BlackBerry PlayBook tablet review: because tablets need their own playtime too
Look and Feel: Hardware
The PlayBook looks almost nothing like the other tablets that are currently being sold on the market, in more ways than one.
The first (and probably also the biggest) difference which caught our attention was RIM's decision to make the PlayBook as button-less as possible. Remember how the iPad has its gigantic Home button situated at the bottom of the screen, while its Android-powered competitors sport an entire row of dedicated, touch-sensitive buttons at that same area for quick access to the OS's various features? Well, you will find nothing of that sort on the PlayBook.
That being said, you must be wondering how users are going to perform various tasks, such as navigating back to the Home screen, or accessing in-app options. And this is where RIM's ingenuity comes into play, for the black borders situated around the PlayBook's display are actually touch-sensitive, and are designed to react to various gestures.
For example, if you are tired of playing around with an app and want to return back to the desktop, all you have to do is place your finger on the bottom of the PlayBook, slide it upwards and you're back in business. Calling up the in-app options menu is done in a similar manner; you place your finger on the top of the PlayBook's touch panel and slide it downwards.
In our opinion, RIM's approach is more intuitive and efficient than taking one's fingers away from the display just to push some buttons situated elsewhere. However, this comes with its own set of consequences; with the PlayBook's display already very prone to smudges, a screen protector and a cleaning cloth are definitely going to be necessities one cannot afford to skimp on.
While most tablets are designed to look trendy and fashionable due to them being targeted at consumers, RIM's PlayBook comes across as a tablet that demands to be respected as a capable, yet no-nonsense device, a characteristic made possible by its styling and RIM's choice of materials used for its assembly. For one, the PlayBook does not have excessively rounded corners which certain OEMs seemingly enjoy abusing as a design template. Instead, RIM has opted to simply smooth out those sharp edges, thus maintaining a certain 'boxy' feel to the PlayBook.
What we appreciated about the PlayBook's design, however, has got to the the use of a matte rubber finishing for the tablet's rear. Considering how most tablets today manage to look more like toys than actual mobile computing tools due to their penchant for excessively rounded edges and bright, and colorful plastic shells, the matte rubber finishing gives the PlayBook a sense of professionalism, along with a touch of style and finesse. Which, in our opinion, is something sorely lacking in the tablet scene today.
By the way, the matte-rubber finish does more than make the PlayBook look nice: not only has it proven itself to be rather resistant to smudges, it also provides the much-needed traction (or friction) needed to ensure that users have a very firm hold on the device, which is good. You don't want your expensive PlayBook to meet an untimely end in the form of a badly shattered display caused by an accidental drop.
Apparently, RIM's disdain for buttons extends to the entire PlayBook, and not just the all-important shortcut keys that are typically located around the display. Indeed, a quick look at the PlayBook's sides reveal that the only physical buttons present on it are those for the On/Off switch, along with three others for use in media playback.
As far as input/output ports are concerned, the PlayBook comes with little more than the bare essentials, namely a mini-HDMI port, the mini-USB port and an additional port which is apparently designed to be used with a docking station. Also present is a 3.5mm jack for audio output, which can be found at the PlayBook's upper right corner:
The PlayBook has zero user-accessible hardware; that means you are not going to be able to open up the device to perform basic maintenance without voiding the warranty under any circumstances. Still, if is of any consolation, you get two cameras to play around with on the PlayBook.
Look and Feel: BlackBerry OS
Of course, having good hardware is only half the equation. For a tablet to stand a chance on the market, its operating system has got to meet a certain level of polish and usability. And from the looks of it, that aspect is probably going to be the last of RIM's worries, especially if our experience with the OS is anything to go by.
Most BlackBerry smartphone veterans will probably take to the PlayBook's operating system like how a fish takes to water, as RIM has taken care to ensure that the fundamental design of the OS remains untouched in the smartphone-tablet transition. Applications are neatly categorized via three main groups, namely Favorites, Media and Games, while the additional BlackBerry Bridge section contains applications which allows a PlayBook user to remotely access his or her BlackBerry smartphone via Bluetooth.
That being said, there are some minor differences between the tablet and smartphone versions of the BlackBerry OS. In addition to the PlayBook's OS being optimized for use on large displays, RIM has also moved various settings up to the top of the Home screen for easier access, as opposed to having users dig for them via the application panel. All in all, the PlayBook's user interface comes across as one that is highly intuitive for most users to adapt to without much of a learning curve.
To facilitate the review, RIM has provided us with a BlackBerry Torch 9800 smartphone that is meant to be used with the PlayBook, as shown below. That being said, this is not a "free gift" of sorts; rather, access to a BlackBerry smartphone is a must if one intends to make use of today's existing 3G networks to to connect to the Internet or retrieve company email. This is due to the fact that the PlayBook lacks a SIM card slot needed to do so, and the only way to gain access to a 3G network will be to tether the tablet to a compatible BlackBerry smartphone that has been loaded with BlackBerry Bridge.
If you ask us, we cannot help but feel that this a very silly requirement to impose on users, especially when RIM is currently positioning the PlayBook as a tablet geared towards business users and existing BlackBerry users/ That is not to say that we do not understand why RIM will opt to make such a decision, but rather, that fact that the company is apparently thinking that business users will definitely own, or are willing to purchase a BlackBerry smartphone just to utilize the PlayBook sounds a lot like a very bad assumption to make.