Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Blackberry Playbook review

For a couple of months now, I have actually been toying around with the idea of getting a cheap small tablet. It's just one of those geeky moments I regularly have when I just want something new to play. I had a brief stint with an Android tablet, where I was convinced that 10" tablets did not belong in my life. So when the fine folks at Phones4U asked if I would like to review the Blackberry Playbook, I didn't think of saying no. Welcome readers, to my first ever review of a RIM Blackberry product.

RIM no doubt makes some great business-class devices, but they have never been on my radar purely because I am not part of their target market. But as the Playbook is the first ever RIM/Blackberry/QNX product I ever review, it is actually refreshing to test something with a clean slate point of view. My only experience with anything Blackberry is whatever I see in shops.

Announced 1 1/2 years ago, many would consider the Playbook as yesterday's news. But with a price to hardware spec ratio unmatched by similarly priced tablets (bar perhaps the heavily subsidised Amazon Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7), not to mention RIM's continued support (most Android tablets would have been abandoned by their manufacturers barely six months after release), I think it is still worth a look.
  • Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 SoC
  • Dual core 1GHz ARM Cortex A9 CPU
  • PowerVR SGX540 GPU
  • 1GB RAM
  • 5MP primary and 3MP front camera, 1080p30 video recording
  • 16GB/32GB/64GB built-in storage
  • 7" LCD display with 1024x600 resolution (169 ppi)
  • WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR, GPS
  • microUSB and microHDMI with 1080p TV-out
  • Blackberry Playbook 2.0 OS

In terms of hardware design, the Playbook is a well designed piece of kit. Unlike my previous tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, it seems to be tough as nuts. The rubbery texture that covers the body gives it an impression that RIM has built the Playbook to survive the typical abuse that a tablet will normally have to suffer through. It is just a nice little package that feels more expensive than it actually is.
Given the choice of material, the Playbook has a feel of solidness throughout and reminds me a lot of my ThinkPad laptops. The conservative but stylish design of the Playbook is like the 7" ThinkPad tablet Lenovo themselves refused to make. Some may find the 7" LCD to be small, but it is just about perfect to me. I am however not a fan of the display's 16:9 video-optimised aspect ratio. The display is simply too narrow to use comfortably when in landscape mode, and feels squashed when used in portrait mode.

With a resolution of 1024x600, the Playbook's screen definitely feels a little cramped. Pixels are visible and web browsing isn't quite on a level that it should. I have used smartphones with a higher resolution screen than this. Still, the Playbook actually costs only £129 - cheaper than many low-end Android tablets with crappy screen, lower resolution and specs; and even netbooks! This is also a hell a lot cheaper than the iPad 2, which sports a screen with much lower pixel density.

Inside the Playbook lies a competent OMAP4430 SoC at its heart. This is a rather competitive chipset and one that can be found in quite a number of devices, including the Motorola RAZR, Amazon Kindle and Galaxy Tab 2. While it is considered outdated now (the Playbook was announced 1 1/2 years ago - an eternity in mobile technology), it still offers reasonable performance level. 1GB of RAM is plentiful even for a 2012 tablet and will help with multitasking. The OMAP 4430 contains a pair of ARM Cortex A9 processor clocked at brisk 1GHz speed and the middle of the road PowerVR SGX540 GPU.
I will never understand the need for back camera on tablets, but RIM has decided that most people do want. At least RIM has not skimmed on the quality of the cameras here. You will find a 5MP camera sans-flash on the backside as well as a 3MP camera on the front. Both cameras are capable to recording in 1080p - a delightful surprise particularly for those keen on using the Playbook as a video conferencing device. On the other hand, you would look less like a fool when using a 7" tablet as a camera compared to using a 10" one.

The battery is completely sealed and isn't user accessible. With a capacity of 5300mAh, I was able to eke out about 8 hours of usage. Impressive numbers but you do have to remember the Playbook has a smaller display than typical tablets and does not include a power hungry 3G radio. With light usage, expect to charge every couple of days.

Blackberry Playbook 2.0 OS

The Playbook runs on Playbook 2.0 OS, the precursor to the much awaited Blackberry 10 OS. All future Blackberry products will eventually run on Blackberry 10, so this is more like a taster of things to come (from what I heard of Blackberry 10 - it does seem like it will be a cracking OS). From my time with the Playbook, I have to admit I am liking this QNX-based OS more as a tablet OS than Android. Despite the low sales and initial reception of the Playbook, it is nice to see RIM updating the Playbook OS frequently and abandoning it right away (*cough* HP *cough*).
Coming from an Android tablet, the UX here is fresh and seems designed from the ground up as a touchscreen-focused OS (Honeycomb and ICS felt like a Windows 7 desktop OS with tacked on touchscreen function). Unlike Android Honeycomb and ICS, this is truly a button-less OS with nary a faux home button anywhere. Just swipe down to bring up the task manager, get rid of apps and enter the homescreen. I am surprised to find the UI to be so touchscreen-orientated considering how RIM Blackberry devices are known for physical buttons. It is a refreshing to find something new that is so intuitive and easy to use.

The UI itself is actually rather unattractive. Obviously, coming from someone who believes that less is more, I find almost any icon-based mobile OS like Android and Symbian to be unattractive these days. But it works and that is what's important. The homescreen is rather sensibly laid out with icons where you expect them to be. There is a customisable dock where you can have your favourite shortcuts installed, not too dissimilar to the one found on the iPad.

The status bar, found on the top of the screen, displays notifications, messages, calendar, time, battery life as well as access to wireless settings. It's bog standard and there is no real inovation here, but hei, it's a status bar. Personally I could do with a less cluttered status bar, but that's just me. Tapping on the battery icon will bring up a popup displaying the battery status, brightness level and restart, stand by and turn off buttons. This is actually pretty neat as it allows you to switch the Playbook off without having to press the rather small power button. The top left side also glows red whenever there is a new message, which I found a none-obstructive and elegant method of notification.
While the OS supports portrait mode, the form factor of the Playbook meant it feels more comfortable to use in landscape. Once again, I am no fan of 16:9 aspect ratio on any devices bar my television, so it is disappointing to see that only Apple and HP WebOS still gets it right when it comes to tablet optimised aspect ratio. Don't these designers realise that the primary purpose of tablets are to surf the web? I am sure I am not the only one who would rather watch a film on a large HDTV than a pitiful small tablet display.


Native apps like Contacts and Messages all work well to adhere by the design rules. The Messages client isn't merely an e-mail client - it covers everything from Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and of course your old POP3 e-mail account. With two columns, it makes use of the real estate available on a tablet. Almost everything you need is just one tap away. The e-mail editor features full rich text function if you are the type who loves to italices, bold and colour your e-mails (no, we don't all like that).
The email client supports full HTML emails. Oddly, for a Blackberry-branded device, RIM has yet to shown any indication or even willingness to develop a native Blackberry Messenger instant messaging app for the Playbook. Twitter support only goes as far as covering direct messages and I found the experience rather clunky. The left corner of the screen glows red whenever a new message arrives, and will stay that way until dismissed.

Web browser

If there's a single reason to own a tablet, it is for web browsing. The HTML5 browser here is pretty good and has support for Adobe Flash out of the box. While Adobe Flash is a dying technology, most sites still uses the technology to display embedded videos from YouTube and so forth. This can of course be disabled if you wish. The Webkit-based browser acts and looks like a typical desktop browser with support for attachment from the file explorer, image saving and full tab browsing.

Rendering of websites are mainly accurate (don't worry I won't get scientific), with most sites serving the full desktop experience. Thankfully, to compensate for the small display, text sizes can be resized. However the obvious lack of text reflow can be jarring experience. Should you wish for an alternative, Dolphin Browser HD is available from the AppWorld store with some impressive features, but overall I would give the default browser the edge thanks to its better perceived performance.


Despite RIM's insistence that the Playbook is the first serious tool, it is also bundled with a set of remarkable media utilities and apps. There are apps for videos, music, YouTube, podcasts (with RSS support), music store, video store and even the odd ebook reader by Kobo. I have never been fond of the idea of using a tablet as a media-player, but I can see some use out of it when travelling and staying in hotel rooms equipped with a HDMI-equipped TV.
Media files can be transferred over to the Playbook via WiFi as it can be set as a network drive - cool if you are the sort of person who wish to live a cable-free lifestyle. The YouTube app is basic and lacks any upload features, which is a bummer as the two cameras here takes some competent 1080p videos.

If there is one complain I have with the way the Playbook handles media is the lack of Facebook integration. I have grown accustomed to seeing my friend's Facebook galleries embedded within my Windows Phone picture hub and occasionally on some Sony Xperia devices that I happen to be testing. The Contacts app here for example allows you to link profiles, but doesn't do anything worthwhile about it. It would be nice to see RIM seriously consider stronger social networking integration with their future products.

Blackberry Bridge

Unfortunately as I do not own a Blackberry smartphone I am unable to test the Blackberry Bridge feature. This is a unique set of apps that allow you to connect with the native apps on a Blackberry smartphone via Bluetooth wireless. I have been told under good authority that it works well, but as the updated Playbook OS now includes native clients for email, contacts and calendar, Blackberry Bridge is a redundant feature. You will still require it for Blackberry Messenger.

App World

A platform lives and dies by the quality and quantity apps available for it. RIM has not released any figures, but I am guessing it currently hosts between 5000 to 10000 Playbook-specific apps. Not a great amount, but still a fair number for a single niche product that has not sold very well. The number are slowly increasing thanks to some form of Android app compatibility (third party developers now only need to repackage their Android apps for it to work on the Playbook). So while there are no must-have apps like WhatsApp, Kik and Skype available on the App Word, you do get Angry Birds: Space, Evernote and Plants Vs. Zombies. Android apps are noticeably slower than those designed for the Playbook. Apps are noticeably pricier than their iOS and Android equivalent, and doesn't usually come with trial versions which is a bummer.
Despite the lack of third party apps, I actually enjoyed my two weeks with the Playbook, more even than my previous Android tablet. Bar the aspect ratio, the size of the Playbook is near perfect. It is the size of a DVD case and can fit in my jacket or man bag. However the lack of apps eventually reined me in. Even most of the default 'apps' were just mere shortcuts to mobile web. When Twitter or Foursquare does not bother making their own clients, you just know you are dealing with a OS that has failed to capture developers attention.

Playbook OS 2.0 is a joy to use and takes very little time to learn and master. As an internet tablet, it just fits my usage pattern. That's not to say it would be perfect for everyone - nothing is, and like any products the Playbook has plenty of flaws too. As long as you understand the limitations, the Playbook is a great value for money tablet. It may not have hundreds of thousands of apps like the iPad, but it won't cost you a kidney either. But with Google firing on all cylinders with the slightly pricier but infinitely more useful Nexus 7, you may find that your tablet destiny lies elsewhere.

+ Great built quality
+ Fantastic value for money
+ Solid specs for a budget 2012 tablet
+ Good multimedia support
- Poor social networking integration
-16:9 aspect ratio
- Poor selection of third party apps
- No BlackBerry Messenger

Note that this review was writen by a Blackberry noob, who does not own a Blackberry smartphone. To get the most out of the Playbook, you actually also need to be an owner of a Blackberry smartphone - of which I am not.

1 comment:

Kelly Brueggemann said...

Nevertheless, even without your own Blackberry phone, the BB Playbook got good feedback from you. I’m glad you find the tablet size nearly perfect. One thing that sets this above other tablet PCs is its size, really. Good job by RIM for focusing on portability! It is the comfortable kind of handy. Another is its office usability given its collaboration with Adobe. It also has excellent virtual keyboard. In this year of tablet PCs, where everyone seems to move in fast pace, it is fairly essential to be sensitive to the needs of the consumers.