Monday, May 23, 2011

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet Review

The tablet race has mostly been between Apple's iPad and tablets with Google's Android OS.  Back in July 2010, TabletConnect first reported that Research In Motion (RIM) was launching its own tablet to compete against the iPad and other Android tablets.  Initially, it was to launch for the holiday season but was delayed by almost 5 months.  Apparently software development, battery issues and insufficient supplies of touchscreens (thanks to Apple) were the rumored causes for the delay.
     What attracted us to the PlayBook was its true multi-tasking capabilities with the ability to easily switch among open apps plus be able to view all open apps simultaneously.  This is one area where Android still cannot compete.  The real question though is can the PlayBook compete in this crowded tablet market?  Does the lack of apps put it at a disadvantage?  And more importantly is the PlayBook a consumer or corporate device?  Let's find out.

The PlayBook falls into the 7” size category so it doesn't really compete against Apple's iPad 2 (hereinafter referred as simply “iPad”).   The PlayBook is similar in size to the Velocity Micro Cruz Tablet.  The RIM PlayBook's dimensions are 7.6” (l) x 5.4” (w) x .40” (h) compared to the Cruz Tablet which has dimensions of  7.5” x 5.6” x .7”.  Compared against other 7” tablets, the Archos 70's  dimensions are 7.9” x 4.5” x .4”   while the Samsung Galaxy Tab has dimensions of  7.5” x 4.7” x .5”.  The PlayBook feels solid but lighter than a 10” tablet weighing in 0.9 lbs.  This is more than the Archos 70 (.68 lbs) but lighter than the Galaxy Tab (.84 lbs) and the Cruz Tablet (1.15 lbs).

10" Motorola Xoom vs. 7" RIM PlayBook: Both viewing NY Times website.

     The PlayBook has a strong feel and has a high quality build. The back of the tablet has a rubber material to prevent scratches which is a nice touch.  In addition, it provides better gripping compared to all metal backing.  The PlayBook has a Micro USB port, headphone jack, mini-HDMI port and DC In port.  The external speakers are excellent and very loud with minimal distortion at high volume.  We like the fact that the speakers on the front (one on each side of the bezel) rather than the back (which the Motorola Xoom has).  There is no port for external memory cards which is disappointing.  Overall, the exterior quality is excellent.   

     The RIM PlayBook does include a 5MP rear facing and a 3MP front facing camera.   The rear camera takes good pictures and HD videos (see video of Additional Footage).  The front camera's picture quality is a little better than the Xoom.  It is easier to take pictures and videos with a 7” tablet but again I am not sure how many people will use a tablet as a camera. 

     There are four physical buttons located on the top of the PlayBook.  The power/reset button is unusually small and difficult to press especially if you have large fingers.  To the right of the power button are the volumes plus a “play/pause” button to control your media.  There are no physical Home; Menu; and Back buttons.

     Included accessories are micro USB cable adapter, DC power adapter/charger, Neoprene sleeve, cleaning cloth and standard documents (product safety & getting started card).  Micro HDMI cable is sold separately although you can get one for cheap on eBay.  One thing to note is that you cannot charge the PlayBook if it is turned off.

Under the hood, the PlayBook has a Texas Instruments OMAP4430 dual core processor (ARM Cortex A9) running at 1GHz.  In addition, the PlayBook has 1GB of RAM which is now the norm as these devices handle more multi-tasking jobs.  We did not experience any issues with the PlayBook running on low memory.  At one point, we had 7 apps running in the background and experienced no issues.  The PlayBook has an  accelerometer (auto-rotates 360 degrees) which works well and is quick to switch. 

     The PlayBook also includes a compass, GPS & a gyroscope.  Boot time is approximately 68 secs which is significantly higher than the Android tablets we tested (36 – 50 secs).  With Bing Maps included, GPS does not really work well as you need an Internet connection for the Bing Maps.
The PlayBook's screen is 7” with a resolution of 1280x800 which translates to a 16:9 aspect ratio.  The screen is capacitive and is responsive.  In addition, it is true multi-touch (although 4 inputs) rather than a 1+1 touch.  (True multi-touch means that the device can simultaneously register three or more inputs. The 1+1 is just as the name says, it registers only 2 inputs.)  With the smaller screen, everything looks sharper.  When typing on the standard keyboard, it responds well.  The screen is also difficult to see in bright daylight due to the very glossy screen but this is very common.  Fingerprints also continues to be a common problem among all screens.  As for the viewing angles, the PlayBook has excellent viewing angles from all four angles.  Colors are bright and sharp.  Overall, the screen is excellent.


As our video demonstrates, the PlayBook works well with all multimedia (pictures, music & videos) types.  We tested these 3 types using the built-in native apps.  For the pictures, the quality of the images was good.  For videos, we tested using MP4 format with 1250 & 1500 bit videos plus two 720p HD test files (in MOV, AVI & MP4 format).  Both non-HD files played very well with no stuttering. The RIM PlayBook had no trouble processing the 1500 bit video.  We used an animated movie to show the “fullness” of the video (colors, brightness, contrast, etc.).  We also tested using a live action film as shown in our video.  Unlike the Xoom, the PlayBook can play MOV & AVI formats.  However, it did have trouble playing our HD space shuttle MP4 test video.  When we tried a non-HD MP4 video, the PlayBook had no trouble.  The tablet had no problems rendering YouTube videos. 

     The tablet has a mini-HDMI port which one can connect to a HDTV.  Not only can you watch movies and pictures but can also simultaneously project what is on the PlayBook screen (just like the Xoom).  In addition, you can display PowerPoint presentations via HDMI cable while viewing other things on the table itself.  Overall, the multimedia experience was excellent.

Applications (Apps)
Unfortunately, this is one area where the PlayBook cannot compete.  If you have a Google account, you are out of luck.  There are no core Google apps (Android Market, Gmail, Maps, Navigation, Talk, Calendar, etc.).  Like the Xoom, the PlayBook does not include a file manager.  One can transfer files using a USB cable.  However one excellent feature that the PlayBook has is a WiFi file sharing capability which allows you to easily transfer files between your computer and your PlayBook over your WiFi network.  One activates this in the Settings under Storage and Sharing.  Next one needs the IP address of the PlayBook which is also under Settings under About – Network.  For Windows PC's, open Run dialog and type \\ (actually you will need to replace this with your actual IP address).  That is it.  You will find the PlayBook's media folders under Network in your Windows Explorer.  Note that you cannot access the system or any app folders.
     I am going to spend a little time regarding App World which is the BlackBerry PlayBook's app store.  As mentioned, the PlayBook falls considerately short in this important field.  There really is little or poor selection in the app store.  No Twitter, no DropBox (and no, BlueBox cannot download and upload as of yet), no sports news app, no email client and of course no Google apps.  FaceBook only recently launched its own app for the PlayBook.  It works fine but only in landscape mode.  Also (nothing against our Canadian friends) but there are no major news apps that are based in the US.  Besides The Huffington Post, you will only find titles such as National Post, The Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Sun, CBC News, etc.  Not a good thing for American consumers.  Furthermore, there are many apps with poor reviews.  Developers are at a disadvantage if they want to charge for their apps.  Its a chicken or the egg situation: one does not want to pay for an unproven app but developers would only want to create an app if they can make  money. Also one cannot sort apps by top ratings.  RIM should know better since they have had an “app store” for their BlackBerrys.

    The PlayBook does include some apps.  Besides BlackBerry's App World, most notable is Music Store, Kobo Books (does require an Internet connection), Bing Maps, NFS Undercover, Tetris, Adobe Reader, Office (Word, Sheet & Slideshow); Slacker Radio; NFB (videos of Canadian public film producer & distributor) and a bunch of email icons (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo & AOL Mail) that are nothing but shortcuts/bookmarks to their respective website.  The Twitter icon was also a shortcut to the website.  There is a music and video player which are basic but they do the job. With the Office apps, you can edit Word & Excel documents but not any PowerPoint docs.  Furthermore, RIM nicely included built-in screenshot capabilities.  Just press both volume buttons at the same time and that is it.  Google, make a note of this.

     One thing to note is that the apps are not listed alphabetically.  In addition when you download an app from App World, it is listed at the end of the app list.  You can move them around but you cannot list them alphabetically.  There is also no option to create folders where you can categorize apps.  However, you can place apps in one of three headings: Favorites; Media; and Games.  Unfortunately, it is tough to organize your apps if you manage to download many.

     RIM has announced that the PlayBook will be able to run Android apps via an Android player.  This should be available this summer but it may be too late.  Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how smoothly the Android apps run as they are not running natively in QNX.  RIM has released a video that demonstrates the Android player that appears to handle the Android apps with ease. 

     Unfortunately, we were not able to test the BlackBerry Bridge application.  The system administrators at my job disabled the Bridge app.  In addition, no one that I know personally has a BlackBerry I could borrow.  If you intend to use the PlayBook for work, make sure your IT folks allow the Bridge app as they may disable it.  This really defeats the purpose of using the PlayBook for business.  RIM should really do a better job alerting would-be consumers to check with their companies' system administrators before purchasing the device.  The way RIM markets the PlayBook, it would seem that everyone can “bridge” their BlackBerry to the PlayBook. 

Since the PlayBook uses QNX operating system, we cannot use the same benchmarking apps that we use for the Android.  However, we are able to run the BrowserMark benchmark which measures browser performance in JavaScript and HTML rendering.   The PlayBook (49,745) scores more than double what the Archos 70 (27,198) scored but considerably less than the Xoom (90,977).
     The PDF rendering test shows a fast 3.4 seconds in loading our PDF test file.  The Archos 70 rendered the PDF in 5 seconds.
   (Different benchmarking apps may test different aspects of the CPU and GPU which would account for variance.  One cannot look simply at one set of benchmark scores.  One should view all in an aggregate.)

Battery Life
Our standardize testing consist of two battery tests:  1) played a movie that repeated until the unit shut off (with Wi-Fi turned on); and 2) played a movie that repeated until the unit shut off (with Wi-Fi turned off).  Both tests had the brightness at 50%.  The battery averaged almost 9 hours with WiFi on and slightly higher with WiFi off.  The battery life is very good and should match the iPad's superior battery life. 

As noted in our Xoom review, TabletConnect has not specifically focused on manufacturer support during our review although we do consider this in our scoring.  What we mean by “Support” is how much support a manufacturer provides in terms of firmware updates.  This is more of a concern with Android since manufacturers did when to release the latest Android update.  RIM has made a handful of software updates.  As of this article date, the latest update is version 1.0.3 which added Video Chat, home screen browser bookmarks, docs editing (via Bridge) and BlackBerry Messenger (via Bridge).  RIM seems to be dedicated to providing software updates on a consistent basis.  The constant updates just imply that the PlayBook was not a finish product to begin with.

Overall, the RIM PlayBook performed very well and is a good tablet depending on what type of buyer you are.  Price is also right at $499.  What are the some of the major positives: 1) excellent quality build; 2) WiFi File Sharing; 3) excellent screen quality; 4) plays most video formats; 5) excellent HD video output (via HDMI); 6) excellent front speakers; 7) ability to “bridge” or connect with a BlackBerry phone; 8) decent battery life; and last but probably the best feature is its multitasking capabilities.  The ability to easily run multiple apps at once, easily switch from app to app and close specific open apps is one area where Android & Apple's iOS cannot compete.  HP's webOS has similar capabilities so we definitely will compare those.  Now some of the negatives: 1) no file manager built-in (Android 3.0 also has this issue); 2)  power button is way too small; 3) GPS is useless since Bing Maps require WiFi connection; 4) poor app selections and little US-market news apps; 5) no folders for apps; 6) cannot charge PlayBook if turned off; 7) IT folks can disable the Bridge app which defeats one of PlayBook's main purposes; 8) no ability to add memory (following iPad's footstep here?) and most importantly 9) no native email client, calendar or task list.  The PlayBook is a decent first attempt in RIM introducing their first tablet.

     I will divide our final conclusion into two parts depending if you are a non-current BlackBerry user or a current BlackBerry user (whether personal or business) .  For someone who does not currently own a BlackBerry and is looking to purchase his/her first tablet, the PlayBook is not ready for the general consumer market.  With the small app selection, non-US news apps, or poorly designed apps, one would be disappointed.  In addition, I noted some of the negatives above.  If one is willing to overlook the negatives, the PlayBook is a great tablet.  If one is use to using an Android or iOS smartphone, you will be disappointed.  There is no doubt that the PlayBook has potential.  With the future release of an Android Player and further development of native apps, the PlayBook could be an excellent 7” tablet.  Only time will tell.

     Now for someone who currently uses a BlackBerry (whether for work or personal), the PlayBook should be fine.  The ability to use the Bridge app and access emails, your calendar, and tether off the BlackBerry's Internet access makes this a strong consideration.  For those who use a BlackBerry for work, you know how difficult it is to be productive on a BlackBerry phone.  With the PlayBook, you can view attachments (Microsoft Office & PDF files), create & edit Word and Excel documents, view PowerPoint presentations, and connect the PlayBook to a HDTV and show PowerPoint slides.  One can work remotely more effective.  However, this being said your IT department can still disable the BlackBerry Bridge app.  I will have to call out RIM on this because they seem to hide this fact.  RIM promotes how great Bridge is for corporate IT departments because nothing is stored on the PlayBook.  RIM's website does not have a disclaimer warning individuals that Bridge can be disabled by system administrators.  Since we were not able to test the Bridge application, we cannot comment its effectiveness.  Again, its a nice tablet but its not ready.  Until the majority of corporations complete their evaluation to ensure the security of the PlayBook, it is not be ready as an enterprise tablet either.


  1. 1280x800 is 16:10 ratio, 16:9 ratio would be 1280x720.

  2. Just brought my 64GB PlayBook from the USA. Really nice OS, easy to use and great when paired with my blackberry. Apps are very limited at the moment but if the reports that more are on the way is correct, then ipad, watch out!

  3. Here's a comprehensive review of the Playbook. Yep, I've been hearing a lot about its resolution. Anyhow, it's a nifty tablet, all in all. And those apps for Blackberry, well, you can never have too much! :D