Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Two Weeks with the BlackBerry PlayBook

I picked up a 16GB PlayBook on Tuesday April 19th when they went on sale. I was travelling on business at the time so I was eager to add the PlayBooks capability to my toolkit while on the road. The first thing I noticed was that to set the PlayBook up out of the box all you need is a power outlet (to charge the battery) and a Wi-Fi connection. During set up a large update is downloaded and installed, and you are walked through setting up a BlackBerry ID (if you don't already have one). Your BlackBerry ID identifies you to AppWorld, and the VideoChat application (more on this later).

Personally, I don't think there is much to be gained in comparing the PlayBook to the iPad, but since that seems to be the current fad, here are the major differences I see between the two. I only have access to a first generation Wi-Fi only iPad, so that is the basis of my comparison. You will have to decide for yourself which device wins (if any) for each item:

  • Size. The PlayBook has a 7.1 inch 16x9 touch screen, the iPad a 10 inch 9x4 touch screen.

  • Battery life. The PlayBook being smaller has less volume available for battery, and has a more powerful processor than the first generation iPad. So the iPad has a longer life, but the shorter life of the PlayBook hasn't been an issue for me yet. Power has always been available before I needed it.

  • Software maturity. The iPad has a good head start in this department. So far I have received two major OS upgrades for the PlayBook. There are more applications in AppWorld each time I look, and I have found a number that are useful for work already.


I like the smaller size of the PlayBook. It is easier to carry around than the iPad which is nearly as large as my Dell Mini 9 net-book. I rarely, though I will admit occasionally, wish for a larger screen; but for the most part I find I am much more likely to have the PlayBook with me when I need a tablet platform that I am the iPad. Feel free to disagree with me on this point, it is purely a matter of personal preference.


This is where RIM has taken a real beating during the release of the PlayBook. Yes, the software is not 'finished' in that there are a number of core applications one would expect to find that aren't there yet. Many reviewers have suggested that RIM should have delayed the introduction of the device until the software was 'finished'. I am personally glad they didn't because I can be productive with the device the way it is today. They may have gotten a better reception had they waited until the summer to put the PlayBook on sale, but then I (and others like me) would have been denied the use of the thing for that long. So, what can you do with it out of the box today? This is with OS version (the latest). And let's leave the Bridge to one side for the moment.


The PlayBook supports modern dual band Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Using Wi-Fi you can, of course, connect through a hotspot to the Internet. Using Bluetooth you can tether to any phone supporting the Bluetooth Dial Up Networking (DUN) profile to provide wireless access to the Internet. Extra data charges may apply for using this, so check with your carrier.


The PlayBook comes with a Web-Kit derived web browser that provides full Flash support and multiple tabs. The browser renders very fast and has a fairly intelligent zoom feature that will zoom into one logical 'region' when you double tap. This is a much more usable zoom that what seems like a random zoom I've seen on other devices.

There is video chat, a picture viewing application, music and video players, calculator, clock, voice notes, Adobe reader, Slacker Radio, National Film Board, a Podcast aggregator and built in web short cuts to Bing, YouTube, Twitter, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and AOL Mail. These all perform as one might expect. There is a music store application that is tied to Amazon, and a Kobo Book reader application that will download your Kobo library if you have one. There is also Need For Speed Undercover (a PlayBook specific version of Need For Speed), and Tetris. Oh, and at BlackBerry World, Angry Birds for PlayBook has been announced.

So far I have installed the CBC News, Globe News, TechCrunch and Netting (a network diagnostic tool) applications. For fun and relaxation I've also installed QickXKCD (for thrice weekly XKCD fix), Spider Solitaire, Scroodle (a blackboard app), Piano, DoodleBlast (a very intersesting game), Elemental (a periodic table of the elements), Ridgid Digital Level, Waterwheel (a waterwheel simulator based on a Lorenz attractor), Pixelated (mindless game), Air Hockey (yes that's right), SilentNoise (a noise generator), Stars (a star catalog), Scrapbook (for playing with pictures), the native Facebook application, and PlottingGraphs (a function plotter).

All this love, along with the documents I need to have with me, fits in my coat pocket and still leaves me 10GB of storage left to fill up.

The real power and utility of the PlayBook comes from the Bridge and Documents To Go.

PlayBook Bridge

The Bridge is ingenous. What it does is allow you to use the PlayBook to access the data available to your BlackBerry handheld device on the PlayBook with a PlayBook specific user interface. It is not tethering, synchronization, or remote viewing. Non-BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) users get:

  • Messages: all your activated email accounts. Sadly not PIN-to-PIN messages or SMS (text) messages.

  • Contacts

  • Calendar

  • MemoPad

  • Tasks

  • BlackBerry Messenger

  • Bridge Files: access to (some) files on the BlackBerry SDCard. There are some limits based on file type.

BES Users also get the Bridge Browser which allows web browsing through the corporate servers, and corporate email in messages. For me the Bridge pays for the device. It is possable to compose and edit email on a BlackBerry handheld device, but if they get very large it can be quite difficult. The Bridge and PlayBook give a very nice intermediate size, but still portable way of composing complex email messages when a desktop or laptop machine is not available, or not an option.

Documents To Go

The PlayBook comes with three Documents To Go applications: Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go. Word To Go allows you to create, edit and save MS Word format documents. Sheet To Go does the same for MS Excel spreadsheets. Slideshow To Go allows you to view and present MS Powerpoint slideshows using the microHDMI output to provide 1080P HD output. Slideshow works in one of two modes: mirrored output where the output to the projector is a copy of the PlayBook screen; and presentation mode where the slides are shown on the projector and something else (presenter notes, or even an other application) is shown on the PlayBook screen.

File Sharing

One of the neatest features of the PlayBook is the ability to share its disk storage via the network as a Windows share. This means that you can connect to the PlayBook from any computer that can act as a Windows share client, and drag-and-drop files back and forth. This works even when the PlayBook is asleep.

Final Thoughts

So, is the PlayBook as bad as the press seem to think it is? For me, definitely not! It has features that have allowed me to be productive with it right out of the box. I have a BlackBerry Torch, so not having stand alone email, contacts, calendar, etc. is not a drawback. In fact with the Bridge giving access to that data on my Torch, those applications would have been redundant. I can see that would be an issue for someone who does not have a BlackBerry. So, shoul RIM have waited until until they had stand alone versions of those applications? Should they have made all their existing customers wait? I don't think so, and I'm very happy they didn't.


Native Email and PIM applications demonstrated at BlackBerry World, see here or at crackberry.

Andoid player demonstrated at BlackBerry World, crackberry.
...the majority of the business market uses Microsoft PowerPoint, not Apple Keynote. There is no PowerPoint app for the iPad. Until there is, the absolute gold standard for portable PowerPoint will be the Playbook. That's a pretty important selling factor in business.

ReelPortal application released for PlayBook.

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