Ten things about the BlackBerry PlayBook

31 08 2011

The PlayBook shows potential, but has a few weaknesses. (Image taken by me).

Wow, it’s been over 18 months since I last wrote anything here! Must’ve been busy! My brain space has been mostly dedicated to learning some new coverage areas, and moving my life halfway around the world. I’ve also been toying with changing the way I approach this blog, but in the mean time here’s something utterly conventional.

I recently attended a RIM analyst event in Sydney, where they gave attendees a PlayBook to evaluate. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks, so here are some thoughts. Generally I quite like it, but I hope the next version is  better. It just feels rushed, and I think it will take RIM a couple of iterations to get it right, but the platform certainly has a lot of potential. There are “big trend” issues raised by the PlayBook related to the role of tablets in the enterprise, the “consumerization of IT”, whether tablets will “kill” this or that category, and all of those buzzwords, along with RIM’s market position and strategy. I’m deliberately not going to address them here – that stuff is for paying clients of my employer. This is just some tips about what it’s like to use the PlayBook as an ordinary person.

Five good things about the PlayBook

  1. The hardware is pretty good. It feels solid in the hand, the screen is bright and sharp, and it feels fast enough. The design is functional, not aesthetically triumphant, but definitely no eyesore. The touch-sensitive bezel gives it an uncluttered look and works well with the OS design. The speakers are loud enough and clear. It’s a good piece of kit.
  2. The QNX operating system seems like a platform with a lot of potential. The UI is simple and intuitive (*ahem* especially if you’ve used WebOS) but the real screamer is that it feels fast. QNX must be incredibly efficient, because the PlayBook can multi-task better than any comparable device I’ve used, and its dual-core 1GHz chipset is nothing special compared to the top-end competition. I tried playing Need for Speed Undercover (preloaded on the PlayBook), with a 720p video playing, a browser window with three tabs open, and the Photo Browser showing some of my holiday snaps, and the PlayBook didn’t drop a single frame. Even when flipping between apps, it’s smooth as silk. RIM made a very sensible acquisition when it ingested QNX.
  3. The web browser is excellent, and renders pages as if you were using a laptop. Including Flash content, which is handy, although sometimes Flash sites get confused by the screen resolution.
  4. It’s the right size to carry around and it even fits in some of my pockets. But the screen is still big enough for browsing, reading and watching video. Tablet size is about personal preference, though.
  5. HDMI out. This should be on every tablet and smartphone.

Five  things about the PlayBook that need to improve

  1. No native email app. This is the surly elephant in the PlayBook’s dining room. Just because I can check my web-based email in the browser, doesn’t mean I should have to. If RIM couldn’t build an email client to support BES/BIS servers in time for launch, it should have at least included a decent standards-based email app. Sure, if you have a BlackBerry phone you can pair it up via Bridge, and then you get calendar and email and contacts, and it’s more secure etc etc… I’ve heard those arguments and I think they’re inadequate. Those applications are part of the core experience on every other tablet and smartphone for a reason.
  2. App World has tumbleweeds rolling through it. The tardiness of the native SDK probably hasn’t helped, but there should be plenty of developers out there capable of building apps in Adobe AIR or WebWorks. However, most of the action is happening on iOS and Android. There is a real risk for RIM that what remains of its developer community, forced to re-tool to support QNX on the PlayBook and (in the not-too-distant future) on BlackBerry handsets, will decide they’re more likely to make a living on the more popular platforms. At the moment there are a few good apps scattered around App World, but it’s pretty sparse compared to Android, and especially the iPad. Apparently there’s an Android Player coming soon, which will allow Android apps to run on the PlayBook. If this feat of technical wizardry is accomplished (and I confess I am sceptical) it should improve things for users in the short term, but I worry that it will leave the PlayBook’s native SDK to the role of “unpopular kid who is clever but has no friends”.
  3. The initial set-up process was horrible. It forced me to complete a mandatory software upgrade, which required a 361MB download and couldn’t be skipped. It failed multiple times and re-started from the beginning. I had the same experience while setting up a colleague’s PlayBook. It was a pain in the arse. It took me over 24 hours to get my PlayBook up and running. This is not the user experience you’re looking for – indeed it’s a great way to harsh what should be the buzz of a new purchase.
  4. The BlackBerry Desktop software needs a major upgrade. It really is a poor man’s iTunes, and I don’t like iTunes. Media management is really clunky (it doesn’t let you copy albums!), it only seems to recognise my PlayBook some of the time, and it’s ugly – in fact it feels like travelling back in time to 2002. You can transfer media without using it, so I recommend you do that.
  5. No MicroSD slot makes it less valuable as a media player. This is less of a problem than some of the other negatives, but I like having the ability to load up a memory card with movies and music, especially when I travel. I miss it. It means the PlayBook  (I have a 16GB version) can’t replace my ancient iPod on trips away. Although the sound quality through the headphone jack would also need a boost for that to happen – it’s definitely not an audiophile device. Video codec support is only “OK” as well (H.264 and some DivX/Xvid files seem to work, but the MKV container is not supported). All in all it’s an adequate media tablet, with some weaknesses.

So, this is in no way meant to be an exhaustive review, but it highlights some of the salient traits, positive and negative, of this device. Some carriers are bundling the PlayBook with a BlackBerry handset and pricing quite aggressively, so given the PlayBook’s reliance on the BB handset for various important functions, that’s probably the way to play it if you’re considering a purchase.

N.B These comments are based on the PlayBook running version which was the latest update at the time of writing.