The BlackBerry PlayBook was released last week to some considerable fanfare, so I went out and grabbed one. I've finally had some time to sit down and play with it, and there are some really great things about the device and some things that take getting used to. Now then, this is running the officially released software versus the pre-release devices covered in most of the initial reviews, so my impressions may be a little different than those previous reviews. So with that, let's get into the guts of this review.
When the BlackBerry PlayBook came out, I was excited to try it out, but I had also read through some of the initial reviews, so I was a little skeptical. It turns out that I've had little to be concerned about. While I did have one software glitch that caused a bit of a scare, its been largely uneventful and the PlayBook has performed exactly as I expected it should, if not better. The hardware on the device is great, and I love the overall feel of the device in my hands. I also appreciate that RIM threw in a case for the PlayBook. But that said, there definitely is a bit of a learning curve to the device, so be sure to take the time to review the how-to tips (e.g. how to use gestures). After a few days with it now, I'm quite enjoying the PlayBook.
When I previously reviewed the Samsung Galaxy Tab, I had a lot of good to say about the 7" tablet size. I was initially concerned that it might be too small, but after using it, I reached the conclusion that it was just right. So it's not surprising that I feel the same way about the size of the BlackBerry PlayBook. It's just big enough to do what I need to do, yet still small enough that I can fit it in my purse. The PlayBook fits comfortably in my hands in both landscape and portrait modes, and with a 1 cm width, its just barely thicker than the iPad2, and thinner than the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Motorola Xoom. While this is likely to be personal preference, I personally find the 7" size to be more suited to tablets. If I need bigger, its typically just as easy to bring along my laptop.
The screen on the BlackBerry PlayBook is very nice and the images are crisp and bright. Mind you, this is to be expected given that the PlayBook has a resolution of 1024 x 600, packing nearly as many pixels into a 7" tablet as Apple has packed into their 10.1" iPad2 (resolution for the iPad2 is 1024 x 768). So far everyone that I've shown the PlayBook to has been impressed. The screen also has a nice feel to it, making it easy to touch, swipe, and more. It does show fingerprints, but similar to the iPad, it seems to have a special film on the surface which helps to reduce the effect.
The speakers on the PlayBook are simply amazing, and they just about have my laptop beat. They are loud, crisp and clear, and I can now see why most other reviewers were impressed by them. I haven't played with the iPad speakers enough, but from what I remember, the PlayBook speakers have them beat.
One of the reviews that I read before initially complained about the size of the Power button on the BlackBerry PlayBook, and this is one thing I have to agree with. The Power button is very small and difficult to press. In terms of the hardware on the PlayBook, this is likely my biggest complaint. And until I learned how to turn my PlayBook on without pressing the Power button, I was getting downright frustrated. But after reviewing the how to videos, I learned a great trick - just swipe from the top bezel down, and lo and behold, the screen comes back on. RIM has also heard users loud and clear and have introduced a Power button on the screen as well. Right next to the Power button are the Volume Up/Down and Play/Pause buttons. I know some have complained about those buttons, but after a few days, I actually think they fit the PlayBook design well.
The PlayBook comes with 2 cameras - one on the front of the device for video conferencing and one on the back for taking your regular pictures and in both cases, the images are excellent. There are three shooting modes, including automatic, sports mode, and whiteboard, and there is a powerful digital zoom. My only complaint thus far is that there is no built in flash, meaning that low light shots are not quite as good.
With a 1GHz dual core processor inside, I have yet to have the PlayBook slow down on me, even with several windows open. So there are no problems with processing power. Apparently I just need to play a little more to push the device to it's limits.
The BlackBerry PlayBook has been reported to have between 8-10 hours of battery life, and thus far, my experience with it puts it right in that range. Of course this may depend on what you're doing with the device (e.g. playing Need For Speed uses more power than simply watching a video or browsing the internet), but even playing graphically intensive games does not have a drastic impact on battery life.
Setting up the PlayBook was very easy, with easy to follow steps. When you're finished with one section, simply swipe to the next section. If you don't already have a BlackBerry ID, you will be prompted to create one. Now then, as a heads up, the first time you set up your PlayBook, make sure you have WiFi access. This is because you will be prompted to update the software on the device before you can use it. The initial software update took about 5 minutes to download on my connection and 10 minutes to install. The device then rebooted and I was up shortly thereafter. Generally speaking, the reboot should take a couple of minutes, however it can take a bit longer. Once the device rebooted, I was up and running. As a rough estimate, I would expect the initial set up to take approximately 30 minutes, depending on your WiFi connection speeds.
As I previously mentioned, this device takes a bit to learn and it really will make a big difference to use the Help app to learn how to use the device. But once you learn how to use it, it's actually quite easy to use. To turn the screen on, simply swipe from the top bezel to the bottom bezel. To show the full menu, swipe from the bottom bezel up. Similarly, if you want to exit an app, simply swipe up from the bottom bezel, then you can either click on the "x" to close the app, or you can swipe the app up to the top of the screen. To switch between open apps, simply swipe from either the left or right bezel to the center of the device. And to bring down menus, swipe from the top bezel down. The great thing is that "top," "bottom," "left" and "right" are all relative to how the device is being held, and you can hold the device in any orientation.
To set up WiFi connections, simply swipe down from the top bezel while on the homescreen and from the menu, select Wi-Fi from the menu options. You can then see what networks are available and connect to the one you want. If your router offers WPS (WiFi Protected Setup), you can also use that to get set up.
The keyboard has actually taken me the longest to get used to. Coming from a BlackBerry Storm2, I'm used to typing in a certain way and the PlayBook uses a slightly different keyboard setup, which has meant that I've had to go through a bit of a learning curve. That said, I am getting used to it and now my biggest complaint is actually the lack of Autocorrect. My understanding is that this is supposed to be coming (not confirmed), but I'm not sure when. So in the meantime, I'm having to double-check my typing often to ensure that I didn't mess up and get a neighbouring letter. Autocorrect does work in the BlackBerry Bridge mode, but most apps don't use the Bridge, so... At this point, I really miss little things like typing "im" and having it automatically changed to "I'm", or pressing the space bar twice to insert a period. Yes, these are small things, but for those who regularly use a BlackBerry, they are little tricks that make typing that much faster.
The PlayBook comes preinstalled with a number of apps, including Adobe Reader (yay, a native PDF viewer), the full version of Documents To Go (which includes Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go, which are fully compatible with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, respectively). It also includes the Kobo Books app, with free copies of Alice In Wonderland and The Art of War, as well as a NFB (National Film Board) app for viewing NFB videos. There is also a Music Store (in partnership with 7digital), a Podcast app, Bing Maps, and widgets which connect you to your various email website options (e.g. Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, etc). At this point in time, there are no native apps for Facebook and Twitter, but there are icons which take you to their respected websites. This means you get the full Facebook or Twitter experience, including access to Facebook Chat. And of course, the PlayBook also comes with Need For Speed: Undercover and Tetris, both by EA Sports. Note though, you will need to sign into BlackBerry App World to download the full versions (free upgrades).
If you already have a BlackBerry, you can take advantage of the BlackBerry Bridge to essentially "amplify" what is already on your BlackBerry. The setup is quite easy - you can either scan the barcode on your PlayBook that shows up during the Bridge setup process, or you can do it manually using a set of codes that you are instructed to enter on your BlackBerry. Using the Bridge, you can access your BlackBerry messages, contacts, calendar, memos, tasks and use a Bridge Browser (uses your BlackBerry Browser to download data to the full browser on your BlackBerry). At this point, there is still no BBM app, although that is coming shortly (no confirmed date just yet though). My BlackBerry Bridge between my Storm2 and my PlayBook has been performing perfectly up to this point, however I have heard of some others who have been having problems. If you do, delete the Bluetooth profiles on both devices and start from scratch again, and that should help.
Native Email, etc.
For those who are not BlackBerry owners, you will be waiting a little bit longer to get access to the same things that BlackBerry owners get through the Bridge. So that means that there are no native message, calendar, contacts, memo and tasks apps just yet. Of course, if you use something like GMail or Hotmail, that doesn't really matter as you can manage that all via your web account. But the good news is that native clients are coming soon via an OTA update.
If you have a mobile data plan that allows for tethering, you can tether your BlackBerry PlayBook to your phone when in need. All you need to do is pair your PlayBook to any mobile device using a Bluetooth connection (yes, this means any phone, including the iPhone, Android phones, or Windows Phone 7 devices), then select Internet Tethering from the Main Menu. Select your carrier from the available list, and then simply follow the steps to get up and running. When everything is all set, simply press Connect to start tethering, and then Disconnect when you are ready to stop tethering and switch back to Wifi.
Software updates are super easy to install on the BlackBerry PlayBook. When a software update is ready to be downloaded to your device, you will receive a notification on the top menu bar on the homescreen. Simply click on that notification and you can update your device. Alternately, you can go into the Main Menu and select Software Updates, then simply check for updates whenever you like. Updates right now seem to range from 200MB to 350MB, so make sure you have a good wifi connection handy. My guess is that as the device is around for longer, we'll see fewer and smaller updates. You can also update using the BlackBerry Desktop Software, but the easiest method is the OTA (over the air) updates directly to the PlayBook.
I previously read some reviewers commenting negatively about the browser. I don't know if RIM has since fixed some of those issues in later updates or what, but I have not had any problems with the browser. It is quick to load pages (often the same speed or quicker than my HP Envy), and Flash has loaded perfectly every time. This has come in really handy with our neices as they love watching official music videos from Vevo. For the first time, I can now show them on something other than an actual computer. At this point, the worst problem I've experienced with the browser is that when I go to click on the little X to make a video full screen, I occasionally click in the wrong location. So to get around that, I'll often just zoom in a little and I'm set.
Thus far, I'm impressed with the media apps. Pictures are vibrant, the music player is easy to navigate and videos are excellent. One of my biggest complaints is that it isn't always easy to swap between albums in the Pictures app and it took me a while to figure out that I want to touch the upper left corner of the screen to get the little button that lets me go back to appear. Instead it would be nice to offer a static back button that was always present. But swiping through the images is easy and fast.
There are some other things that I thought were really neat with the BlackBerry PlayBook that didn't really fit into the above comments. For example, if you have a Bluetooth enabled keyboard and mouse, you can pair that to your PlayBook. This was really cool for me as this meant that I was successfully able to pair my Logitech DiNovo keyboard to my PlayBook. So if you want to write up a report on your PlayBook but don't want to deal with the on screen keyboard, no problem. The neat thing with the mouse is that you will actually see a cursor on the screen which can help you navigate if you have big fingers and need to do precision work. I have also been very impressed by the gaming abilities of the PlayBook. For those coming from the BlackBerry world, this is a massive improvement. Games are fluid, graphics are great (maybe not as good as on a computer running a high end graphics card, but as good as the other tablets on the market), and the potential for future games is excellent.
But I should add that my experience hasn't been perfect. Following my first reboot, the PlayBook entered into an endless reboot cycle. I was finally able to resolve this issue by performing a hard reset while having the PlayBook plugged into my computer with the BlackBerry Desktop Software open. Now then, there have been more OS updates since then, so I don't expect that to be an issue anymore. And with RIM offering 90 days of free support with the PlayBook, had I not been able to resolve the issue on my own, I could have gotten help.
Overall, I'm quite satisfied with the BlackBerry PlayBook. In terms of its gaming, browsing and video capabilities, it is an excellent device. The hardware is solid, and recent upgrades to the software have made the device much more stable than the pre-release devices tested by many of the other blog sites. I'm very happy with my purchase and the device is growing on me more and more each day. Yes, it does currently lack native email, calendar, etc. clients, but as those are coming, that should not be considered a deal breaker. And just to prove how usable the device is, I actually typed over half of this review using the PlayBook. If you're looking for an alternative to the iPad, this is definitely a device worth checking out. Even if you are considering getting an iPad or other device, I would still recommend checking it out as you might be pleasantly surprised.
If you have any specific questions that I haven't addressed above, feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer.
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