Review of the BlackBerry Playbook

Playbook, still boxed
This colourful box holds one brand new Playbook

Hardware

Initial examination shows that the Playbook is a compact tablet, with a very sturdy feel and rubberized edges and back. The smaller size, as opposed to the larger iPad or Xoom, makes the device easy to hold in one hand – the rubberized backing helps with this too.

The screen is gorgeous. There’s no other way to put it. The colours are excellent, and the graphics are crisp. It does have a noticeable black bezel, which serves a purpose, as seen shortly.

At the top edge are the only physical buttons; on the left is a small round power button, and just to the right of that are three rectangular buttons that decrease sound volume, start and stop media, and increase sound volume, respectively. The two volume buttons, if pressed at the same time, cause a screenshot to be taken of the Playbook’s display, and dropped in the Pictures folder. Also on the top, at one end, is the headphone jack.

Much attention has been given to the power button. The initial run of the Playbook had the power button flush with the device edge, causing many complaints of how hard the button is to push; it is reported that RIM modified the device to raise the button slightly afterwards. My button is flush, and I have no issue pressing it when needed. The complaints about it seem like petty nitpicking.

The bottom edge has three connectors, one of which is a micro-USB, and another a mini-HDMI. The third is a magnetic dock connector for charging (dock not included). The device can also be charged via the micro-USB and the included charging cable.

The backside has a camera below the top edge, centered. On the front, equidistant from the top center are a notification light and another camera.

Operating System

Playbook initial startup
The Playbook's initial startup isn't exciting, but it works!

The core software is based on QNX, which I had not known about before but apparently powers numerous embedded devices, and so already has some history. RIM is apparently planning new phones based on QNX, so the Playbook seems to be the testing ground for the new(er) operating system.

The interface has a minor learning curve, but once past that curve I was happily working away. As the device only has physical buttons for power and media control, all interaction with the OS is done onscreen. This is where the wide bezel comes into play: it is used for originating “swipes”, messages to the OS to perform a specific action. Swiping actions are:

  • With an app running, swiping upwards from the bottom bezel shrinks the app, and makes the OS main screen visible.
  • Swiping horizontally from the left or right bezels allows switching between currently open apps.
  • Most apps will show their own menu bar when swiped down from the top bezel.
  • Also, when within an app, swiping down and to the left from the top right corner of the bezel will show the OS menu bar.
  • Finally, swiping up and to the right from the bottom left corner reveals the virtual keyboard.

Once used to the swiping system, moving around and switching apps becomes very intuitive.

The main screen has a small menu bar at the top and a “drawer” at the bottom. Tapping the arrow at one end opens or closes the drawer. There are subsection All, Favorites, Media, Games, and Bridge. All is the catch-all, in that all apps appear there. Favorites contains the items that are frequently used, while Media and Games contain media-related apps and games, respectively. The last group, Bridge, contains the Bridge-specific apps, which can be used only when the Playbook is bridged to a BlackBerry phone.

The apps within each section can be rearranged; this is done by pressing and holding on an app icon for about two seconds, at which point all icons in view start pulsating. At this point, each icon will have an ‘X’ beneath it, which can be clicked to delete the app. Also, an icon can be pressed and dragged to another position, or even to another tab. The one exception is the set of Bridge icons – they cannot be deleted or moved to another tab, though they can be rearranged.

Tethering/Bridging

Playbook connected to home WiFi
Playbook is a primarily WiFi tablet - it's very simple get on a WiFi network

Most any tablet these days can be tethered to a cell phone via BlueTooth, and the PlayBook is no exception. This allows the device to make use of the phone’s data plan when wifi is not available. Tethering the PlayBook works regardless of which phone is used, BlackBerry or otherwise.

If the phone involved is a BlackBerry, there is an additional option available: Bridge. Bridge is a feature built in to the PlayBook, and a matching application can be installed on a supported BlackBerry. When the devices are bridged, they are connected via BlueTooth, similar to standard tethering. The difference is that the phone’s contents are bridged to the tablet; that is, the phone’s emails, calendar, contacts, and files are accessible on the PlayBook. When Bridge is active, additional applications are available which provide access to this information, including a bridge-specific web browser to use the web via the phone’s data plan. Bridge essentially provides a larger window into this data on the phone.

Establishing the Bridge connection
Bridge is easy to configure on the phone, done mostly by the Bridge app

What makes Bridge interesting is that the bridged data is kept on the phone – it is not stored on the tablet, and disappears when the connection is broken. This is a plus for security, since personal or sensitive information such as emails and contacts are kept on the phone, instead of creating yet another location where that information can be retrieved from.

Setting up Bridge was pretty simple: I just had to install the Bridge app on my Tour 9630, open the matching app on the Playbook, and initiate the connection. Both devices remember each other, so connecting again in the future is very quick – if the phone is nearby when the tablet is started, they are bridged automatically.

Apps

The device is physically solid, no question, and the operating system is a pleasure to use. But they aren’t the most important aspects of a tablet: it’s the apps that matter. The Playbook ships with a number of useful apps, and many more are available in AppWorld. There are also some apps that are missing.

Perhaps the most important app is the web browser. The web is supposed to be the equalizer between many different platforms and operating systems, so that content can be accessed from any system with a web browser – without the need to build the same app for each possible device.

The Playbook web browser is based on Webkit – it is fast, and renders pages accurately. That said, web content is often not optimized for small screens or finger-driven interfaces, so apps come to equalize things again. An app presents a custom-built interface for consuming web content; the interface is designed to work on smaller screens and be usable by fingers rather than mice or keyboards.

Reading

A Kobo app ships on the Playbook. It is essentially a software version of my Kobo e-reader device. It connects to my Kobo account and lets me download and read any new purchases. This is a redundancy since I have my separate Kobo device, and I prefer to do my reading on that. However, it’s nice to have it available here when the Playbook is close at hand and the Kobo is not. Incidentally, while the Kobo app easily synchronizes to my Kobo account, it does not recognize or load materials from other sources. This is where the next app comes in.

EPUB Player will load ePub books files from any source. This works for me since I have books from other sources besides Kobo. There is one other ePub reader that I’m aware of on AppWorld, but I like this one better. It has an Import EPUB button which presents a list of ePub files in the Playbook’s books folder; when selected, a file will have an icon added to the EPUB Reader main screen, where it can be tapped to read it. When opening a book that has previously been opened, the software goes straight to where reading left off when the book was closed. I have loaded some books from Manning and Sitepoint, as well as issues of phpArchitect and Hacker Monthly. I can read these on my Kobo device as well, but again, it’s handy to have them available on the tablet.

For checking on current news and events, I use apps for Canadian newspapers – the National Post and the Globe & Mail. These were available surprisingly quickly after the PlayBook was released. Even my local newspaper, the Times Colonist, has an app (though the news shown there are usually about a day old).

Media/Social

RIM produced a Facebook app for the Playbook. It’s easier to use than the web browser version. Not much else to say.

For tracking Twitter, I use Blaq, a very attractive paid app.

For tracking web feeds, I purchased Pipeline, which looks good but doesn’t “click” for me. GeeReader is a more useful, and free, feed reader. It synchronizes with my Google Reader account, so reads and stars are maintained whether I’m on a computer or using the Playbook.

The built-in Pictures app is functional. When adding my photos via the Desktop Manager, the directory structure was collapsed to one level, which bugs me a little. Also, the view does not rotate with the screen, so portrait photos must be viewed in landscape mode. Swiping through pictures in a single folder is quite easy, as is navigating all the picture folders.

The Podcasts app presents a pre-configured set of podcasts in a number of categories. Tapping on a podcast icon shows the details of the podcast, and a list of episodes. Episodes can be downloaded automatially or manually. Only the podcasts listed within the app can be subscribed – there doesn’t seem to be a way to add podcasts from other sources online.

Email, Contacts, Calendar

This is another large, ongoing complaint; the Playbook did not ship with built-in email, contacts, or calendar apps. Like the power button, much has been made of this issue.

In my view, the lack of these native apps is not a huge deal, as I don’t need all that information in yet another location; besides, these are all available via Bridge, though that isn’t an option if someone using a Playbook is not also using a BlackBerry phone. The Playbook does include shortcut icons to various internet email services such as GMail, Hotmail, and AOL. I kept the GMail icon and deleted the rest; GMail’s mobile web interface works quite nicely on the Playbook.

Simply put, the weight of this issue depends on what your needs are, and for me, this is a non-issue.

Apps I would like to see

Given my disclaimer above, that the web access somewhat reduces the need for installed apps, there are a few such programs that I would love having on the PlayBook for an optimal experience:

  • Evernote
  • Remember the Milk (the web interface is not finger-friendly)
  • Instapaper
  • Zinio (I think a magazine reader could be one of the selling features of the PlayBook)
  • Google Maps (I don’t like the Bing Maps app, and the Google Maps website is not finger-friendly)
  • Flickr (a specialized app for browsing and managing photos would be awesome)

Niggles

Overall the PlayBook is a nice device, despite the weak software selection. I do have some minor complaints about the device software, none of which are make-or-break issues.

When typing on the virtual keyboard, positioning the text insertion cursor can be difficult – this is one place where the touchscreen interface is a bit frustrating, since fingers are too large to accurately touch a location between letters in a text field. Perhaps when the keyboard is active, arrow keys could be added to the screen, or an onscreen touchpad. Either would help this issue.

Also on the virtual keyboard: the 123 sym key switches the keyboard to symbol mode, where each key press keeps the symbol mode active until it is toggled back. Oddly, the aA key (shift) does not keep the mode active – it switches back to standard mode after each keypress. I wish the shift mode would remain active until toggled back, like the symbol mode – might as well be consistent!

The browser has no feature for finding text on a webpage, making finding specific information more difficult on longer pages.

Ideas

Virtual keyboards aren’t my preference, though the one on the PlayBook works reasonably well. It cold be a neat thing to use the BlackBerry’s keyboard for typing while the devices are bridged. That feature works for Bridge, why not keypresses?

The bottom line: the Playbook is physically solid, has a super UI, comes equipped with useful core software, and works with your BlackBerry phone if you have one. On the downside, the app selection is still weak; I’m not bothered by the lack of native email, as explained earlier, so that particular aspect is not a factor in my eyes. The Playbook is helped greatly by the Bridge feature, which, despite the apps shortage, makes it an excellent companion to a BlackBerry smartphone.