iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

Summary: On the eve of the iPad 2 launch, RIM previewed a feature-complete version of the PlayBook tablet to the press, and it looks smart and extremely powerful. But will their efforts be enough?

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On the eve of the iPad 2 launch, RIM previewed a feature-complete version of the PlayBook tablet to the press, and it looks smart and extremely powerful. But will their efforts be nearly enough?

It was certainly an odd and auspicious evening. On the eve of Apple launching their iPad 2 to the fawning masses, Research In Motion invited a group of select journalists to have a up close and personal look at a near-feature complete version of the BlackBerry PlayBook, their 7" tablet that is sure to be the subject of a great deal of comparison with Apple's latest offering in the coming year.

Indeed, it was a weird scene. RIM held its press event at a club lounge named "Provocateur" in downtown Chelsea in New York City, which is only a block away from Apple's 14th street retail location and Google's East Coast offices. It was if all the energy in the tablet world was being concentrated in one place, at one time.

The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Unlike other events where the PlayBook was closely guarded and we were only allowed to see guided demos (such as a developer preview I attended a few months earlier) we were actually allowed to handle and play with the device for extended periods of time. And this time, the PlayBook was sporting its brand new Webkit-based browser, which was previously missing from earlier versions of the PlayBook SDK.

There's no doubt that the PlayBook is one very smart device. It's light, very well constructed, with a solid and well-engineered feel to it. It's extremely fast -- and I'd even say it's considerably faster than the current generation iPad and even the Motorola XOOM. And at seven inches, it fits quite nicely in a jacket pocket or a ladies' small pocketbook -- something that the iPad can't do.

Additionally, I'd have to say I actually prefer the PlayBook UI to both iOS 4.2.x and Android Honeycomb -- it has this really slick, high-performance feel about the whole thing that's difficult for me to quantify. You really have to experience it to believe it.

Much of this I think can be attributed to QNX's breeding as a Real-Time OS with a highly-efficient microkernel that runs extremely fast on the metal, with nearly 30 years of development behind the OS core itself.

While I think RIM may have gambled a great deal on QNX versus going with an established mobile OS with a large developer ecosystem such as Google's Android, I certainly understand their choices. QNX is a thoroughbred, built for high performance and reliability, which has proven itself in the field with extremely demanding applications since 1982. Yep, you got that right -- QNX has been around even longer than Linux.

In terms of raw OS performance, I believe iOS 4.x and Android 3 have met their match, and then some with PlayBook's implementation of QNX.

The multitasking in the PlayBook UI is extremely impressive -- it's very easy and quick to navigate between running tasks, and you can see everything running in the background as you move between running apps. HP has made recent allegations that the PlayBook's QNX user interface resembles their own WebOS which runs on their 10" TouchPad device, which is due to launch sometime this summer.

I'm not sure I agree with HP that PlayBook's UI is an "imitation", but I can see where they might get that impression. Like WebOS, PlayBook's UI uses a similar "card" paradigm, which allows you to change context between apps by using flipping gestures across the device's 7" 1024x600 capacitive touchscreen, which uses the same ultra-strong Gorilla Glass made by Corning used on the iPad.

The browser engineering team that RIM acquired out of the Torch Mobile purchase has done a real phenomenal job with the PlayBook's browser. It's fast, renders pages beautifully and responds in a fluid fashion to multi-touch gestures.

Like Apple's own Mobile Safari browser on the iPad, the PlayBook also uses a Webkit-based system and it is compatible with modern HTML5 standards, including HTML5 video and the latest features of CSS3. Fonts resize and render very sharply, and the experience using the browser is extremely pleasurable.

In terms of actual apps, I was able to observe the performance of Adobe Air as well as native QNX C++ applications, all of which ran extremely smoothly and very fast on the device. The PlayBook uses a variant of Texas Instruments' dual-core OMAP 4430 ARM Cortex A9 SoC running at 1Ghz, with 1GB of onboard RAM and an integrated POWERVR SGX540 GPU that can render fast 3D OpenGL graphics and decode full 1080p HD video, and I saw a few movies play on the brilliant color screen. It works as well as you could possibly expect.

And yes, it has dual HD video cameras, with 3MP on the front and 5MP the back, with an HDMI port for video output, just like its high-end Android tablet cousins.

Nobody is going to be disappointed with the performance or the overall build quality of the PlayBook. That much is without question.

So what's not to like?

[Next: The devil is in the details]»

Well, for starters, RIM refused to talk pricing or availability with anyone. That alone sets off alarms. If it costs considerably more than an iPad 2, then I think we can say that it's probably game over for this device in terms of it being able to eat up significant tablet market share.

(UPDATE: A post from the BlackBerry insider site Boy Genius Report indicates a possible April 10 release date. I'll believe it when I see it. RIM told me they might have a pre-release model available for me to review within 3-4 weeks.)

If the base model PlayBook ends up being another $700+ carrier-tied 4G device stuck to a monthly data plan and two year contract commitment, then you can count a lot of consumers out.

They also refused to talk about battery life in terms of finite, measurable numbers. The PlayBook sports a 5000 mAh Lithium-Ion battery, but we have to remember that this is a 7" device, not a 10" device like an iPad, so it's not as big a battery, and thus can't hold as much charge.

The battery also isn't user-serviceable or removable, so it's not like there's a chance of there being an after-market bigger battery pack for the thing. If it doesn't get at least six or seven hours of use out of a single charge, then I suspect that Apple also is going to win this round by a considerable margin.

There's another thing I noticed about this device which also concerned me. In the various demo units I got to play with, I felt that the back of each tablet was giving off a good amount of heat. Not enough to burn my hands, but enough to make my palms pretty sweaty.

To be fair, the RIM reps told me that they were charging the things constantly all day and some of them had been in use for about twelve hours straight, so this wasn't a realistic use case scenario. And these aren't the final production devices.

However, in all honesty, i've never noticed ANY kind of heat coming off the back of my iPad, and there have been times when I've used it with the protective Otterbox case off for over four hours straight when watching movies and playing 3D games with no noticeable heat coming off the back of the casing whatsoever.

I'm sure the A4 on the iPad generates some sort of heat, but the aluminum casing dissipates it extremely well as to be completely unnoticeable. I will add that the Playbook is considerably thinner than the Generation 1 iPad, and the the higher-power SoC is probably a lot closer to the casing than on Apple's device, so that might account for it.

Still, if the iPad 2 turns out to clock out at similar speeds with a dual core, similar thickness and no heat issues, the RIM engineering team might want to consider putting in some more hours working on thermal management.

And while the UI was fast and fluid, I did observe a number of software crashes with the units I played with, but the OS handled them well, allowing me to close errant programs without compromising the rest of the UI. Again, these were pre-production devices, so I'm willing to be pretty forgiving until I get to see the final versions.

While I came off very impressed with the device, I did very much get the feeling that the PlayBook really wasn't fully-baked, and even RIM's head of browser engineering told me that "we're not done."

All this technical stuff aside, the biggest negative about the PlayBook and one which I really hope RIM reconsiders is the need to Bluetooth tether to an actual BlackBerry with a connected BIS or BES account in order to access the onboard email and calendaring application.

Effectively, this excludes a very large consumer market segment of people who use cloud-based email services such as GMail/Gcalendar and hosted Exchange or IMAP accounts. Unless you have web-based access via the PlayBook browser, you can't use email without owning a RIM handset as well.

I can't stress enough how many users are just going to take this thing back to the store when they find out they can't get to their email or compose/read messages offline because they don't own a BlackBerry. I urge Research in Motion to include a native QNX mail client that works with hosted email services without a tethered device.

I'm impressed with the PlayBook. I really am. But the success of this product hinges on a great number of things. Cost, Availability, and how well it stacks up against iPad 2 tomorrow being the primary contributing factors.

Last minute scuttlebutt suggests that the iPad 2 is more of an incremental upgrade than a watershed release, but I also cannot stress enough the value of how strong Apple's ecosystem is relative to RIMs, which is developers, developers, developers, and hundreds of thousands of apps.

Sure, I can see the 7" versus 10" form factor differentiation coming into play, especially for women that might prefer a lighter device, but at the end of the day, it's not important enough to weigh against the fact that RIM is juggling AIR, native QNX code, legacy BlackBerry OS Java apps, a web SDK and possibly even Android applications as developer programming targets.

And it sounds like RIM is frustrating the hell out of their developer base very early on, including throwing their traditional Java developers under the bus in favor of an initial crop of Adobe AIR, Flash and a few native QNX C++ applications. Java support isn't expected until well after product launch, as I have been told.

Still, on the eve of the iPad 2 launch, the PlayBook shined. I just hope that what I observed wasn't a swan song.

Are you going to purchase a PlayBook when it launches? Or is the iPad 2's lure too strong? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Hardware, iPad, Laptops, Mobility, BlackBerry, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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127 comments
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  • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

    I think the applications that are available on both tablets will be a deciding factor for a lot of people. For businesses I think that the Playbook will be very well received immediately, particularly if they already use Blackberry phones.
    I am extremely interested in the Playbook and will be excited to see what the iPad2 has to fight the Blackberry tablet.
    GeoffQ
    • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

      Interesting, ipad2 needs to fight playbook? It isn't even real yet. Last time I checked, even their first generation isn't available yet, while apple is already going to generation 2, and sold over 14 million tablets. I used to be a blackberry user, but after the iPhone, I never looked back. The answer us useability and ease of use and lots of applications that work and have no viruses.
      Nononsense2011
      • iPad2 isn't even real yet, either.

        @Nononsense2011 iPad2 isn't even real yet, either. It might turn out to be nothing like the rumors floating around on the Apple fanboy websites.
        ALISON SMOCK
      • Agree; Playbook is not something for Apple to have "war" about it

        @Nononsense2011: it is zero product for now, while iPad is real.
        DDERSSS
      • Keep in mind that the iPad has only begun ...

        @Nononsense2011 ... to penetrate the enterprise. It's only serious competition in the enterprise is the RIM PlayBook. That's why there is so much interest in this device - even though it is not yet ready for prime time.
        M Wagner
      • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

        @Nononsense2011
        Yup ipad is playing catch up as the ipad wa released either too soon or for some reason as a very lacking device. The ipad 2 is now trying to come out basically an ipad 1 with the missing featured it should have had in the first release so as apple releases its second version the specs are still a bit lacking compared to all the others first gen slates coming out so unless apple can match then exceed the basics the other slates have they will be playing catch up from here on out. The playbook seems better then the ipad but it is stim from RIM and is only a 7 inch unit which are the 2 biggest negatives against it.
        Fletchguy
      • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

        @Nononsense2011
        Just stop the Nonsense and relax.....
        Breath in Breath out......
        coachgeorge
      • And... Playbook can't compete with ipad, it's too small.

        The visual difference is stunning... Visually we are talking about the difference of a 50" screen versus a 35" screen... That is a big difference.<br><br>It will fit in your pocket??? OOOOOOHHHHHH How quaint... So you will have a playbook in one pocket and a crackberry in the other??? And then you still have to tether them together if you want to see your email on a 7" screen??? How compelling. <br><br>I can see the attraction for enterprise to jump all over those playbooks... No.. I mean literally jump all over them, up and down, stomping, until they break... LOL<br><br>The playbook is only going to war with itself. The heat you mentioned is not good and can't be good for the battery. The pricing is going to be a joke and no way they hit the market by May.<br><br>Oh.. and Jason... Modern QNX has had 4 or 5 Kernel revisions and the modern version does not have "nearly 30 years of development behind the OS core itself." It has about 7 years behinf the current kernel. (unless Rim rewrote it again, in wich case it has less than a year).
        i8thecat
      • ipad wa released either too soon or for some reason as a very lacking devic

        @Fletchguy - Crack kills! Get off the pipe dude.
        Gr8Music
      • Need to fight & no viruses??

        @Nononsense2011 - Apple didn't consider the Android-based devices much of a threat to the iPhone, either; until the last half of 2010 played out. Let's face it, consumers are a fickle bunch. We raise the flag and cheer our hero manufacturers until their arrogance (or stupidity) keeps them from being competitive. Once we feel like that guy sitting next to us on the plane has a better toy, we start looking to two-time our loyalties. I think the PlayBook (and others) sound interesting enough to watch evolve. Time will tell if they fall on their own swords.

        As for Apple viruses, there are now a handful of Mac viruses being written/released each day (Sophos). Granted, it is a drop in the bucket compared with the one every .9 seconds for the Windows world, but noteworthy in any case. The problem is that many users of Apple products believe they are immune to virus and malware threats. As a result, they don't take measures to protect themselves. How long before iPads become primary targets? Are they now? Oh yeah, users don't know because they don't look. Security, ostrich style. :)
        jc@...
      • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

        @Nononsense2011
        Indeed true! Until anybody can actually buy one of these toys they should be called the CrackBerry VaporBook. By then of course iPad2 will be old hat and iPad3 will come out not too long after that. Apple isn't sitting still and neither other thousands of developers, busy as bees writing software for sale in the iOS app store
        arminw
      • Open your mind more, and stop thinking the iPad2 isn't needed.

        @Nononsense2011 and i8thecat Its a pity you can't open your mind and see the benefits to the enterprise and folk like me who choose not to use an ipad because of its size, and the fact the enterprise is fashioned as a secure app. That might not mean much to you; but to us folk that need to enter a complex password EVERY time we choose to do flip between ipad and secure app... its HASSLE and not worth the effort to me.

        And 7" means portability in the office, in the car. You're both not getting the picture because you only have your rose-tinted ipad blinkers on. Open your mind and see where it benefits others.

        My ipad went back in a few days, my iphone lies in my bag without a SIM and is only looked at when someone has a problem and asks for help. BB Torch for me (lasts twice as long on battery as my iphone by the way), and I look forward to the playbook and seeing what it can do for me next.
        johnmckay
      • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

        "Apple didn't consider the Android-based devices much of a threat to the iPhone, either; until the last half of 2010 played out. Let's face it, consumers are a fickle bunch."

        Well, you have to remember that Apple has been playing against a seriously stacked deck in phones. In order to break into the phone market at all they had to sign extended exclusivity deals that gave potential competitors up to a four year window where they could possibly sell cross-carrier and Apple could not.

        Remember, in the largest smartphone market there is Apple was unable to sell on anything but the 2nd-tier carrier until only about a month ago. Do you know anyone who bought a Droid because they couldn't get a Verizon iPhone? I'm sure you do. I know quite a few.

        This same situation was true in several other major markets as well, and with contracts being what they are the handicap will continue for upwards of two years.

        We have some idea of how Apple does when not confronted with such market distortions. The iPod touch, for instance, is demolishing all comers (not that there have been many, really just the Zune) and did a number on portable gaming systems while it was at it. I hear there are going to be Android versions out sometime soon but it is incredibly unlikely that anyone can match the price. If you can't do that, it's just game over.

        Everyone (well, almost everyone, some people remembered the lesson of the iPod) expected a horde of cheap Android tablets to come in and grab the market, but so far we haven't seen even one that even looks like it *might* be successful at this. They aren't cheaper, at least not without debilitating hardware concessions, and they have to be both cheaper *and* better to win. That might be possible in another year. It certainly won't happen in 2011, and meanwhile Apple is going to sell forty or fifty million more iPads according to most industry observers.

        I do not believe we're going to see the phone scenario play out here. Android may well win long-term, but it is far from guaranteed and it has a hell of a hill to climb and no market distortions to help this time around.

        As for the Playbook, I would be surprised if it sold well at all, even to businesses. Businesses have already latched onto the iPad pretty strongly. It is cheap, flexible, durable, has tons of applications support, terrific connectivity, and incredible applications and connectivity support. The Playbook may have most or all of that eventually but we already know much of that will be missing out-the-door. I bet it will take 12-18 months to even begin to truly mature, just like Android tablets.

        By the time it's a really robust product and with a reasonable app ecosystem it'll be fighting almost a hundred million installed iPads. To say that it is unlikely to do well against that, no matter how good the product actually is, is an understatement. They would have had a chance a year ago. Today? Nope.

        It's going to be Android or iOS, and while I'm not counting a potential Android win out the deck is well and truly stacked against it. There's a very good chance it will stay a relatively niche item unless really strong competitors to the iPad show up very soon. The Playbook and WebOS devices? Thanks for playing, guys.
        jimfrost
      • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

        @allison smock Guess what? iPad start selling a week from the announcement; playbook many months after announcement someday later this year if ever, sorry GAME OVER!
        humb1962
    • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

      @GeoffQ "I think the applications that are available on both tablets will be a deciding factor for a lot of people."

      I belive that eco-systems are more important than individual devices. Those who use a Blackberry will most logically suit the PlayBook, and that basically means businesses.

      If a person has an iMac, iPhone and iPod, why would they then chose a PlayBook rather than an iPad, only to have to re-purchase apps and music etc? Same for those with a PC and Zune and possibly a WP7 phone.

      This is just my opinion. I look-forward to seeing what actually happens.
      Wakemewhentrollsgone
      • Smart post.

        @ptorning

        Each of the devices are hired to do different things. Each pulls on an eco-system that exists outside of the device. This is the weak spot of Android when compared to iOS, RIM and WP7. With Android the only ecosystem is huge device selection and some Apps.

        With the exception of iOS (that has limited device selection but a huge selection of Apps), Android's competitors have the same advantages.

        RIM has their messaging; iOS has their iTMS and iPod Dock; WP7 has the Zune MarketPlace, Office and XBox Live.

        Over and over, I have been trying to point out that personal choice comes into a phone purchase more than it does on a desktop/computer purchase. As a result, this is not a zero sum game and the market is large enough to support multiple platforms. I suspect between 3 to 5 platforms.

        Android (not counting the incompatible OMS/Tapas variants that are unique platforms) might end up with the lion's share (30-40%) of the low end but monetization will behind every other platform.
        Bruizer
      • ecosystems

        @ptorning I agree in general, but I have an iMac and an iPhone and my wife has a Gen1 iPad and an iPhone. I need flash, so I will not get an iPad until that is solved. So I would consider a Playbook. However, if the Playbook needs a BB for connectivity, then it is out. I need 3G. I guess time will tell.
        tomkar
      • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

        @ptorning Couldn't agree more. While my limited experience with Android hasn't been all that good I would have given Android based devices a much closer look before my recent upgrade if I didn't have my current investment/experience in/with iOS and it's ecosystem.
        non-biased
    • RE: iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

      @GeoffQ Absolutely. It's about the apps. It looks appealing, but without apps it's just a portable web browser (although that has merit too).
      menomineenative
  • Competition is good

    RIM needs a hit in order to survive. After they gave away to demands from the middle east, the claim of security is no longer applicable.
    wackoae