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Summary:

RIM will launch its much vaunted and eagerly awaited Blackberry PlayBook on April 19. In this review, I take a look at the 7-inch tablet and how it stacks up against its rivals, the iPad and the Honeycomb Android family of tablets.

The PlayBook is a 7-inch device, a form factor outnumbered among tablets by larger screens.

Research In Motion, the company behind the iconic BlackBerry devices, is finally taking the veil off its much-anticipated tablet, the PlayBook. The device will cost between $500 and $700 and will be available April 19.

I have been playing around with the device for a couple of days, and I’ve also been comparing it with three tablets currently available to me: the iPad 2, Motorola XOOM and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Like most reviewers, I don’t tend to read the review guides that manufacturers send us with the review units. Out of the box intuitiveness is — or should be — par for the course when it comes to tablets and new smartphones. When I bought the iPad, I didn’t need any outside help to get started. A few exploratory gestures, and I was off to the races. I used the same approach with the PlayBook.

To be clear, I don’t really consider myself a professional device reviewer like, say, our excellent gadget guru Kevin Tofel or the fantastic David Pogue. I consider myself a discerning buyer, someone who is not shy about spending the dollars as long as the product is worth buying and scores high on my own abstract metric of the happiness quotient.

After spending about 20 hours on the device, I am sharing my early impressions of the PlayBook — broken down into ten key segments with a quick summary at the end.

1. Looks & Design: The experience of a device starts with the looks, and here the PlayBook scores high marks. Though not as elegant as the original iPad and not as thin as the iPad 2, the device is solid and well engineered. The black body, rubber back, clean lines and a functional placement of buttons and ports add up to a great first impression. My only quibble: It doesn’t look much different from many of the Android tablets.

2. Interface & Experience: The new PlayBook is based on QNX, the new operating system RIM acquired in April 2010. As an old BlackBerry fan, I found the OS, interface and even the icons for various apps felt very familiar, and the menus are clean and easy to use. The home screen is divided into three panes: status bar, apps list and, when you have apps open, an open app panel. The whole experience feels very natural.

The TI OMAP that powers the device runs at 1 GHz and is extremely fast, and the device puts that oomph to maximum use. The fluid interface makes switching from one app to another smooth and easy. The overall experience feels superior to some of the Android-based tablets I have used. The two built-in cameras — the 3 megapixel (front facing) and 5 megapixel (main camera) — are high-quality and are tightly integrated

3. Size: I love the iPad and its bigger screen. The big screen is one of the things I actually like about the XOOM. I have often argued with Kevin about the merits of the bigger screen so, I wasn’t quite prepared to like the PlayBook’s 7-inch screen with 1024 X 600 resolution. But I did. Weighing less than a pound, the PlayBook is very comfortable to hold and use, especially when playing video games or watching video. The diminutive size makes it easier to type out quick notes with your thumbs, something that is virtually impossible on a bigger tablet.

4. Connectivity: The PlayBook has built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It was easy to connect to Wi-Fi networks, and the radio even worked in corners of my apartment where the signal was the weakest, such as my balcony. Here it easily beat the two Android devices and the original iPad. The iPad2 had the same powerful connection as the PlayBook. Once you connect to the network, the device automatically shows up on your network as a drive. As a Mac user, I could easily transfer files such as photos to it without plugging into a computer.

With Bluetooth, you can tether the device to your 3G phone, and I had no problems doing that with my Verizon iPhone. (You can also just use the Wi-Fi to connect to the phone via the Verizon iPhone Personal Hotspot option.) If you use a BlackBerry phone, the Bluetooth connection gives your tablet a constant 3G connectivity option without sucking up too much power.

5. Browser: RIM has been making a lot of noise about the PlayBook’s Webkit-based browser — and specifically its ability to run Flash. I can see why –- the browser is Playback’s single best feature.

You can hardly tell the difference between a desktop browsing experience and the Playbook. I have been watching YouTube videos off the YouTube website on the Playbook without much of a problem. There is no doubt that Adobe and Blackberry have spent a lot of energy on getting this right — even though Flash does start sucking down the battery pretty fast.

6. Apps: PlayBook has links to websites of popular services such as Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and Hotmail, and they all look like “app” icons. Why? Because RIM says “you don’t need an app for the web.” That may be true, but users expect devices to use apps, and apps often define the potential of a platform.

RIM executives claim that the BlackBerry apps store has nearly 3000 PlayBook apps, but that is nowhere near what Apple and Google’s Android OS-based tablets offer. I am underwhelmed by the specific offerings. Where is a Kindle native app or the Netflix? Without those apps, Playbook feels less useful. Apps are RIM’s Achilles heel and will remain so, and they need to motivate popular app makers to develop for their platform.

7. Media: I collectively call music, photos, videos and books “media.” To me, they represent the most important features of a tablet. The PlayBook music app is adequate but nothing to write home about. RIM is offering a built-in music store (via Seven Digital), but again the buy, download and playback experience isn’t as smooth as iTunes on the iPad. The Kobo Books service offers an option to buy books, but frankly having already spent hundreds of dollars in the Amazon store, this is a non-starter for me. I bet there are many more who would rather wait for the Amazon app than start fresh with Kobo.

But when it comes to photos and video, the PlayBook is simply outstanding. No, they don’t match up to the floating image feeling you get when watching photos on an iPad, but the PlayBook offers a whole different experience that’s in a class of its own.

PlayBook ships with an HDMI port which allows you to take any generic HDMI cable and plug the device into your television, making the PlayBook extremely versatile as an HD media center. There is no stutter, delay or jumpiness with videos; the playback on the PlayBook is akin to watching movies on your DVD player.

If you asked me what I love about PlayBook, I would say it is the video playback features.  Damn shame that it doesn’t have many popular video download services at this time.

8. Productivity & Communications: For me this is the deal-killer: I wouldn’t buy a device that doesn’t have a standalone email client, calendar or a to-do list. Need Google Talk? Tough luck. Skype? No mas, amigos. Sure you get Office apps, thanks to RIM buying DataViz, but frankly I want a good email client in my tablet more than anything else.

RIM would argue that you could use BlackBerry Bridge, a piece of software that allows you to pair your tablet with your BlackBerry. It’s not the smoothest process, but once you establish the connection, you can mirror BlackBerry apps such as BBM, contacts, messages, memos and calendar on the big screen. The PlayBook gives you full access to the data in those apps.

If BlackBerry wants to sell PlayBook to existing Blackberry owners, then the Bridge might suffice. But what if you don’t have or don’t want a BlackBerry? RIM says the email client is going to be offered later this summer as an OTA download, and for me that is enough of a reason to refrain from buying this device — at least until then.

9. Multitasking: All I can say about the multitasking abilities of this device is — wow. You could output a movie via HDMI to your big-screen TV while looking at a PowerPoint, then switch to web browsing. Playbook does it all smoothly.

10. Gestures: As a longtime iPad owner and someone who’s tried Android devices for a long time, I have to say, it took me a few hours to get my gestures right on this device. But then not all PlayBook users will be swtiching between different devices. If you are a first-time buyer, you won’t have natural inclination to use the iPad/Android gestures. PlayBook’s gestures are simple, though you might want to check out the tutorial to get the basics down quickly.

My Overall Impressions: PlayBook is perhaps one of the best tablets I have used, but it has some glaring shortcomings. What works for PlayBook is what works for iPad –- the chip, the hardware and the operating system are very tightly coupled. You can feel the cohesion, which in turn adds up to a fluid and satisfactory feeling.

Android tablets have a worthy rival in the PlayBook. It lacks the overall polish of the iPad 2, but give it a little time and RIM could get the hardware and experience right. Even with this first release, it is among my top three tablets picks. I am glad they are in the market and will prove to be a worthy competitor.

Disappointed as I am in the limited number of apps, the deal-breaker for me is the lack of independent communication tools. I understand that RIM wants to sell more BlackBerry devices (just as Apple wants the halo effect for its other gadgets), but to leave out a standalone email client makes little or no sense.

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  1. Krishna Baidya Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Om, great review with fair comparison. Any updates on battery life or some reported screen heating up issues?

    1. So I don’t quite have a complete battery comparison yet, because I didn’t get enough time to run it through many tests.

    2. Second the battery life question Om

      1. As I pointed out, I don’t have the answer for you. I will run a test in the morning and let you know. Sorry for not being very helpful.

      2. Ooops, I posted before your answer showed up.
        Walt is reporting just 5hrs in his running video test – Will be interesting to see what you find.

  2. This product is DOA except to diehard Blackberry users. I would imagine most of those will choose iPad, but outside of the RIM Eco-system I just can’t imagine who would buy it.

    1. I am not sure I disagree with your Doug, but I wonder if the RIM fans would come out in full support for this device.

    2. DOA? Common. Bought one on the day it came out. Ever since then, great apps are popping up daily and it’s a stellar smooth experience. Typical iboy comment. I have 6 iMacs in the office and a Macbook Pro, so I understand Apple. Nothing however will match the productivity of the my BB Torch and BB Playbook combo as a business owner. From what I can tell, this thing will have awesome productivity and entertainment options and apps. They’re putting stuff out to make sure they don’t skip anything. On the other hand Apple’s iPad, which will have another version in no time, will be just a little better than the last so they can sell more. That’s why I never jumped on that band wagon. They constantly underbuild to have a next generation ready yearly.

      1. “will have awesome productivity and entertainment options and apps”

        The operative word is W I L L
        At the rate they’ve been going, there may be a couple new versions of iPad

  3. Om, great and exciting review. More choice is a great thing for consumers. Lets see what this platform, plus iOS, plus Android and Palm OS bring to consumer choice.

  4. Great, fair and honest review. I enjoyed reading this over Engadget’s iFan review.

    I am a diehard blackberry user and bridge will suffice for me until native clients are realized as I am never far from my leash. Also being able to tether to my BB and not have to have a separate data plan is a game changer for me. This will only get better with time!

    1. Corey

      I think this is one are I disagree. I am a former Blackberry user and much as I like the device, I think it is crazy of them to not build email and calendar into the device. They have limited their market potential because of these shortcuts and i hope they fix them.

      1. I couldn’t agree more with on this, Om. For someone who ruled the smart phone segment from a email, messenger perspective it was obvious expectation to offer even better. Perhaps, they are still working out kinks here an there with QNX and old Blacberry platform sync.

  5. Om, nice writeup, but now that Playbook reviews are now coming out all over, I’m noticing some of the points you make are quite disparate from those of others. For example, here’s what TechCrunch says about the Playbook’s browser:

    “This also speaks to a larger problem the PlayBook has: the browser simply isn’t very good….Twitter is a great example. Even though Twitter is one of the “apps” bookmarked by default on the PlayBook’s main screen, it runs like a nightmare in the PlayBook’s browser. Because New Twitter is fairly JavaScript-heavy, everything seems to slow to a crawl. And sometimes things just don’t work at all.”

    How does that jive with your experience? TechCrunch also had an iffy experience with Flash. Worked okay watching YouTube video, but visiting a Flash-heavy site like ESPN.com caused everything to slow to a crawl. Just wondering because your experience and TechCrunch’s seems so vastly different.

    1. Well, the TechCrunch review was by MG Siegler, easily the biggest iSheep on the planet.

    2. As a web developer I tested out a couple of my sites when playing around with a Playbook the other day, and they worked pretty much as expected, there were just a couple of issues with Javascript events and Geolocation.

      Anything with a 1Ghz processor is going to have issues if you throw too much flash animation at it, (I should know, I was using a 1Ghz laptop recently for a few weeks while my computer was in the shop).

    3. @lava

      I retried, and it all seems to work fine for me. If there are any slowdowns, I have not encountered them but then browsing is such a subjective comparison.

      I watched one of the IPL T20 games and that was fine and that was Flash. I would say, I have not spent that much time on ESPN but YouTube qualifies as a Flash-heavy destination and that seems to work fine :-)

  6. Mike Beauchamp Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Nice review, as usual, Om.
    I made reference to it in my “Review of the Reviews”!
    You can find that, here:
    http://www.technophile.me/2011/04/14/review-of-the-reviews-blackberry-playbook-enters-tablet-wars/

  7. The playbook is the toughest platform to develop for. I attended a pitch by blackberry and the last slide was about the whole process for signing into their dev programme. Don’t recall details, but it was like spend a thousand dollars and a few months to start building anything. Till they fix that they cannot expect a good app eco system.

    1. A thousand dollars and a few months to build anything? All the Playbook development tools are FREE; you go to the Blackberry website, download the tools, and start; if you have any development experience at all, you can have an App built up in a matter of hours. iOS development requires you to buy a Mac, so there’s a thousand+ dollar expense right there.

      1. i agree with you completely.Mac plays these games.

  8. I was able to play with one for a few minutes on the weekend and really liked it. I don’t have a tablet at the moment, but held up an iPad, (original), for the first time a few weeks ago and was surprised at how heavy it felt.

    I think that the increased portability of the 7-inch size is a real selling point. It’s small enough to go in a suit pocket, (albiet a large pocket), and still incredibly fast and responsive.

    1. “It’s small enough to go in a suit pocket”
      One reviewer tried that – Too big by an inch as I recall

      1. I think this tablet in your suit pocket is a bit of a myth — it should be more like your overcoat pocket :-)

  9. Lolzzz. In whole review not a single mention of HP WebOS and RIM stealing WebOS UI completely. Also no mention of touchpad. Really?

    1. I don’t think RIM didn’t steal WebOS UI – it is definitely different from the WebOS UI i saw at the Palm launch event.

  10. Great Review, Om. Though I have a question regarding the apps available for the Playbook – Didn’t RIM announce that the Playbook will be able to support Android apps? Is that still a WIP in progress or am I missing something?

    1. the android emulator is going to be made available this year sometime as a beta but not very clear when. hope that helps.

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