BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 Review

By Nevin Buconjic
For www.digitaladventures.ca 

With the recent launch of RIM’s Blackberry PlayBook 2.0 software update, the device now has integrated/improved email, calendar and contacts, Android support and other features.  Were the improvements enough to make the PlayBook a worthy competitor to Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the NOOK Tablet, and all the other Android tablets on the market?

Since I already own an iPad 2, and a Barnes & Noble NOOK Color (7″ e-reader/tablet) I wanted to compare the PlayBook to my experiences with them.

First Impressions

The PlayBook is sturdy in your hands, and seems to be a good build.  It definitely feels different than the iPad 2 (which I am used to handling).  The PlayBook feels slightly heavier, even though it is a 7″ tablet versus the 9.8″ iPad 2, but the rubber backing allows for a comfortable grip.

While powering on the unit, I noticed it took several minutes to boot up.  I was not sure  if this was a normal occurrence, but I definitely did not expect it.  Being a tablet, I would not expect to have to wait over a minute to boot up — it reminded me of my Windows PC.  After additional tests, I have confirmed that the PlayBook takes over 2 1/2 minutes to boot up.  Compared to the 43 seconds it takes to boot my iPad, this is completely unacceptable.  If this is somehow an anomaly, and not common for other users, please let me know!

The first thing I did upon boot up was entered my email, and social media account information.  This was all accessible from one screen, and I quickly had signed up with each of my accounts.  I found this to be unique, as typically you would login to these accounts through their particular apps or websites.  In this case, the PlayBook used my information to pull in contact info from all of my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts.

I opened the Contacts application and it was already full of contacts — all from my social media accounts.  I clicked on a few to see what information it had pulled.  It was really quite amazing.  The PlayBook had filled in the email, phone numbers, and birth date, as well as providing a brief bio of each person — including job title, and employer.  There were several icons to the right, which when pressed displayed more information pulled from the social media accounts — including recent status updates, shared meetings and common contacts.

It was both interesting and useful to have all of this information at my finger tips — without having to look for it online.  My only reservation was, the application had pulled in ALL contacts from the various social media services.  The problem clearly being — the majority our social media contacts are friends or acquaintances, whom we do not regularly communicate with, and do not even want to.  I did not want most of these “contacts” on my PlayBook.  I hope there is a way to mass delete or filter out many of the contacts — without having to simply delete the connection to Facebook or Twitter.  I will have to investigate this.

Next I tested out the integrated email.  I quickly drafted a test email and sent it to my other account.  No problems here, and the keyboard was decent — it seemed to display all the necessary characters, including numbers — all on one screen.  I did not have to hit the shift key in order to enter numbers, like I do on my iPad.  This was helpful.  I then set up a few meetings in the calendar for good measure.  Within minutes, the appointment reminder popped up on screen to warn me of an upcoming meeting.

My verdict on the newly integrated email/calendar/contacts applications?  I had no complaints other than that all of them could only be viewed in landscape mode — which I guess made sense here…but I am used to being able to choose either landscape or portrait view.  When receiving a new email, the PlayBook beeped, and a red LED flashed as a notification.  This works well, in case you walk away and miss the beep, when you return you will know there is an email or calendar notification waiting to be checked.

Games and Apps

Next I moved onto the BlackBerry AppWorld.  Like many of you, I have already heard that there are not a lot of apps for the PlayBook.  I was anxious to see exactly what was available.  After briefly reviewing the “featured apps” I clicked on the Games tab.  The first thing I noticed was there were three great games being offered for free!  These were Asphalt 6, Modern Combat 2, and Need for Speed Undercover.  I downloaded each one by one.  With an average size of about 450 MB the games took a while to download over Wi-Fi.  While I waited I began writing this review.

I’m not sure how these game downloads compare to my other devices, as I normally download large apps to my computer (wired Ethernet) which was faster , and then sync to my iPad.  It definitely seemed to take a long time, but this could be related to my relatively slow Internet service.

All three games provided excellent gaming experiences.  The 7″ screen provided enough room for decent game play, the graphics were solid and sound from the unit was also high quality.

I then moved onto free apps.  Since Facebook had already been installed, I moved on down the list.  Not a lot looked familiar.  There is definitely a smaller pool of apps to choose from.  But at the end of the day, of the hundreds of apps on my iPhone and iPad, I only use a handful of them.  So is a huge selection of useless apps really necessary?  I think most apps are a novelty, but there are definitely more useful, creative and fun apps available for other platforms, and part of the fun is finding these new apps.  I think this excitement is currently missing in the BlackBerry AppWorld.  This could change, however, as more Android apps get ported over, and more native apps are developed.

Social Media

Everyone knows that social media is very important to mobile users.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube apps are taken for granted.   And new services like Pinterest are popping up each week.  The PlayBook does have a Facebook and YouTube app available.  I could not however, find a native Twitter app or a LinkedIn app.  No problem right?  Both have mobile sites, easily accessible on the Internet.  I fired up the browser and pointed it at Twitter.com — it would not load!  LinkedIn did work fine, however.

Eventually I did get Twitter to load properly.  I’m not sure if it was a Twitter or a PlayBook problem, but the browser did seem finicky — I seemed to have issues loading certain websites every once in a while.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge the PlayBook for not having native apps for all of the social media services, as I am used to with my iPad.  Hopefully as the number of PlayBook/Blackberry 10 users increase in the future, many of these companies will see the need to develop for the QNX platform.

Ebooks

Reading ebooks and other things is one of my iPad’s main functions.  I have apps for the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks as well as other reading apps on my iPad.  I love the variety, and ability to buy books from any of these services (plus I can price shop).  The only official e-reading app for the PlayBook is Kobo (a spin-off of Canadian bookseller Chapters-Indigo).  According to their website, Kobo has over 2.2 million books, newspapers and magazines and because I have purchased books from Kobo before, I know that it is a good service.

But how does the reading experience compare?  I prefer Kobo on my iPad because of the bigger screen, and the page animations — which the PlayBook version does not have.  However, one major advantage of the PlayBook version is the ability to buy books from within the Kobo app.  Apple forced all iOS e-reader apps to pay a percentage of ebook sales to Apple, if purchased within the app — so essentially every company removed their ebook stores from their apps.  Now iPad users must purchase ebooks from each company’s website and then download or sync the to the iPad.  This is somewhat of an inconvenience.

I have already purchased a number of ebooks from Amazon Kindle.  I can read these books on my iPhone, iPad or on my PC.  I assumed I could also read them on the PlayBook, as Amazon offers the ability to read your digital books right on their website.  This should be possible right from the browser on the PlayBook.  Unfortunately, I got an error each time I tried to open a Kindle book!  Not good.

Getting Work Done

The BlackBerry PlayBook is first and foremost geared to the enterprise user, so how well does it do for getting work done?  Well the PlayBook has some advanced features for using it directly with your existing BlackBerry phone — the Blackberry Bridge program allows you to link the devices, share information, use BlackBerry Messenger, and even use your phone as a wireless mouse and keyboard.

With the included Documents-To-Go I was able to create spreadsheets, presentations and Microsoft Word-compatible documents.  You can also edit existing Microsoft Office files.  Adobe Reader allowed me to read PDF files, including books in PDF format.  There were also many work and business type applications available on AppWorld.  I think the PlayBook works as a decent extension of the Blackberry phone, which will be helpful to existing BlackBerry clients.

Overall Impression

So after playing around with the PlayBook for a couple of days, I do think it is a decent tablet.  It is really good at some things, but just ok at others.  I don’t really see it as a fun consumer device.  But then it was initially built for and geared towards existing BlackBerry customers, and mostly business ones at that.

Does it compare to the iPad 2?  Not in my opinion.  There is just so much about the iPad that is better, easier or more fun.  But I think that at current prices — $199 for 16 GB and $249 for 32GB models, the PlayBook is in a different category.  At these prices, the fair comparison should be made to e-readers like the Nook Tablet, Nook Color, Kobo Vox or Kindle Fire.

I can say one thing for sure…the PlayBook blows away my Nook Color.  I got the Nook for Christmas 2010 — just over a year ago.  At the time it was the first affordable color tablet/e-reader — retailing for $250.  You can read my review of the Nook Color here.

The Nook Color, while fun at the time, is quite slow and not very user friendly as a tablet.  A recent OS update for the Nook Color allowed it to use Netflix and other Android apps — but it is still very clunky.  it is simply just really good at being an e-reader.  The Nook Tablet may be another story, but I have not tried one.  My wife now uses our Nook Color exclusively for reading books, and the price has been lowered to $169.

While all of these e-reader competitors are Android-based tablets with 7″ color screens, I think the real difference when compared to the PlayBook is that they are consumer devices made for reading ebooks, and accessing other multimedia like videos, movies and music.  They each have custom interfaces and controlled environments, including limited access to apps.  The PlayBook, on the other hand, is a true tablet — putting work and productivity first, together with media and fun stuff as a bonus.

If ebooks are your thing, you might want to look at the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet, and even Kobo Vox before considering the PlayBook.  But if you are looking for a device which you can use for some work and some play, the PlayBook is a solid choice.  If you are already a BlackBerry user, then this is a no brainer.

On the other hand, if you have $500-700 to spend on a tablet, then the Apple iPad should be your choice.  While there are some limitations with the iPad, I simply can’t think of one  reason other than cost that would make you choose another tablet at this time.

The BlackBerry PlayBook cannot compete against the iPad, but neither can any of the other tablets on the market.  I think RIM realized this almost immediately (as HP did), but have persevered as the PlayBook is more than just a product — it represents  RIM’s future OS platform.

While the PlayBook’s discounted prices may not continue forever, I don’t think any 7″ tablets can be priced at more than $300, to compete.  Consumers have overwhelmingly shown that $200 is the sweet spot for any tablet, unless it is an Apple iPad.

Final Verdict

The Good

  • Compact device -easy to handle
  • Decent battery life
  • Great for multitasking
  • Plays music and video files and music/video store
  • New Android support — I will assume the number and variety of apps will increase in the future
  • Current low pricing makes it a good investment
  • Built-in HDMI for connection to your HDTV
  • Integration of social media services

The Bad

  • Not use to the different user interface, it was not always intuitive navigation
  • Browser issues — problems loading Twitter and could not read Kindle books online
  • Very slow boot-up time — over 2 1/2 minutes!
  • Touch screen response slow — sometimes did not register tapping
  • Smaller selection of apps

Comments

  1. Gary Wylie says:

    I dont know when this article was written but my Blackberry and my friends (we bought at the same time) and my daughter’s boss’s Blackberry tablet all take 2.5 minutes approx. to boot up. So this is not an anomoly. It is a pain in the butt though.

    • Thanks for the comments. I wrote the review in February 2012 right after the OS 2.0 update. Since writing it, the majority of visits to my website have been from Google searches on this topic! So, yes, I guess it is safe to say this was not an anomaly! I’m curious if the boot up was faster prior to the update? Did you notice?

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