PlayBook may be an odd name for BlackBerry's first tablet, but RIM's 7-inch PlayBook offers a refreshing interface and smooth performance that live up to its name. However, beyond the great multitasking and intuitive UI, the PlayBook holds little appeal for non-BlackBerry smartphone users.
BlackBerry PlayBook: Design and display
The RIM BlackBerry PlayBook has a typical BlackBerry design. Although RIM claims it is positioned as both a consumer and business device, the PlayBook has sharp, square edges with a glossy black bezel and a rear backing that feels like strong rubber: all scream work rather than play. Build quality feels superb, with no creaks or signs of poor craftsmanship, and the PlayBook is comfortable to hold and carry around. The smaller 7-inch size of the PlayBook is clearly geared towards frequent travellers — we find this size easy to read during daily commuting on public transport, or lying in bed.
The BlackBerry PlayBook has four physical buttons centred on the top of the tablet. The power button (which also wakes the display from sleep) is strangely tiny, almost flush with the casing, and requires a forceful press to activate. We have no idea what RIM was thinking with this one, but it is truly terrible. Thankfully, the volume and pause/play buttons are a little larger and slightly raised, but they still feel uncomfortable to use. Mini-HDMI, micro-USB and a proprietary BlackBerry dock connector are found on the bottom of the PlayBook. The latter has been designed for a range of accessories that will be made available, including multiple docking solutions, and an optional charger that is faster than the regular USB charger included in the sales package.
The BlackBerry PlayBook's 7-inch display is a regular capacitive LCD panel with a resolution of 1024 x 600 and has full multi-touch capability. Viewing angles and clarity are both impressive, and the PlayBook displays vibrant looking colours and clear text with minimal aberrations.
BlackBerry PlayBook: Software and performance
Far more intuitive than the tiny power button, is the tablet's touch sensitive bezel surrounding the display. The BlackBerry PlayBook uses gestures on this bezel to control certain UI commands. As an example, sliding from the bottom bezel up onto the screen allows you to open a new application using a carousel-style view. Similar to Palm and now HP's webOS software, sliding a running app towards the top of the screen closes it, while sliding from left or right lets you switch between currently running apps. The method is functional, slick and very attractive.
During day-to-day use, the BlackBerry PlayBook doesn't feel like a BlackBerry at all. The interface is refreshing and vibrant. It's smooth and very easy to operate. It's responsive to touch. Most apps have a handy menu with more options that can be dragged down from the top of the bezel — this is both intuitive and smart. The PlayBook's Web browser is slick, fast and scrolls relatively smoothly, though it's not as smooth as the iPad or Android tablets, and it doesn't render pages as well as its rivals. However, it handles multitasking much more efficiently and effectively than the iPad 2, and the range of new Android 'Honeycomb' tablets like the Motorola Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1v.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the BlackBerry PlayBook is performance. We opened up to seven applications simultaneously, including a Flash intensive Web site, a full Need for Speed game, an AVI video, and a 10MB PowerPoint presentation and we were able to flick through these running applications with no sign of lag or slowdown. Another great point is the PlayBook's flexibility; you simply connect it to a PC or Mac via the included USB cable, and you can drag and drop files to and from the device. It mounts as a drive over USB (rather than a USB mass storage device) and requires the installation of BlackBerry drivers, but this took less than a few minutes and once installed worked without issue on our MacBook Pro.
As with all tablets, much of the success of the BlackBerry PlayBook will depend on the amount and quality of apps available. Though the PlayBook comes preloaded with a PDF viewer, and PowerPoint, Excel and Word document editors through the handy Documents to Go suite, it doesn't fare so well otherwise. There are no native e-mail, calendar, contacts, tasks or memo applications unless you pair the tablet with a BlackBerry smartphone using software called BlackBerry Bridge — this allows users to access content that resides on their BlackBerry smartphone. The app is free and the process is fairly straightforward. It involves scanning a QR code displayed on the PlayBook with your BlackBerry smartphone camera to connect the two devices. The BlackBerry Bridge menu then appears on the PlayBook home screen where you can access e-mail, contacts and calendars from your BlackBerry smartphone, along with tasks and memo applications and a Browser that uses the BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS). RIM has promised native calendar, contacts and e-mail applications in a future software update, but has not specified an exact time frame for this release.
In addition to traditional BlackBerry App World apps, the BlackBerry PlayBook will also eventually support Android apps — while users won't get access to the Android Market, developers of Android apps will easily be able to port these apps over to the App World store for use on the PlayBook. RIM has not elaborated much further on this aspect, but stressed that porting an Android app to App World is a simple and easy process — it will need to be for developers to embrace the PlayBook.
Another aspect lacking is 3G connectivity. The BlackBerry PlayBook will come in various models including both Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi + 3G versions, but the Wi-Fi only model is the first to launch in Australia. Like the native calendar and e-mail apps, and the Android app compatibility, the Wi-Fi + 3G version of the PlayBook will be launched at a later, unannounced date. All models of the PlayBook will be offered in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions.
The BlackBerry PlayBook also comes with dual cameras: a 5-megapixel rear camera and a 3-megapixel front-facing camera for video. The rear camera produces decent quality photos, but lacks an LED flash and produces evident image noise in low light situations. Battery life is reasonably impressive: we regularly managed about 7 hours of use before it died with moderate use. Its clearly a step below the iPad 2, but the PlayBook should have enough juice to get you through a full days work, or play.