Hands-on: BlackBerry PlayBook

Tue, Mar 8, 2011


The BlackBerry PlayBook has had its fair share of skeptics since its initial surfacing but the general consensus - especially of those who have managed to get their hands on the device – seems to have swayed towards a ‘glass might actually be half full’ outlook for RIM. When the first official video surfaced back in September, my interest was piqued. There was a lot of promise coming from such a small device, and perhaps more importantly, from a company starting to lose favour in the eyes of some. The momentum really started to build around CES this year, where, contrary to the elusive Motorola Xoom (demoing only its video playback capabilities), the PlayBook got into the hands of many. While I was not one of the fortunate (or perhaps not-so-fortunate, depending on who you ask) that made it to CES, today, I finally got my chance to play with the PlayBook. Here are my thoughts:


Forgive the lack of clarity.

First Impressions: device in-hand.

The device is small! The pictures and videos online didn’t fully prepare me for just how tiny the device is. It measures 5.1″ high by 7.6″ wide and is just a hair thicker than the iPad 2 (less than 0.05″). Leaving the debate over whether a 7″ LCD is a good format for this type of device or not aside, (I don’t quite have a firm opinion on that yet, one way or the other) there’s something about the 16:9 screen ratio that just… doesn’t feel 16:9! I don’t really know how to describe it, but it ‘feels’ more squarish than that. The Galaxy Tab for example, seems a lot more rectangular despite featuring a similar spec’d LCD panel. It really feels sturdily built; comfortable in the hands thanks to its grippy rubberized back and weight coming in just shy of a pound. It’ll also double as a bit of a hand-warmer for those living in colder climates. Back to the screen for a second, the 1024×600 resolution is beautiful on this device. While I didn’t compare it side-by-side to my super AMOLED screen on my phone, it really felt comfortable on the eyes at this size.

We’ve established the device is small, and RIM’s focus is clearly on portability with the “Take it all, everywhere” slogan however their reps kept stating “it’ll fit in your pocket”. While that’s likely true of some coat pockets, I certainly don’t want to see the day where tablet-friendly pants – and worse, shirt pockets are the new trend.


So this product isn’t quite finished yet, but it barely shows (more on release timing a bit later). The QNX OS is snappy, multitasking works like a dream as does multi-touch. There was a time or two where I thought I noticed a little less-than-buttery UI experience but other than that, the device performed admirably with multiple applications open at the same time, all running at the same time; no pause/suspend action here folks. The browser is a pleasure to use as well. In addition to the well-advertised support of flash, its compliance with web standards seems to be spot-on. I liked what CEO Mike Lazaridis claimed was there goal with the PlayBook: “we’re trying not to dumb down the internet for the device but rather bring the performance of the device up to what the web has to offer” – - the obvious jab here at Apple and their choice to exclude flash content. If you search hard enough (hint: start at youtube.com/blackberry) you’ll find a video of flash content displaying in-line in Facebook; “content the way it was meant to be seen.” Another great way to demonstrate the tablet’s performance is of course to compare it to the current market leader. For that, you can check out this browser rendering comparison between the PlayBook and the iPad. Of course the biggest question at this point is, when you pack this much performance into such a small package, what’s battery life going to be like? Understandably, the demo units were plugged in the whole time and aggravatingly, the reps canned response was “the device isn’t done yet, so we can’t say”. Cause for concern? Maybe. I wouldn’t expect the same 10 hour life you’d get out of an iPad though, but RIM, feel free to prove me wrong.


Another unprofessional image - at least it gives a sense of size.


I had two opportunities to play with the PlayBook. For a device using yet another OS, I found it very intuitive after a quick demo. Most of the UI interactions begin with a swipe from the bezel of the device. While I’m sure this helps the device distinguish between accidental swipes or non-UI related gestures, part of me also thinks it adds some psychological justification for  the largish bezel (my device pet peeve). [rant] Give me paper thin computing already! [/rant] Settling for present technology, a big ol’ swipe from the bottom bezel, upward, brings you to the PlayBook’s home screen. Swiping from the left bezel in, switches from one open application to another. You close an app either by hitting a smaller close button, or using an upward gesture which is more consistent with the other interactions. One thing I should have tried in hindsight is turning the device completely off and back on again. While it will have to support sleeping or hibernating of some sort, I find myself rather impatient waiting for my phone to cold boot. Phones tend to have a reason to stay on though, I’m not so sure the same can be said of a tablet, especially one that might need some added consideration on the battery management side of things.

Other RIM exclusives include the ability to pair the PlayBook with an existing BlackBerry phone. The potential possibilities here are endless, for sure, but don’t mistake this to mean RIM will only be going after current customers with this device: “Anyone can use the device, you just get an enhanced experience if you have a BlackBerry already”. Enterprises will like the encrypted Bluetooth connection and out of the box compatibility with BlackBerry Enterprise Server.

Other Specs

There is a PDF on RIM’s website that details the specs nicely but I’ll summarize the more notable ones here. All of the performance mentioned earlier comes from a dual core 1Ghz processor paired with 1GB of ram. A 3MP camera faces you while a 5MP camera is mounted on the back of the device for all of you drooling over Apple’s Face Time coming to the iPad 2. Oh wait, last time I checked, they hadn’t released camera specs yet. Maybe Apple’s spin, er, marketing department couldn’t find a way to sugarcoat sub-par hardware in this department. Or maybe I’m off my rocker. On the connectivity front, we have micro USB and HDMI ports (as well as support for 1080p video) and on the wireless side, there are the usual suspects: Bluetooth, Wifi, 3G and a nice touch – 4G.

Overall Thoughts

RIM is purporting the PlayBook to be the first business class tablet, which I take issue with. Call it professional if you like (and they do) but I’m afraid that crown was taken years ago. In fact, to my right is a 6+ year old HP tablet PC that did very well in the enterprise while others from Motion Computing and the like catered (and continue to) even more to enterprise markets. I understand there’s a desire to distinguish the product from the iPad, but don’t go down Apple’s road of stretching the truth in order to do so. Please.

I’m sure if you’re RIM, any detractor is welcome when the question of Apps comes up. The numbers told today were in the order of “thousands”. Well, it’s a start. Perhaps unfortunately for RIM though, was the developer that mentioned in passing that Android apps technically might be able to be shoehorned into the QNX operating system. There were countless people coming up to the BlackBerry booth asking if this was true. The answer I got: “this was a comment made by a dev looking at it from a ‘origin of the platform’ perspective and what that meant for this possibility. It was explored to some extent but what they decide to do with that is yet to be seen”. Reading between the lines here, I don’t expect to see anything any time soon, and quite honestly, I wouldn’t hold my breath. It’s too bad though, the online community really got excited about the prospect. For the foreseeable future, future owners will have to rely on the Adobe AIR based apps and app developers to start yet another library of apps for yet another device.

Speaking of future owners, when does this thing ship anyway? Of course no single date was given, it appears we are getting close. The device looks good. It feels good, it’s getting a good marketing push and (they hope) developers are coming on board. The best I could get out of them was to expect product to start shipping within a month and a half. That means if you’ve been eagerly awaiting the PlayBook, you might be able to have on in hand come May if my math is correct. The last piece of the puzzle then, is likely to be the determining factor for sales. Price. I couldn’t get any indication on what that number might look  like aside from “it will be competitive”. Competitive with what, would be a good question. Competitive with Notion Ink’s Adam Tablet which sells for $375? Or are we talking higher prices of the Motorola Xoom? I personally, hope we see pricing closer to the former. As good as this device is both on paper and in-hand, I believe it will have to undercut Apple, especially with the iPad 2 remaining at existing price points. RIM will always have its loyal followers, but this tablet is poised to be much more than a companion for the BlackBerry fanboy. It has the potential to see great inroads in the enterprise markets and trickle out into the professional’s home life, to friends, and ultimately, mass market.

I pose the question then: what price do you think the PlayBook will have to hit in order to sell in decent quantities? Is there one in your future?


It appears Staples had a little leak of internal documents, and thanks to said leak, it can be concluded that we may see the PlayBook in stores as soon as April! The document references a module set to launch March 30th, and also has a tidbit about the Motorola Xoom.

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