Having been indoctrinated into the Android universe via hacking my Nook Color into an operable and cheap tablet at the beginning of this year, I did what I never thought I would ever do – I bought a RIM Blackberry Playbook. I figured my first real tablet would either be the upcoming ASUS Transformer Prime or an Apple iPad2; the Playbook was never on my Radar due to negative reviews and the lack of apps… then the price dropped to $199. For $200 less than a good Android based tablet and $300 less than an iPad2, there’s a lot I can overlook based on the savings alone.
The Playbook is extremely well built and very solid; it feels a tad heavy for a diminutive 7″ tablet, but it also feels like a very expensive device (which is probably a good thing for the original $499 price tag). It has a gorgeous IPS screen, much better than the Nook Color’s in terms of clarity and brightness, and a nice rubberized back to prevent the Playbook from flying out of your hands. For those interested about what’s inside its housing here are the highlights of RIM’s addition to the Blackberry family:
- 1GHz dual-core processor (Texas Instruments OMAP 4430)
- 1024 x 600 WSVGA capacitive LCD touch screen with graphics acceleration
- Blackberry Tablet OS v1.0 (now called BBX)
- Dual Cameras; 3MP front, 5MP rear both capable of recording 1080p videos
- InvenSense 6-axis gyroscope, manetometer, and accelerometer
- Supports high resolution video playback (H.264, MPEG4, WMV)
- MP3, AAC 5.1, WMA 5.1 audio playback support.
- Micro-HDMA port
- 1GB RAM
- 16GB, 32GB and 64GB storage variants
- Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
- Micro USB
First Impressions – I’ve been invited to a great party!
I’ll admit that the purchase of the Playbook was an impulse buy and being naturally frugal. I’ve been itching for a real tablet for the last 2 years; I have a love/hate relationship with Apple products (I love their marketing and business tenacity, hate their content lock-ins but I understand their reasons), and Android is starting to become viable on the tablet front with the release of the Ice Cream Sandwich version. However it’s difficult to ignore a device as well made as the Playbook going for $200. The initial set-up of the device is a breeze. RIM did a nice job getting you acquainted with the Playbook, connecting to a Wi-Fi connection and establishing a bridge to your Blackberry (if you have one). Once you start customizing the tablet, you’ll immediately be impressed with how responsive the BBX OS (formerly Playbook OS); I would put it on par with the iPad2 – moving around is a breeze and I love how it multitasks without missing a beat. It’s QNX underpinnings really show as it was originally designed to handle real-time processing i.e. controlling robots and cars. While you’re zipping between applications, you can still see the other apps working away and giving you feedback without actually having to go into each of them to determine how much longer will a task take to complete. The Active Bezel for gestures is a very nice touch when you wish to interact with the OS from within an application; for example swiping diagonally from the right corner to the device to the middle of the screen brings up power indicators and status. For Seven inch devices, real-estate is a premium and should be dedicated to applications – these bezel gestures allow you to move in and out of the operating system and move between applications quite naturally without interfering with the application. It is quite apparent that one of the key concepts of the BBX OS design is not to get in the way of the user getting things done.
What about E-mail?
Where the Playbook shines and falls down is it’s ability to pair up with a Blackberry device. Without a Blackberry, you won’t have a native e-mail or calendar client, however there are a lot of people who use web-based e-mail (i.e. Gmail, Windows Live, Yahoo) and with the Playbook’s very capable browser, accessing the web e-mail sites is no problem (after all we do this on our laptops and desktops, why not on a tablet?). However someone at RIM should be slapped as it was obvious that critics and detractors would focus on anything that would reduce its success. No e-mail client became “no e-mail access” and that’s the message consumer heard (like politics, it’s all about framing the issues first). If you do have a Blackberry, you have a very nice e-mail and calendar apps that “just works” with no additional configuration; notifications and alerts are tightly integrated and when dismissed from the Playbook and your phone.
As a Productivity Tool…
For those who are using Blackberries in their offices, it’s hard to beat the tight integration that is built-in to the Playbook. I love how my e-mails and calendars operate seamlessly. During my first week I was at a sales kick off for a few days where I did most of my work on the device; I answered e-mails, edited MS Word documents, reviewed PDFs – it was a fantastic experience and everything just worked without me having to dig around the file system. The 7″ form factor is great from a portability standpoint and I don’t feel like I’m drawing huge attention taking it out of my backpack or ski jacket pocket (by the way, for those who ski, the inside pocket that holds your goggles is perfect for holding the Playbook). It’s very unobtrusive compared to an iPad or a larger Android tablet. Internet tethering to my Blackberry Torch (9800) was also very easy to do via Bluetooth and the performance was acceptable while sitting around waiting for my snow-tires to be installed.
Second Impressions – …but I Arrived Early…
Have you ever arrived early to a party? You know how it feels, the host is getting everything in order, but there’s an awkwardness in the air as you wait for other guests to arrive. That’s what the Playbook feels like; fantastic hardware, solid OS, great browser experience, but because there is no native e-mail/calendar applications and AppWorld being barren of the apps you typically see on other platforms, it’s like the host forgetting to bring out the appetizers but is working on the midnight buffet. The lack of apps within the AppWorld hurts the Playbook from being wildly successful; perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the Android platform with a plethora of free, quality applications that makes me hesitant to purchase anything for the Playbook. That’s not to say that there aren’t any good free applications, but I find it odd that some essentials are missing or the apps that are provided when you turn on the device lack functionality from their Android equivalents. For example, the Kobo application doesn’t allow you to side load ePub formatted books yet the Android version does; the Kindle app is also missing meaning that RIM just lost over half of those who are looking to use the Playbook as an eReader; the lack of any good comic book reader or news/RRS feed application like Pulse drove me nuts. Yes, there is Facebook, Evernote, YouTube, but my favorites aren’t on the platform and with Angry Birds and Skype no where to be found, its going to make users frustrated showing up to a party that isn’t ready to begin. Having to pay for app equivalents that are typically free on other platforms is just depressing and will make them flee for the doors. It’ll be interesting to see if there are a large number of returns even at the $200 price mark… I may be able to forgive a lot of its shortcomings for that price, but consumers on tighter budgets may think otherwise.
Third Impressions – a Great DJ Could Change Everything
Out of frustration, I updated my Playbook to the beta of BBX v2.0. With its built-in Android player, I managed to side-load some of my favorite applications, thanks to the information found within the Crackberry forums, and got a glimpse of what a rocking party RIM could be hosting. It’s like listening to a great DJ warm up and getting into the groove with the tunes he’s planning on spinning. I’ve had very poor experiences with OS emulation before wasn’t thinking that BBX would be any different, but let’s just say that the Real-Time nature of QNX’s history shines through. Android apps behave and have the performance of what I’ve come to expect from native applications and most notifications are integrated within the BBX OS. From the Crackberry forums, the process to make Android applications load on the Playbook isn’t rocket science and hopefully RIM can attract legions of developers on their platform.
The BBX v2.0 comes some tweaks to the UI, but not having a huge background in running v1.0 for any length of time, I can’t tell you if they are actually real improvements, but I can’t say I’m not happy with what’s been done. They’ve streamlined “Docs To Go”, the productivity application that allows you to view and edit MS Word and Excel files as well as present Powerpoint presentations and the music store seems to be loaded with a well stocked catalog. All good moves in the right direction, however it seems that RIM is stuck in the “Built it Ourselves” mode instead of partnering with the great entertainment giants like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. I was always curious when the Playbook launched why a boatload of content partners weren’t at the table and my gut tells me this was one of the major reasons why it didn’t take off. Hopefully I’ll be surprised when BBX v2.0 officially gets released in February 2012.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
BBX v2.0 will either make or break the Playbook and arguably RIM as well. If this release does not bring thousands of new applications and address what consumers consider core deficiencies (i.e. native e-mail and calendar without requiring a Blackberry) we may be witnesses the company’s Netscape 3.0 moment (send me a message if you actually understand that metaphor). Delaying for a February launch is risky, but RIM cannot afford a misstep and hopefully they’re lining up their partners and developers to make their Hail Mary pass down the field; any further setbacks will cost them huge amounts of yardage with Google, Apple and Microsoft having great offensive linemen.
The initial launch of the Playbook was really messy with confusing messaging. Initially it was dubbed as the “Business Tablet” yet it was available in book stores and Sears – very non-traditional places where businesses look for technology. It came with the “Need for Speed” game, a very non-typical business application. Distribution channels, mixed marketing messages and actual applications collided creating a “who the heck wants this” moment; it’s quite possible if RIM focused on the business segment they could have carved a niche for itself to defend against Apple and Google.
The reduced price for the Playbook is a smart move to clear out inventory and hopefully flood the market giving developers an incentive to port applications to the platform. RIM should consider making the pricing permanent (or increase it just slightly) to keep the market growing and up the ante against its competitors. For $200 or even $249, no once can beat the build quality and performance at those price points; RIM has the advantage of having an eco-system of apps for recurring revenue while Lenovo, Samsung, ASUS have to rely on device profits. This is Amazon’s strategy with the Kindle Fire – come out with a low cost device and drive revenue from content – RIM can play the same game if it can get enough people to its party. For the $198 price I got the Playbook, I’m willing to give the company a chance, but I’d be ranting like a mad man if I paid full price for it. If you picked one up at a similar price, give it a chance and hopefully the party will pick up in February. I’m hoping our patience will be rewarded.