In early May, I was one of the fortunate few in the UAE to have had a BlackBerry PlayBook in my hands. Why do I consider myself fortunate?
I was fortunate because despite all the bad press the PlayBook had been receiving in the mainstream US technology media, I had the chance to use the PlayBook myself and make up my own mind as to whether I felt the attacks on RIM for the PlayBook was justified.
In this longish write-up, I hope to uncover various aspects that would be important to a tablet user and to see if the PlayBook is the right product for you or not.
The Operating System
The PlayBook as many people probably know by now is RIM’s first BlackBerry branded tablet. It uses a totally different operating system which was developed by QNX, a company acquired by RIM last year, that specializes in operating systems for devices that you’d often see in your car. This wasn’t an attempt to re-hash the current BlackBerry smartphone OS and try and fit it onto a tablet, which is what sadly the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab is. This is a serious attempt to start from scratch and build up an operating system that’s optimized and designed for tablet users.
The operating system on the PlayBook is snappy, quick and much better equipped for multi-tasking. The solution on the iPad is a compromise at best but with the PlayBook you do see full fledged multi-tasking at its best. The overall user experience on the OS is nice but again it comes down to simple things like having folders to ensure you have a tidier screen which was missing in this version of the OS.
Is the PlayBook another toy or a device for serious users?
Form Factor & Screen Resolution
The PlayBook is in a 7-inch form factor which makes it quite handy to carry around. I’ve seen all sorts of innovative cases with people who’ve started using it more regularly and I’m sure once the roll out in the UAE becomes official later this month, we’ll see a lot more from accessory players as far as cases go. At 7-inches, the PlayBook is smaller than the industry-leader Apple iPad family of tablets so depending on what you use your tablet for, you may like the smaller screen size or despise of it.
I often use my iPad for watching movies and TV shows, so I prefer the 9.7-inch screen size of the iPad but if I was just doing e-mails, the PlayBook would be quite handy. When it comes to screen resolution and multimedia capabilities though, the PlayBook is just unbeatable. The iPad seems like its from another generation when compared to the PlayBook when you’re playing movies or playing the few games that exist for the PlayBook on it. The PlayBook I had comes with Need for Speed and it certainly was snappy. I’ve had a few games on my iPad but nothing has ever felt as fluid as this did on the PlayBook. The whole combination of the fact that it has a quicker processor, better screen and great audio output means, the whole experience is better on the PlayBook.
The architecture of the PlayBook is somewhat of a concern. It just looks delicate. I had to be extremely careful when using it, even though it was a loan unit but a unit I now owned because I didn’t want to drop it and see it smashed to pieces. I never let it fall so I can’t confirm how delicate it actually is, but needless to say, I wasn’t going to experiment with it.
Despite being smaller than the iPad, the PlayBook does feel heavy relative to its weight. I’ve been using a Kindle, which is a 6 inch e-reader from Amazon and that is remarkably lighter, but it should be as it doesn’t nearly all the bells and whistles you expect on a tablet. However, even when compared to the iPad, the PlayBook does feel heavy relative to its size. The PlayBook would ideally be better for reading and the Kobo e-reader app (which is supported by Borders) should ideally make reading easier on the PlayBook than on the iPad, but with the device feeling that heavy, I’m not sure how practical it would be to read for hours on end with a PlayBook. For me at least, the Kindle still takes the prize here.
The cameras on the PlayBook are also far superior to the iPad 2. With two HD cameras, you’re going to get much better pictures from the PlayBook than the you will from the iPad 2. The utility of the camera though is still something I ponder about. Apart from video conferencing, I wouldn’t see why anyone would find a camera on a tablet useful because it just looks plain awkward to carry a tablet around to take pictures. That’s what smartphones are for and personally, I’d much prefer a better camera on a smartphone than on my tablet. However, RIM can claim to have the better camera and if you feel that deserves more brownie points, you can hand it to them.
One more plus point of the PlayBook is its compatibility with Adobe Flash. I didn’t personally rate this too highly as a plus point until I saw a demonstration where if I wanted to see pictures on Facebook, I needed Flash or if I wanted to look at the route planner on the Emirates Airline website, I needed Flash as well. RIM has been keen to boast about their partnership with Adobe and in fact, the CEO of Adobe was with RIM’s Co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis at BlackBerry World in Orlando in May, addressing the audience at the keynote about how closely the two companies plan to work with each other. Apple has been very clearly anti-Flash and Steve Jobs has made no secret of the fact that the last person he wants sharing the stage with him would be the CEO of Adobe.
I would give credit to Apple for this. Is Apple’s advantage that they have a slower processor, worse graphics technology or a bigger footprint into which to fit a battery in the device? I’m not sure but they’re definitely stronger here than the PlayBook.
BlackBerry Bridge – one of the strongest USP’s
One of the best features in the PlayBook though has to be the BlackBerry Bridge feature. This is probably not spoken about enough but really is one of the USP’s of the BlackBerry tablet. What BlackBerry bridge does in short is it allows you to connect your tablet to your BlackBerry smartphone so that you can access your mails, calendar and contacts off your smartphone. Many times, when you’re out of the office, you still find it difficult to do all your e-mails off a BlackBerry smartphone because its not always convenient for when you need to work for hours on end. However, the PlayBook’s 7-inch screen and connectivity to your smartphone BlackBerry Bridge means you may not have to lug around your laptop always.
The BlackBerry Bridge App can be downloaded from AppWorld, which is now available in the UAE.
What is also more important is that with the BlackBerry Bridge you can access the web browser using your smartphone’s data connection when there is no WIFI available. The advantage here again is that you don’t pay for another data plan for the tablet and if you have an unlimited international data plan similar to what etisalat or du have, you can browse the web and do your e-mails wherever you are in the world without having to spend anything extra.
I often get frustrated when traveling overseas because I don’t have roaming on my 3G connection for my iPad and have to pay for expensive WIFI access at hotels I’m staying at just to get online, but with the BlackBerry PlayBook, I may not have to.
There has been of course a lot of criticism that this of course favours those who have a BlackBerry smart phone but RIM of course has taken advantage of the fact that they have a sizable user-base of BlackBerry smartphone users and has given them the option of acquiring a tablet without investing in another data plan.
This is especially true in the UAE, where BlackBerry smartphones still have lion’s share of the market. Apple meanwhile has made you get a separate data plan for your iPhone and your iPad. If you don’t have a BlackBerry device already, the PlayBook isn’t for you as the native e-mail client is also not yet ready on the PlayBook (though I’ve seen this demonstrated and as per RIM its due to come out in second half of this year).
However, having just said that RIM didn’t abandon their install-base when it came to having them pay for only one data plan, they’ve done exactly the opposite as far as Apps goes. The bad news is that none of the Apps from your smartphone are compatible with the PlayBook as they’re both based on different operating systems. This will indeed disappoint many loyal BlackBerry users out there as you know in comparison that all iPhone apps at least work on an iPad, even though they may not be optimized for the iPad, they still work.
This means that if you are an App developer, you’re now faced with a choice of which operating system platform to develop first and which to update first. At the moment, the route most App developers have taken is first to support Apple’s iOS, second Google’s Android OS and thirdly BlackBerry’s smartphone OS. Now they’re being asked to develop their App for the BlackBerry’s PlayBook OS and you have to wonder how many App developers have got the bandwidth, resources or time to do this. Most App developers are still thinking about how they’re going to handle Windows Phone 7 and HP’s WebOS App development before throwing another OS in front of them.
Sadly, this means the BlackBerry PlayBook may never have anywhere near as many Apps developed. With Apps being such a critical part of any smartphone or tablet experience, this is something RIM can’t ignore. This is also why they probably decided to develop an Android-emulator which they’ve demonstrated during BlackBerry World and which is promised to be commercially available later this year. This at least opens up the App market for PlayBook fans but again, these will probably not be optimized for the PlayBook so would be a compromise at best.
Facebook were keen to show that they supported RIM and demonstrated their custom developed App for the PlayBook but not every App developer can pile in resources or money like Facebook can and I’m sure Facebook was keen to be on the PlayBook, just as they would on any other smartphone or tablet operating system that exists.
What was also misleading on the PlayBook is the fact that they had a Twitter button. There is no Twitter App yet for the PlayBook. Pressing the icon, simply re-directs you to the Twitter website. What is also missing is a Skype App thus far. With the videoconferencing capabilities that the PlayBook’s cameras can offer, Skype is a must-have on this device. RIM do have their own videoconferencing App but it can only connect with those who also have a PlayBook, therefore largely limiting who you can video chat with.
In fact, RIM was using the term “Super App” to talk about Apps that were custom built for the PlayBook. This surely isn’t the way forward and could be the biggest drawback for now of the PlayBook. It’s fine to have a Podcast App, a Facebook App and Need for Speed, but in the long term, Apple is the way to go if you want Apps.
What is however interesting to see is what role Microsoft plays in the future of the PlayBook. With Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer appearing on stage during the BlackBerry World conference in early May, he said very clearly that Microsoft would be working with RIM to integrate their Bing know-how into BlackBerry products (a previous post on Bing on BlackBerry devices can be seen by clicking here). However, since then, Microsoft went and acquired Skype so you could see even more in terms of synergies appear here (click here to read our previous post on the Skype acquisition). This then means, you have to wonder will the developments that Microsoft puts into the PlayBook be something that we see in this generation of tablets or a future release.
Overall, the PlayBook is a nice product. The press its received has been harsh and unfair. This isn’t to say its got its drawbacks but clearly a lot more thought has gone into the PlayBook than has in many other tablets that we see on the market today. Should the launch of the PlayBook have been delayed so that the native mail client and Android App support were available? Maybe. However, would delaying the product till this was possible have meant the processor and other technologies on the PlayBook would have a shorter shelf life since it would quickly become outdated? Maybe.
The PlayBook clearly isn’t a one-size fits all product. It’ll have people who find it helps boost their productivity but it’ll also have those who find it boring because they don’t have all the Apps on it that they want. Then there is a fine balance in between of a third category of users who say I do need a tablet for work sometimes, to watch movie sometimes, check Facebook and possibly play a game or two. For them, the PlayBook is perfect. However, for that same user, the Apple iPad would be perfect as well.
Left you more confused? Possibly. However, with what I felt was a more holistic review of the PlayBook, I hope I’ve left you with more questions answered and given you the basis to make a informed purchase.
Posted By: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky’s Electronics