Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

Summary: While a lot of people have already written off the BlackBerry PlayBook before it has even launched, RIM may have gotten the important stuff right. Based on first impressions, check out these four PlayBook surprises.

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One of the best things that the BlackBerry PlayBook has going for it is low expectations. While the Apple iPad 2 selling faster than stores can stock it, the first big Android Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom has done a belly-flop, which has opened the door for BlackBerry and HP's forthcoming WebOS tablet as iPad challengers. However, most of the technology world has already written off the PlayBook before it's even available to the public.

After having demos and Q&A with Research in Motion's reps at the BlackBerry PlayBook's official launch event on Thursday in New York City, and walking away with a review unit of the final hardware, I think it's a mistake to completely dismiss the PlayBook. While it is still incomplete from an app perspective (which is what most reviewers have latched onto), I was surprised to find that RIM has done a nice job with the overall experience of the product. It has none of the labored complexity of the BlackBerry OS. The experience is simple, intuitive, and ultra-responsive. It's much more like a one-button Apple solution than the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach in Android.

So, my first impression with the PlayBook was a lot better than expected. I think RIM may have nailed the overall experience aspect of the tablet. That's the really tough part, and if you don't get it right -- like Google with the first version of Android Honeycomb -- then nothing else matters. The app issue is the second hurdle, but it's easier to get over. RIM can quickly overcome that just by building some of its own key apps and getting a few key partners to participate (Amazon, Cisco, Citrix, EA Sports, etc.). Then, it can pitch ambititous app builders to get in on the ground floor on PlayBook

The PlayBook still has some work to do, and I'll talk more about that in my full review, but for now I'll give you four things have made the PlayBook a pleasant surprise and given it a chance to compete in the tablet race.

1. The word processor is superior

My favorite app/feature on the PlayBook is Word To Go, a mobile version of Microsoft Word for viewing, editing, and creating simple word processing documents (here's a quick screenshot). I immediately started toying around with this and loved it. I've never found a great word processor on the iPad (Pages and iA Writer are acceptable) and it doesn't have anything that matches the straight-forward usability of this app on the PlayBook. In fact, it's so good I thought it might have been made by Microsoft. It turns out that it was built by the Dataviz team (creator of Docs to Go), which RIM acquired and which licenses Microsoft technology. I could easily see myself writing longer documents and taking notes with this app. The 7-inch form factor of the PlayBook makes thumb-typing a little easier than the iPad and that is factor as well (although the iPad is still better for typing when you can set it on a flat surface).

2. Performance and responsiveness are excellent

So far, I've found that the PlayBook whips through almost every task with speed and smoothness. Even with a bunch of apps open, I've never seen it lag or freeze, yet. In terms of performance and responsiveness, the closest mobile device I can compare it to is the HTC ThunderBolt, which zooms through opening apps and Web pages at near desktop speeds. The PlayBook might be even faster than the ThunderBolt. It's exciting to see mobile devices gearing up to these kinds of speeds.

3. The UI is remarkably simple and self-evident

From a larger perspective, the PlayBook's most important asset is that it's UI is well-conceived, approachable, and easy for a new user to figure out within seconds and without a manual. This was the biggest surprise for me, since RIM has struggled badly in recent years to overhaul the BlackBerry OS. Starting from scratch with QNX and using it to build the BlackBerry Tablet OS has delivered the goods. The PlayBook is a zero button solution that uses two simple gestures for navigation. Swiping up from the bottom of the bezel serves as a home/back button and swiping down from the top of the bezel serves as a menu button. It felt natural within a couple minutes.

4. The Web browsing experience rocks

While the PlayBook lacks the massive app catalog of the iPad -- and is unlikely to ever catch up -- it does offer a better Web browsing experience compared to the iPad (other than the iPad's screen size advantage). The PlayBook browser is more customizable, handles tabs better, allows you to quickly hide/show the menu bar, and is bolstered by the beautifully sharp and bright display on the PlayBook. Of course, the other thing the PlayBook does better is displaying Flash. I don't like Flash and avoid whenever possible, but Flash is still a big part of today's Web and will be for years. BlackBerry's Flash implementation on the PlayBook is excellent, much better than the inconsistent, sometimes-buggy experience of Flash in Android. To give you an example, I loaded my review of Game of Thrones on the PlayBook and started playing the embedded video preview from HBO at the bottom of the post. The PlayBook never missed a beat. I even clicked the full-screen button and it looked terrific on the PlayBook's display.

Topics: Mobile OS, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, BlackBerry, Software Development, Tablets

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42 comments
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  • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

    Docs To Go is on the iPad/iPhone also and from the looks of the screenshot, appears to be the same. In terms of web browsing, where Safari lacks, Atomic browser excels (besides Flash of course).
    jmiller1978
    • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

      @jmiller1978 True, but DocsToGo comes standard on the PlayBook. You have to purchase it for the iPad
      HerculesVandermollen
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        @HerculesVandermollen <br><br>Is there an Email/calendar application available for the playbook or do you have to buy a Blackberry, which costs a little bit more than DocsToGo?
        alsobannedfromzdnet
  • Great news

    So... Why so many bad reviews ?... These 4 are certainly amongst the most important aspect of a portable computer divice. I don't understand.
    gbouchard99
    • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

      @gbouchard99@...

      Pssst It's not made by Apple or has 65,000 Apps.
      MobileAdmin
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        @MobileAdmin

        Apple certainly has earned it's great hardware rep during the past six or seven years and, your right, 65,000 apps and counting is an enormous asset.

        BTW, Engadget's review stated a 5 to 6 hour battery charge life (could be caused by all that Flash content being displayed)
        kenosha77a
      • The inflatable iPod Touch

        @MobileAdmin Oh, come on. When the iPad first came out, the same pundits were thumbing their noses at it, saying "It's just a big iPod Touch" or "Who would pay $500 for <i>this</i>? It doesn't even have a keyboard" or "They won't sell 200 of them."
        Robert Hahn
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        That's the funny part. Steve "the god" Jobs has everyone buying into this monotheistic concept of mobile devices. The great thing about the playbook is this....who needs apps if you have the full web at your fingertips!
        An app/application simply applies web format programs into mobile compatibility. Who needs a mapping app if you can have Google maps in the palm of your hand.
        WHo needs native email if we all use gmail,yahoo,msn, or aol mail anyway. Trust me your laptops dont have apps. i dont need a banking app if i can access my bank via a kick ass full web browser. People WAKE UP, stop drinking all the Apple juice.
        Drentz
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        @kenisha7777

        The battery metrics a have been all over the place 5-6 was by far the lowest noted out of all the reviews I read. I saw many in the 7-8 range and up to 11hrs.

        We don't know how the battery was tested, what OS build, system settings etc. Considering Playbook has many options that can be tweaked that could have an impact on battery life this needs to be examined more.
        MobileAdmin
  • Finally a more level headed review

    I've been having fun reading all of the PlayBook reviews in the last couple of days, but the negativity gets pretty tiring, and everyone is harping on the same things, most of which I think are big exaggerations. This review seems more level headed and optimistic, and I appreciated that.
    daniel.bigham
  • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

    About time someone clued into the great features of the Playbook,nice balanced article for a change...also Playbook is getting software improvements all the time,which shows that RIMM knows it has to improve somethings.
    As far as Itoy2 is concerned why haven't I read the same comments about, lack of Flash, no HDMI, two really poor cameras (.7 mega pixel is just horrible), 720p output is lame, the single speaker is not very good, and even sounds tinny.
    Yet it seems that 2-3 writers have not done a thorough test or are blowing smoke out of their butts, about Playbbok because it is Balckberry.
    Kudos to Jason Hiner for a balanced review of a new product that is as good or better in some respects then Apples second grab for more $
    Ejeff
  • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

    RIM is releasing a tablet that only 40 million people with Blackberrys can use to its fullest potential. Its as if RIM thinks that the current Blackberry user will be the most likely early adopter of the Playbook, which limits RIM to a paltry 40 million or so potential customers, at least for the next 2-3 months. You can read the tea leaves and plainly see that by this time next year RIM will have QNX on its new phones that will perform like iPhone, some of them with touch screen only, most with the awesome keyboard of Blackberry with touch screen for navigation and all these devices will have the security that Blackberry is famous for.
    scootnyinzer
    • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

      @scootnyinzer you are absolutely right, everyone dismisses the fact there are 40 million+ BB users, and if even 5% opt to buy one before the 3G and 4G models come out by July, that means 2 MILLION units. After that everyone else can realize just how good the Playbook is and jump on the bandwagon. When RIMM gets the QNX platformontothe next generation of phones coming shortly, it is going to blow the doorsoff of everything else. Also The Itoy2 is far from perfect, 2 crappy camers, 1 lousy speaker, no flash capability,no HDMI port, but it certainly is the best promoted tablet...
      Ejeff
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        @Ejeff

        The majority of those 40 million are enterprise users in the private sector and Gov't. Those users will not be in a hurry to adopt the Playbook as the security implications of tethering to the BB to get data could be a major hinderence. Plus until the Playbook gets FIPS-certified, the Gov't can't use it the way it's currently intended.
        jmiller1978
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        @jmiller1978
        Outside the government though, you have the millions of enterprise users, not to mention the consumer users....
        That, is a pretty good starting point.
        ;)
        rhonin
  • Another journalist living in fear of the Playbook's release.

    "totally written off by the technology world". Are you referring to the IT industry or are you just making up a name to make it seem like some very large important group of people used the Playbook and determined it isn't worth anything? It sounds like you're trying really hard to convince people not to consider it while disguising the article in praise of it. The real and only thing people need to know is, does the thing provide an excellent user experience. Your answer: YES!!!!

    "still incomplete from an app perspective". What the heck is that supposed to mean? Is there a magic number of apps a device should have in order to be complete or are you just trying to perpetuate the a lie that Steve Jobs started? Yet again more evidence you're trying hard to discourage people from considering the Playbook. If you were sincere in your article, you would have pointed out that even though Playbook will be starting out with less apps than Ipad or Xoom, having 3,000 apps at start is still amazing in offering compelling choices rather than playing host to an endless supply of worthless apps. The way you and other journalists try to perpetuate this "app" issue it's almost as if you're saying Apple should have been put out of business a long time ago when Microsoft had tens of thousands of apps compared to Apple's 200 or less apps. Obviously Apple laid the app count issue to rest back in the 90's.
    ss1plus
    • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

      @ss1plus...Hey lets not forget that no one mentions the 2000 FART Apps, that has to be a great Apple feature...you are 100% right, you can't even look at 65,000 apps, and besides, when you come down to it in the real world outside of games, what do you need, 20, 30, 50 apps....besides as a previvous comment tha was made, "If you a kick ass web browser and get the full web experience who needs apps"....unless of course you take Steve Jobs word for it
      Ejeff
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        @Ejeff

        Seriously, the fart app joke is really tired. Of the 65,000 iPad apps, 0 are fart apps. Plus the business oriented web apps don't use Flash so they can easily be used on the iPad as well.
        jmiller1978
      • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

        @jmiller1978<br><i>Plus the business oriented web apps don't use Flash so they can easily be used on the iPad as well..</i><br><br>Think again.<br>Two companies I have worked for in recent years and another I interviewed with do all of their training and a significant portion of their internal hr web in Flash.<br><br>The statement does not pan out.<br><br>btw: these are all fortune 500 companies (one fortune 50) ....<br><br><img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/plain.gif" alt="plain">
        rhonin
  • RE: Four pleasant surprises in the BlackBerry PlayBook

    I attended Roger's launch here in Edmonton, Canada and my overall impression was very positive. If you are a Blackberry users is a no brainer. You won't find better companion anywhere else. If you care more about personal applications, stay away from it.

    I would add "bridge" as the most interesting feature on the Playbook. The mini-ports are also very handy, usb and hdmi will be great for me. My Mrs. will continue using her iPad 1.0, but I have great expectations for the Playbook.
    jlz1968