I suppose it's fitting that I should be the one to write our PlayBook review. Before Android and the iPhone, there were two mobile platforms/devices that I was hugely fond of: the Palm V and my BlackBerry. In fact, it wasn't until the iPhone that I finally let go of my last BlackBerry - moving on from the email era into the smartphone age.

Today's BlackBerry is of course very different than the devices I used in college. And the PlayBook is unlike anything RIM has ever done.

I don't believe any tablet maker has perfected the formula just yet. I made that abundantly clear in our review of the iPad 2. While you can't argue that Apple is the forerunner in the smartphone based tablet space, over the long term I still believe this is anyone's game. Remember, the leaders in the early days of the PC industry weren't the ones who ultimately dominated the mature market.

What follows is our review of RIM's first attempt at building a tablet. The PlayBook is far from perfect, but there's a foundation here that can be built upon if RIM has a good roadmap and good execution. And if you're a BlackBerry user, there's a lot of synergy to exploit.

BlackBerry PlayBook Pricing Comparison
  16GB 32GB 64GB
WiFi $499 $599 $699

Let's get to it.

The Hardware

If we view the primary difference between the first and second generation of smartphone based tablets as being ergonomics and performance, the PlayBook falls squarely in between the two.

At 10mm thick the PlayBook (7-inch display) is more iPad 1 (9.7-inch) or Xoom (10.1-inch) than iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 8.9, but what RIM lacks in thinness it makes up for in overall size. The PlayBook is an almost-pocketable tablet. Bigger than the 5-inch Streak and even bigger than the 7-inch Galaxy Tab, the PlayBook isn't a pain to port around. The PlayBook is small enough to snugly fit inside the outer pocket of a long men's winter coat or a lady's purse. While I definitely don't carry my iPad everywhere, if it were more functional I could see carrying the PlayBook with me more often than any other tablet.

The PlayBook's styling is modest, even for BlackBerry standards. The front has a single BlackBerry logo along the bottom bezel and a visible camera lens but that's it. Around back you've got RIM's logo, a larger lens for the rear-facing 5MP camera sensor and a sea of black.

The only buttons on the device are along the top of the PlayBook: power, volume down, pause/play and volume up. The power button is flush with the surface of the PlayBook's edge. You basically need a pointy finger nail (which I typically don't have) to press it easily and as a result the power button was pretty much useless to me. If you can manage to hit it the power button will lock the PlayBook, otherwise you'll have to leave the tablet idle until it automatically goes into standby. RIM tells me that final versions of the PlayBook will have this power button raised by 0.8mm, enough to make it easily clickable.

Press and hold the power button and you'll be greeted with a PC-like choice to either power off the PlayBook or restart it. I'm not sure how frequently RIM expects you to do the latter, but when testing it's a nice feature to have.

The volume up/down buttons work as expected, although the volume level itself doesn't seem to be very linear. There's a single 1/8" headphone jack up top, near a port for the PlayBook's microphone.

The PlayBook features a pair of pretty loud stereo speakers on the front of the device. Being used to the iPad's single speaker, the PlayBook's two speakers are nice.

Charging is always an issue on these USB devices. You can take Apple's approach and charge over USB, which unfortunately can take a while to fill up a tablet's battery. You also run into issues with older computers that don't support the USB Charging spec, resulting in charging-only-while-sleeping like the iPad. Then there's Motorola's approach with the Xoom where you don't charge over USB but have a dedicated port for an AC adapter. Charging times are significantly reduced but now you need to carry around an extra adapter with you wherever you go. RIM arrived at what's quite possibly the best solution. The PlayBook will charge over USB and it also features a higher amperage quick-charge port for use with some of its accessories.

The battery is of course not removable and there's no USB port or SD card reader.

The Form Factor

The PlayBook is only slightly larger than Samsung's 7-inch Galaxy Tab and maintains the same 7-inch screen size (albeit with a functional border around the screen). Given my complaints about current tablets not being incredibly portable compared to a smartphone, you'd think that I'd love the PlayBook's form factor. To be honest, for portability, I do.

Tablet Specification Comparison
  Apple iPad 2 BlackBerry PlayBook Motorola Xoom
Dimensions 241.2mm x 185.7mm x 8.8mm 194mm x 130mm x 10mm 249.1mm x 167.8mm x 12.9mm
Display 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 7-inch 1024 x 600 10.1-inch 1280 x 800
Weight 601g (WiFi only) 425g 730g
Processor 1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9) 1GHz TI OMAP 4430 (2 x Cortex A9) 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 (2 x Cortex A9)
Memory 512MB 1GB 1GB
Storage 16GB up to 64GB 16GB up to 64GB 32GB + microSD card
Pricing $499 up to $829 $499 up to $699 $599 - $799

While I'm almost never tempted to bring the iPad with me when I'm going around town, the PlayBook is a far easier sell. It's almost pocketable (and actually pocketable if I'm wearing a big jacket) and isn't too heavy.

From top to bottom: Amazon Kindle 2, BlackBerry PlayBook, Apple iPad 2

Even when I'm not out and about, the PlayBook is quite usable as a content consumption device. In portrait mode fonts are a bit too small for me to read comfortably on the couch but in landscape it works well as a reddit browsing machine.

It's in the couch-lounging usage model that the PlayBook does fall short of the iPad or Xoom. But in terms of portability the PlayBook is clearly a much better balance of functionality and mobility. If you read between the lines you'll come to the same conclusion I have: neither the PlayBook nor the iPad is the perfect form factor for a tablet. Further more, I'm not sure there is a single perfect tablet form factor.

Apple tends to be a one-size-fits-all company when it comes to iOS. You want a smartphone? That'll be a 3.5-inch screen on an iPhone. Want a tablet? 9.7-inch iPad. It's interesting given how carefully Apple selected its four notebook sizes: 11, 13, 15 and 17-inches.

Clockwise: Apple iPad 2, Amazon Kindle 2, BlackBerry PlayBook in Convertible Case

Ultimately I don't think tablets will fall into the one-size-fits-all category. Instead I believe they're ultimately headed for some sort of a convergence with netbooks or notebooks. Today that's difficult to see because they lack a common hardware ISA, OS and even apps, but you don't have to look too far into the future to see those problems going away.

While I appreciate the PlayBook's portability and would definitely carry it around more than an iPad, it's not as nice to use laying back on a couch. The screen is too small to comfortably read in portrait mode and even in landscape things can get a bit cramped.

RIM's market research shows a clear preference for portability, hence the PlayBook's introductory 7-inch form factor. However RIM also pointed out that the BlackBerry comes in all shapes and sizes, indicating that the PlayBook would ultimately be available in different form factors as well. RIM also indicated that the 7-inch PlayBook may not be the smallest size offered either. Clearly RIM views the tablet market much like the notebook market: there will be ultraportables and there will be workhorses, with tons of choice in between. The 7-inch PlayBook is merely a starting point. Assuming RIM can fund the projects, we'll likely see both larger and smaller siblings in the future.

A Functional Bezel
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  • gentrfunk - Saturday, April 16, 2011 - link

    Hi Folks,

    Anyone have any info on how messages are passed back and forth between the kernel? I'm interested in the fact that microkernel systems typically had problems in some cases locking up the cue with multiple rapid input (e.g. mouse clicks, etc)...

    any thoughts?
  • mavricxx - Tuesday, April 19, 2011 - link

    The thing about this tablet is that you gotta give it time to mature. Right now is at its infant state where there are little apps, and the software is still being refined. I will say that the best thing about this tablet that sets it apart from Android is that you won't have different iterations of say Honeycomb 3.0 and having to wait forever for updates. One good thing RIM has going for it is its reputation for kicking out updates. Hopefully, it kicks it in turbo and lots of GOOD apps start coming out. Another thing I'd like to point out that NONE of the reviews have applauded RIM for is the standard MicroUSB charger which all phones use now a days. This is a big deal as if you happen to lose your charger its no big deal. I hope to see a lot of cool and useful gadgets for this device as well. One major thing I see that RIM screwed up besides the whole email/calendar/contacts thing was the absence of expandable memory; Had they added a FULL size SDXC card support they would have blown this thing to another level. A couple of things I'd like to see with the upcoming updates are: Free turn-by-turn Nav, universal search and maybe some full free FPS(Call of duty)/racing(need for speed)/action(Grand theft auto)/RTS(Company of heroes) games to make this thing worthwhile to buy. Lastly, I think RIM could have made this thing more desirable to purchase as well by including headphones, USB adaptor and an HDMI adaptor.
  • worldbfree4me - Tuesday, April 19, 2011 - link

    This year, Tablets will probably be only 2nd to HDTV's in Black Friday advertising. I like my iPad 1, but it is lacking in a lot of areas. I think that the features I crave on the HTC View (Stylus Input), Black Berry and HP WebOS (Bridge), and True Multitasking will eventually find their way onto the rest of the pack and by this time next year we will finally see complete Tablets with I/O galore (HDMi Mirroring,USB 3.0, BT 3.0, MicroSD etc). With Amazon leading the Cloud Storage Charge, on device storage will become not so this keeping retail prices nominal. Even right now because of my distrust in Apples’ walled garden. I have no Music or Videos stored locally on my iPad. Sugar Sync, Evernote, Drop Box, and of course Gmail rounds out my storage albeit virtually.

    Thanks for another great analysis!
  • mblair - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    The RIM playbook is a game changer. The slick, easy to use interface and true multi-tasking make it a dream to use. Its Flash execution is flawless. I was surprised how many times I needed Flash. It made my Ipad almost useless some of the time.

    The best feature for me is Blackberry Bridge. A Wi-Fi tablet but with my blackberry in my pocket and Bluetooth, I can operate 3G. I can't do that with my Wi-Fi only Ipad! And I don't need two user accounts or an extra monthly fee.

    It did not take me long to get used to the Blackberry paradigm. Now I take it everywhere, it is small enough to be truly portable. Battery life is OK, not spectacular but pretty good. The video rendering is world class.

    I use gmail so the browser is all I want or need most of the time. I have my Blackberry for email from work and when tied to the Playbook I can use the larger screen seamlessly. The Playbook gives me all I want.

    Good bye Apple. It has been a slice.

    I love it. I have given my son the Ipad. He wants a Playbook. Maybe later.
    Michael Blair
  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    This is a screenshot from a flash game running on IE9: http://grab.by/9WxQ

    There are huge gray sections that are failing to render or whatnot. The sections grow over time. It looks really bad. This doesn't happen on firefox. But the game does run faster on IE9, for whatever that is worth... obviously not much.
  • exprimarelibera - Monday, July 18, 2011 - link

    I bought one today, more than four months after this article and still no email application available. I'm pretty disappointed, after all that's what made RIM what they are.

  • No Netflix Streaming - Sunday, November 27, 2011 - link

    This tablet DOES NOT STREAM NETFLIX. The Netflix app only queues discs. Contact Blackberry Before You Buy and Demand a Netflix Streaming App.

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