embedded video or Flash content however take a long time to start, so long in fact it becomes a bit of a chore, though we have a feeling that this has to do more with the WiFi network rather than the PlayBook browser itself.

While in the browser, we note that scrolling is very smooth even when pages are not fully loaded. The PlayBook browser supports Flash 10.2 and even Flash ads present on a webpage scrolling remains pretty smooth.

In terms of video playback, the PlayBook support 1080p playback. Media files supported by the PlayBook .avi, .mp4 and .m4v. Unlike other BlackBerry devices, video playback on the PlayBook is very good with smooth frame rates and good sound coming from the speakers.

The PlayBook supports 1080p HDMI out but unlike other tablets with full mirror mode, the PlayBook gives the option for you to run different displays on the output screen and on the PlayBook but not all apps support this feature. One obvious app that supports this is in the PlayBook’s Presentation to Go app. The feature also works when playing videos on an external screen.

By default, search and map content is provided by Microsoft’s Bing. We’re not too fond of this and would prefer Google. Although some might prefer to use Bing over Google, there’s no option to add your preferred search engine or map content on the PlayBook. So for those who would like to use other brands, you’re stuck with Bing on the device.

Our major issue with the PlayBook is the fact that the device does not have native clients for Calendar, Contacts, MemoPad (something like a notepad app), Messages (including text messages, emails and even BBM) and Tasks. For you to get all these features on the PlayBook it must be tethered to a BlackBerry phone via Bluetooth.

The lack of support for emails and a few other essential apps like calendar and BBM is perplexing but we were open minded about it thinking RIM had a good reason to release the PlayBook with what looks to be a potentially damaging limitation.

So it goes without saying that we were disappointed when the BlackBerry Bridge feature wasn’t demoed during the preview as we really wanted to find out how the feature worked in real life.

What we know is that for emails, calendar and contacts (plus a few other apps to work on the PlayBook), you’ll need a BlackBerry device that runs BlackBerry OS 5 or later.

Also, when tethered to a BlackBerry phone, the PlayBook uses the phone’s BIS service to so access the web, so if security is a requirement, you have this covered. At the same time you can still use WiFi to browse the web as well so a user can run banking and other security sensitive tasks through the BIS connection while checking out YouTube videos via the WiFi connection. The advantage of this is that you don’t have to get another data plan for the PlayBook but you if you’re a non-BB user then you’ll have to invest in a BlackBerry phone.

Another advantage is being able to reply to your text messages and BBMs on one single device. This is a convenience we can relate to as it becomes a chore to switch between phone and tablet when you’re doing a lot of texting on your phone while doing something else on your tablet device.

BlackBerry Bridge is probably the biggest clue as to who RIM is targeting the PlayBook at. Largely enterprise users who generally have their devices provided to them by their employee. In this segment the cost of purchasing another BB device is not an issue so the cost savings of not having to provide an additional mobile data connection is appreciated.

In addition IT departments in large companies save a lot of time as technicians don’t have to configure the PlayBook for email and contacts. All that needs to be done is to teach the user how to use BlackBerry Bridge and they have all their data on the tablet device.

For personal use, we find it difficult to justify the need for a BlackBerry Bridge considering every other tablet device in the market today can do emails, store contacts and calendar information without the need to be tethered to another device. Also, users will need to consider how much more battery power both devices will consume being constantly tethered to access emails and BBM.

But this doesn’t change the fact that the PlayBook can’t store contacts, you can’t check you calendar entries and you can’t use it to check emails aside from using a web-based email client. RIM’s justification for this is that, its market research reveals that most users who buy tablets don’t use push email as much. We beg to differ.

While the PlayBook could run Android apps, during the session this wasn’t demonstrated and it left us wondering whether “could run Android apps” meant that PlayBook users will have access to about 180,000 apps in the Android Market or was it limited to certain types of apps or if the solution is something like a virtual machine where you have to install an Android emulator of sorts on the PlayBook.

Plans and Pricing
One of the biggest questions surrounding the BlackBerry PlayBook preview was when will it be launched in Malaysia. No information on this was available save for a local RIM representative stating that the device will be coming “real soon”.

There’s no mention of pricing as well but the rep stated that the PlayBook’s US pricing is indicative of how much it will cost here.

PlayBook WiFI US Price:
16GB US$499
32GB US$599
64GB US$699

In case you’re wondering where there will be 3G version of the PlayBook, don’t hold your breath because 3G PlayBook is not in the pipeline. Instead the RIM will focus on 4G PlayBooks supporting WiMAX, HSPA+ and LTE slated to be launched in the US later this year.

In term of telco tie-ups, the rep stated that because the PlayBook is ia WiFi device there’s very little need for it to be launched together with a telco. Although this logic may ring true, there are users out there who don’t mind going into a contract for some savings on the cost of the device, so having that option is always a good thing. We’re looking at you Celcom.

At the end of the day

So what can we say about the BlackBerry PlayBook?

There are things on this tablet that we really like, like the true multi-app support, 1080p video recording and playback, as well as the PC-like web browser experience. When it comes to these things, no tablet touches the PlayBook…but the fun stops there.

The interface, while solid, needs a lot of getting used to and we’re not entirely sure if BlackBerry diehards will like the experience as in contrast to the straight forward approach that you get on BlackBerry phones, the PlayBook can be a overwhelmingly complicated.

And the need to tether the PlayBook to a BlackBerry phone to have access to what can be regarded as an essential applications is downright ridiculous. Non-BB users are forced to purchased a BlackBerry phone just to be able to read emails and store contacts on the PlayBook. If it was us considering to purchase the PlayBook, because of this we would just look elsewhere.

At the end of the day, its going to be difficult for a non-BlackBerry user to justify buying the PlayBook. Although its multimedia performance is stellar, the PlayBook leaves much to be desired in some of the more important aspects of tablet ownership. For BlackBerry users, there is an attraction to the PlayBook but again we don’t see why we should get this over an iPad 2 or a HTC Flyer for example.

Read more about the BlackBerry PlayBook
How to Pair BlackBerry with PlayBook
Early RIM PlayBook Commercials
PlayBook Full Featured Web Browsing features