RIM's PlayBook: Enough to battle the iPad?

BlackBerry is already showing off early builds of its iPad competitor. Will it live up to the hype? We're not sure, but a lot of people are intrigued to see how it performs when it's finally finished and ready to ship early this year. More coverage: BlackBerry PlayBook: Who will buy it? BlackBerry Playbook First Look

If you thought the tablet wars were just between Apple and Google, think again. Research In Motion may be late to the fight, but it is fighting for its life, and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet demonstrates that the company means business.

Like the Apple iPad, the PlayBook is available for as low as $499 (16GB), or as much as $599 (32GB) and $699 (64GB) if you need the extra capacity. For now, the tablet is restricted to Wi-Fi (though Bluetooth tethering is possible), with 4G models planned for later in the year.

Is it an iPad killer? For existing corporate and consumer BlackBerry devotees, the answer is certainly yes. For the rest of you, probably not. With its unapologetically small 7-inch screen, we're not even sure RIM intends it to compete directly with the iPad. More importantly, the PlayBook and its souped-up operating system point the way forward for RIM and the future of the BlackBerry brand.

Design
The BlackBerry PlayBook is probably the smallest high-profile tablet to come out in 2011. Measuring 5 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide, and a slim 0.4 inch thick, the PlayBook's design has more in common with the Galaxy Tab of 2010 than the 10-inch tablets making headlines this year. To RIM's credit, the PlayBook is the most powerful 7-inch tablet we've tested, and the lightweight design comes in under a pound.

One of the first things you'll notice about the PlayBook is the complete lack of buttons on the front. Like the Motorola Xoom, all of the PlayBook's navigation is handled using onscreen controls. A 0.7-inch bezel frames the 1,024x600-pixel-resolution screen, which is bordered by a pair of slender stereo speaker grilles. Above the screen you'll see a 3-megapixel camera staring back at you, along with an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts screen brightness. Flip the tablet over and you'll find another camera, this one a 5-megapixel job that can capture video at 1080p quality.

It's not all gravy, though. The top edge of the PlayBook is a case study in bad design. The problem is the power/wake button, which is so small and recessed that you'll need to whittle down your fingertip to use it. When placed within the extra layer of a case, the power button was almost impossible to press. It's a problem, and one you'll encounter every day since the button is the only means to wake the screen from sleep. The nimble fingered among us may be able to look past it, but for many it will be a deal breaker that ranks up there with BlackBerry thumb. Dedicated buttons for volume and play/pause are also located on the top, but their only real crime is redundancy.

The bottom of the PlayBook fares better and includes contacts for an optional charging dock ($69), Micro-USB (charging/sync), and Micro-HDMI. An HDMI cable isn't included, but we suggest buying one since the PlayBook's ability to crank out 1080p resolution video and mirror its OS onto your TV is one of its coolest features.

BlackBerry tablet OS
The single most important feature of the PlayBook is its operating system. RIM has candidly declared that the PlayBook's OS is more than just a new tablet platform, but the future for BlackBerry devices in general. In building the software from the ground up, RIM's goal was to create an OS that is a powerful, professionally oriented alternative to Android and iOS. We think RIM nailed it.

Aside from being buttery smooth and a multitasking dynamo, the PlayBook's OS is a dramatic change from the cramped, trackball-focused OS RIM built its name on. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Palm's resurrected WebOS, but arguably surpasses it in its quest for laptoplike performance.

There is a learning curve to finding your way around the PlayBook. Unlike iOS or Android, there's no home button to act as an anchor for the experience. Instead, there's a basic vocabulary of gestures you'll need to learn, such as swiping upward from beneath the screen to access apps, swiping down from the top bezel to access menus, or swiping from either the left or right bezel to bounce between open applications. It's a bit of a secret handshake to get it all down, but once you do, you can move swiftly, and the speed with which you can jump between running apps is noticeably faster than anything else out there. It's a dream tablet for anyone with attention deficit disorder. Like switching between applications on your computer, the PlayBook keeps your open apps running in parallel at full throttle and takes no time jumping right in.

Another aspect of the PlayBook's OS that has us smiling is the onscreen keyboard. The virtual keys are well-spaced and responsive. The overall tablet dimension and bezel size make it easy to reach your fingers across the screen. And in a design twist we think is pretty smart, RIM groups its numeric keyboard all on the left side, making number entry a little more natural (especially for fans of BlackBerry's tactile smartphone keyboard).

Desktop sync
Syncing media to your PlayBook from your computer isn't the simple drag-and-drop experience as on an Android device, or the time-honored iTunes sync of an iPod or iOS device. Instead, when you connect the PlayBook to a Mac or PC, a preloaded installer will pop up and run you through the BlackBerry Desktop software installation. The setup is fairly painless, and it gives you separate tabs for manually or automatically syncing various media, such as photos, music, and videos.

Another nifty advantage of RIM's software sync strategy is that it will take your PlayBook's unique BlackBerry PIN ID and map it to a persistent virtual drive on your computer. After the setup, your computer will maintain a wireless connection to your PlayBook over your home network, allowing you to send files to the device from the virtual drive on your computer. One use for this feature is quickly transferring a report or presentation to your PlayBook without taking it out of your bag and physically connecting it.


The PlayBook is chock-full of useful apps, but the standout here is the Web browser.

Included apps
Out of the box, the PlayBook comes prestocked with some great apps and utilities. Basic features such as music playback, video player, camera/camcorder, and weather are all here and executed with an eye for detail. You'll also find quality apps for YouTube, Kobo e-reader, Bing Maps (using GPS), and games such as Need for Speed and Tetris.

The PlayBook's killer app, though, is its browser. Unlike iOS and Android browsers, which evolved from the world of mobile phones, the PlayBook's browser is a clean slate (no pun intended), and Web sites react to it just like a desktop browser. This means you won't be wasting any time on mobile versions of sites designed for the small screens of smartphones--a problem that even larger tablets such as the Motorola Xoom and iPad 2 can't seem to shake.

As the icing on the cake, RIM baked full Adobe Flash 10.2 support into the PlayBook's browser. All of the Web's video, animations, games, and ads (for better or worse) work on the PlayBook, just like they would on your home computer. There's even a privacy mode for the browser and advanced settings for selectively disabling cookies, WebSockets, and pop-ups. The only bad thing we can say about the browser is that it shoehorns the full Web experience onto a screen size that is ill-equipped to take advantage of it. With half the screen real estate of its iOS and Android Honeycomb peers, you spend a lot of time pinching fingers in and out to zoom pages and peer at an uncompromised Web experience through a 7-inch keyhole.

Other vital apps offered on the PlayBook include the full suite of Docs To Go apps for viewing and editing common document formats such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. In combination with the built-in HDMI output, the PlayBook makes a handy device for presentations. The PlayBook's video output has the unique capability of either mirroring the device's screen, or selectively locking content (such as presentation slides or videos) to the HDMI output while allowing the device to pursue other tasks or drive the presentation behind the scenes.

BlackBerry Bridge
If you're expecting dedicated PlayBook apps for e-mail, calendar, messaging, contacts, tasks, or memos, you'd better have a BlackBerry smartphone on you. Without one, RIM expects users will leverage their fantastic browser to use Web-based solutions (Google Apps, Yahoo Mail, Twitter).

For the BlackBerry loyal, however, users can momentarily pair (over Bluetooth) their BlackBerry phones to the PlayBook using a free optional app called BlackBerry Bridge. By making this connection, a new tab will appear in the PlayBook's app menu with options to display and manage your phone's bread and butter apps: BBM, Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, and Memos.

The upshot of this arguably convoluted system is that the sensitive data stored in these proprietary BlackBerry apps is never actually stored on the PlayBook. The PlayBook acts as a sort of tablet-size magnifying glass for interacting with these apps, but when the phone is taken away, no trace is left behind. For corporate users wrapped in layers of bureaucratic Enterprise and privacy concerns, the BlackBerry Bridge solution is a selling point that should (in theory) allow you to immediately integrate the tablet with an existing BlackBerry-based system.


The PlayBook will work with any mobile phone that supports tethering, but BlackBerry users should be able to avoid any added fees.

Another advantage to the unique dance of device IDs that happens between the PlayBook and a BlackBerry smartphone is the way tethering is handled. In general, the PlayBook can be tethered over Bluetooth to any tether-friendly smartphone, thus accessing the Internet over the phone's cellular data connection. But when the PlayBook pairs with another BlackBerry device, the tethered connection is (in theory) indistinguishable to carriers, and shouldn't incur any additional charges your carrier may have in place for tethering. The proof will be in the pudding when the PlayBook is set loose in the wild, but if it proves true, BlackBerry loyalists will be able to save money compared with iPad or Android tablet users who will need to shell out extra money for a cellular data plan or tethering fee.

App World
Apps make the mobile world go 'round, especially when it comes to tablets. The PlayBook comes with RIM's BlackBerry App World preinstalled, allowing you to browse and purchase apps directly to your tablet.

The selection of apps available through the App World are meager compared with the giant storehouses of Android and iOS, but RIM is working hard to pull in more content.

One of the most interesting moves RIM is making is the planned addition of apps developed for Google's Android OS. At the time of this review, RIM has yet to show how this integration of Android app content will work, but we've been assured that whatever app content is added will come by way of the BlackBerry App World storefront. We will update this review with more information as it becomes available.

Performance
In the world of 7-inch tablets, the BlackBerry PlayBook is smoking fast and packed with a dizzying arsenal of hardware capabilities. There's a 1GHz dual-core processor under the hood, along with 1GB of RAM and fast 802.11n Wi-Fi support. Put it all together, and you have a tablet that responds with the same immediate, fluid feel of Apple's iPad 2.

We've already waxed poetic about the PlayBook's Web browser, but it's worth noting that page load times aren't quite as snappy as the iPad 2 or Motorola Xoom. Granted, in many cases it's spending extra time loading Flash content, but the delay is present even on sites that don't utilize Flash. With any luck, RIM will update and refine browser performance over time.

In terms of screen quality, audio quality, or video quality, we couldn't find much to complain about, though we wish the screen were bigger (and maybe a little brighter). Video output over HDMI worked flawlessly.

RIM doesn't have an exact rating of the PlayBook's battery life, but in our informal testing we were surprised at how well it held up, even under heavy gaming and multitasking situations. We'll update this review with results from CNET Labs once they're available.

Final thoughts
The BlackBerry PlayBook is an important tablet. It's a strategically important product for RIM. It's a welcome addition to a tablet landscape that has been devoid of professionally-oriented products (outside of Windows 7 slates). And it's an important competitive gesture to both Apple and Google that a third way is possible and that there are still interesting and innovative things to be done in this space.

Is the PlayBook going to take a big bite out of the tablet market? Probably not, but then, few have. We feel confident saying that it is a much more enticing product than any of the 7-inch tablets we've seen so far (Samsung Tab, Dell Streak 7, Archos 70). It's a sure hit for the BlackBerry loyal, and a tempting option for those who prefer an uncompromising Web experience to the allure of apps and games.

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