Monday, August 8, 2011

Blackberry PlayBook: Some hits, a few crucial misses

1Ghz dual-core processor, 7-inch screen (1024x600 pixels), 1GB RAM, HDMI out, Wi-Fi (no 3G option), 16GB internal storage (32GB and 64GB also available), 5MP rear camera, 3MP front camera

Tablets are the future. And, everyone wants to have a slice of this future. When Apple released iPad last year, few thought it would become such a huge phenomenon. But After the device's success, nobody wants to be left behind.

Companies like HTC, Acer, Samsung and Viewsonic have thrown their lot behind Android. Some others have decided to shoehorn Microsoft's Windows 7 in a tablet, hoping the success enjoyed by the OS on desktops will attract some attention to their unique offerings.

RIM, the company that makes BlackBerry phones, had other plans. Even though Android seemed tempting, it decided to build a new OS for its tablet. RIM bought a Canadian company in April 2010.

A few months later, it announced PlayBook, a tablet using an OS based on QNX, which was developed by the Canadian company. PlayBook is out in the market now. And, from the looks of it, is seemingly different from Android-based tablets or iPad. We dive deep to see if it succeeds where other iPad-challengers have failed.

What's good
As far as looks and feel go, PlayBook is standard affair. Unlike iPad, it's a 7-inch tablet. The smaller size and lesser weight (425 grams) make it more portable. The construction is all plastic - glossy around the screen and covered with soft rubber on the back. It feels nice to touch but is neither sturdy nor inspiring.

Screen is adequately bright with decent viewing angles and colours. However, where the tablet really stands apart from competition is in:

Multitasking: Both iPad and Android tablets - particularly iPad- are designed for single-window usage. There is multitasking in iOS and Android but it's rudimentary. PlayBook tries to pull one up on its competitors by offering better multitasking. And how does it achieve this? PlayBook puts the empty space on bezel around the screen to good use by making it part of the touch interface.

There are two ways to switch between apps. Swiping on the bezel from below will open a thumbnail strip of active apps - something like Alt+Tab on Windows 7 - and you can switch between apps. Or you can swipe left or right using the bezel to go back and forward through active windows. It's all pretty neat and is enough to make a considerable difference to the tablet experience in a good way.

Browser: Browsing on PlayBook is another area that is significantly better than the one offered by other tablets. Compatibility with the Web is superb - Flash is well supported - and switching between tabs is easy. There is no tabbed browsing like the one offered by Honeycomb browser on Android tablets, but PlayBook's way of switching between open tabs feels decent enough.

Multimedia: RIM may have made its name by selling BlackBerry phones, which are aimed at business users, but in PlayBook it has left no stone unturned to provide a decent multimedia experience.

Most of full HD (1080P) videos will play fine on PlayBook irrespective of their codecs. There is no need to juggle between file formats or change resolution. Speakers are very loud - it's a good thing - and support for HDMI port means you can connect PlayBook to your HDTV and play videos on it without much shenanigans.

... And what's bad
Surely, no device can be all goodie-goodie. All, iPad including, have flaws. The real question is how much of these flaws really affect user experience. PlayBook has some fantastic features. Unfortunately, its flaws are equally glaring. Let's get down to them:

Lack of apps: A tablet, or for that matter any computing device, is as good as its ecosystem. Despite all that is good with QNX operating software, PlayBook is too crippled by the lack of meaningful apps.

No, we are not talking about an app store that has gazillion apps and can match Apple and its iPad. It's a tall order that even Android tablet are finding difficult to match. The problem with PlayBook is that it doesn't even come with a Twitter or Gmail app. Hello RIM, we know PlayBook has a fantastic browser but putting web shortcuts to Gmail and Hotmail as apps is not really the best way to go about it.

Relies too much on BlackBerry: Apart from shortcuts, another trick that RIM uses to make PlayBook more appealing is Bridge, which allows users to connect to BlackBerry phone - if it runs OS 5 or above - to PlayBook.

With Bridge, users can access their BlackBerry mails, documents, data, etc, on PlayBook. Through Bluetooth, they can also share the phone's internet connection with PlayBook. All this is neat stuff. The problem is that PlayBook relies too heavily on it. If you don't have a BlackBerry phone, you have no mail or calendar app on PlayBook.

Hint of lag: For some strange reasons, QNX user interface is not always smooth. It has nothing to do with the hardware because if the device can play 1080P videos and handles multi-tasking with 10 apps effortlessly, it can definitely manage some animations and UI effects. This lag is not a deal-breaker and we are sure RIM will take care of it in subsequent updates. But currently it is there.

Other stuff
The onscreen keyboard is average. There is no autocorrect but spell check is present. Keeping in line with other tablets, there is a 5MP rear camera on PlayBook. Pictures and videos captured through this camera are above average for a tablet.

PlayBook comes with Bing Maps. In real-life use, we found it to be worse than Google Maps. Bing Maps may work well enough in the US but it would have been nice had RIM used Google Maps or service of some Indian-specific map provider like MapMyIndia here.

Battery life is below average, with our test unit struggling to last from morning to evening, without any charging under heavy to moderate use.

Sum of it all
PlayBook is RIM's first stab at the tablet market. For a newcomer, or maybe because of it, RIM does a lot of interesting stuff with it. Some of it works, some doesn't. Had RIM managed to get the ecosystem in place and a few basic apps going, PlayBook (16GB) could have been a very sweet deal at Rs 27,000.

But in its current state it will appeal only to those who already have a decent BlackBerry phone and for some reason don't want to buy an iPad 2 or an Android tablet.