Review of the BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet

Blackberry Tablet

RIM was kind enough to send over a unit of its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet even before the official launch event in Singapore.  A quick backgrounder: I’ve been a BlackBerry user since the days of the BlackBerry 7290(Announced in 2004!) – which can literally last for 2-3 days on a single charge. At the moment, I am using the touch screen Torch 9800 as my primary smartphone.

In addition, I am on a BES data plan, so am familiar with the enterprise level BlackBerry features such as over-the-air (OTA) backfill of emails and text messages, and OTA sync of contacts and BB preferences upon enterprise activation.  To put things into perspective for iOS fans, I also own an iPad Wi-Fi + 3G, as well as an iPhone 3GS smartphone via the use of a multi-SIM mobile plan from StarHub.

Rather than regurgitate what you have already read about in various reviews on the Internet, I took the PlayBook out with me for one week before sitting down to make a list of what I liked and disliked most about RIM’s new tablet.

What I liked about the PlayBook

  • HDMI mirroring out: The PlayBook comes with direct 1080-HD HDMI output via micro-HDMI (cable supplied in box) that can be configured to mirror mode or as a separate display. This makes the tablet perfect for business presentations – without having to spend a dime on additional accessories.
  • Bridge Mode: It feels really good to be able to read my emails and BBM messages on the PlayBook’s larger display. The Bluetooth “bridge” was extremely to setup, and works pretty well. If there is a complain, it would be the lack of more practical controls for the “Bridged” calendar, though it is more than adequate for check on your schedule. Also, do note that the Bridge functionality did crash on a few occasions – more on that later.
  • Very stable, robust OS: The underlying QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS is simply rock solid, and zippy to boot. What more can I say?  A new version of the OS became available on the second last day of my review, and I was able to install the 300MB+ download via Wi-Fi in just two steps: One click to download, followed by another click to install 10 mins later – it was as easy to install as downloading an App.
  • Multi-tasking: Apps can run side-by-side with exceptionally smooth performance. There is an option to “pause” Apps that are in the background though, if you are concerned about potential lags or slow-downs from misbehaving applications.
  • Innovate interface does away with buttons: The ability to swipe upwards from the bezel to show running Apps is invaluable, and completely does away with the need for buttons on the PlayBook. I loved it, and it does make the iPad’s “Home” button look downright obsolete.  Ditto to the ability to swipe left and right (again from the bezel) to switch instantly to adjacent Apps.
  • High definition front and back cameras: At 3MP and 5MP respectively, its built-in cameras are of a higher resolution and quality than those that come with the iPad 2.
  • Solid feel/coating: The PlayBook feels fantastic in your hands, and is not “slippery” like some of the tablets out there.
  • Very loud speakers: The dual speakers are more than adequate for say, watching a movie on the tablet outdoors without resorting to headphones.

My dislikes
Also, while BlackBerry Bridge worked well on the most part, I’ve noticed intermittent issues when the PlayBook and my BlackBerry are repeatedly moved away from each other.  Some of the bridged Apps sometimes become non-responsive for a long period of time, or stop responding altogether. Hopefully, this problem will eventually be resolved by RIM; though I must emphasize that the Bridge Apps are generally rock-stable.I was unable to access the App Store when away from Wi-Fi, even when I connect via Internet Tethering. I was told that this shouldn’t be the case, and I was certainly able to access the Internet from other Apps when tethered. Recent bug or newly introduced limitation?

A “Bridge Browser” allows the PlayBook to make use of your BlackBerry’s Internet connectivity to browse the Net, though you will need to tether your PlayBook when using other Internet-enabled Apps and am not near to a Wi-Fi access point.  Examples would be the FaceBook App, or RSS News readers.  This is my chief complaint about Internet Tethering: when enabled, your BlackBerry smartphone behaves as if tethered to a laptop. BlackBerry users will recognize this by the ”Internet Mode Enabled” caption that appears on their smartphones, and the flow of BlackBerry PINs grinds to a halt.

Now that Apple has announced its own messaging service to be launched with iOS 5, I think that continuing to cripple the BlackBerry Messenger in such a manner is not only counter-productive but akin to shooting oneself in the foot.  More efficient data mechanism notwithstanding, RIM should modify the Internet Tethering limitation of its BlackBerry smartphones as soon as possible.

As reported in a zillion other websites out there, there remains a dearth of good Apps for the PlayBook. Of course, I must also point out that most of my favorite iOS Apps weren’t available for the iPad many months after its launch either. First-gen iPad owners did at least have iPhone Apps to fall back on however, albeit in a blocky “2x” zoom mode. This is not the case for the PlayBook however, as it won’t run native BB Apps.

Despite the current state of the Apps though, it is undeniable that the BlackBerry Tablet OS as an operating system can only be described as a masterpiece, its 1.x version regardless.  My advice is to first give the PlayBook a spin once demo sets are available at retail locations nearby. If you decide that you like its build and screen size, then go for it.  A lot is at stake for RIM with the PlayBook, which means that you can be assured of many more free OS updates en-route to iron out existing kinks and add in new capabilities. On the App front, I am also encouraged by the appearance of some relatively good Apps, such as GeeReader, a RSS Reader that synchronizes with Google news.

And in a testament to RIM’s efforts to create the best web browsing experience on a tablet, I was actually able to log into my (Full site) DBS Internet banking account via the PlayBook browser.  Folks planning to do some heavy-duty data entry on the PlayBook can also be assured that the Apple Wireless Keyboard works with it.  Finally, I’ve also had the opportunity to try out a number of Android-based tablets, including the latest Honeycomb-based (Android 3.0) units. My personal opinion: None of them matches the intuitiveness of the BlackBerry Tablet OS.

Sadly, I have already purchased an iPad last year, and will probably have to dispose (as in sell, not give or throw away) of it prior to buying a PlayBook. Unfortunately, I won’t do that until the Apps I’m currently using on my iPad becomes available on the PlayBook. If you don’t already own a tablet though and is a BlackBerry user, then I would heartily suggest that you take a closer look at the PlayBook.

Checkout the latest playbook

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