The PlayBook performance is a mixed bag. The dual-core TI 1GHz chip keeps things moving smoothly and steadily, even process-intensive apps and games like Need for Speed Undercover, which conveniently ships preloaded on the tablet. It handles mutlitasking well to a point, but as I described in my first-look review, the available memory limits the number of open and active applications to a dozen or so (more on multitasking later).
The PlayBook takes approximately 74 seconds to completely power on and boot up, which is about 54 seconds longer than the iPad 2. Hopefully future software updates fix that.
One of the PlayBook’s real strengths comes in the form of its Webkit browser. It’s the most complete I’ve seen on a tablet. Pages render in full, quickly and accurately, and it handles Flash elements with ease. Sometimes the touch navigation goes haywire and either ignores a tap or misinterprets it. This is especially true to small dropdown menus.
The battery lasted approximately 6.5 hours while streaming video with wireless on and the screen brightness set at about 70%. That’s not near the iPad 2’s nine-plus hours of life, but it’s acceptable and users can expect a full workday on the PlayBook with average use.
BlackBerry Tablet OS
(Editor’s Note, 3/20/2012: The BlackBerry PlayBook now runs BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0, which includes native email, calendar, and contacts apps. Please read our full PlayBook OS 2.0 review for a more complete review.)
BlackBerry Tablet OS is a brand new operating system built from the micro-kernal-based QNX Neutrino, featuring a user interface designed by The Astonishing Tribe, a Swedish design and technology firm recently acquired by RIM.
Skin deep, everything looks great. The icons are colorful, animations are smooth, and touch is responsive. Apps are broken down into four categories, All, Favorites, Media, and Games, and are accessible as shortcuts on the bottom third of the display. Just above them, taking up the bulk of the real estate, are the active apps. Users can cycle through the apps with a finger swipe, open with a tap, or close by tapping the “x” underneath or swiping the app upward. Just above that, taking up only about a 1/10 of the screen, is the time, date and status icons (orientation lock, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, battery gauge, settings shortcut). A quick swipe downward from the top of the display also pulls up the settings page and a quick swipe up from the bottom of the display pulls up all the available app icons per category.
Overall, it’s simple and effective. With no buttons, just about everything is swipe based. Within an app, users swipe up from the bottom to minimize and call up the home screen. Swiping down from the top pulls down the app options, if any. Swiping to the left or right within an app enables app switching without minimizing or calling up the home screen.
Compared with the other big boys, the BlackBerry Tablet OS lacks the widget support of Android Honeycomb, and users can only manually rearrange apps into one of the four folders, unlike in iOS where they can create their own folders. But power users might prefer BlackBerry Tablet OS when it comes to multitasking because it puts more control in the users hands.
Whereas iOS and Android essentially automates memory and app management, BlackBerry Tablet OS is entirely user controlled. And unlike the other two, BlackBerry Tablet OS will keep apps awake and running, even when minimized. As I described earlier, that can strain the available memory, and the PlayBook responds by closing out apps at random or downright refusing to open the desired app when the memory is exhausted. Users can also set the apps to pause when minimized and activate when tapped, which helps keep things running smoothly.
The operating system also features a basic on-screen keyboard that is not much different from the same found on the Xoom or iPad. The Samsung Galaxy Tab has it beat, however, with its Swype technology and haptic feedback.
Keep in mind that the BlackBerry Tablet OS is still essentially version 1.0, and future updates will fix issues and bring new functions. Remember when you couldn’t cut and paste or multitask in iOS, or record video in Android? Considering that, BlackBerry Tablet OS relatively complete, if not a little rough, and it provides RIM with an extremely solid foundation for future PlayBooks.
The PlayBook supports the standard 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. RIM has confirmed that future versions will support WiMAX, LTE, and other cellular technologies, but for this particular model, users will need to rely on tethering to a BlackBerryfor their PlayBook cellular data connection.
Tethering is actually a nice solution and alternative, assuming you are a BlackBerry owner. Set up involves a simple Bluetooth connection that should pose no issues. However, your BlackBerry smartphone data plan must support tethering or you’ll be unable to surf past a paywall.
Bluetooth can also be used to connect a keyboard or mouse, and I was actually able to connect my Kennsington iPad keyboard.
The PlayBook also supports file sharing to PCs and Macs over USB, or wirelessly while on the same network. Once accessed, the PlayBook will appear as a network drive after a quick and simple driver installation. Over HDMI, users can stream 1080p video and mirror the PlayBook display, which could be nice come presentation time.
Finally, BlackBerry Bridge is RIM’s novel attempt to distinguish the PlayBook from the tablet pack and give BlackBerry owners another reason to pick a PlayBook over the iPad, Xoom or Galaxy Tab.
Through BlackBerry Bridge, users can tether their PlayBook to their handset via Bluetooth, and in doing so, receive a new app category on the PlayBook homescreen fittingly titled “BlackBerry Bridge.” From here, users can access their BlackBerry email, calendar, contacts, MemoPad, task list, BlackBerry files, and a Bridge Browser, which essentially runs the handset browser through the PlayBook. This access is present for only as long as the PlayBook and BlackBerry handset are connected, and it all disappears as soon as the user severs the connection. No information is stored locally on the PlayBook.
For the rest, BlackBerry Bridge works as advertised though can be a bit of a pain to set up. First, users have to install the Bridge software on their handset, and the app is easily and freely available in BlackBerry App World. From there, I found the setup wizard, which involves scanning 2D tags, to be ineffective in connecting my BlackBerry Bold 950 (Verizon, BlackBerry OS 5). After a little bit of troubleshooting, I was able to get Bridge up and running by separately pairing my devices via Bluetooth then running BlackBerry Bridge.
Following set up, the two devices remained paired, and easily reconnected with a few taps after being separated, either from turning off Bluetooth (which I found is a bit of a battery drain), or powering down either device.
Again, once set up, BlackBerry Bridge works great. The email app and calendar are as complete as any other available for tablets, and Bridge Browser is an excellent and sneaky way around traditional tethering charges. The browser also renders pages almost completely – albeit slowly due to the limits of 3G — and is not as stiff as the pre-BlackBerry OS 6 browser so many business users are still stuck with and curse.
The PlayBook ships with the following apps preinstalled:
- AccuWeather app
- Adobe Reader
- Bing Maps
- BlackBerry App World
- Help documents
- Kobo Books eReading app
- Music player
- Music store
- Need For Speed Undercover game
- NFB (a sort of odd Canadian Hulu)
- Picture viewer
- Podcast suitea
- Sheet To Go (Excel)
- Slacker Radio
- Slideshow To Go (Power Point)
- Video Player
- Voice notes
- Web browser
- Word To Go (Miscrosoft Word)
- Video chat
- YouTube app
- Shortcuts to web-based Hotmail, Gmail, AOL Mail, Yahoo Mail, Facebook and Twitter
Missing are standard email, messaging, and calendar apps. RIM claims they are all on their way via an update, which can’t come soon enough. Of course, Black Berry Messenger, email, contacts and calendar are all available through BlackBerry Bridge, but iPhone or Android owners will have to settle on webmail for now.
The app situation in BlackBerry App World is also limited as there are only a few thousand apps optimized for the PlayBook (while I can’t determine the exact number, RIM senior exec Jeff McDowell claimed in January that the PlayBook would have 4,000 or so at launch). There are no decent Facebook or Twitter apps, and both Hulu and Netflix are absent.
At the time of review, standard BlackBerry smartphone apps are also not available. And the PlayBook won’t be able run Android apps at launch, but it will be extremely cool when it does.
Of the apps preinstalled, the Microsoft Office programs are some of the best going for tablets outside of Windows 7 slates. Of the rest, YouTube works as expected, though I encountered some bugs with videos that refused to close, the music store and podcast app have a respectable number of titles available for purchase or download, and Need For Speed Undercover is a fun driving game that really shows off the PlayBook’s processing prowess.