BlackBerry PlayBook: Pre-Release

BlackBerry Playbook

The people at Research in Motion (RIM) / BlackBerry gave me a demonstration and let me play with a pre-release version of the upcoming Blackberry PlayBook, which is their entry into the tablet computing market which is dominated by the Apple iPad, but also inhabited by a scattering of Android based tablets.

I’ll mostly be writing about the user experience and how it relates to me personally, as you can already get the technical specifications on the Blackberry website, and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen them.

I’ve been looking forward to the PlayBook. I’ve used the Apple iPad quite a bit, and although it’s a fun toy, I don’t find it overly useful. However Apple did push the tablet market significantly forward in a way that Microsoft and companies such as Toshiba never really succeeded in.

Going into the PlayBook, I had a few areas that I was interested in, but mostly the ‘Blackberry Bridge’ feature which allows you to connect the PlayBook to your Blackberry phone through Bluetooth. With this, you can access and use your calendar, E-mail, SMS and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) messages, and have it all synchronised between the two (while connected). To me, this is what will be the killer app for the PlayBook, which no other system has. This is the feature that will have you coming back to use the device all the time.

For corporate IT networks, such as where I work, the iPad is a pain as the IT policy won’t allow for e-mail to get to it without being forwarded or delegated to a secondary external e-mail address (the joys of Novel Groupwise), and then setting the iPad to check that other address, which introduces a number of other problems, including that you can’t just hit the reply button, as the IT department wont fix a setting on the Groupwise server so that delegated or forwarded e-mails arrive somewhat transparently. Instead they arrive as if they were sent from your own e-mail address.  It’s maddening, although some of the reasons for the lack of interoperability are apparently security related.

Groupwise web access also barely works on the iPad without using the basic interface option, which doesn’t impress. Although I didn’t test this feature on the PlayBook, the whole point is that you wouldn’t have to use it at all, as everything would just natively work through the calendar and e-mail applications on the device.

In networks such as this, the inbuilt compatibility with the existing Blackberry Enterprise Server and Blackberry phones make the PlayBook truly “Enterprise Ready” – which is exactly the line that Blackberry have been pushing.

The size of the PlayBook is significantly smaller than the iPad, with a 7 inch display compared to the 9.7 inch display of the iPad. Until I saw the PlayBook I was a bit concerned about whether it would be too small, and other tablet users have spoken with me about that as well. The Playbook can easily be held with just one hand, which you really can’t do all that effectively with the iPad, leaving your other hand to operate the device.

The PlayBook also has industry standard Micro HDMI and Micro USB ports, meaning you don’t need proprietary adapters and cables, locking you into the Apple ecosystem, and similarly you don’t need to use a program like iTunes when connecting your tablet to a computer to transfer files. The Blackberry rep that I was speaking to informed me that if you plug it into a computer, it will show up as another drive, keeping your tablet independent of a computer – just like it does on you Blackberry phone.

Battery Life

Battery life of the pre-production version is an issue that has been talked about on the net quite a bit.  The Blackberry rep wasn’t really able to state any numbers on the battery life as it’s not yet a production model.

Application switching

Works similarly to how you would switch applications in Windows, allowing you to see images of all of the applications that are active.

Media capabilities

The PlayBook works with a number of different media formats. The Micro HDMI also lets you output 1080p to a TV or other display device. This would have been nice to have when I was at uni, rather than carrying around a laptop all day for a powerpoint presentation.

Storage

I was told that it would be available in at least 32 GB and 64 GB versions. Unfortunately there is not an SD Card port, which would have been nice.

Internet browsing

Works with Flash. Other than that, it’s a pretty standard tablet browsing experience with the usual pinch to zoom functionality. It all works pretty nicely, and you’re also able to aspect lock the PlayBook to either portrait or landscape through a software control.

Internet Connectivity:

Right now,  Internet connectivity can be achieved either through WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, as well as through a Bluetooth connection to a Blackberry phone and out to the Internet through your data plan on that. There are ways around this, such as using a portable 3G WiFi hotspot such as a ‘MiFi’, although it’s a bit of a clunky workaround, requiring a separate device and another device charger and battery to worry about.

Blackberry have also announced that there will be a 4G LTE version out in the USA by the end of 2011, although who knows when we’ll see that in Australia. LTE is being rolled out in the USA by Verizon and AT&T in the 700 MHz band, although there is a global effort to standardise on certain frequencies including 1800 MHz, which is what we’re looking more likely to get in Australia, although there is still a battle with the Telco’s and the ACMA against the national railway network which holds a licence for a significant chunk of 1800 MHz spectrum. In either case, LTE will not be available by the end of the year in Australia and there has not been any mention of the 4G version of the PlayBook also having 3G compatibility, nor has there been any public announcement of which frequencies it will be compatible with.

Should you buy the Blackberry PlayBook?

If you’re an existing Blackberry phone owner and you want a tablet device, yes. There would be little point in buying an iPad, particularly in a corporate environment. If you like the idea of all of your messages being available on your tablet, then there is no other tablet for you.

If you’re not a Blackberry user, you may just like the smaller size and portability of the PlayBook. If you’ve ever used an iPad on the train, you were probably sitting down at the time as you really need 2 hands to hold it with, or to rest it on your arm somehow. With the PlayBook, you could easily hold it with just one hand and scroll through whatever webpages or messages or watch a downloaded TV show. The extra portable WiFi device may be a hassle for you, or it may just push you over the edge to buy that shiny new Blackberry Torch as well.

Originally posted on 14 March 2011

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