BlackBerry PlayBook £300
30th Jul 2012 | 11:28
Multi-tasking powerhouse still needs an interface boost
Update: With more price drops for the BlackBerry tablet, we've taken yet another look at the Playbook to see if it's finally worth the cash, in light of a 4G PlayBook coming later this year.
It's probably fair to say that the BlackBerry Playbook had something of a rocky start to life. Hailed by many as as the first worthy successor to the iPad when it was announced, it eventually arrived with a bit of a crash landing, pulling in average reviews and failing to really attract customers.
In no small part, the problem was that it didn't come across as the kind of complete package that the iPad 2 - released about the same time - did. Its lack of third-party apps was a shame, but the fact that it lacked its own email and calendar apps, relying on a BlackBerry phone to provide this functionality, really dragged it down.
That error was made all the more disappointing by the fact that it boasts a dual-core 1GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM, powerful multitasking features and crisp 1024 x 600 screen. At just 425g, it's nice and light, and the all-black design is comfortable and handsome.
Whether a 7-inch screen is big enough comes down partially to personal preference, but at 194 x 130 x 10mm, this is definitely a dinky device.
The rear camera is 5 megapixels, and capable of 1080p video recording, while the front camera is three megapixels. There's a micro-USB port and micro-HDMI port, and Wi-Fi, as you'd expect.
RIM has released PlayBook OS 2.0 to power the BlackBerry PlayBook, which is intended to fix a lot of the original problems.
Android apps now work on the BlackBerry tablet operating system, and can be downloaded through the App World store, where they appear just like any other app.
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This could really help to flesh out the range of apps available for the BlackBerry PlayBook, although the whole Android catalogue isn't here yet.
There are additional built-in apps too, including the long-awaited email and calendar apps, which are coupled with some changes to how the Home screen works.
Now that the price of the BlackBerry PlayBook has dropped to £129 ($199) for the 16GB version, £149 ($249) for the 32GB (but still £249 ($299) for the 64GB model), does the combination of updated software and Google Nexus 7-beating price make PlayBook with OS 2.0 more appealing than ever?
The basic core of the BlackBerry PlayBook works the same as before, with gestures used to navigate between apps, or back to the Home screen. If you're running an app, swiping up from the bottom bezel minimises the app into a smaller window, where you can swipe to switch between open apps, and shows you the dock of app icons (more on that later).
Swiping from the left or right bezel takes you between open apps directly, while swiping down from the top bezel opens extra options in the app you're in.
You're introduced to the gestures when you first set up the tablet, and they actually work fairly well - you'll soon be swiping all over the place with confidence, and it becomes second nature.
Easily the most important of the BlackBerry PlayBook's new features are its email, contacts and calendar capabilities.
No longer will you need to tether your phone to your tablet to get email. It's like living in the... well, present, but it's a step up from how it was before.
With email and messages, RIM has jumped past just having a plain mail client and gone straight to the all-in-one messaging inbox that its newer phones, such as the BlackBerry Curve 9380 and Bold 9900, offer.
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This means that if you set up your Twitter and Facebook accounts with the operating system, you'll be able to see Twitter Direct Messages, Facebook Messages and email all in one handy inbox. In practice, we didn't find this hugely useful, because we tend to use these services for very different things.
However, that's just us - others might find it massively helpful. It certainly works well enough, with little symbols telling you which service a message is from, and whether you sent or received the message (you can hide sent messages in the settings).
Adding accounts is easy - it can be done from within the app, and settings for the likes of Gmail are automatically configured. It's as slick and easy as on Android or iOS devices.
You can also specify to see single inboxes in the app, if you prefer. RIM has introduced a new interface system of overlaying panes to the BlackBerry PlayBook, and it's most prevalent here and in the Contacts app. Here, if you want to see individual inboxes, you can tap on a symbol to bring up a new pane with your inboxes listed, and tap on one to focus on it.
It's not a particularly new way of doing things on a tablet, but it works well, and it makes sense to have it as a standard for interaction. The Messages app still needs some work (as a pure email client, its lack of support for IMAP/Exchange folders may irritate some professional users), but it's a good start.
Contacts and calendar
Like the Messages app, the new Contacts app brings everything together quite simply. It can draw information from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and some email accounts, including Gmail, and seamlessly pulls it all together.
There is a small problem in that you might not really consider every single person you follow on Twitter or are friends with on Facebook to be worthy of being a 'contact' - especially when the only information you have for them is their Twitter name.
Still, we had very few instances where accounts weren't linked properly. Contact information is presented really clearly. You can also see any recent status updates from a contact without leaving the app, and any shared meetings that are coming up.
Like the Messages and Contacts app, the Calendar app is really well implemented, with a few small niggles. The primary one for us was that it only draws your primary calendar from Gmail, and not others you might have set up, but the BlackBerry PlayBook isn't the only device to have this problem. It does add your Facebook calendar, though, if you use it seriously.
The app itself is really clear and easy to use, with day, week and month views available, along with day and agenda views for any day. Days with confirmed events have larger dates in the month view, enabling you to instantly see when you're most busy.
The Home screen has also had some tweaking. What you get is a dock at the top, much like the iPad has at the bottom. It comes with five apps in there by default, but you can add a sixth, or remove some that are there. Beneath the dock are your apps, laid out in a grid. It's very much like iOS in concept, but the aesthetic is different.
Apps are still on multiple pages (although they're no longer in named categories), but the dock stays still as these swipe. This system is a fine idea, and works well on the iPad, but it's slightly flawed here.
A minor issue is that it's missing the search feature that both BlackBerry phones and the iPad have, in case you're not sure where an app is on the screens.
The larger issue, and one that makes the search function even more necessary, is that some apps get inadvertently hidden. The 6 x 3 grid of apps below the dock isn't actually everything that can be stored on the page - more can be hidden off the bottom, but there's no indication of this whatsoever.
All the apps can be seen at once in portrait, but this is a device clearly designed for use in landscape mode. It's a significant design flaw, because there's just no obvious way to see what's happened.
More usefully, you can now create folders of apps on the Home screen. Just drag one app on top of another and you'll be asked to create a name for the folder. It works exactly like it does on iOS 6 and Android 4.1 devices.
Other new additions to the BlackBerry PlayBook app roster are Facebook and Twitter apps, although the latter is actually just the Twitter website, so is something of a cheat.
There's also now a Video Chat app, which is limited to talking to other BlackBerry PlayBooks only, just as FaceTime only works on Apple devices.
There's also Print to Go, which doesn't actually enable you to print from the device, but rather enables you to 'print' to it from a PC, so you can send files easily.
These flesh out the selection that was already there, including the Music, Video, Pictures and Clock apps, Docs to Go for viewing MS Office files, a Weather app and PressReader, for buying digital newspapers.
The Kobo ebook reader app is notably missing, having been included previously, but it is available from the App World.
The BlackBerry Bridge app has also been updated, and now offers the ability to remote control the tablet from your phone. This is particularly desirable for typing - you can now write on the physical keyboard of your phone, if you prefer that to the touchscreen of the BlackBerry PlayBook. We'll go into more detail on that in the next section.
The BlackBerry PlayBook's dual-core 1GHz processor gives it plenty of zip, powering the multitasking operating system and enabling 1080p video playback.
The browser is one area where the speed is noticeable, and in PlayBook OS 2.0, web pages load only slightly slower than on the iPad 2, even when the BlackBerry PlayBook is loading Adobe Flash elements and the iPad isn't.
Even before the Flash parts have loaded, the website is already usable, so it doesn't slow you down in the way we've seen on many Android tablets. That said, this speediness does tend to vary depending on the website you're on - some are better than others.
Panning and zooming are both smooth and responsive in the browser, and double-tapping to zoom on text works well.
Text is readable on the fairly high-res screen (it's not as crisp as the new iPad, but we can hardly blame it for that), but it's often not particularly large after a reflow. You might find yourself holding the PlayBook a bit closer to your face than you would an Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime.
Flash video worked fine for us on a range of websites, but we stumbled on others. When it goes wrong, it can often bring the whole browser to a standstill, including the ability to even switch to another tab. However, the operating system overall coped fine with these stumbles, and it was no problem to quit the browser.
The new PlayBook OS 2.0 overall feels very sturdy. Apps crash occasionally, just as they do on Apple's iOS, but it almost never brings down the whole system - just the app.
One of our problems with the browser is part of a larger problem with the BlackBerry PlayBook's software - not only does it often assume knowledge that new users won't have (such as our example of the hidden apps), but it still struggles to be truly touch-friendly.
In the case of the browser, the URL bar is hidden until you swipe down from the top bezel. Before you do that, you only get very small buttons, such as a Back button, to interact with, and they're too small to hit comfortably.
When you bring down the bar, you can see all the tabs you have open, and create a new tab - but when you do, you're not given the option to type in a URL or search term, but are instead kicked out to your bookmarks.
We hate this. It means you have to pull the URL bar down for a second time, just to enter the address. We understand that space is at a premium on a seven-inch screen, but this is hiding too much.
For us, it's a reminder of how good browsing is on the 9.7-inch iPad or 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 where you have enough space to see tabs and the current website.
The problem of having buttons that are too small persists elsewhere, with all sorts of elements that are just that bit too small to feel like your finger is precise enough to hit them.
And while the operating system itself is speedy, quite a few apps don't perform quite as well, including even the Facebook app. Scrolling is juddery and irritating, and the momentum scrolling is poorly implemented.
Flick down to go quickly through your News Feed, for example, and you expect to be able to tap the screen to stop it when you see what you're after. Here, tapping will take you through to whatever you tapped on, even if it's just white space at the end of an update.
While we have general praise for the interface of the new apps, they too have something of a learning curve. Much of the BlackBerry PlayBook's interface is based around swiping, and we're used to apps with panes using swipes to hide the panes or move them across, but here only tapping buttons gets you a response.
Of course, a new world of apps has been opened up with the inclusion of Android apps on the BlackBerry PlayBook. These sit alongside the native apps in the App World, and there's really no distinction when you're browsing.
Opening an Android app brings up an "Initializing, Please Wait..." screen before the app launches, but otherwise you'd struggle to tell if something was made for Android or the BlackBerry PlayBook.
But let's be clear, it's not a smooth process all the time. The first time we opened Dolphin Browser, it worked fine, but when we tried the BBC News app, we never got past the Initializing screen, and then Dolphin Browser refused to work. A restart fixed the problem, but it's clear some optimisation is needed before Android apps work perfectly.
Sadly, the addition of Android apps doesn't mean that there are suddenly hundreds of thousands more apps available in the App World.
They're coming over slowly, but there's no Netflix or OnLive, for example. Whether we see the bulk of them come over later will probably depend on how popular the existing BlackBerry PlayBook content proves to be.
BlackBerry Bridge and media
BlackBerry Bridge is still available, although the importance of being able to connect your BlackBerry phone to the PlayBook has diminished now that you don't require it for contacts, calendars and email. It's still necessary for BBM support, though.
One of the cooler features of Bridge is the ability to use your phone to control the PlayBook, meaning you could use a physical keyboard to write with (in fact, we'd say this is the only reason to use it - controlling it with a mouse pointer from your phone is mostly futile).
But alas, we found it imperfect - it often missed out letters when typing, and forgot to reconnect after the phone went to sleep. And when we disconnected Bridge, it kept using the phone as a keyboard until we turned Bluetooth off as well, confusing things needlessly.
When it comes to video playback, the BlackBerry PlayBook proves itself as a highly capable device, playing 1080p movies back, and even being able to play them in the multitasking view while you flick through to other apps. There's not a lot of reason to do this, but it's impressive anyway.
The screen itself is great, too. It can be viewed from just about any angle, and is bright and clear, with vibrant colours. Text is fairly crisp, and high-quality video looks detailed and rich.
The music player app is easy to browse, although the album artwork doesn't look great in it - there's some major compression going on. Both audio and video play well enough through the speakers - you don't exactly get high-fidelity sound, but it's comparable to most other tablet speakers.
The camera didn't prove to be much of a success, either.
The photo we shot features serious contrast, but the problem is actually noise, and that's spread equally across the light and dark sections. There's also very little detail in any of it, with edges looking soft.
Video was slightly better, with decent colours and detail relatively good, although motion looked jerky, and there was still a fair amount of noise.
Battery life on the BlackBerry PlayBook wasn't too strong. It gave up after around nine hours of general use, and gave us more like six hours of video, where the iPad offers around 10.
Hands on gallery
The BlackBerry PlayBook is certainly a more refined tablet now that it has its OS 2.0 update, but it only really worked to bring the tablet closer to the standards of its rivals, rather than offering something you can't get elsewhere.
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The Amazon Kindle Fire offers a similar form factor with a much better media ecosystem, if you want to watch video on your tablet.
The iPad also offers a superior media experience, and the best tablet apps. Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 offer the kind of flexibility in multitasking and apps that the PlayBook wants to offer, but can't yet.
The design of the new apps is strong, and the BlackBerry PlayBook overall is fairly quick to use, although it takes a small amount of learning at first. The web browser is fast and fairly smooth, too - interface niggles aside.
The speed of the operating system is great, even if apps can be less responsive. The screen is great as well, making the BlackBerry PlayBook a pleasant device to use, and not bad for its cheap price. Certainly, it's better than many other cheaper tablets out there - although the Google Nexus 7 is top of the budget pops at the moment.
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There's still a lot missing from the BlackBerry PlayBook, and the main part of it is apps. Perhaps adding support for Android apps will solve this eventually, but it hasn't yet. There are still huge holes when it comes to services that are rapidly becoming standard for tablets, both for fun and productivity. Where are Dropbox and Netflix?
From RIM's comments, it sounds like standalone BBM support is on its way, but it's still a big sticking point for BlackBerry regulars. Across the board, the BlackBerry PlayBook is full of parts that are good, but those parts are too few. Its limitations mean that it's not up to par as either a productivity tablet or a fun one.
The BlackBerry PlayBook's price is easily its strongest point. If you want a small web browsing tablet and won't pay too much money, the BlackBerry PlayBook is a strong choice: it's light, its internet performance is good, and the screen is high quality.
But if you want a media or work tablet, you should probably look elsewhere. With weak battery life and a severe lack of the apps that we now consider standard, it just won't satisfy many users, regardless of price.