The BlackBerry PlayBook is a 7in tablet that runs a bespoke operating system written specifically for the device. It’s a very pick-up-able 425g light and is both well-built and attractively styled. Updated April 29 2011.
Compared to the 10in Android and Windows tablets that have passed our way of late, it’s eminently pocketable – in fact, this one travelled with me to work in a very modest-sized handbag. At 680g, the iPad rarely gets such an outing, but the PlayBook is light enough that you don’t need to think twice about whether to take it along for the ride, much as with a Kindle e-book reader or an old-school paperback novel. See also: New iPad review.
We immediately took to its design, too. As with some of the better-quality digital photo frames, the glassware is touch-sensitive from edge to edge. In fact, one of the very first things you’re shown once you’ve set up the Wi-Fi and your BlackBerry user account is how to use the screen-swipe to move through screens and to select items.
With a 1GHz dual-core processor, 16GB of onboard storage, Wi-Fi and a 5Mp camera, the BlackBerry PlayBook has an impressive hardware line-up. A second, 2Mp camera, acts as a webcam and can be used for video chat. The camera is fine, but the very nature of this being a slab of electronics means it’s not exactly a precision instrument. The video player is more impressive: the PlayBook supports 1080p playback and the resolution is tight.
Unlike BlackBerry smartphones we’ve used, the Playbook comes with a rather smart but fixed territory mains adaptor. Since we got our PlayBook from the US, it came with a two-pin charger and draws 300mAh of power.
Usability and navigation
The PlayBook runs a bespoke QNX operating system known as the BlackBerry Tablet OS. This, says RIM, is the very substance on which the world wide web exists. With 3G and WiMax versions of the PlayBook to come, we expect some impressive web browsing experiences from future models. As it is, the multimedia and apps are the current stars of the show. These are accessed from a deep menu bar along the bottom of the screen that occupies around a quarter of the screen’s height, but drops down out of sight when a video is playing or a photo is on show.
Oddly, if you click on an option such as Pictures or Music and there are multiple items in the library, the PlayBook pops up a trio of options that sits above but doesn’t entirely obscure the main menu. Actually, ‘click’ is the wrong term as you actually need to press and hold items in order for them to pop up or become active. As with the need to begin a ‘swipe’ action from outside the visible screen area in the black touch-sensitive area, you can then commence a long zoom or pan. For example you can drag backwards through screens and items you’ve browsed, but also across different apps.
To be honest, we found this setup rather tiresome at first. It was plain confusing and we ended up zooming and swiping too far. Without an obvious Home or Return button, we found ourselves in menus and leaping to web pages we didn’t intend. Once you get used to the sheer responsiveness of this tablet, though, such free-flowing navigation comes into its own. We’ve not used many tablets that manage to keep on going like this one does.
However, there’s a big drawback in the limited battery life that PlayBook seems to offer. We got only a few hours use before needing a recharge and once the battery drops to less than half-charged, it very quickly tails off even if you’re just doing simple tasks such as web surfing. You need to get into the habit of switching off apps you no longer require. A trip to the main screen and some judicious selection of the teeny x option under respective running apps is a discipline PlayBook owners will find worth imposing.
The default seems to be for the PlayBook to be web-connected and for programs to launch and continue to run even when you launch another. To be fair, this doesn’t seem to adversely affect their performance.
The PlayBook also has some quality graphics hardware under the hood and this comes into its own when playing games. The NFS Undercover racing game was preinstalled and, while the driving experience was more pedestrian and less adrenaline-filled than on a couple of other tablet racing sims we’ve tried, there’s no disputing the impressiveness of the 3D rendering. Using the drag and scroll method, you can peer at an object from any angle and zoom in for a close-up. Other tablets – notably the much improved Apple iPad and the HTC Flyer – also offer 3D rendering, but the PlayBook is both slick and able to keep such demanding graphics running while other apps are also in active use.
RIM also pulls off the trick of giving the screen the illusion of depth – the dark background perhaps lends itself more to this than on some other tablets, as the Motorola Xoom managed a similar effect. It was also pleasing to note that the Playbook is not overly reflective. The Hannspree and the Acer Iconia tablets were noticeably shinier and far less easy to read outdoors or at acute angles.
Setting up the PlayBook when you first unpack it involves logging on to an available Wi-Fi network and then setting up a BlackBerry account. If you’ve already got a BlackBerry smartphone – a good idea as the PlayBook is intended as a companion device to a handset – you can use this account to log in. it also means you’ll be able to access your email, bring up your contacts lists, BBM friends and task list. Essentially, you can use the PlayBook as a larger and more practical screen for watching videos, surfing the web and so on. The screen crams in 1,024x600 pixels into its 7in display and there’s support for both HTML5 (the latest web standard and the main alternative to Adobe Flash) and for Adobe Flash 10.1.
We were relieved to find that the PlayBook is not completely bound to use with a BlackBerry smartphone. You can use the tablet perfectly well without having to tether or otherwise be linked to a phone. Unlike, say, the nameless dock for the Motorola Atrix Android smartphone, the PlayBook is a compelling interactive communication terminal in its own right.
However, we can certainly see the sense in making use of the popular, secure messaging credentials of the BBM setup – you need to know the other person’s unique BlackBerry identifier in order to instant-message with them, while BBM Extensions, added earlier this year, allow you to make secure purchases and ‘gift’ apps from the BlackBerry AppWorld Store.