Mobility

BlackBerry PlayBook first impressions: Four pleasant surprises

Most of the technology world has already written off the PlayBook before it's even available to the public. Here are four reasons why that's probably a mistake.

One of the best things that the BlackBerry PlayBook has going for it is low expectations. While the Apple iPad 2 selling faster than stores can stock it, the first big Android Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom has done a belly-flop, which has opened the door for BlackBerry and HP's forthcoming WebOS tablet as iPad challengers. However, most of the technology world has already written off the PlayBook before it's even available to the public.

After having demos and Q&A with Research in Motion's reps at the BlackBerry PlayBook's official launch event on Thursday in New York City, and walking away with a review unit of the final hardware, I think it's a mistake to completely dismiss the PlayBook. While it is still incomplete from an app perspective (which is what most reviewers have latched onto), I was surprised to find that RIM has done a nice job with the overall experience of the product. It has none of the labored complexity of the BlackBerry OS. The experience is simple, intuitive, and ultra-responsive. It's much more like a one-button Apple solution than the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach in Android.

So, my first impression with the PlayBook was a lot better than expected. I think RIM may have nailed the overall experience aspect of the tablet. That's the really tough part, and if you don't get it right -- like Google with the first version of Android Honeycomb -- then nothing else matters. The app issue is the second hurdle, but it's easier to get over. RIM can quickly overcome that just by building some of its own key apps and getting a few key partners to participate (Amazon, Cisco, Citrix, EA Sports, etc.). Then, it can pitch ambititous app builders to get in on the ground floor on PlayBook

The PlayBook still has some work to do, and I'll talk more about that in my full review, but for now I'll give you four things have made the PlayBook a pleasant surprise and given it a chance to compete in the tablet race.

1. The word processor is superior

My favorite app/feature on the PlayBook is Word To Go, a mobile version of Microsoft Word for viewing, editing, and creating simple word processing documents (here's a quick screenshot). I immediately started toying around with this and loved it. I've never found a great word processor on the iPad (Pages and iA Writer are acceptable) and it doesn't have anything that matches the straight-forward usability of this app on the PlayBook. In fact, it's so good I thought it might have been made by Microsoft. It turns out that it was built by the Dataviz team (creator of Docs to Go), which RIM acquired and which licenses Microsoft technology. I could easily see myself writing longer documents and taking notes with this app. The 7-inch form factor of the PlayBook makes thumb-typing a little easier than the iPad and that is factor as well (although the iPad is still better for typing when you can set it on a flat surface).

2. Performance and responsiveness are excellent

So far, I've found that the PlayBook whips through almost every task with speed and smoothness. Even with a bunch of apps open, I've never seen it lag or freeze, yet. In terms of performance and responsiveness, the closest mobile device I can compare it to is the HTC ThunderBolt, which zooms through opening apps and Web pages at near desktop speeds. The PlayBook might be even faster than the ThunderBolt. It's exciting to see mobile devices gearing up to these kinds of speeds.

3. The UI is remarkably simple and self-evident

From a larger perspective, the PlayBook's most important asset is that it's UI is well-conceived, approachable, and easy for a new user to figure out within seconds and without a manual. This was the biggest surprise for me, since RIM has struggled badly in recent years to overhaul the BlackBerry OS. Starting from scratch with QNX and using it to build the BlackBerry Tablet OS has delivered the goods. The PlayBook is a zero button solution that uses two simple gestures for navigation. Swiping up from the bottom of the bezel serves as a home/back button and swiping down from the top of the bezel serves as a menu button. It felt natural within a couple minutes.

4. The Web browsing experience rocks

While the PlayBook lacks the massive app catalog of the iPad -- and is unlikely to ever catch up -- it does offer a better Web browsing experience compared to the iPad (other than the iPad's screen size advantage). The PlayBook browser is more customizable, handles tabs better, allows you to quickly hide/show the menu bar, and is bolstered by the beautifully sharp and bright display on the PlayBook. Of course, the other thing the PlayBook does better is displaying Flash. I don't like Flash and avoid whenever possible, but Flash is still a big part of today's Web and will be for years. BlackBerry's Flash implementation on the PlayBook is excellent, much better than the inconsistent, sometimes-buggy experience of Flash in Android. To give you an example, I loaded my review of Game of Thrones on the PlayBook and started playing the embedded video preview from HBO at the bottom of the post. The PlayBook never missed a beat. I even clicked the full-screen button and it looked terrific on the PlayBook's display.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

32 comments
margokuhn
margokuhn

I just played with it yesterday at Staples. Very impressed! One problem - I was all excited about being able to use my BB phone to go online with it when I'm not near WiFi, but Sprint told me today that it is not included in my "everything" plan and if I used tethering it would set me back another $39/mo. They told me they will have a 4G one for $399 soon and it would be $49/month added on to my plan. OH yeah, and they said it would be 16GB!! What ?! That just really upsets me, since I was ready to go back to Staples and buy it. Now I just don't know. I still really want it, but the tethering to my phone (for free) was the thing that put me over the edge, now that is gone. sob, sob... Oh I saw the Xoom there too and it did not work! It was frozen, non-responsive. Not a good selling point for a demo.

jfuller05
jfuller05

Blackberry hasn't disappointed me yet. I don't have a need for a tablet yet, but if I do buy one, the Playbook will be it.

TENAX
TENAX

and I was hoping i would not have buyers remorse the next morning. happy to report, i don't. my gf has an ipad2 so i've had a chance to play with both. i like the size of the playbook, it setup quickly, looks nice, screen is amazing to look at, sound quality i think, is better than the ipad2. the tethering was simple to set up. in terms of apps, while there are a few i'd like to have that the bberry and ipad2 have, the overall feeling i had at the end was "do i need 650,000 apps like an ipad2? the only knocks i have..the battery life feels short (that being said, i'm not sure i charge it completely before it ran out.) saying that, not sure you can see battery life constantly on the screen which would be nice. and i thought it weird you had to connect to wi-fi before you could complete the setup. given it's a RIM product, i would have thought they would leave it open to setup via either wifi or wireless tether. small beef. all in all, i like it and can see using it on trips with the tethering..a bunch!

billrodman
billrodman

I had a chance to play with a demo unit at Future Shop, here in Montreal. It is a beautiful device with a great user interface. I am curious about how Blackberry is delivering updates to the device. I understand that people who have had review units obtained updates. Will Blackberry handle updates itself. I imagine it can as these devices are WiFi only so they don't need to be associated with a carrier.

mjc5
mjc5

Go to engadget.com They gush over the thing. Got email? Oh yeah, email. If I have a Blackberry I can get email. So what they have is a double buy-in. I have to have email, but I don't like or want a blackberry. No sale, Playbook. Xoom? I tried one. For the price, it felt incredibly cheap, and the interface felt sort of meh. General rant The "me too!" players are suffering from cognitive dissonance regarding their attempts to be "IPad killers". They try to have better benchmarking, open source, rootable, and the like, but they are trying to apply a different paradigm to the tablet world. And generally failing at it. When in fact, one of the biggest reasons the IPad is doing so well is because it is not that. People are looking for something simple and intuitive to use. Updates don't tend to break it. The Windowsworld legacy might have been great for giving computer jockey's jobs, but Remember that person that you love to hate - the customer? They are seriously tired of that world, and who can blame them. They have an alternative now. And us geeks do to.

brian
brian

Hi, I have been loooking for a mobile device on which I can work spreadseets whilst roaming. Most of my IT work is on Spreadsheets. I have not found anyone that can or will offer this capability. Any help out there please. Brian

alawishis
alawishis

Great review. The Playbook sounds very tempting. On the points that seem the most important UI and user experience this in most reviews rates very high. I'm not really concerned about a lack of native email client as this can easily be added later. The other points if missing will almost certainly never be addressed in a device if they are not there from the start.

mcse_consultant
mcse_consultant

It does feel solid, comfortable weight and fast keyboard response. Office Depot is experiencing issues in their stores connecting the devices to their hidden network(no encryption). It seems to be a nationwide issue, so we hope that it is not the device itself, right?.. Will see...

SteelTrepid
SteelTrepid

Prices are still too high on these devices though, that is the only thing that is really stopping me from purchasing it. This is $100 cheaper than the Xoom though so I've been wondering if I should indulge. After reading this great information on it I don't know if I'm going to be able to control myself any longer. I may have to get one!!

trevorcsr
trevorcsr

I like the sound of the screen. I need something I can take with me on the go that can fill in forms and do CAD. Also from a photo create a layer on top to draw on so everything stays in position and scale. Autodesk Freestyle does this and is a fantastic programme but it cannot be used outside of the US or Canada, I am in the UK. Autodesk Freestyle also only works with Windows. I like the 7 inch factor I need the USB and Email linked to my Blackberry I need a stylus for CAD and the Forms I need to be rid of carrying A0 plans and A4 writing pads If this does not do it then please hurry up with a windows tablet and sort yourself out Autodesk.

Greeneyes
Greeneyes

I'm on a budget in that I can only afford one tablet, I've been following the playbook since it was first announced and I'm infatuated with it...everyone is in love with the iPad which is pretty cool ... I need quality more than sparkle ... have an iPod touch and don't use most of the apps on it so not a big issue, ... Playbook says it has major fixes coming ie email 4G etc. Will they be able to add the 4G by a download? Can I copy all types of files from my laptop and pc to the playbook? Why no headphones??? It says it has GPS but does that mean it has software like a gps device? or do you have to do something else?? Going to Europe beginning of May and would dearly love to take one with me especially if it has GPS ... can you help me with my decision? Also why no SD slot????

wcheung2008
wcheung2008

Looks almost the same as the Playbook version.

JJFitz
JJFitz

I like the form factor. I like the speed. I like how it bridges to a BB and displays your BB email and messenger without storing the data. I want a tablet with a stylus to take hadwritten notes and drawings. I also prefer the ability to root my devices. So, I'll wait for something else.

mapsonburt
mapsonburt

in fact when u power it on it goes to RIM and gets the latest sw. Took just over 2 mins for me yesterday. This way RIM can keep them all patched and up to date. I also didn't need a PC to start it.

mapsonburt
mapsonburt

in fact when u power it on it goes to RIM and gets the latest sw. Took just over 2 mins for me yesterday. This way RIM can keep them all patched and up to date. I also didn't need a PC to start it.

mapsonburt
mapsonburt

there are third party apps and RIM will release a client in 6 weeks. If u have a berry today, you have better email access w the playbook than on the phone TODAY.

mapsonburt
mapsonburt

so u can create/edit MS Excel files right out of the box. MS Office support is a key reason I bought it. I can do the same w Powerpoint and Word and thru the HDMI port can put them on a 1080p projector/monitor (ppt can display on the big screen while the PlayBook can display speakers notes (or email/web/instant messaging/camera/etc)

RobertMoore12
RobertMoore12

For the same price as the playbook you can get a Dell Duo Tablet running windows 7. Then all your documents could transfer. The Dell Duo is also a netbook.

mapsonburt
mapsonburt

Email and other apps can be added by downloading (automatically) a refreshed OS. RIM has done 4 in the last 10 days although I expect that pace to slowdown to biweekly now that its generally available. As for 4G, thats a new radio so that'll require new hw just like the iPad. With its support for tethering for any supporting smartphone and bridge mode for blackberrys (giving you access for free), unless you need access without a smartphone, I don't know why you'd want two data plans. it supports USB and also acts as a nw drive wirelessly (shows up as an smb server) on your nw so file transfer/sync is a snap. Its also going to support DLNA over the next few weeks which will allow it to connect to your TV/xbox/ps3/wii and act as a media server WIRELESSLY. This is huge. No cables required to output full 1080p to your TV, monitor, projector. It has a headphone jack so suspect they were recognizing that most people would have headphones w their smartphone already and could save a few bucks. It has full GPS/compass/6 axis gyroscope/accelerometer and comes w bing but you'll see all kinds of free GPS apps over the next few weeks including mine! As for the sd slot I suspect they are trying to protect their margins for the 32/64GB versions like Apple although if you have a BlackBerry smartphone, you can access the sdram on it as well through bridge. I got mine yesterday and am typing on it now.

wolfshades
wolfshades

Purchased the premium version and am downloading it now. This is great - docs2go has been at the forefront of offering Microsoft app versatility on mobile devices for years. And it's the answer to executives in our organization who truly want to use the iPad but have been frustrated at the lack of Microsoft product availability. Which makes me wonder: Microsoft has *got* to be working on some native apps for devices other than the Playbook right?

Ray Burne
Ray Burne

Perhaps you should give a look (another?) to the Xoom. The screeb is HD wide-screen 1280 - 800 pixel and the form factor, while larger, is really ideal for touch typing in the landscape mode. And, you can ROOT the device easily if you wish. Obviously, the Xoom is not a BB, but it is one very nice tablet: excellent screen, great run time on batteries, HD video, dual-core cpu with 1G of RAM. I find it a generation ahead of that "i-thing2" and the price is in the same ballpark. Android will always be more open than i-thing or the BB.

nv1z
nv1z

Interesting you should mention a stylus. Those who adopted iPhone and other touchscreen PDAs could not understand the attractiveness of the Palm Treo 700 series. I had a Treo 700wx for four years and would still have one today except the bluetooth interface was not working properly and I was getting tired of the corded handsfree device that came with the Treo. When I looked to get a new Palm, the dealer said we do not have them anymore. Too bad, because I liked the touchscreen AND Blackberry-style mechanical keyboard. So I went to the first Storm, the 9530, and had been happy with it, except I do not even use the bluetooth anymore. I created my own cradle and mounted it to the dashboard of my work trucks and now it sits there looking like a dedicated GPS device. I would probably replace the Storm with a Torch, except the Torch is not available (yet) with my carrier. So what would be my "dream tablet PC?" Funny you should ask. Picture something like a Torch on steroids (not androids.) That is a tablet-sized device, with a slide-out FULL keyboard AND stylus compatibility. Imagine a touch screen that could be used with the fingers or a stylus!

johnmckay
johnmckay

It would be good to get a reason for that statement. I rooted my HTC to get tethering for other devices. It would be good to know why you'd be looking to root this and what benefits it would bring to us. Me... I want one from work if possible (I'm a Blackberry Torch devotee). If it's my money, and strictly social, I like the look of that Acer transformer. USB, SD, HDMI.... answers all my problems with ipad and itunes total tether.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

The HTC Flyer (a.k.a. HTC EVO View) may be the right fit for you.

mapsonburt
mapsonburt

The duo doesn't fit in your jacket pocket and takes minutes to boot and isn't instant on like a tablet. The PlayBook has the FULL web access, not a mobile subset so no need for a netbook.

JJFitz
JJFitz

it does not fit my needs. It is too large and it does not accept fine stylus input. I know you can root it but rooting it to will not make it fit in my cargo pants pocket. :)

JJFitz
JJFitz

It's called a Windows Tablet PC. I have a Windows 7 Tablet PC that accepts finger or stylus input as well as mouse and keyboard. I use it every day. The only drawback is that it is not instant on.

JJFitz
JJFitz

1. Abitlity to make images (for backup) 2. Improve performance (speed) by overclocking the processor. 3. Ability to install custom themes / mods 4. Ability to install apps that require root access 5. Ability to enable tethering (although I don't tether because I have a Mifi card) 6. Because I own it and I should be able to use it whatever way I want.

JJFitz
JJFitz

I just think a stylus makes so much sense.