BlackBerry PlayBook: Professional-Grade Tablet Contender Or Another Imitation?

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It’s been a while since our first look of Research In Motion’s contender in the newly-sprouting tablet market, and since then we’ve get acquainted with the quaint device and feel out the kinks. In our hands we’ve held the Wi-Fi-only 16GB model.
On face value, it’s a beauty to the eye and touch with its hard, rubbery exterior, small frame and weighty presence. In fact, for such a small device at just 7.6 inches wide, it surprisingly weighs 425 grams (while larger screen tablets like the iPad 2 only weigh up to 600 grams despite their size).

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The interface is beautifully simple, and trumps Apple’s own ‘less is more’ ethos while not limiting functionality. Without any permanent buttons, the PlayBook instead relies on finger swipes that function across the 7 inch screen, beyond the borders. A thick, black bezel borders the screen, and touch controls continue on into the blank spaces.

Windows are opened from one of the bottom categories (like Favourites or Media) and pop up in the middle of the screen. Tens of windows can be opened without slowing the pace of the 1GHz processor, but the PlayBook will secretly close windows you’re neglecting if you’re pushing it too hard.

From here they can be switched between by swiping from right to left (or vice versa) from the border onto the screen. When you’re over it, simply swipe up to throw the app into the abyss. App-specific settings are brought up by sliding down over the top bar. Settings are brought up by ‘peeling’ down over the top corner. The keyboard, by peeling up over the bottom corner. So on, so force. You fall into it quickly, and it’s more intuitive than other tablets once you’re in the swing of things.

 

While RIM has been touting its mini-computers as ‘professional-grade,’ this enterprise-centric focus seems misdirected given a quick comparison to the competition.

Android Honeycomb tablets feature a range of context-sensitive navigational buttons at all times, and a folder system that mimics the Windows PC set up but in a simpler format to suit touch screen computing. This functionality is ideal for document-heavy, business computing.

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On the other hand, the dedicated PlayBook OS (which I love for reasons I’ll look at later) is much simpler, clear-cut and intuitive, with less buttons to take confusion out of the picture. This Apple-leaning direction works a charm for the device, though doesn’t make it much of a ‘professional-grade’ tablet.

This is followed by a lacking file directory. While other operating systems will allow you to traverse files either stored on your device or a paired device, regardless of whether or not you can open them on the device you’re using, the PlayBook will only locate items that can be opened.

That means that if you use the PlayBook even as portable storage, you’ll only be able to look at what you have stored when it’s plugged into a PC (unless you have Wi-Fi file sharing enabled which is a handy feature). It plays out a little oversimplified in this way.

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But for the greater consumer audience that is gobbling up cheaper tablets, the PlayBook seems right down their alley. It’s simple to sync and share content to and from the device, it has long battery life of up to 10 hours that’ll easily last through the day, it’s small and legitimately portable (rather than just being a laptop screen minus keyboard), and the controls are all simple without being restrictive – and it’s cheap at just under $600.

 

Web browsing is fluid and functional, almost a replica of the PC browsing experience. Websites open quickly, run solidly and even Flash content runs as smoothly as it would on PC. The only issue, as with all touch screens, is that many Flash websites aren’t made for touch screens so the ‘mouse-over’ functions don’t work properly.

Video playback is fluid, even when running Full HD content, and the 7 inch 1024×600 resolution  screen picks it up in sharp quality with fairly crisp sound to compliment the picture (mostly only for vocals though). It sports a fair range of video and audio file types too, including popular AVI video files and even low-quality mobile files like 3GP videos.

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The utilities like word processing and spreadsheets are set out like simplified version of Microsoft Office programs, and run the same file types so that everything’s compatible with the home or office PC (a +1 for the ‘professional-grade’ tab).

Typing is breezy and comfortable on the screen, without the need for the large screen size of bigger tablets. Keys are spread out far enough and big enough to make sure you don’t overlap on buttons, and the 7.6 inches of width allow you to hold the unit like an GameBoy and type away with two thumbs relatively comfortably (especially in portrait orientation).

On that note, orientation goes four ways, and has a lock feature if you’re planning on moving around a little and want to keep one direction on the screen.

Connectivity isn’t the hallmark of this Wi-Fi-only model, with no ports apart from mini USB for charging and PC connection, and mini HDMI for mirroring the PlayBook on a TV screen. But then there’s BlackBerry Bridge that is one of the hallmarks.

BlackBerry smartphone holders can rejoice at this point in the review, because they’re given the royal treatment here. As a Wi-Fi only model, there’s no SIM card to grab internet on its own, so you’ll always need to be connected to a source (possibly your tethered mobile connection, thus killing your phone battery).

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The other option is pairing a BlackBerry smartphone with Bridge via Bluetooth, giving internet connection to the PlayBook as well as full access to messages, contacts and file sharing between devices. It basically gives your BB a big and a better platform for email and messaging.

On the downside, you get internet but only through the ‘Bridge Browser.’ This neglects the rest of your apps that don’t get to share the Bluetooth internet connection.

 

It may not be too much of an issue though, seeing as the App World app store isn’t the best source of entertainment and utilities (at least not yet). In that regard, it trails far behind Android and Apple, and realistically you have more business-centric options available on an iPad than the PlayBook.

The only physical buttons are the on/off button, the play/pause button and up/down volume buttons. The volume up/down buttons can be held down to take a screen shot, and the on/off button can be used as a quick sleep button. While we’re talking about it, the on/off button is probably the worst of its kind. It’s too small to depress without using a fingernail, and it’s not nearly sensitive enough. Some things you get used to, but this button is consistently annoying.

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The front and rear facing cameras are high quality, sitting at 2MP and 5MP, and are good for standalone photos in well-lit areas and way better for video calling.

All in all, the PlayBook is definitely a contender in the tablet market thanks to its low price-point (matching the iPad’s Wi-Fi only model) and simple but functional user interface that runs exactly as a tablet should – you could say that RIM beats Apple at its own game here. It offers real multitasking and solid but simple functionality. If you’re looking for a tablet, this should definitely be considered – just don’t buy into all the ‘professional-grade’ talk if you’re the office type.

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