Review BlackBerry Playbook WiFi 16GB Tablet/MID
Professional gamer? Blackberry touts its tablet as a symbiosis of entertainment and work. Is the BlackBerry Tablet OS worth being tied to? After all, that excludes the large selection of apps on the Android Market.
The Canadian company, BlackBerry, advertises its PlayBook as "the world's first professional-grade tablet". That is followed by "Work smarter. Play harder" on the US product page. Now we understand: Boot NFS Undercover during the meeting to play the race game on the backseat of the Porsche with the 6 axis gyroscope. Or is our notion of the corporate tablet user's routine wrong?
Even if the name PlayBook fits to a "pro tablet" like Android to a gaming notebook, we do want to give the almost 400€ 7 inch tablet (16 GB version) a chance. Is the PlayBook a business player like its smartphone colleagues, Torch 9860 and Bold 9900? Or is the target group sooner demanding consumers? Is the switch to the proprietary operating system, BlackBerry Tablet OS, worth excluding the Android Market? The answers can be read in this review.
The PlayBook is a conservative companion with a weight of 430 grams. The charcoal gray, rubberized flipside is completely homogeneous and doesn't have any flashy ornaments. The silver Black Berries on the lid are the only visible tint of color. Nevertheless, the 7 inch tablet makes a stable and well-conceived impression. The screen is surrounded by a little rubber lip that protrudes by about half a millimeter. But we wouldn't put the PlayBook face down anyway. It's nevertheless a practical idea.
Since the case is basically only made up of a homogeneous bottom tray and a screen to close the top, it has a very high torsional stiffness. We can't twist the slim device significantly with both hands. The compact size brings along the disadvantage of a built-in battery, like most tablets. We wouldn't even have the slightest idea about how to open the PlayBook since there aren't any screws. But, the upgrade-eager and tinkerers aren't the target group anyway.
The scope of interfaces is low. In addition to micro HDMI for connecting a TV or flat screen, there is only a micro USB 2.0 port. The manufacturer doesn't include a cable for the latter. The three pin socket beside it is only for connecting the optionally available charging base (Rapid Charging Pod). Last but not least, a headphone can also be connected. The PlayBook doesn't have an SD slot for reading out pictures from the digital camera.
The PlayBook versions currently available in Germany (16/32/64 GB) are only equipped with wifi and Bluetooth (2.1). Too bad, because it seems that the envisaged business mobility won't bear fruit without 3G. Owners of a BlackBerry smartphone can connect the tablet to the telephone via tethering (BlackBerry Bridge) (Bluetooth or wifi) and also use its Internet connection. The latter also allows downloading data via special apps directly from the smartphone. The BlackBerry Desktop software (free) allows a timed backup of all documents on the Window PC.
Multiple users is an issue because the PlayBook's alignment on business AND entertainment brings sensitive data within the reach of children and unauthorized persons. The Tablet OS therefore enables authorization assignments to single software and single users. For example, an app can be authorized to only access the own files. According to the manufacturer, jailbreaking is not possible, i.e. installing Android or starting non-tablet OS apps.
Tablet OS (version 126.96.36.19985 after updating) is a RIM development based on UNIX. More about that in Performance. Version 2.0 is to be released soon under the name, BlackBerry PlayBook OS. It is supposed to support Adobe Air 3.0 and Adobe Flash 11. Runtime for Android apps would also be included then. That would make converted apps (via tools from the App World) executable on the PlayBook.
Unfortunately, we don't find an email client on the PlayBook and thus emails have to be read in old-school manner via the Web browser. Only "Blackberry Bridge" and a BlackBerry smartphone can help here. With this tool from the settings, any email client is allowed to retrieve data directly from the smartphone. A submenu is available when it's set up and shows access to contacts, calendar, notes and mail traffic.
RIM grants a 12 month manufacturer warranty on its 7 inch tablet. That's not much because even the manufacturer's low-priced smartphones get 24 months. RIM doesn't sell warranty extensions for any of its products.
Software and Security
An issue that the Android competition likes to forget is security. As an open source system, Android also has the problem of malware (malicious programs) due to its rapidly increasing distribution and popularity. This is backed by the fact that Android apps aren't only distributed over the official market, but also uncontrolled over various sources. There are anti-virus and anti-malware programs, but does every user realize their necessity?
This scenario wouldn't be an issue for RIM because corporate users (especially in large IT infrastructures) respond touchily to system-related vulnerability. RIM doesn't open the source code for Tablet OS, and the apps are only available in BlackBerry's App World. There are so-called development kits that create the interface to the OS so that developers can program apps.
The preinstalled applications are divided into the fields: multimedia, gaming, business and social media. The apps are crucial for looking at pictures or playing videos and music. A YouTube app and a weather app are installed, but not an eBook reader. Need for Speed Undercover and Tetris are installed for the gaming group.
However, missing apps aren't a problem. They can be found in the App World. Aficionados of the Android market will be surprised about the abundance of applications. We naturally couldn't make a quantitative analysis, but the well-filled categories for all walks of life make a sorted, satisfactory impression. Apparently, the better games are available on the Android Market; possibly because Nvidia backs it with its Tegra platform and has an influence on the big publishers.
A five megapixel webcam is no highlight anymore nowadays. The three megapixel front camera is though. The Sony Tablet S or Tablet P only provide 0.3 MP, for example. Not to mention the iPad 2 with its low resolution of 0.3 MP and the poor depth of focus. The HTC Flyer and the Dell Streak only contribute 1.3 MP to the picture. At most, a low bandwidth stands in the way of high resolution video calls with the PlayBook.
The quality (front and rear) unfortunately lags behind good tablet cameras as in the Sony Tablet P. The pictures have unfocused textures, no matter if with or without zoom. This is also regrettably true for outdoor pictures made in sunlight.
The black edge around the IPS screen seems to be very wide (1.7 centimeters), but it has a reason. RIM has omitted Home, Back and Menu buttons on its tablet OS. For the record, these three standard buttons comes with Android in the lower left. The PlayBook doesn't need them because the same commands can be executed by swiping over the edge:
Wake up from standby: Swipe from the top to the bottom edge (or vice versa)
Switch among apps: Swipe from the left or right edge toward center
Close app: Swipe from bottom to center
Open Menu or app: Swipe from top to center
The virtual keyboard can be operated in the 7-inch format in portrait mode by both thumbs. The BlackBerry smartphone users already have practice with this. Unfortunately, there is no microphone option for speaking a Web URL, for example. The keyboard function crashed once during the test and couldn't be removed from the foreground. A hardware reset was necessary here. We noticed the screen's slow change of direction with a bit of annoyance. It doesn't seem to be the sensor's fault since NFS Undercover shows a responsive control.
The operating system is divided into tabs and categories. The opened apps are always shown on the Home screen in a large thumbnail view (upper limit: 8 simultaneously opened apps). We see the automatic categories Favorites, Media and Games below that. It is merely a filter for all installed apps that can also be displayed bundled as tabs via "All". The tabs in each category can't be relocated. Android 3.2 allows a greater personalization here.
The BlackBerry browser works fast. Scrolling and infinite two finger zooming is easy and clicks are accurate. The browser supports flash and HTML 5. The browser tabs appear when the menu is pulled from the upper edge into the screen. In this view, it's possible to scroll left and right between the previews. Honeycomb doesn't offer this feature.
The 7 inch IPS screen has a very high resolution of 1024x600 pixels (WSVGA). In comparison: 10 inch tablets tendentiously have 1280x800 pixels. Technically, finger input is capacitive multi-touch, as usual. The reflective screen leaves a sea of fingerprints, but that is a drawback that all tablets have in common.
We measure a very good contrast of 780:1 with a black value of 0.64 cd/m2 in maximum brightness. The contrast is high particularly because it has a downright enormous brightness of nearly 500 cd/m2. [08:31:52] Martina Osztovits: If the screen is dimmed, the contrast even increases. This is particularly advantageous indoors, because the light sensor automatically dims the screen in darker surroundings. Consequently, black areas look even darker (white content sinks). The contrast is almost on a par with the iPad 2 (843:1), LG V900 (778:1), Acer Iconia Tab W500 (881:1) and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (805:1). However, Motorola's Xoom (1491:1) is clearly superior here.
The PlayBook's maximum brightness is in a class of its own because the distribution of brightness (95%) and the absolute brightness of 491 cd/m2 are the highest we have ever measured in tablets (and notebooks). The competition can't keep up: Although the Sony Tablet P (369), iPad2 (368), LG V900 (381), Galaxy Tab 10.1 (305) and Motorola Xoom (304) don't have a much lower brightness, they can't hold a candle to the PlayBook.
There's no doubt that the brightness will suffice for outdoor use, even despite the glare type. Reflections remain depending on the sun's position, but they are easily eliminated by changing the place.
The viewing angles are good to very good from every position. The following viewing angle picture from the darkroom doesn't reveal any color deviations, regardless of which angle we look at the screen. However, such wide viewing angles aren't anything special in tablets with high-end IPS screens (iPad2, LG V900, Galaxy Tab 10.1, Motorola Xoom).
RIM relies on an ARM Cortex A9 dual core processor with a clock of 1 GHz. It is the same one as in Nvidia's Tegra 250 range. The latter is a so-called system on a chip (SoC), which unites processor, graphics, memory controller, audio and video de/encoder on a single chip. The platform is called OMAP 4430 in the PlayBook and comes from Texas Instruments. The graphics is a PowerVR SGX540 (DirectX 10.1, Shader 4.1), which is also etched into silicon under license by Texas Instruments.
Our test sample comes with one gigabyte of DDR2 RAM and features a mass storage capacity of 16 GB, which cannot be expand because the tablet lacks an SD or micro SD slot. Thus, if you need a higher capacity, you'd have to go for the 32 GB (489€) or 64 GB model (575€). The extra cost is steep considering that the 16 GB version is sold for starting at 390€.
BlackBerry's Tablet OS is based on QNX, which is a UNIX based system with microkernel. The advantage compared to a standard kernel structure, such as in Android (Linux kernel): An operation isn't processed as a whole, but as a series of smaller tasks (called servers). Third party app developers therefore only have to take care of the relevant servers of their app and not the remainder of the operating system.
An obvious advantage is real multi-tasking, which is also supported by the dual core CPU, 1024 GB memory and the flexibility of QNX. That's not only theory, but also visible. The thumbnails on the Home screen aren't displayed as captures, but continue to run (webcam, video, browser, games, etc.).
The keywords for unlimited WWW fun are Flash 10.1 (Full HD video playback) and HTML 5 (improved implementation of multimedia and graphics). Tablet OS supports both. But that also applies to Android 3.2.
The TI OMAP 4430's performance is located in the back rows of tablets, but it's enough for the top among smartphones. The LG Optimus P920 3D (OMAP 4430, SGX540) manages 47337 points in Browsermark. Our PlayBook, with the same hardware, is present with 43375 points. The Galaxy S2 (Samsung Exynos 4210), also a smartphone, only achieves 35139 points.
Videos and Games
We tried out a range of HD test videos (720p, 1080p) in MPEG4 and WMV formats (as well as H.264 codec). None proved to be a problem for the PlayBook.
Games aren't an issue either - after all, the tablet is named PlayBook. In addition to the installed games, Tetris and NFS Undercover (car race), games can also be found in the App World. The offer doesn't seem as abundant as that of the Android Market. There is particularly a lack of big publishers who offer tablet versions of their games. Rockstar Games, with their remake of Grand Theft Auto 3 (Android only), would be an example.
The Playbook works noiselessly since it doesn't have a fan.
The case gets warm during normal use without hours of video playback or uninterrupted gaming, but hardly ever exceeds 30 degrees Celsius on the rear-sided soft-grip surface. The temperature however increases to 38 degrees during a load scenario, which we induced with a 1080p trailer. But that is only selective. The average remains at a tolerable 33°C. The rubber coating has a higher heat storing effect than plastic or aluminum casings.
The speakers are hidden on the screen's right and left. Their volume is remarkable for a small tablet. Rock music with a lot of bass sounds tinny and faint at maximum volume. Up to a level of about 75%, the sound is fairly balanced, has a small amount of bass and even lets the case vibrate. Interesting: The player stores volume settings for the headphone out and for the built-in speaker separately. That prevents a sudden sound explosion over the internal speakers when the headphones are disconnected.
We use a voltmeter at the 10 watt power adapter of the PlayBook to measure the power consumption. The battery was fully charged for all measurements (can't be removed). The 7 inch tablet only consumes 1.7 to 3.3 watts in idle. The load power consumption of 5.4 watts corresponds to other 7 inch tablets (also Tegra 2): Acer Iconia Tab A100 (4.8W), Dell Streak 7" (5.4W), HTC Flyer 7" WiFi+3G (5.3W) oder Creative ZiiO 7" (6.9w).
The comparatively low standby consumption of 0.1 watts is relevant for practical use. The PlayBook should be able to last for weeks with one battery charge when only used sporadically. Devices, such as the Dell Streak 7", draw 0.8w out of the power outlet (measurement) or out of the battery.
|Off / Standby||0.1 / 0.1 Watt|
|Idle|| 1.7 / 3.2 / 3.3 Watt|
4.1 / 5.4 Watt|
Key: min: , med: , max: Voltcraft VC 960
What runtime can potential buyers at best expect? Our chart shows 12:20 hours in idle (not standby!). That seems like a lot, but is unrealistic due to inactivity, lowest brightness and disabled wireless modules. The PlayBook lasts for 7:07 hours in the WLAN test with low brightness (100 cd/m2) in a mix of website surfing and video clips. The Galaxy Tab 10.1v (9:35) even achieves that as a 10 inch device. The 8.9 inch LG V900 (7:15), the iPad 2 (7:30) and the Motorola Xoom (7:26) are approximately on the same level.
Two 10 Wh lithium ion batteries ensure the runtimes. They are located on the left and right inside the case, and thus the weight is distributed evenly. This capacity is fairly low in comparison: Acer Iconia Tab (35 Wh), Motorola Xoom (24.5 Wh) or iPad2 (25 Wh). The nevertheless good battery life speaks for the PlayBook.We couldn't open the device, but there is an article on silicon.de where the BlackBerry PlayBook has been disassembled.
The BlackBerry PlayBook looks like an alien at first glance. While Android is becoming very fashionable at the moment and the apps for it are emerging fast, RIM's tablet is on the shelves with the proprietary operating system, BlackBerry Tablet OS 1.0.
The PlayBook's strengths are revealed when the user is open for the operating concept and the details of the BlackBerry Tablet OS. The manufacturer hasn't promised too much here. Sensitive edges make the Home and Back button unnecessary and we can switch among opened apps with a swipe of a finger. Android needs two steps and "built-in" buttons for this. The cursor tags allow a more accurate change in text than we know it from Android.
In terms of software, the Tablet OS proves to be a clearly arranged system with a lot of security functions (e.g. application authorization) and synchronization options. BlackBerry's App World is well-sorted, especially in the categories finances, productivity or business. The tablet benefits for the existing BlackBerry smartphone developer community.
Even more interesting, though not absolutely necessary for the efficient use of the PlayBook, would be Android apps on the device. But this will first be possible with the successor version 2.0 of the OS (platform BBX with Android Runtime).
The 7 inch tablet shows itself at its best in terms of measurable mobility. Although the screen is reflective, the brightness of 491 cd/m2 can stand up against sunlight. When the brightness is set to maximum outdoors (ambient light sensor off), it won't be possible to enjoy the seven-hour battery life. The compact, stable case is without flaw and we appreciate the high contrast of the screen.
What are the drawbacks? The manufacturer warranty of 12 months is quite short and it is quite annoying that the timeout can't be disabled. We don't consider the Tablet OS to be a drawback, quite the opposite. Many good ideas were implemented in the BlackBerry OS and future Android releases can learn from these.
BlackBerry smartphone owners will feel comfortable with its handling, since data sharing between these two end devices is possible and the tablet can use the smartphone's Internet connection. In this respect, users don't even have to wait for the more expensive 3G version (not yet in German retail).