BlackBerry PlayBook: Seventh Heaven

The BlackBerry PlayBook’s arrival has been one of the most highly-anticipated of the year, thanks to a series of tactical moves from RIM which have kept us on our toes ever since it announced its debut tablet back in September.

A lot has changed since the PlayBook was made official, with dual-core processors and 1080p HD video playback becoming common specs for top of the range tablets. Doubts were also raised as to whether RIM could divert consumers attention away from iOS and Android to a completely new operating system, and if those customers could be persuaded to resist the temptation of the iPad 2 and Motorola Xoom and plump for a BlackBerry device with a non-specific Q2 2011 release date attached to it. With the BlackBerry PlayBook finally in our clutches we couldn’t wait to put it to the test, but was it worth the wait?

Design

They say first impressions are everything and the BlackBerry PlayBook certainly left a lasting one as it had us oooh-ing and ahhh-ing from the moment we took it out of the box. It was a pleasant change to be holding a 7-inch tablet (as opposed to a 10-inch device) and as you would expect, the PlayBook sits comfortably in one hand. Its compact design gives it some big plus points in the portability stakes (it easily slips into a bag or briefcase), and the PlayBook’s solid build reassured us that it’s designed to take a few knocks and bumps. However, whilst its smooth-rubberised backing, thin 10mm frame and slick front panel make the PlayBook look extremely smart, the touchscreen proved to be a fingerprint magnet and we found ourselves continually wiping it to maintain that attractive appearance.

Although we were impressed with how neatly put together the PlayBook is, it reminded us slightly of a digital picture frame, possibly due to the fact that it lacks any physical navigation keys. That said, the 1280 x 600 resolution LCD display was a real treat for the eyes and produced some super crisp images and bright colours which really came into their own when we watched video footage in 1080p. The graphics performance on the pre-loaded Need for Speed Undercover racing game was excellent too, going some way towards persuading us that the PlayBook was more than just a pretty face.

Power and Operating System

RIM has kitted out the BlackBerry PlayBook with a brand new QNX-based operating system and we were a little concerned about what the experience would be like, especially since no-one has used this on a tablet before. After spending a few minutes poking and prodding the screen, we started to get to grips with the OS and were surprised by how intuitive it is.

The homescreen layout is slightly similar to BlackBerry OS 6 with the menu tabs located at the bottom of the screen, although each open app is displayed in icon format above the main menu and you can easily flick between them. We were quite impressed at the way that any open apps continue running even when you switch to another app, a feature which RIM likes to call “true multitasking” in the marketing spiel that accompanies the product. It’s a fantastic function, especially if you’re watching a video or playing a game as it saves you from the hassle of clicking in between different screens to resume what you were doing within an app before you ventured elsewhere. Equally impressive is the way in which the PlayBook runs without a hitch, regardless of how many tabs you have open, something that is facilitated by the 1GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM onboard.

BlackBerry Bridge: While you don’t need to own a BlackBerry smartphone to get the best out of the PlayBook, if you do have one, you can use BlackBerry Bridge to expand its functionality. The software lets you to connect the PlayBook to your BlackBerry smartphone via Bluetooth and allows you view your emails, phone contacts, memos and tasks via the tablet. This connectivity option proves especially useful for BlackBerry owners who rely on calendar or memo apps as the PlayBook doesn’t come with any native versions of these features.

Internet: RIM says the PlayBook offers “web without limits” and the WebKit browser with Flash 10.1 support certainly goes some way towards backing up their statement. However, we did find that the PlayBook didn’t render pages very smoothly when we used the pinch-to-zoom function.

At the moment, the PlayBook is solely available in a Wi-Fi only version, something that obviously restricts when you can get online. However, providing that your mobile phone contract allows it, you can easily tether the PlayBook with your smartphone and use its 3G data connection, regardless of whether it’s a BlackBerry handset or not.

Camera: The BlackBerry PlayBook comes with two cameras; a 5 megapixel rear-snapper and a front-facing 3 megapixel one. Of course, you’re not going to get amazing shots from cameras of this spec, but the rear imager can record video in 1080p HD which gives it  an advantage over other 7-inch tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab which can only capture video at 720p. Quite impressively, the 3  megapixel camera on the face of the device is also capable of HD video calls, although at present, the built-in video calling app can only be used to make video calls to other PlayBooks. Hopefully, more third-party apps will become available from BlackBerry App World in the near future that will put paid to this limitatation.

Other tech specs:

  • Music player – Supports MP3, WMA and AAC+ files
  • Video player – Supports DivX, XviD, WMV, H.264, MPEG4 and 3gp files
  • Micro HDMI port
  • MicroUSB port
  • Bluetooth
  • Available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models

Any downsides?

We only have a few niggles with the BlackBerry PlayBook. First off, it’s a shame that the web browser wasn’t completely up to scratch with the PlayBook struggling to render pages smoothly when we zoomed in or out of them. This is a function that we expect most top-end devices to be able to perform these days with ease, which lets the PlayBook down. As an aside, it seems RIM missed a trick with BlackBerry Bridge to provide calendar and memo apps for users who don’t have a BlackBerry smartphone. Most of their consumers are business people after all.

Conclusion

We wouldn’t blame you for thinking the BlackBerry PlayBook is better off in the hands of business users, given RIM’s past form for creating devices aimed at corporate customers. However, this tablet really does offer something for everyone and excels in the realm of mulitimedia and entertainment via great video playback and gaming. Providing that you’re willing to give up a few minutes of your time to get your head around the operating system, the PlayBook is an extremely pleasant device to use and a great choice for anyone looking for a stylish and functional tablet.