We were pretty impressed with the BlackBerry PlayBook when we first had a go with it at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, as it seemed to bring something genuinely new to the world of touchscreen tablets. Today, we're testing the final version of RIM's 7-inch tablet—a product that's first and foremost aimed at business users, just like the first BlackBerry smartphones were.
The PlayBook is loaded with Texas Instruments' latest high-end mobile processor, the OMAP 4224. This is a 1 Ghz, dual core asynchronous processor, in which each core can take care of specific tasks at the appropriate clock speed. We tested the 16 GB Wi-Fi version of the PlayBook that's due to sell for £400, but 32 GB and 64 GB Wi-Fi versions will also be available. Additional 3G models will follow at a later date.
The PlayBook stands out from the droves of other tablets coming to market as it's designed to appeal to users of BlackBerry smartphones. Thus, the BlackBerry Bridge system connects the RIM tablet to the brand's smartphones for interoperability. For the moment, if you don't use the Bridge function (see inset), you won't be able to access your secure e-mail inbox or calendar. Connecting the two devices couldn't be easier, though—the tablet generates a barcode that the BlackBerry scans to connect them.
It's a shame that there's no micro SD card slot for boosting the internal memory, but there is a micro USB port for connecting the tablet to a computer and for charging it. Other connections include a micro HDMI output port and a headphones socket.
Design and HandlingThe PlayBook is simple, stylish, well made, compact and not too heavy, making it both attractive and practical. The casing is a kind of 'unibody' cover made from a very nice non-slip material, and with the front screen and its bezel set under a thin layer of glass. We'd prefer it if the black borders around the screen weren't quite so wide though, as this would make the tablet even more compact.
One thing we don't like about the physical buttons (ON/OFF, Volume, Play/Pause) is that they're tiny and they don't press in very far (although they're not over sensitive either). This means you don't get a satisfying and reassuring enough feeling that your action has been taken into account. Note that you can take screenshots by pressing the two volume buttons simultaneously.
ScreenThis is one of the tablet's star features! Although the PlayBook doesn't have the best average contrast ratio of all the tablets we've tested to date (the Acer Iconia Tab A500 still does best with 1126:1), it's not bad at all at 1040:1. Plus, it beats the competition—including Acer and Apple—hands down on colour fidelity. This tablet has an impressive average deltaE of 4 (colours can be considered accurate when the average deltaE is between 0 and 31, the closer it is to 0 the better)! That may not look all that good to HD TV buffs, but for smartphones and tablets these are by the far the most accurate colours out there on the market right now. The Apple iPad had previously held the record with a deltaE of 5.2.
That's not all though, as the PlayBook also has the highest screen brightness seen on a tablet yet at over 500 cd/m2. This, along with a slightly negative gamma (approximately -1), makes onscreen images pleasant and contrasted for outdoor use with the brightness setting pushed to the max. The ghosting time of 24 ms places the PlayBook within average for current touchscreen tablets, with IPS screen tablets (iPad, LG Optimus Pad) doing better in this field. Another slight regret is that the screen tends to go light when viewed from extreme thee-quarters angles.
All in all, this one of the best tablet screens we've seen yet, as it's comfortable to use in all situations.
[UPDATE 11/04/2012] To download the BlackBerry Tablet OS 2.0 update, go to the Settings menu then select Software Updates. Your tablet should then take care of the rest.
The good news is that the PlayBook still runs like clockwork with the update installed. In fact, this QNX-based OS is just as well-designed and as fast as ever. The few times that apps crashed (which only happened once during our second test of the tablet), it didn’t destabilise the rest of the OS—you can just shut down the app that’s playing up and then carry on using the tablet as smoothly as before.
The e-mail interface is very similar to the excellent e-mail management system used in BlackBerry phones. You can add a selection of accounts (Gmail, Yahoo, Exchange etc.) as well as inboxes from Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Unfortunately, the interface doesn’t always support sub-folders in IMAP accounts—you’ll only be able to access the inbox itself, which probably isn’t all that handy for business users.
This update is likely to bring a huge sigh of relief to PlayBook users, as it finally introduces a system for managing contacts. In other words, you no longer need to have a BlackBerry smartphone to hand in order to access contacts. But while the PlayBook has a contact hub—bringing together entries from your e-mail accounts, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—it doesn’t automatically prompt you to link double or multiple entries for the same person. You’ll therefore have to sort them all out manually, which doesn’t quite sit with the tablet’s much-desired (and mostly deserved) image as a powerful and intelligent device. Plenty of smartphones automatically sort contacts these days, so it doesn't seem like too much to ask.
These new additions—which, to be honest, are basics you’d expect from any tablet these days—help reinforce the tablet’s semi-pro market position. However, the PlayBook still has some irritating features. In fact, BlackBerry Messenger, the free instant messaging service available on RIM smartphones, still isn’t available as a stand-alone application on this tablet! You’ll therefore need to own a BlackBerry smartphone and tether it to the PlayBook via the BlackBerry Bridge application to view and access your BBM account. It’s a real shame that RIM hasn't gone the whole hog with this popular feature.
Finally, the progressive availability of Android apps could be a real boon for the PlayBook. As it stands, however, it’s hard to spot Google’s apps in BlackBerry App World, although some, like the Dolphin HD browser, are easy to find. If you do decide to download one of these Android apps, you’ll notice that it takes a while to get going the first time it boots. This is apparently the app adapting to its new environment, but any subsequent times you open the app it won’t take as long to load up.
For a while, there was much speculation about the effect this update would have on battery life. However, we didn’t notice any real difference. You can therefore still use your PlayBook for over seven hours, on average, even if you go e-mail crazy.
In the end, this long-awaited update corrects a few of the major downsides of the original PlayBook, but we can’t help thinking that it still doesn’t bring the tablet up to the level we’d expect from RIM’s sleek, business-friendly concept. In fact, the PlayBook has now pretty much become what it should have been when it was first outed. The Tablet 2.0 OS update should therefore allow anyone who already owns the PlayBook to hang on in there and keep using their device in decent conditions.
However, we’re not sure that the PlayBook 2.0 would still be an attractive enough package to win over first-time tablet buyers. It’s new lower price may convince some users to part with their cash, though, as RIM's tablet is now on par with Archos tablets and Amazon’s Kindle Fire.
On the whole, we’re still fans of the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, even if RIM can’t quite seem to get enough wind into its tablet's sails for it to really take off.
RIM has taken its competitors by surprise with the QNX operating system, known as BlackBerry Tablet OS. Weighing in at just a few hundred kilobytes, RIM's QNX OS is much more supple and versatile than competitors' heavy, power-guzzling operating systems. One criticism though, is that the display system RIM has chosen doesn't use a system of icons or widgets on the desktop, which could put off fans of Android Honeycomb type layouts.
For anyone who's used to using BlackBerry OS, this new interface may feel like the high-flying executive who's taken of his tie for dress-down Friday. It takes some of the seriousness of RIM's smartphones, but adds sleek and speedy touchscreen navigation with a few interesting new gestures that even make use of the dark band around the screen (this may take you a short while to get used to).
Applications are organised by theme: Media, Favourites, Bridge etc. and you can create new custom folders for other content and apps. These folders are arranged in the bottom quarter of the screen. When an application is launched, it opens up to full screen size. If you run your finger from the bottom to the top of the frame you switch to multitasking mode, which shows you the list of apps currently open plus thumbnails of each app.
The keyboard is very nice to type with and it's responsive enough for you to type quickly, key after key, without missing a beat. It's as nice to use in portrait mode as it is in landscape mode, and the tablet's size is ideal because you don't have to put it down on a table to type comfortably. You bring up the keyboard by sliding a finger from the bottom left corner of the screen to the middle.
However, there's still no sign of an integrated numeric keypad. The upcoming HP TouchPad seems to be the only tablet to feature this kind of keyboard.
Multitasking is different to what's been seen elsewhere, as the OS simultaneously runs the various apps rather than just pausing them. The QNX OS also means that if one app crashes the rest of your apps and OS are unaffected and keep on working as normal. The system is therefore incredibly stable when you're running several things at once. Note, however, that RIM has further minimised the risk of system crashes by purposely limiting the maximum number of applications you can have open to eight. The PlayBook comes with a good choice of office-style apps for creating and editing files such as word processing docs, spreadsheets, a calendar etc.
To sync via the micro USB port you'll need to install BlackBerry Desktop. The drivers install automatically on any computer the first time you hook up the tablet.
On the whole, we found the OS was really quite impressive. It's smooth, stable and browsing feels natural and seamless ... once you've got the hang of the specific gestures and touch-controls.
MultimediaAlong with the HTC Flyer, the BlackBerry PlayBook is the only other tablet that can cope with browsing websites that use Flash without even flinching. The tablet's portrait mode isn't necessarily all that practical because pages can be very hard to read unless you zoom in. In landscape mode though—which seems to be the most natural way to use this PlayBook—web browsing is a dream. The zoom is fast and accurate, and the browser options can be easily displayed by simply sliding a finger on the top of the frame towards the screen.
Here you'll find your tabs (that you can scroll through with left and right arrows), a Google search bar and tools for managing your favourites. When used in Bridge mode with a BlackBerry phone, the tablet connects to the web via the phone, in other words via 3G (at best) + Bluetooth which slows down the Internet a bit but not so much as to be a problem.
The PlayBook has its own multimedia player. This is compatible with DivX, Xvid, MPEG-2/4 and H.264 video files but separate subtitles files aren't welcome.
The music section has the same type of interface as the rest of the tablet, with options that pop up when you slide your finger from the bottom to the top of the screen and a pleasant horizontal scrolling feature. RIM has included direct access to the 7 Digital music store, something that's also available via the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7. Here though, the store has been treated to a PlayBook style interface to keep things coordinated with the rest of the tablet.
The stereo sound output is really quite good, whether with videos, music or for sound recorded directly onto the tablet via the two built-in microphones (one at each side of the tablet's upper edge). The output is clear and accurate, even if the dynamic range is nothing out of the ordinary. It's the same story over the headphones socket too. Note that since the speakers are located on the front of the tablet on either side of the screen, you'll need to be directly in front of the tablet to get the best possible effect.
The 5-Megapixel camera is nothing special but it's not too far behind the Motorola Xoom camera, which is the best tablet snapper we've seen so far. Although picture quality is decent enough and almost certainly better than in RIM's handsets, the camera ultimately suffers from the same problems as BlackBerry smartphones: lots of digital noise and red-heavy colours.
The lack of flash is made up for by the fact that the camera is very sensitive in low-light conditions. The PlayBook is the first tablet to equip its camera with a stabilisation system, and this works very well.
Charging is quick too, taking 2.5 hours to fully power up the tablet. RIM will also be launching a fast-changing dock for the PlayBook, filling the battery to 80% capacity in just 30 minutes!
All in all, the BlackBerry PlayBook offers a different approach to the touchscreen tablet, and is an attractive and effective product in all respects. While it's sure to appeal to BlackBerry addicts, RIM is likely to win over other users with the major software update that's coming this summer, bringing RIM's e-mail services to the tablet natively, bypassing the need for a BlackBerry smartphone.