Blackberry’s foray into the tablet market has been long overdue. RIM’s previous touchscreen offerings have been mediocre at best (I’m looking at you, BB Torch!) and you wouldn’t be faulted for wondering if RIM is merely jumping on the bandwagon. In a rapidly growing tablet field, what does the Playbook have to offer?
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Maxis blogger’s workshop showcasing the launch of the Blackberry PlayBook in Malaysia, and spent a few hours playing with it (ok lame pun – but hey it’s a lame name).
I have a rule when it comes to building (gaming) PCs – decide on the size of your display first. The resolution you game on determines which graphics card (the most expensive component) you need to get, and hence the CPU and PSU you should be using.
Similarly, I’d think one would be mistaken to say that the PlayBook competes directly with the iPad. The tablet experience is wildly different between the 7in and 10in format. The obvious factor here is portability – the PlayBook fits easily into a small handbag or, in a pinch, a jacket pocket. Meanwhile the iPad has given birth to a huge secondary market of iPad-specific bags which don’t come cheap. I can imagine a crestfallen fan saving up to buy an iPad only to realize he needs to spend a few hundred more to carry it around… On the flip side, the reading experience on the iPad is much much especially when it comes to magazines. And 4-player party games will never translate well into the 7-inch format…
It’s pretty snappy
The workshop started by listing out the specs of the PlayBook. I don’t remember them and it seemed a little pointless – unlike the Android OS which is decoupled from its hardware and would therefore run differently on different implementations, the PlayBook will need to depend on how well its OS runs – there had better not be any clock of deaths which used to plague my Curve 8520.
That said, I was pretty impressed with the snappiness of the PlayBook’s new QNX-based OS. It seemed much smoother than the BB OS on the Torch and the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab. The Maxis speaker also challenged us to test out the multitasking features on the PlayBook by opening as many applications as we could. The PlayBook didn’t miss a beat. How it managed this while implementing “true” multitasking (as opposed to the iOS, which relegates background processes into a frozen state) I’m not sure, but that’s a plus point to the PlayBook. Usability wise, the gestures take some getting used to (there are no buttons on this thing, not even a Home button) but it’s pretty user-friendly otherwise. I’d rate it below the iOS and above Android which is where it should be – catered for business users who don’t need the simplicity of iOS but don’t have time to dig through everything Android can do.
I was genuinely surprised at how sharp the display was on the PlayBook. It has a 1024×600 resolution, the same as the iPad but packed into a smaller screen. It also comes with built-in HDMI output, which the Galaxy Tab and iPad don’t have and is quite a sore point for me. It comes with a dual-camera setup as well (5MP primary, 3MP secondary). The Maxis speaker showed off a HD recording he had made of a (daytime) lion dance performance which looked fluid and sharp. The PlayBook also supports Flash – although I don’t give this much weight; Flash on the web is a dying trend due to the dominance of iOS. What’s important is HTML5 support on the browser, and the one on the PlayBook seemed good enough. Also notable is that the PlayBook is fully Java compatible.
BlackBerry Bridge and the Problem of Email
The PlayBook only comes with WiFi, but you can tether it to any BlackBerry device. In a rather daring (or rushed, depending on how you look at it) move, doesn’t feature IMAP/POP email or contact functionality unless paired with a BlackBerry device. You need to use the free BlackBerry Bridge program to pair the PlayBook with an existing BlackBerry. The PlayBook then reads the email information off the BlackBerry.
In practice, this does work but with a noticeable lag while the BlackBerry phone syncs with the PlayBook over Bluetooth. This was being promoted as a “security” feature – the PlayBook will act as a larger UI for your emails in other words, and simply taking the phone away removes all traces of it from the PlayBook. If this sounds odd to you, it should, because RIM has since announced that native IMAP/POP support will be included in future OS updates. RIM basically wasn’t able to get native email working securely enough and had pushed back the feature so as not to delay the PlayBook launch.
No matter how cutting-edge the hardware or software is on any new smartphone or tablet, the killer feature will always be the app market. It is here where former giants RIM and Nokia have been sound sorely wanting, and getting the app market right is why the iOS and Android are now dominant. It’s little secret that BlackBerry phones rarely have any third-party apps installed other than official ones. RIM seems to have finally realized this weakness, and has spent time courting developers. We were told there are 20,000 apps available on the BlackBerry store. I didn’t try them out but the ones loaded into the PlayBook looked decent. Maxis has also actually developed some custom applications for the PlayBook like a Yelp-like Finder and a WiFi access locator.
To top it off, RIM will also be integrating the Android app store into the PlayBook, which is very promising – so promising it will be the thing that makes or breaks the PlayBook.
So the PlayBook has some good things going for it and some bad, but is it priced well enough against its competitors? The Galaxy Tab and Xoom for example were pretty much DOA being unable to match the iPad price point while not being clearly superior.
Being that the PlayBook is WiFi-only and currently works best (or one would say, only works to its full potential) paired with a BlackBerry, Maxis has come up with a rather creative price package.
Assuming you are an existing Maxis BIS user, you commit to topping up either 1.5GB/mo or 3GB/mo to your existing plan, and get a discount over the existing RRP (the existing RRP is absolutely not worth it). Assuming you top up with a 1.5GB/mo 2-year contract (I can’t imagine why you would need more than that), that’s RM1,190 for the 16GB version and RM1,490 for the 32GB version. This is actually not too bad.
Verdict: A Maybe
It seems a little puzzling how specialized the PlayBook is at the moment. For one, there is not much point owning one if you don’t have a BlackBerry given its lack of WiFi or native email. But if you are a Maxis user with a BIS Entry or Standard plan and have room for upgrading your data plan, then yes you fit the bill. It’s a bit of a gamble that the Android App will be ported over perfectly, but if it’s executed well then it’d combine the simplicity and sleekness of the new QNX OS with the versatility of the App Store. So that’s a “Maybe” from me.