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RIM BlackBerry Playbook Review
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Date: May 23, 2011
Section:Gadgets
Author: Jennifer Johnson
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Introduction and Specifications

When RIM Revealed the BlackBerry PlayBook in September 2010, the tablet was met with great excitement and hype, particularly from the professional, die-hard BlackBerry crowd. According to RIM, the PlayBook was designed to "give users what they want, including uncompromised web browsing, true multitasking and high performance multimedia, while also providing advanced security features, out-of-the-box enterprise support and a breakthrough development platform for IT departments and developers."

Those are some big promises and high hopes for a new tablet. After all, it isn't easy to give users "what they want" while also keeping IT personnel happy and personal data secured. Nonetheless, RIM set out to design a tablet that could do all of these things. And in many aspects, RIM has included key features that could deliver on these promises.

Today's most popular tablets (the Apple iPad, Motorola Xoom, Asus Transformer, etc) all use a large, 9+ inch displays. The BlackBerry PlayBook takes an approach that's more similar to Samsung's Galaxy Tab in that it features a 7-inch high resolution display that supports a resolution of 1024x600.  Here's a quick-take demo of the product to start things off.

In terms of power under the hood, the BlackBerry PlayBook employs a dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, a new BlackBerry Tablet OS (which offers "true simultaneous multitasking"), and QNX technology. The PlayBook also promises something that some tablets haven't been able to fully deliver: Flash support.

After what seemed like more than its fair share of delays, the Wi-Fi version of the BlackBerry PlayBook is now available at various retailers. Versions of the tablet with 3G and 4G radios tied to cellular networks have been announced as well, though no official launch dates have been given.

The BlackBerry PlayBook has been met with great anticipation and high expectations. Does it live up to the hype? Read on to find out in our hands-on review...

BlackBerry PlayBook
Specifications & Features

  • 7-inch LCD, 1024 x 600, WSVGA, capacitive touch screen with full multi-touch and gesture support
  • BlackBerry Tablet OS with support for symmetric multiprocessing
  • 1 GHz dual-core processor - TI OMAP4440, ARM Cortex-A9
  • 1 GB RAM
  • Dual HD cameras (3 MP front facing, 5 MP rear facing), supports 1080p HD video recording 
  • Video playback: 1080p HD Video, H.264, MPEG, DivX, WMV
  • Audio playback: MP3, AAC, WMA
  • HDMI video output
  • Wi-Fi - 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • Accelerometer, 6-axis motion sensing (gyroscope), digital compass (magnetometer) and GPS
  • Connectors: microHDMI, microUSB, charging contacts
  • Open, flexible application platform with support for WebKit/HTML-5, Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Adobe Mobile AIR, Adobe Reader, POSIX, OpenGL, Java
  • 5.1x7.6x0.4 inches
  • approximately 0.9 pounds
  • 3G and 4G models (WiMAX, LTE, HSPA+) in development
  • Pricing for Wi-Fi only versions:
    • 16GB: $499
    • 32GB: $599
    • 64GB: $699
  • Box Contents:
    • Safety and Product Information Booklet
    • Getting Started Card
    • Neoprene Sleeve
    • microUSB cable
    • microUSB folding blade charger
    • cleaning cloth

 

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Design

When we first picked up the BlackBerry PlayBook, we were struck by how small it felt in comparison to some other tablets we've recently reviewed, including the Motorola Xoom. Indeed, one would expect a tablet with a significantly smaller screen (7-inches versus the Xoom's 10.1-inch display) to be quite a bit smaller and weigh quite a bit less, but the difference is more noticeable in person than in examining specs alone.

The BlackBerry PlayBook measures 5.1x7.6x0.4 inches, giving it a footprint that's roughly equivalent to a paperback book. Additionally, it weighs less than a pound (about 0.9 pounds to be more specific). The majority of the front of the tablet is consumed by the PlayBook's 7-inch display that supports a resolution of 1024 x 600.

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Although the screen did attract some fingerprints during the course of our review, they never appeared to affect performance. Viewing angles on the PlayBook's display were excellent. In fact, we were still able to read the PlayBook's display at nearly a 90 degree angle to the screen.

In terms of design, RIM has taken a "less is more" approach, which gives the PlayBook a nice clean look and feel. In fact, there are no buttons on the front, sides, or back of the PlayBook. Instead, RIM has placed the Power button, volume rocker, a multimedia Play button, and headset jack on the top edge of the PlayBook. One note about these buttons: they're small. In particular, the Power button is especially small. Also, because the Power button is nearly flush with the edge of the tablet, we had a very difficult time pressing the button. On a somewhat better note, you can wake the tablet by swiping your finger upward from the bottom bezel to the screen. Without this functionality, we often found ourselves frustrated while trying to wake the tablet.

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On the bottom edge of the Playbook, you'll find a microHDMI port, microUSB port, and charging contacts. Above the display, you'll find a notification LED as well as the front-facing 3 megapixel camera. On both edges of the tablet, you'll see speakers. When you flip the tablet over, you'll see the rear-facing 5 megapixel camera. There's also a metallic BlackBerry logo on the back of the PlayBook. We should also note that the back of the PlayBook has a soft, rubbery feel.

You can use the BlackBerry PlayBook in either portrait or landscape modes, but the native orientation is landscape mode. Most, but not all, apps will automatically rotate when you change the orientation of the tablet.

Currently, there are 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB versions of the PlayBook available. Since the PlayBook lacks any form of memory card expansion slot, you'll be forever limited to the amount of storage available on the tablet you choose to purchase.

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User Interface

The BlackBerry PlayBook runs on a new BlackBerry Tablet OS that we haven't seen on previous devices. According to RIM, this OS supports "true symmetric multiprocessing." The OS also comes with support for Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Adobe Mobile AIR, and HTML-5.

Users who carry a BlackBerry smartphone in addition to the PlayBook will get the ability to pair their smartphone with the tablet. In doing so, these users will be able to use the larger tablet display to securely view email, calendar, tasks, documents, and other content from their smartphone. The content remains on the smartphone and is temporarily cached on the tablet. According to RIM, this is done to eliminate any of the security and manageability issues that arise when corporate data is stored on another device.

     

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Although BlackBerry smartphone users can pair the PlayBook with their smartphone to get email, calendar, contact, and other PIM functionality, users who have a smartphone with a different OS are left in the cold. At this time, RIM does not include native email, calendar, contact, or task applications with the PlayBook. RIM has promised a software update that will bring native email, calendar, and contact apps to the PlayBook, though we don't know when this update will be made available.

You may notice the icons for Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, and Twitter in the application listing. Unfortunately, these icons are web shortcuts and nothing more.

       

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Recognizing the availability of applications can be a key factor in a tablet's success, RIM has opted to take advantage of some of the apps that are already available rather than force developers to re-code everything for the PlayBook. To this end, the PlayBook will support BlackBerry Java and Android apps through two optional "app players" that will enable BlackBerry Java apps and Android v2.3 apps to run on the PlayBook. These players are expected to be available this summer.

As mentioned, the PlayBook supports multitasking. This functionality is slick, letting you quickly and easily switch from one application to another and back again. To access the home screen from any application on the PlayBook, simply swipe your finger upward from the bottom bezel to the screen. Within an application, you can access a menu for that application by swiping a finger from the top bezel downward to the screen.

     

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From the home screen, you'll see a list of applications. When only one line of this application list is visible, you'll see tiles that show the applications that are currently running on the PlayBook. You can flip through these tiles with a swipe of your finger. You can also drag the application list upward to see a larger view of all of the installed applications. These applications can be placed in various categories, making them easy to find and navigate. Above the home screen, you'll see the time and date along with various icons for screen orientation lock, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, battery status, and settings.

RIM included a full WebKit browser with the PlayBook. This browser supports tabbed browsing, which we appreciate. Pages loaded quickly and were rendered in desktop mode. While browsing, you'll get full pinch-to-zoom controls as well as the ability to double tap the screen to zoom in and out. Both of these finger-friendly controls are very responsive. As mentioned, the PlayBook supports Flash Player 10.1. We had no issues viewing YouTube videos that were embedded within pages. There's also a dedicated YouTube app on the tablet. The Bookmarks menu within the browser provides thumbnail views or a list of bookmarks with their URLs, depending on which view you select.

     

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One of the unique applications that comes with the PlayBook is the calculator. Of course, this app will add, subtract, multiply and divide just like any other calculator, but what's different about it is the sort of paper-like tally that sits to the left of the onscreen numeric keypad. The calculator can be used as a standard calculator, or you can switch to Scientific, Unit Converter, or Tip calculation modes. All in all, it's really a pretty slick application and it shows that RIM can provide cool and interesting features to standard, everyday apps. We're hoping RIM adds similar unique and interesting features to the upcoming email, calendar, and contact applications.

       

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Performance Benchmarks

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of standardized benchmarks available for the PlayBook at this time. We found and ran one app known as Mandelbrot, which can be used to benchmark the processor speed for various devices. According to the developer, "Mandelbrot display for the BlackBerry PlayBook allows the user to visualize the well known mathematical equation shown graphically.  The user can continuously zoom in to see endless detail to the scene.  Can also be used to benchmark processor speed for various devices."  The Mandelbrot benchmark returned a result of 15.363 s.

 

We were also able to run the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark. In this test, you can see that the PlayBook blew all other Android devices in our chart out of the water. In fact, the PlayBook was almost twice as fast as the next fastest Androidbased product, the Kyocera Echo.

 

A Note On Battery Life: According to RIM, "RIM expects customers to have a full working day of typical/mixed usage (8-10 hours) including web browsing, watching movies and listening to music. Battery life specs will vary based on the actual usage scenario."

As always, we put the PlayBook through our typical real-world usage tests. Generally speaking, we were able to make it through a full day and then some (14+ hours) before needing to charge the PlayBook. In some cases, we were able to go days without charging the PlayBook. Even on our heaviest day of use where we did quite a bit of web surfing and playing of YouTube videos, the PlayBook lasted for about eight hours before losing power.  

Because the PlayBook's screen automatically powers off after five minutes (this is the maximum duration), we weren't able to run our standard Hot Hardware tablet and smartphone battery test. All in all, we were pleased with the longevity of the PlayBook's battery. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on the features you use the most.

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Conclusion

The tablet market is booming, with new product introductions occurring on a regular basis. Although there are still more tablets announced than are actually shipping right now, quite a few new models will hit the market soon. For now, the PlayBook is among the smaller crowd of tablets that is actually shipping.

Overall, multitasking on the PlayBook was great, and we appreciated the responsiveness of both the tablet and the OS. Despite the fact that there are a few big omissions from the OS (i.e. dedicated email, calendar, contact, and task applications), the rest has a lot of promise.

If RIM can deliver these personal information management applications soon, and if the upcoming apps that will enable users to run Android and Java apps works smoothly, we think RIM will have a pretty impressive tablet on its hands. In the meantime, the Playbook is still quite useful though there are definite limitations without these features.

The fit and finish of the PlayBook is very nice as well. The tablet is relatively lightweight and thin. We also appreciate the use of the bezel rather than crowding the front of the tablet with buttons. The small size of the Power button is a drawback, but users can wake the tablet by dragging a finger upwards from the bottom bezel, so the small power button is a minor issue.

All in all, our feelings towards the PlayBook are positive. We're anxious to see what RIM has in store for the aforementioned promised apps that are sure to add additional functionality to the tablet.  Since larger tablets are quite popular these days, we're also hoping that RIM will release a larger PlayBook at some point in the future.

 

 

     
  • 1 GHz dual-core processor
  • BlackBerry Tablet OS with multitasking capabilities
  • Upcoming support for Java and Android apps
  • Full WebKit browser
  • No microSD slot
  • Missing dedicated PIM apps
  • Small Power button

 



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