A month with the BlackBerry PlayBook 16GB

A month with the BlackBerry PlayBook 16GB

Summary: You only really get to know a piece of technology when you spend some time with it — especially one as personal and as different from your usual way of working as a tablet. It's been nearly a month since I first started using a BlackBerry PlayBook, and it's time for a more considered look at RIM's approach to the tablet form factor — and at the operating system that promises to be the future of its smartphones as well as powering all its tablet devices, QNX.

TOPICS: Reviews

You only really get to know a piece of technology when you spend some time with it — especially one as personal and as different from your usual way of working as a tablet. It's been nearly a month since I first started using a BlackBerry PlayBook, and it's time for a more considered look at RIM's approach to the tablet form factor — and at the operating system that promises to be the future of its smartphones as well as powering all its tablet devices, QNX.

It turns out that the PlayBook's 7in. form factor is surprisingly comfortable. It's not pocketable, but it is easy to just drop it into a bag or backpack ready to pull out when you need it. When we spoke to the PlayBook's designer at BlackBerry World he noted that one of its inspirations was the familiar black A5 Moleskine notebook — and that's the essential nature of the PlayBook: an A5 electronic notebook.

PlayBook, the electronic Moleskine

When you think of it that way, many of RIM's decisions start to make sense. While native email is due in a summer update as part of the BlackBerry Player, I didn't actually miss an email client — especially with a full HTML5 browser giving me access to my mail server's Web UI. In fact, web apps fill many of the PlayBook's gaps, taking advantage of Flash and HTML5 using RIM's derivative of the WebKit browser engine used by Google and Apple.

Multitasking is easy in PlayBook, just swipe to switch apps

I've played with BlackBerry Bridge, but a software update meant my BlackBerry stopped getting email — so I stopped using it, and stopped using Bridge. It turned out that while I liked Bridge I didn't miss it, and webmail (especially using Outlook Web App with my Exchange server) was an acceptable alternative.

That browser is probably the best feature of the PlayBook, and lets the little tablet punch way above its weight. Need Office? Just point the PlayBook at Windows Live Skydrive and you're ready to use the web-based versions of the tools in full fidelity — no mobile version of the site for you! That means you'll be able to use the PlayBook to work with PowerPoint, Excel and with OneNote shared from a desktop PC — and there's a built-in copy of Docs To Go if you need to work offline. One trick that RIM missed is the ability to add your own icon to a saved link to a web page — a tiny screenshot of the linked page in the PlayBook's launcher looks out of place alongside more professional icons.

Using Microsoft's OneNote Web App in the PlayBook browser

I found the keyboard better than many touch keyboards (but not as good as the Windows Phone 7 keyboard with its dynamic centroid detection). The 7in. screen means it's a lot easier to thumb-type in landscape mode than a 10in. tablet like the iPad or the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 — and I couldn't help but compare the PlayBook to the good old Psion 5. The keyboard rotates in portrait mode, but there I found the keys a little on the small side, and the large internal battery makes the PlayBook feel a little unbalanced when held on one side.

As the PlayBook's much smaller than other tablets, it turns out to be quite usable as a camera. RIM has done a reasonable job with the camera software — both still and video. The PlayBook is light enough to hold for long periods filming, and the large screen lets you see what you're recording. The spring software update also included a video chat application, which turns out to be very easy to use — and much better quality than expected.

Watching a video podcast on a PlayBook

The screen is clear and bright, with plenty of contrast — and the result makes the PlayBook a great little media player. You'll need to side-load most video, and RIM makes that easy. Install the bundled connection software and the PlayBook looks like an external drive, connected via USB or over Wi-Fi. That second option is interesting, as it means that you don't need a physical connection to copy files to and from a PlayBook (the mark of the truly post-PC world!).

Sadly, what really lets the PlayBook down is the lack of software. Smartphones are defined by their apps, and many of the key smartphone applications haven't made it to the PlayBook yet. That may be because their authors are waiting for the Android and BlackBerry players later this summer, but some omissions seem odd — particularly Twitter clients like Tweetdeck and Seesmic, which could have easily been delivered on PlayBook's AIR platform. AIR isn't hard to develop for, and RIM's QNX extensions are easy enough to use in existing AIR applications.

PlayBook needs more, and higher quality, apps to be successful

It's odd that RIM has yet to roll out PlayBook versions of key consumer apps — especially as the company has worked with Twitter, Foursquare and many IM companies to deliver BlackBerry versions of their tools. The larger screen of the PlayBook is ideal for many of these social applications, and while web user interfaces work well, the multitasking QNX platform seems ideal for AIR implementations. Certainly the Facebook app that launched in May is a prime example of what's possible with PlayBook social applications — but there's not much in the App World app store beyond IRC clients.

Even so, I'm still enjoying using the PlayBook. There's a lot of potential in the platform, and the updates promised over the summer should unlock many new features (including improvements to the security model that should make the PlayBook even more CIO-friendly). Its weight makes it an ideal companion device, and while it’s Wi-Fi only, there's scope to tether with a pocket 3G/4G hotspot or to tether to a BlackBerry or another phone.

Battery life isn’t as good as it might be: you won't get much more than a day's use out of the PlayBook before having to plug it in. There's not as much room in a 7in. device for a battery as in a 10in. one, but we did expect better from RIM — especially with the BlackBerry's power management features. RIM is promising regular software updates, and we're hoping that these will improve power management — especially around Wi-Fi, which is the main culprit…

So the final verdict? The PlayBook is definitely a promising device, and one clearly targeted at the enterprise rather than the consumer. It may not have the application ecosystem of the iPad (or even the BlackBerry), but apps are arriving in App World — and those that are already there are being updated. It's light and easy to carry around, and makes an effective companion device, both for PC and for phone (especially for a BlackBerry). We'd recommend investing in a portable hotspot to get the most out of the PlayBook on the road as you're going to want to spend a lot of time in its admirable browser.

PlayBook's App World application store

There’s a lot to like here, and according to RIM, a lot more to come. At the moment, though there's only just enough to make the PlayBook something you'll carry every day. Hopefully the summer updates will make it the go-to device it deserves to be. The summer also promises an update to BES that will allow administrators to control and manage PlayBooks, something that should accelerate industry adoption (especially if they're manageable using the Office 365/BES integration).

Simon Bisson

Topic: Reviews

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  • so overall it is a nice tablet just some down sizing are there but still RIM has done a good job.
  • Great follow up.

    The operating system, despite being far from perfect is absolutely rock solid, which could be the device’s saving grace and, in my opinion, beats iOS and Android hands down from a usability perspective. The touch sensitive bezels make use of otherwise wasted space on the chassis of the device, removing all traces of buttons from the device. A swipe from the top gets you the current application’s menu, a swipe from the bottom brings up the home screen and a swipe from the side is by far the fastest way to switch between multiple applications. Gestures were responsive and relatively jerk-free, however, I have experienced a couple of lock-ups during general usage over the past couple of days.

    Agree with your point about the lack of applications available at launch – when the “top 10” apps include a translator and weather app, you know you need some major players on board!
  • ive had mine for a month now, i find the bridge app perfect, couldnt improve on it for how i use e mail.
    i agree the web browser is the best bit, i do a lot of of web surfing and i love it on this.

    it does fit in my shorts pocket and my jeans but i keep it in the slip case it came with.

    apps dont bother me too much, i have about 6 on my playbook and 10 on my phone.

    great little device, my only niggle is the music playback is slightly quieter than my old ipad.
  • Great article Simon, I have been using my PlayBook now for a little bit under a month too. While no bleeding edge technology is without its bugs amd apps, the playbook is a very compelling user friendly robust device with enough potential to make IOS monopolies to panic but not just yet. The browser is fantastic for cloud based apps and everything else online, facebook app is great and there are new native qnx apps that continue to push the envelope in comparison to other tablets. Bridge and tethering are great without relying on yet another mobile data plan and dont forget about the plug and play micro hdmi output which is marvelous for the boardroom.
  • I have also been using a playbook and found many of the same likes and dislikes. I was impressed with the size of the PB. I can carry it with me most anywhere and on the weekend it fits in the cargo pocket of my shorts. Because of the size I dont look like a apple fanboy with ipad clinched in my hands. I find myself passing the PB back to my kids in the car. Thanks to bridge browser they can surf the web and there is no added data plan required. The browser just rocks! Hands down it is the best tablet browser on the market. I wish there were more apps but I have learned that many of the apps on app store are offered because iOS doesnt support flash and they build a band-aid app for this issue. All in all its clearly a solid tool!
  • I have had a Playbook for 2 weeks. It's a great device. Size and form-factor are excellent. I have an IPad also, and I am reaching for the Playbook for my mail and browsing. It's a convenient size to carry, and easy to type on the keyboard. Using B'berry Bridge for email really isn't that bad and the Bridge Browser is certainly adequate. Using this device over wifi (or a mobile hotspot) is truly sweet. Great browser gets access to everything. Office tools are very good for business professional. Keep the apps coming! Personally, I think alot of the negative press is being fueled by competitors wishing to see the Playbook dead. This is a good article too.
  • @BBerryFan
    What is telling, only mobile operators Vodafone and Orange are offering this in the UK at launch. I'd say three,O2 are waiting for the 3G Version or better integration of Blackberry Mail in the device itself (and so should any potential purchaser, this is a rushed out device).

    o2 are pretty tech savvy, having got exclusive on the iphone at launch, (so have a tendency to back new tech they think has a future)- they have completely spurned this model - I think that says a lot, its not negative press (o2 evaluate things for themselves)

    It might turn out that neither HP WebOS and the Playbook (and future revisions) sell in the numbers required due to lack of an ecosystem/Apps.

    Failure to compete with iPad on quantity/price (2 Million a month!-competitors will be selling at a loss at initial quantities produced to gain market share-they can't do that forever).

    It would create a very dark time for competitors of Apple iOS/Google Android, it will would be interesting what Microsoft does if this proves the case. Microsoft already having watched the boat sail, might just knock further development on the head based on the results from HP WebOS/Playbook, and stick to producing Windows working on Arm, as a method of competiing.

    Dell has recently been selling the Dell 5'' Streak for as little as £199 via its dellswarm.com website, probably finding that its competition isn't the iPad but large 4.3'' screen, high powered android devices. I think the playbook has the same fate.
  • I've been wondering if the Playbook allows you to use the blackberry Messenger through wi-fi? and does it have its own pin or does this need to be bridge with a smartphone??
  • Bridged with your Blackberry Smartphone, Data remains on the Blackberry Smartphone.
    Good Points:Secure, bad: Its Clunky. 'Bridging is required to use the Memo Function'
    Full integration is promised.
    This vid gives a good overview.
  • BlackBerry PlayBook with QNX technology powered operating system is now available......dual core 1GHz processor and 1GB RAM makes apps run faster..........powered by 5MP main and 3 MP rear camera....
  • I got a PB as my first tablet and like it almost as much as I like my Windows phone and for similar reasons. Silky smooth to use and very functional for the (somewhat limited) uses to which it is put. And this is also the problem. It doesn't really do anything my phone doesn't do and doesn't do lots of things my phone does do. I made the decision to use it only for business, which in my case means I put a lot of pdf's on it for reference. Even here lies a problem because file management is hopeless on the PB and the adobe reader doesn't remember the zoom level from page to page, which means I have to resize every page so I can read it. A proper pain. I can use my Windows Live account via the browser, which is cool but better integration would be nice, for instance so I could update e-mail, contacts etc and have them stay on the PB when I'm not in wi-fi range. Not everyone is a paranoid American with a Blackberry phone and a demanding CEO. Maybe MS will buy RIM and head down this road. Despite it's many and varied failings, I still love it and for the most part it is a joy to use.
    More recently, I bought a second hand Ipad and find it too large, too heavy and much much too Apple. Nevertheless, my Times subscription is a killer app, the range of apps greatly exceeds the PB and even withiout Flash support, I can watch live BBC TV thanks to the BBC's Apple friendly I-player.
    I go on holiday to Italy this month and will only take one tablet. I'm afraid it's gonna be the Ipad, but I wish it wasn't.