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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

BlackBerry PlayBook Review - 1 month in...

I have an iMac, a Sony Vaio laptop, an iPod Classic, an iPhone and an iPad. These are my personal productivity and consumption items for when I'm watching movies, listening to music or, indeed, writing this blog.

But my workplace is wall to wall BlackBerry and as such I have a BlackBerry Bold 9780 as my smartphone and am now road testing a BlackBerry PlayBook on behalf of the company. I've had it a month, so thought it might be a good opportunity to reflect a little on it's performance, particularly compared to the iPad

BlackBerry PlayBook image from RIM
Look & Feel
I'm not going to provide an exhaustive list of stats here, for those who want that kind of stuff and wooshy marketing videos, head over to the BlackBerry website. Suffice to say that it is smaller than an iPad, at around 7", but still feels as heavy as one. You can't hold it in portrait mode at the bottom like you can a Kindle as you start to feel the weight pull and it quickly becomes uncomfortable.

Also, in a major blunder, BlackBerry have made it a tad too big to fit into a suit jacket pocket. When I confronted RIM about this, they shrugged it off, but everyone I have spoken to has agreed it is a major design flaw and reprehensible that no-one at RIM thought of this. Where it could have scored a point over an iPad was having it more accessible and portable, but because of those few millimetres, it has to be carried by hand or in a bag like an iPad.

It feels a solid piece of kit, and is made of good quality materials. The anti-slip covering on the back divides opinions. Some don't think it feels right, whereas others think it gives a good feel. I personally like it, and it feels less prone to spinning around or off a table like an iPad can (and if you don't frequently spin your iPad around, try having small children make a grab for it whilst on the kitchen table and watch that sucker spin!).

Screen & Sound
The screen is fantastic. The demo video bundled with the PlayBook looks almost 3D and the sound from the stereo front speakers in clear and not at all "tinny". Loading up some more realistic test videos taken on an iPhone 4 in 720p and the screen copes admirably. So for watching movies and viewing pictures it's pretty good.

Like the iPad, the screen is highly reflective - possibly even more so than the Apple device. The finger prints are a real issue too, and the table requires frequent wiping. Perhaps it's the smaller screen estate, but it feels like it gets dirtier quicker than the iPad.

What is not as good by a long way is the touch sensitivity. Ladies with long finger nails beware - you have to give it a really good jab as the minimised contact area due to those lovely nails often renders the PlayBook immobile. Even for stubby fingered individuals, the screen can be unresponsive requiring a good push and big sweep. Apple really do do this well, and RIM have not got this quite in the same league.

Switching between portrait and landscape is a lesson in patience. The quickest it moves is about 2-3 seconds. Sometime it doesn't change at all. Sometimes it flips upside down randomly. Sometimes half the screen is black, the other half rotated. It's all odd, and all very buggy and very frustrating...

Even RIM can't get the damn thing to rotate into portrait!

Unlike the hundreds of thousands of apps on the iTunes store, there are only a few thousand if that on the PlayBook. New apps are emerging all the time, but the bundled apps are few and there isn't much choice beyond them.

You get icons for Twitter, Gmail and Yahoo but these are just weblinks that launch the browser. A new Facebook app has just appeared, and that is quite good, but these almost essential apps missing is poor.

The bundled games of Tetris and Need For Speed are good, and will keep the kids amused for a while.

The Documents To Go suite is included, but unfortunately, is virtually unusable. I've used alpha software that is less buggy. It frequently crashes necessitating a hard reset, doesn't save documents and is generally a nightmare. When it's going, it has some nice features and is probably a richer interface than Pages on the iPad. But Pages is a nicer user experience, and hasn't crashed on me once!

The Adobe Reader app is OK. It is an equivalent of Preview on OSX or the preview app on iOS, in that it is not functionally very rich. It doesn't keep zoom levels when you turn pages in the document, the magnification goes grainy quickly and you can't share via email through the user interface. Again, take your pick of better apps on iTunes (I'm a Good Reader fan), but a quick scan on BlackBerry World revealed very little 3rd party options.

The mutli-tasking aspect is good, and I like being able to spin through small screens of the apps that are running. They aren't just screenshots either, movies continue to play whilst "minimised" in this app "ribbon". RIM make a big deal of this, but honestly, who would want a movie to be still playing whilst you are doing something else?! It can be difficult to swipe across and land on the app you are looking to maximise. I keep missing, requiring tiny little prods to go backwards or forwards slightly. Again, the gesture interface is behind the iOS devices here.

Interface for navigating through apps in nice, but it can be tricky to hit the right one

Browser - and the much hailed Flash Support
The advertising from RIM has accentuated the fact that the browser can support Flash. I find the lack of flash on iOS cause me very little inconvenience. There aren't really any of the 10 or so sites I go to 80% of the time (Amazon, eBay, BBC, The Register, Wikipedia...) that don't work on iOS. It's only if I go off the beaten track, to a hotel website or something, where I occasionally come across Flash.

So I booted up the browser in PlayBook and tried a few sites. The curse of the PlayBook bugs struck again, and my Dad's art website that has Flash all over it sometimes rendered and sometimes didn't. Other sites I found to have similar issues. So yes it does support Flash, but the bugs in the browser mean you get to know the hard reset command real quick!

What is nice if that if you are connected through the BlackBerry Bridge and are surfing the Internet on a train where the mobile signal can fade in and out, the browser pauses downloading pages and waits for the signal to reconnect before carrying on. Apple take note - no annoying messages about signal availability and then a blank browser! This is really neat and makes commuting and surfing a pleasure.

HARD REST - Hold down Vol Up, Vol Down and Power!!!

BlackBerry Bridge
Is it a consumer device, is it a business device. RIM tell me it's both. This is a mistake, they should target one or the other. The business techies don't like the fact you can't encrypt the flash drive (you can in iOS using enterprise tooling), don't like the fact it only has HDMI out (I know of no company whose presentation suites accept an HDMI connection) or the fact you can download any number of apps and they can do nothing about it.

Equally consumers will not be happy that the email application is only available when tied to a BlackBerry Smartphone. It's a bit of a faff, but you have to install BlackBerry Bridge on your BlackBerry phone, then turn on Bluetooth, then setup the PlayBook to talk to your phone.

I got it working after a few goes (again, bugs!) but it is not exactly stable. The longest I had it going was half an hour before the screen froze. In a meeting recently, I went to check my calendar and after two reboots and a bit fo swearing, apologised and opened it on my BlackBerry phone.

The Bridge PlayBook apps don't add much over the phone apps. Sure, they use the screen estate better, so Calendar opens in a week view, but there is no improvement in things like checking availability for booking meetings.

The icons are baffling at the bottom - they seemed to be designed so the user has to guess at what they do. I ended up randomly clicking a few to find out what they did in the end!

It's quite a nice device, but the bugs make it unusable. It is, at best, a beta product and I do not use it for business at present, because it is so unreliable. RIM have rushed out a product to market to compete with Apple, and risk losing their potential customers before they have even got going.

I have demo'd the device to about 10 senior managers in my company. All 10 of them preferred the Apple iPad. I'm sure this isn't scientific, but nonetheless I think RIM have got this really wrong.

BTW, my company is just starting to allow iOS devices onto the corporate network.

The beginning of the end for RIM???

1 comment:

  1. I tried Playbook for 3 days had to send back all 3 devices and ordered IPAD2. the reason was the bridge was disconnecting itself and it was very difficult to re-set it. As if oyu can not bridge with your Blackberry you can not access to e-mails, etc. Believe me, you want to stay away from this device. What on earth these guys at Blackberry were thinking. this is surely a disaster. I did not want to choose I Pad as it does not operate with Flash etc but they have pushed me very hard to do it. As a business customer very very but very dissapointed.