You may be wondering why it has taken so long to see a PlayBook review on BlackBerryCool. First, we still don’t really believe this is a finished product. We’ll have another review of the device when it gets a UI refresh this month along with native PIM features. Second, a review only gets better with time so click through and read on.
Before going into a review of the PlayBook, it’s worth taking some time to talk about the tablet market in general. For some reason, we all need tablets now. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding tablets since the launch of the iPad and whether or not you need a tablet is something you should really figure out for yourself. There’s a few key things that a tablet is better for than a smartphone or a laptop. For example, tablets are great for consuming content but if you’re going to be coding, you should definitely be sticking to a laptop.
The synergy between tablets and smartphones is clear: phone screens are tiny and the mobile experience can be dramatically improved with a bigger screen coupled with more powerful architecture. The marketers see it differently; they feel that tablets are laptop killers and that people should do work on them. This seems like a bit of a stretch.
Tablets for “Professionals”
I’ve kept my PlayBook within arms’ reach of my laptop and BlackBerry since the day I got it. What I discovered is that my tablet “work” was limited to checking email and browsing the web. Where marketers are getting this whole “it’ll make you more productive” angle I’ll never know. I guess it’s a clever way to turn a want into a need.
There are a few other professional ways you can use your PlayBook including:
Accessing your phone’s info while talking on the phone
BlackBerry Bridge haters eat your heart out. I was having business-talk on the phone the other day and I never had to say “hold on, let me check my phone for a minute”. I looked up and added things to my calendar, contacts, searched through emails, added to-dos and started a collaborative Google document. It’s a bit like a second screen for my BlackBerry but the effect that it had on my conversation was that I had all this info off the top of my head.
The PlayBook is built to showcase. If you’ve got a presentation to make, especially a 1 on 1 pitch you need a PlayBook. The speakers on the front of the PlayBook are loud enough to hear a demo video even if you’re pitching something in a noisy conference hall. Videos look superb and you can concurrently load your other docs and web pages. They’ll know you’re in top form when you answer a question of theirs with something waiting in the PlayBook’s multitasking wings.
Flexible control surface
At the core of a tablet’s design is the ultimate control surface. I used to figuratively drool all over the Optimus Maximus Keyboard. Each key has a mini-display on it and the whole thing can be customized to suit your input needs.
Tablets are the ultimate button panel and soon enough we’ll use them to control nearly everything electronic. Already there are universal remote apps, a Netflix queue manager, a Boxee remote app and even control apps for your PC and Mac. As far as professional grade control apps go, I really would like to see some MIDI and OSC apps for PlayBook.
Documents To Go
The PlayBook includes a full version of the BlackBerry office suite: Documents To Go. This is great for viewing and making minor edits to documents that come through via email. Adding some info in Sheet To Go is made easy by their intuitive control scheme. Selecting the cells or a group of cells involves adjusting the position on two small control markers.
I find that working on docs on this for anything but a short period of time demands a laptop, but the PlayBook’s portable viewing and editing abilities are straightforward and uncluttered.
A use case that didn’t make the cut is note-taking during meetings. I still feel that we’re in an era in which fiddling away on a smartphone or a tablet during a meeting is rude while taking notes with pen and paper doesn’t share that stigma.
The PlayBook feels like it’s got a satisfying weight to it. It’s the perfect size for holding with two hands but one-handed operation will put a bit of strain on your hand and wrist after a couple of minutes. The PlayBook has a non-slip and velvety rubberized texture, great for propping up against other items on a table because the bottom edge won’t slip out from under it. I find that the outer case feels so solid that I don’t bother with protective skins or cases. I even leave the neoprene slip-on cover that it came with in my drawer full of unwanted USB cables.
The idea that it can “fit in your pocket” is a half-truth. It can fit in your pocket if you shop in a Big and Tall store. It can fit in a large jacket pocket but feels awkward as it fills out the pocket completely. Think of the feeling of putting 3 blackberry devices in a single pants pocket. It’s possible, just not even close to being practical. I feel the PlayBook design is solid enough to throw it into any part of my luggage that doesn’t contain keys.
The PlayBook is the ideal size for a purse, messenger bag or briefcase. Even if you’ve got a laptop, adding the PlayBook to your briefcase is more of a question of “do I want to bring my PlayBook?” rather than “do I have room to bring my PlayBook?” Larger tablets are about as big as a laptop’s screen making them less purse or bag friendly.
The PlayBook’s multitasking abilities are quite robust. It won’t let you run every installed app at once but it will run around 5 to 10 apps reliably. When you reach the limits of what it can run it won’t let you open a new app.
As good as the PlayBook’s browser is, it won’t allow you to overlap the audio from two different browser sources. This kills the PlayBook’s potential as a party music jukebox unless you and your friends only listen to the same 20 or so albums (all pre-loaded on to the PlayBook of course) and don’t like new music at all.
The ideal for me would be to allow the last two browser windows’ audio through. This way you can fade between two sources like you can on the most basic of netbooks.
The Battery lasts a long time in comparison to laptops. You’re able to choose the rate of power consumption by fine-tuning network connections and screen brightness just like you do now on your phone.
The PlayBook requires a high-powered micro USB in order to charge and comes with a high-capacity wall charger. For even faster charging, you’ll either have to buy the charging pod that gives you a great desktop viewing angle, or the rapid travel charger that will also give you access to the HDMI out. Why the charging pod doesn’t have an HDMI-through port is weird because it seems better suited towards desktop operation.
In terms of setup the PlayBook hits the ground running. There are fewer hoops to jump through than setting up a BlackBerry for the first time. This is partly because you’ve already set up a BlackBerry to be paired with it so all the PlayBook needs is your desired language, Wi-Fi setup, time, BlackBerry Bridge and desktop syncing. There’s also a brief tutorial that teaches you the bezel navigation basics.
The way the tablet uses your BlackBerry’s connection means you won’t have to bother your CTO when you get a PlayBook. “Risks of loss or theft of hardware” is a top CTO concern. The Bridge’s data philosophy solves these issues by not keeping any of your data when your phone is out of range.
Serious developers need a critical mass of customers to insure a return on their investment. As a result, App World is flooded with small developers’ simple apps. While RIM’s program of giving away free tablets to developers have led to a respectable number of apps on early in the PlayBook’s life, these apps are usually just focusing on providing a single feature or service and lack a high degree of quality.
When I ask PlayBook users what their favorite PlayBook apps are, their answers are always leaning towards first party apps. Surprising amounts of people simply answer “the browser”. This only highlights my point that there is not a healthy list of premium 3rd party apps for the PlayBook.
It should be noted that we see this all changing significantly. With the ability to support Android apps, as well as apps written in the Native SDK, Java, Flash and HTML, RIM has carved a great strategy of openness.
Another step towards going paperless
The vision of a paperless office has been around ever since the idea got hatched at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center. When the good folks at PARC were busy inventing the building blocks of the modern PC, they stumbled upon a glorious vision of a seamless and paperless workgroup. PARC innovations such as easy networking, the mouse, windows, icons and WYSIWYG document editing all came together to form a radical idea: typewriters and paper are a thing of the past.
Over the past 30 years the lessons learned in the early days of PARC have blossomed into a full-fledged computing revolution. Now everyone sees the wisdom in computers that are networked and easier to use, documents that can be modified and saved instead of laborious drafting and re-typing.
We still use paper documents everywhere. At BlackBerry World, there were several companies boasting the wireless printing solutions that their software offered. I can see how it this will change how people view documents and messages while away from their PC.
Watching video is a pleasure on the PlayBook; the widescreen nature of the display’s 1024×600 resolution is perfect for movies. The video chips that handle the resizing of video do a great job. The resizing of the video is fantastic with no moiré or video artifacts on the main display or the HDMI output.
The PlayBook can play back most formats such as divx, avi, h.264, mpeg4 and more. The only format that I found it wouldn’t accept is mkv files which is too bad because most 1080p videos tend to be stored in this format.
The video camera function on the Playbook is okay. It can shoot up to 1080p and offers 3 simple video setting keeping settings like aperture, white balance, and shutter speed far away from the user. Holding the PlayBook to shoot video is mixed because as big as the preview screen is, the tablet’s weight isn’t balanced for holding at head level. Shooting a 5-minute video without leaning your arms on something would become uncomfortable and feels awkward.
The idea that a user would use the camera and video functions as a collaborative tool is eclipsed by the ease of use of the BlackBerry. It’s a bit of a convoluted process to take a pic or a video on the Playbook and email it or transfer it to where it has to go. To do this you’ve got to do it from within the messages app. Meanwhile on the smartphone side of things, you can send it somewhere right after you’ve taken the pic or video.
Similar to the video operation, the camera has 3 simplified shooting modes: auto, sports and whiteboard. The delay between pressing the shutter button and the picture being taken is so significant that it reminds me of the earliest of camera phones. It feels like a 2 second delay and I prefer taking pictures on my BlackBerry instead.
This can only be done with other Playbooks and only under the correct network conditions. I would really like to see something actually useful take advantage of video conferencing like a Skype client. It seems every gadget has a forward-facing camera but companies all want to use their own system. Until then this’ll be a feature that they can write on the side of the box, but will basically never be used.
Not a Standalone Tablet
At present, the tablet is almost completely useless without an accompanying BlackBerry smartphone. Once they have an option to migrate all the BlackBerry Bridge apps’ functionality into native PlayBook apps, then you could get a PlayBook for use with another brand of phone. Until then, the PlayBook is for BlackBerry users only.
The browser is the PlayBook’s killer app. RIM built and finely-tuned it so that all the other apps would be elevated by it’s utility. I don’t even have to wait for companies to make a PlayBook version of their app because for the most part, their web clients work just fine.
I was wondering when my favorite note-taking app Evernote would be making it to the PlayBook as their iPad software looked great. Doing some poking around in forums led me to a post that simply read: “use the web client, it works great!”
I wish there was a “reopen all windows in Bridge Browser” and “reopen all windows in WiFi browser” because having them separated by connectivity stunts the ease of portability. Why the browsers are separated by connectivity has got to be an engineering choice that the users now have to cope with.
The PlayBook is the master of web-based entertainment. The flash-enabled browser allows you to watch almost every format of steaming video and audio from the web. Web content is easy to manage with lots of choices for podcasting apps, internet radio, RSS feeds and news reader apps.
Entertainment is a pretty large topic to cover, I would simply suggest trying out your favorite media outlets and try not to act too surprised when the PlayBook can handle it.
One small problem I have with watching videos with ads that you’re meant to close to get a clearer view. Most of the time it will load the ad as if you had clicked on it rather than close the ad so you can remove the clutter around your video. I find that my 16GB PlayBook has ample storage being that most of my content is stored on my PC and loaded when I need it. Splurge on a 64GB PlayBook only if you’re planning on making your PlayBook the device that manages your music and videos.
A Hint of What’s to Come: the QNX BlackBerry
I can’t wait for the QNX-designed BlackBerry smartphone. Since the popularization of loading third party apps on the BlackBerry, users have had to deal with a number of growing pains like constant battery pulls, apps freezing and system slow-downs after a certain amount of apps get installed.
If the Playbook’s performance is any hint as to what the QNX BlackBerry can do, I think that competing smartphone platforms will be hard pressed to match BlackBerry’s muscle. They’ll have superior multitasking and integration of features across apps.
One of my biggest daydreams of the union between tablet and phone is a deeper integration of apps across the platforms. Imagine copy and pasting something from the Playbook’s web browser into one of your BlackBerry apps. Or updating someone’s contact photo or custom ringtone with content brought in from the PlayBook. I also envision e-readers, music playlists, podcasts and RSS apps that are aware of where you left so you can find your place even if you’re switching between tablet and phone.
Should I buy a BlackBerry Playbook?
To properly answer this question I think you should ask yourself “do you love your BlackBerry”? If yes, then you need a BlackBerry PlayBook. You should also stay tuned for the big PlayBook update. With native PIM features, a redesigned OS, and BBM, you don’t have to own a BlackBerry to buy a PlayBook. We’ll have another review coming when this happens so stay tuned.