Sunday, July 24, 2011

BlackBerry PlayBook Review

In a nutshell: The BlackBerry PlayBook has a powerful dual-core processor at its heart, a vivid 7 inch display and an intuitive gesture-based multitouch user interface. It connects securely to a BlackBerry smartphone for email access, and offers Full HD video calling over Wi-Fi. But its lack of 3G and very poor choice of apps count against it.
BlackBerry PlayBook
The PlayBook sounds like something out of kindergarten, but in fact it's BlackBerry's first tablet. With a 7 inch screen, the PlayBook is comparable in size to the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the HTC Flyer. It feels very much like a quality product, and is absolutely rock solid. It's rather square too, in contrast to the usual curved BlackBerry style, but nice and slim at just 10mm thickness. Understated, you might say.

Have no doubt about it: the PlayBook is a serious player in the tablet world. There's stiff competition out there from Apple and Android, but BlackBerry have taken the bull by the horns and released a product that brings genuine choice to the market. Running a new gestural-based operating system - BlackBerry Tablet OS, based on QNX - the PlayBook takes a little getting used to. For example, to close an app, you swipe upwards to dismiss it. Apps live in mini screens on the home page, and you swipe between them. It's completely intuitive after a short while, and more fluid than the "press this button now" style of Android.

The 7 inch screen with a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels is nothing special in tablet land, but in the flesh we found the screen size and resolution to be perfectly adequate for the job, and the colour depth is rich and detailed. The capacitive screen is nicely responsive and supports 4-finger multi-touch zooming, which comes into its own particularly when viewing web pages, but can be used to control the view in other apps as well. The PlayBook is equipped with some serious power - a dual-core 1GHz processor plus a dedicated graphics processor and a massive 1GB of RAM - making it as fast as any tablet we've tested. This certainly shows up when using the user interface, with some lovely transitions between apps, and stutter-free video playback. Curiously though, there's a noticeable lag when rotating between portrait and landscape modes, with the accelerometer sometimes completely failing to detect that the device has been turned.

There are never going to be as many apps available for the PlayBook as there are for the iPad. Core apps like the music player, ebook reader, Adobe reader and a document reader for Word, PowerPoint and Excel spreadsheets are pre-installed. More are in the pipeline, and some kind of Android compatibility is proposed, but these are not here now. There are a surprising number of games available, but really we don't see the PlayBook as a consumer-focused product.

Web browsing is a joy on the PlayBook. The 7 inch screen is just big enough to display most web pages in full size, and you can easily resize the page with the 4-finger multi-touch control. BBC iPlayer plays well and there's full support for Flash 10.1 and HTML5. You can play flash games and there's a youtube app, although youtube videos play perfectly well through the browser itself. The super-fast processor can handle anything the web can throw at it. We'll stick our necks out and say that this web browser is as good as anything we've seen.

There are two cameras on the PlayBook - a 5 megapixel rear-facing one and a 3 megapixel front-facing camera, both with autofocus. Surprisingly both cameras are capable of recording 1080p Full HD video, and you can use the front-facing camera for video calling, but only over Wi-Fi with other PlayBook users. There's no flash on either, but that doesn't bother us, as we'd never use a tablet for serious photography anyway.

Audio quality can't be faulted. The device has stereo speakers (as well as stereo microphones for recording) and you can plug in a set of stereo headphones using a 3.5mm connection.

GPS capability is supported with Bing Maps, which we don't like as much as Google Maps, but it's OK.

When it comes to connectivity, the BlackBerry PlayBook offers Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and USB. Additionally there's a HDMI port which is capable of streaming video in 1080p Full HD format to a compatible TV. There's no 3G support in the PlayBook, so you have to rely on a Wi-Fi network for connectivity. Alternatively you can wirelessly connect the PlayBook to your BlackBerry smartphone using BlackBerry Bridge. This lets you access email, Messenger, contacts, etc from your phone on the large display of the PlayBook.

Battery life is similar to other tablets. Depending on usage, you should manage between 1 and 2 days between charges.

So, the PlayBook. It has rather a split personality. On one hand is the silly name and the insistence by RIM to push the consumer-focused aspects of the device, which are frankly very poor when compared with the iPad 2. On the other hand is the understated look and feel, the heavy-duty hardware and OS, the productivity tools and BlackBerry Bridge connectivity. Really, this ought to be called the BlackBerry WorkBook. To get the most out of it you need to pair it with a BlackBerry smartphone, make use of its secure corporate email functionality, its document viewer and its ability to display HD PowerPoint presentations whilst simultaneously multitasking other business apps. As a work device for an existing BlackBerry user, it makes a great deal of sense, but as a consumer tablet for the mass market it makes little sense at all.


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