BlackBerry PlayBook: First Impressions

My PlayBook arrived this afternoon, and I’ve been fiddling with it nonstop. It feels great in the hands, seems well-built, and is pretty darn snappy for the most part. In this quick post, I’ll talk about what I love, some things that need work, and some things I hope get better very soon. The PlayBook launches this week, and it is well-poised to take a portion of the huge tablet market share. Let’s see what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change if RIM is to be successful:

Design

The box I received was quite minimal, but I am not sure if this is the real box, or just one that demo devices are sent out in. It included a fairly hefty A/C charger and a USB cable. No headphones, manual, etc. I’m sure the real deal includes those bits. The PlayBook itself comes housed in a neoprene sleeve. On the BlackBerry site, this is an optional accessory, so I am anxious to see if they all ship in a black sleeve or not.

The device itself is at once tiny and large. My wife didn’t know the PlayBook was a 7″ tablet and she was shocked at how small it is compared to an iPad. In the hands though, it can feel quite bulky – especially when typing (more on that later). It is a sexy beast, though. And incredibly well-built. It feels very solid.

Several other reviewers have lamented about the power button on the top of the device and how tiny and inaccessible it is. I share their concerns. It is very difficult to press this button without flipping the device towards you to see where the button is located. There isn’t much in the way of tactile feedback, and it’s very small. This is unfortunate, as it is really only one of three buttons on the device, along with the volume rockers. You would think RIM would’ve put a bit more effort into such an important button. The default screen timeout when running on battery is ninety seconds. I don’t really want to leave my device sitting there with the screen on for a minute and a half every time, so the power button becomes very important.

The back is rubberized and feels like it can take a beating. I love the feel of the device in-hand, and I think live demos will really help sell a tonne of units – once you hold one of these, you’ll want one.

There is a small fit and finish issue on my unit, however. The front camera isn’t completely centered in its round hole. A non-issue, I’m sure, but still something that stood out. Speaking of the camera, the rear camera is decent, but nothing to write home about. In good light, it’ll take decent shots. In poor light, it will take horrible shots. I think RIM could’ve done better here, especially since they really touted the fact that the PlayBook would have cameras when the iPad 1 didn’t.

The speakers also leave a lot to be desired. I found them a bit boomy and slightly distorted when playing some of the podcasts I downloaded. They have a decent amount of power, but I still think headphones will be the way to go for the most part.

 

 

Pocket-sized?

In a word, no. I posted in a PlayBook-related thread on the ehMac discussion board a few months ago, after RIM had announced its tablet. I shared my opinion that I thought 7″ tablets were a bit of an odd duck – more oversized smartphones than small laptops. I wasn’t able to hold a smaller tablet in my hands until today, and I’m still on the fence.

It’s still a fantastic experience, but personally I like the 10″/iPad size. It is just that much more useful for apps that take advantage of the screen real estate. I’m a photographer and a musician, so displaying photos, and using apps like iMovie and Garageband is a joy on a larger tablet. I find the PlayBook’s screen adequate, but not ideal for tasks like these.

I do think RIM has the best 7″ on the market right now because their OS was rebuilt with tablets in mind, and I look forward to exploring the coming apps and features at this size.

RIM has at one point touted the PlayBook as pocket-sized. I suppose some suit jackets could hold it, but it wouldn’t be very comfortable. I tried to put it in a large pocket in one of my spring jackets and the zipper wouldn’t close. Again, the size is a bit odd. You could say it’s more portable than the iPad, but is it really? It’s still sizeable enough that it’s noticeable when you are carrying it – it doesn’t disappear by any means, and it doesn’t fit into a pocket. So at that point, I feel I might as well be carting around a 10″ tablet.

All that said, it still feels great in the hands and I’m sure the size will grow on me.

 

Software

BlackBerry bought up QNX and put the software to immediate use – they built the PlayBook from scratch, and it shows. This is both a very good thing, and a slightly bad thing.

The good news is that this new operating system is everything BlackBerry OS is not – fluid, fast, intuitive graphical, and a pleasure to use. I have honestly always wondered how a company with such innovation in its blood could make operating systems that were so out of date as soon as they were released for devices that are almost always criminally under-powered.

This QNX software is a pleasure to use. Coupled with the PlayBook’s speedy innards, the experience is immersive and responsive. Boot up takes quite a while, but it’s smooth sailing after that. Multitasking is a breeze – just swipe up from the bottom bezel. Accessing settings is equally easy – just swipe down from the top.

The foundation for a great platform is in place. The PlayBook OS is a huge boon for RIM and I hope their plans to move it to their handsets are hurried along.

The bad news is that is still apparent that the PlayBook was rushed. Out of the box I had to do a software update. Just a few minutes after the lengthy process had finished, including a reboot of course, I was forced to do another system software update. This is akin to the updates one always has to do when setting up a new BlackBerry phone. It seems BlackBerry App World, Facebook, BBM, and other apps always have updates, no matter how new the phone is. With such a new product and operating system, I’m sure software updates will be a big part of any PlayBook owner’s life.

One downside to the move to QNX is the loss of some great BB OS features. One that I immediately noticed were content-aware fields. When typing in websites, the onscreen keyboard remained the same regardless of the content of the field. Also, double-tapping on the space bar doesn’t give you a period, space and capital letter. Some BB users will be frustrated by the lack of consistency.

My PlayBook has crashed twice. A have received a “QNX Low Memory” warning. Some websites lag terribly. Some apps have crashed on load. There are lots of problems, but I am hopeful RIM will keep up the software updates and work out the kinks in no time.

 

Apps

The operating system itself is a great start, but the bread and butter of any smartphone or tablet is the selection of apps, both built-in and available via a store. The built-in apps on the PlayBook are fantastic. The pictures, music, and video apps are perfectly functional and they display media in an attractive fashion. Are they any better than those found on the iPad? No? Are they as good as some of the apps demoed by BlackBerry a couple of months ago? No. But they work, and they look pretty decent while working.

One downside of the photos app is that there doesn’t seem to be any built-in way to share your photos. I’m guessing when bridged with a phone this changes, but we will have to see!

The podcasts app is quite nice. I’ve downloaded several HD vidcasts and it has worked smoothly. Ted HD, Geekbeat.tv, The Brewery Show, and Doug Loves Movies are all worth a look.

The weather app is gorgeous. I installed Weather Eye HD as well, but RIM’s stock app is really quite nice.

Kobo Books is included and it is a lovely app, just like it’s iOS counterparts. I downloaded a few free books, and I have enjoyed flipping through them on the PlayBook. The screen size is good for most content, but I still prefer a slightly larger screen.

I created a document using Word To Go, and it was very easy to use and effective. Typing isn’t very comfortable, as I mentioned, but at least the Word, Excel and PPT apps are built in.

Need for Speed Undercover and Tetris are also pre-installed on my unit. I don’t know if they are on all units, but it would be a nice move if they were! Tetris is fun – just like the iOS version, and I haven’t played NFS yet.

Deceivingly, there are Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail icons… these just open the web apps for each service. I am extremely disappointed that there aren’t PlayBook apps for these services yet. Maybe they are launching this week, but I really would’ve thought at least Facebook would  be there pre-launch. It wouldn’t be such an issue if the browser was 100% responsive – but it’s not. Facebook froze my browser a couple of times, and some other sites were very laggy. Here’s hoping App World explodes with good content in the next couple of weeks.

Not all apps have the same functions, which can be annoying. There isn’t complete consistency. Not all apps have the option of swiping down to access other settings or to go back, etc. I think there should be more consistency in the apps – even if it’s just to access an “about” section, I think all apps should be swipeable from the top.

Lastly, App World is pretty sparse right now. I’m sure that will change very soon, but I am still shocked at the lack of apps. This is where RIM needs to up their game. I’m not sure accepting every different type of code is the right way to build the library, and the Android support is apparently only going to be non-Gingerbread apps for now, so we will see how RIM can overcome this lack of great apps out of the gate.

 

E-mail

This is the 16gb Wifi version, and so there is no 3G connectivity. This means no e-mail, calendar, contacts, or BBM unless “bridged” with a BlackBerry smartphone. That’s right, as it stands right now I cannot access any e-mail or my calendar. The webmail sites are laggy and annoying to use, especially gmail. When tapping “delete” or when trying to mark as unread, the browser will often just not respond.

I went to install the Bridge app on my Torch, but it is not yet available. I assume it will launch tomorrow, and I will definitely install it and try it out as soon as possible.

 

Desktop Software

The PlayBook requires the very newest version of BlackBerry Desktop Software. Once installed, and once I ran the BlackBerry Device Manager installer thing that runs off of the PlayBook, it found my device no problem and allowed me to backup and sync. It works just like any BlackBerry product – easy to choose photos, music, and video and sync them.

I was disappointed that the one video file I had on my work laptop was not supported by BB Desktop Software. It wouldn’t convert it either. It copied to the PlayBook just fine, but had no sound. I think it was due to the AC3 audio codec, since the video was avi and played fine. Overall, it worked as expected – it was probably the smoothest part of the experience.

 

Closing Thoughts

This post is a bit rushed, but I wanted to get some thoughts out there after a day with the PlayBook. I plan to post further thoughts later on, especially in regards to battery life, software updates, apps, and overall experience.

Overall, I am of two minds on the PlayBook thus far. On one hand, I think RIM has done a great job with both hardware and software and I think it could be a very successful platform. On the other hand, after using an iPad and seeing what is possible with a tablet, I feel the PlayBook falls short and that it was rushed.

While some would call me an Apple fanboy, I like using non-Apple products, too, when they’re well-done. I will be the first to say when Android has a feature I wish iPhone did, or when a tablet does something really cool that an iPad can’t. However, I don’t think we should forget that Apple was first to market with the iPad and that a lot of what the current tablets do (and the apps that are built for them) would not have been possible without the iPad.

And thus, the fact that RIM has missed a lot of details with the PlayBook is almost inexcusable. They have had a lot of time to see what works and what doesn’t, and they have still shipped a product that has a long way to go if they want it to compete with the likes of the iPad.

That said, it is still a great product and has such great potential. I look forward to exploring it further and seeing what RIM comes up with as they continue their QNX transition and how they compete with not only the iPad, but the Motorola XOOM, and other forthcoming tablets from the likes of HTC.

Matt

About Matt

My name is Matt. I live in Nova Scotia, Canada. I am an educator, a photographer, and a lover of all things technology. Check out the About page for more information.

One thought on “BlackBerry PlayBook: First Impressions

  1. sophie

    I’m glad you were able to analyse the device in every angles…I got to the menu, downloaded the Blackberry Appl World, then it frozed…12hr later, still frozen! 🙁

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