We got to try the soon-to-be-released BlackBerry PlayBook. Here are our first impressions of a tablet with some great strengths and puzzling omissions.
We first got our mitts on RIM's great tablet hope back in January
at BlackBerry DevCon Asia and we were impressed with what we saw. Here was a tablet device with some real power under the hood; the kind of grunt you need that (along with some clever coding) enables support for true multi-tasking, not just pausing/freezing apps while you switch to another process. We were puzzled by the lack of native Blackberry email on the device but assumed that RIM would see the light and incorporate it before launch.
Of course, it's a few months down the track now, and it seems like every vendor who ever put up a stand has a first or second-gen tablet coming out this year
. In this Apple-led and Android-to-likely-dominate field, how will the PlayBook set itself apart? Well, RIM's approach is certainly on the unique side. This is not a full review - that will come soon when we get a PlayBook into our labs - but the result of spending a few minutes with the device at Blackberry's offices in Sydney, Australia.
7in screen size
For starters, the company has focused on the 7in form factor exclusively. Whereas a lot of the tablets coming out this year are opting for the larger 9-10in size, the PlayBook adopts the squatter 7in frame introduced by last year's Samsung Galaxy Tab
. This does make it more easily portable (and perhaps more business-use-friendly), but arguably it cuts down on some of the "wow factor" you get from media applications on a bigger display, like watching a movie or playing games on the couch.
Still, not everybody agrees with this. APC Editor Tony Sarno handled the pre-final-release PlayBook we got ahold of this week and called the screen size "perfect". Says Tony: "In my view, it's the ideal form factor for tablets, since it gives you the advantages of a tablet (bigger, more practical screen than a smartphone) but can still be carried in one's pocket at a stretch. In an extended comparison between the 9.5in iPad and 7in first gen Galaxy Tab last year I found that 7in was easily the most practical form factor for daily use. " Notebook Hunter
Editor Conrad Bem also liked the size, saying it "looked and felt robust, despite being very light and easy to handle."
Multi-tasking Operating system
Another factor that sets the PlayBook apart is the QNX operating system. Whereas the majority of the tablet pack is siding conservatively with Android, RIM's BlackBerry Tablet OS is powered by QNX
, which might sound unfamiliar but for decades has been running things like NASA shuttle flights, nuclear reactors and the World Wide Web. RIM's slant is that QNX provides a proven, mission-critical OS for the PlayBook: something that's better than Android, especially given the real-world demands of the business market.
The multi-tasking power of the OS is shown off by the fact that the PlayBook is the only tablet which lets you play a full 1080p movie on a HDTV via its HDMI out port, but still let you use other applications on the device at the same time.
In the following video, Jaques Basson, Technical Account Manager with RIM Australia, demonstrates to APC the PlayBook's navigation features, including control from the bezel, and shows off some of the multi-tasking chops of the device. (More of APC's hands-on observations follow after.)
In terms of hands-on time, the OS got the thumbs up. It's quick and responsive, even when it's keeping lots of apps running at once. Conrad admitted that "I had my doubts about usability versus Android 3.0 Honeycomb or iOS, but if anything it was even smoother and more feature-rich." Seeing it up close, Tony liked the "industrial-grade multi-tasking OS, which appeals to the geek in me."
Android apps on virtual machines
The PlayBook will be able to run Android apps
(in addition to apps developed specifically for BlackBerry Tablet OS); not natively, but rather by means of a Player app which will run the Android apps virtually. The bonus for tablet buyers is that they're getting proxy access to another app store's content, in addition to all the BB-specific software available on BlackBerry App World (but of course, Android developers need to port over their Android apps for the app player, and it remains to be seen how many software houses do this).
Still, it's definitely a feather in the PlayBook's cap; as yet, no other tablet makers have announced a similar feature. Conrad offers: "It's a bit of a downer that the only Android apps available will be ones that RIM approves, but time will tell if the PlayBook's app store develops enough to make that a non-issue."
We were impressed by the tablet's UI for one reason: it lets you dispense with buttons and icons and perform basic navigation entirely with gestures. The core navigation functions, such as going back to home screen, scrolling through screens and switching and closing apps, can be done entirely with finger swipes. You won't find yourself looking for the home or back buttons and it makes navigation the most natural yet of any tablet.
The PlayBook doesn't offer native BlackBerry mail support nor 3G/4G. The initial version, to be released in Australia in Q2 (and in the States within days) is Wi-Fi only. RIM has announced plans for 3G/4G versions in the US, but it's likely they won't see the light of day until the end of the year.
To overcome this lack of integrated Blackberry email, the PlayBook comes with BlackBerry Bridge, which uses Bluetooth to tether a BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook, letting you access all your BlackBerry's email, calendar and BBM info on the tablet. So, yes, you can get Blackberry's email on the PlayBook but once you walk out of Bluetoooth range of your Blackberry device, none of that data is retained on the PlayBook.
Tony, a self-confessed "hardened" BlackBerry user, in particular wasn't a fan of these shortcomings: "The biggest disappointments are the weird absence of native BlackBerry email and messenger and, of course, no BlackBerry Enterprise Server. These, and the unbreakable security they are wrapped in, are the very reasons you buy a BlackBerry. I read that they are coming down the track because RIM didn't have time to get them ready on its new tablet OS, so that's a relief. I don't think it's a showstopper, as the tethering means I can use my Blackberry handheld's pre-existing 3G connection and still access my email, but I can see how the concept will annoy the purists. It does smack of RIM wanting to get this device to market as soon as possible."
The lack of native BlackBerry hallmarks, like standalone integrated email support, will come as a shock to some.
If you treat RIM as just another hardware maker, then the PlayBook is now the top-performing tablet in the 7in space, with unique features such as a true multi-tasking OS (that can run virtual machines), superb gesture-based navigation, and snappy performance. While the number of apps for QNX is limited, the PlayBook will run Android apps later this year.
But if you see RIM's success as based on delivering your email, instant messages, diary and contact books down a pipe so secure that not even middle East and Indian governments could crack it, then the PlayBook is an incomplete device, needing to be paired with a Blackberry handheld to display your Blackberry email and to piggyback off its internet connection (if not in a wireless hot spot). Is this as disappointing as the critics are making out?
APC editor Sarno says: "No. The initial customers are likely to be Blackberry users who won't stop using their handhelds anyway, because the PlayBook will never be a phone. Since these already come equipped with native email and a 3G connection, the ingredients - when tethered - are already there for the PlayBook to deliver the full Blackberry experience, writ large. But I think that if RIM wants to reach a wider audience, it's only when these are provided natively on the PlayBook that the tablet will truly stand out among the crowd of tablets. Otherwise, by itself, it's just an excellent 7in tablet on which you can get your Gmail while in a Wi-Fi area."