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BlackBerry PlayBook – not so friendly

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By now you know the shortcomings of the BlackBerry Playbook are well-known. Aside from coming late to market, it has to be paired with a phone for e-mail, and is a little short in the apps department. But are these fatal flaws? SEAN BACHER poses the question with our Ten Question Tablet Test.

Research In Motion (RIM) is still reeling from the market’s response to its disappointing second quarter results announced last week. They announced a drop of 15% in revenue ‚attributed largely to the disastrous sales of the PlayBook.

The company shipped a mere 200 000 units in the last quarter compared to half a million shipped in the first quarter of this year.

Most analysts attribute this poor performance a poor selection of apps available for the tablet, the need to pair up with a BlackBerry phone to access e-mail and contacts, and its late arrival on the market.

We put the BlackBerry PlayBook through the Gadget Ten Question Tablet Test to find out just how seriously these problems hold back the tablet.

1 The sound of one-hand tapping (Can you comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it in the other?)

The small 7‚ screen means the device fits comfortably between your thumb and middle finger in portrait mode, ensuring that the device won’t slip out of your hand. The screen does not stretch all the way to the end of the device ‚ offering a centimetre ‚dead-zone’ between the screen and the edge of the unit. This works for and against the tablet, as the dead zone gives you a place to grip the tablet in one hand while typing with the other without accidentally tapping and activating other functions. It also means that the tablet is two centimetres larger than it needs to be – both in portrait and landscape mode.

The virtual keyboard that pops up is uncluttered, clear and makes typing a breeze both in landscape and portrait mode.

Due to its small form-factor, the PlayBook is not too clunky to carry around. It will easily fit into a briefcase, rucksack and might fit into some handbags. This also means you can comfortably whip it out and start working while sitting in cramped spaces like on a bus or airplane or while on the move.

It’s easy to hold in on hand and type with the other and, on the whole, is solidly built, looks and feels great, and could even be described as rugged.

Score: 8/10

2. The Angry Birds test (How responsive is the device in interactive tasks?)

The PlayBook uses an ARM Cortex A9 dual core processor running at a speed of 1GHz. You can choose how much storage space you want, with three different versions available – 16GB, 32GB and 64GB and all versions sport 1GB of RAM.

This adds up to quite a powerful device, meaning even the most processor-intensive apps designed for the PlayBook will run without a hiccup. A perfect example of this is the Need For Speed: Undercover game, which comes pre-installed on the PlayBook. It is a high-definition game and, unlike many other games available for tablets, is the full version, sporting all the features the normal PlayStation 3 version would. This game launched and ran effortlessly, even with dozens of applications running in the background. It makes use of the tablet’s accelerometer to steer left and right and was superbly accurate.

In other areas, the 7‚ capacitive screen responded very well. Scrolling from one app to the other was fluid and easy. Scrolling through the applications not yet opened was also a breeze. All in all, a top-notch display.

Oh, and Angry Birds? It’s an app that people around the world have welcomed to their tablets, but is not available on the BlackBerry App World. That’s no big deal in itself, but it symbolises the shortage of apps compared to other app stores, and one of the reasons the PlayBook is battling to build momentum.

Score: 5/10

3. The tablet gender test (Can it multi-task? Hint: males can’t.)

Multi-tasking was handled beautifully on the PlayBook. Unlike many other devices that require you to open the multi-tasking app to see what is running and to stop those apps, RIM has built multi-tasking into the core of the BlackBerry operating system. A quick swipe of your finger from the bottom of your screen minimises your current app and reveals a reel of open apps. From here you can scroll though your open applications. A tap on the X closes an application and a tap on the thumbnail of the app brings it to the front.

After opening practically every app installed on the PlayBook, the tablet showed no signs of slowing down and kept handling the newest application to be opened as if was the first to be launched.

Even opening the media player, playing a song and then sending the player to the background with the song still playing worked like a… song. This did, however, get a bit crazy when YouTube started streaming movies, resulting in two sound tracks being played at the same time.

Bottom line: the PlayBook was built to multi-task.

Score: 9/10

4. Testing by the book (Can it replace novels and textbooks?)

With its bright 7‚ screen, the PlayBook handles reading on a par with any other tablet on the market. Unfortunately, using the included Kobo reader, you cannot change the text size or colour as with other tabs sporting the Amazon Kindle reader. However, a few more sophisticated readers are available for download from the App World, albeit at a price.

Using the included Kobo reader on the PlayBook to read e-books does however have an upside or two. Firstly, it doesn’t weigh you down when you’re reading in bed and, should you fall asleep and drop it, you wont lose your place as you would with a normal paperback. It automatically bookmarks the page and puts itself into sleep mode if you don’t manually switch it off.

The PlayBook is pretty average here, offering nothing special.

Score: 6/10

5. Live long and prosper (How’s the battery life?)

RIM has advertised the PlayBook as having a battery life of up to five days in standby mode and up to 10 hours of active use.

Although we didn’t hit the five days, the PlayBook was able to last around three days and then still have enough power to let us use it for an hour or so after.

Using it flat-out, the PlayBook easily got through a typical workday and still had enough juice to run a few games that evening.

This tab is truly built for the professionals and power-users. Its impressive battery life is far superior to that of other tablets.

Score: 9/10

6. It’s all about You(Tube) (How well does it handle online video sites?)

Videos are streamed beautifully and the included YouTube application saves you from having to access it through your browser. The high-definition video included in the Video library shows just what the device is capable of, with vivid, bright, sharp and crisp images that dazzle the eyes.

Viewing ripped DVDs was also a stunning experience. And, of course, the PlayBook features built-in support for Flash, meaning you won’t find web sites barring you from viewing videos because your device doesn’t support Flash.

This, combined with the excellent battery life, means the PlayBook scores above average ‚ yet again.

Score: 8/10

7. The retro test (Can it replace your radio? TuneIn Radio reveals all.)

Once again, symbolising the limited apps available on the BlackBerry App World, we were unable to find the TuneIn Radio app. However we did find a similar app called Virgin Radio TV. Unfortunately there were no apps that allowed us to stream local radio content to the PlayBook.

The PlayBook handled the radio app we did find very well and was receiving tunes from the channel in seconds. We also found the Scanner Radio app ‚ very similar to the one found on the Android Market Place. This worked effortlessly too, letting us eavesdrop on police frequencies around the world.

The PlayBook does sport dual front speakers, which give a solid stereo experience. A headphone jack and built-in Bluetooth lets you listen to music through headphones or stream to a Bluetooth headset.

The hardware was pretty much stock-standard, we were not blown away by the sound quality and the lack of apps once again disappointed.

Score: 5/10

8. On target (Is the on/off switch easy to find and use in the dark?)

The power button is around the size of a match-head and is located in the middle of the device at the top end, when in landscape mode. Even though it is easily identifiable in the light, in the dark your finger will run straight over it as it feels much the same as the headphone jack.

You will be all thumbs for some time when trying to switch on the PlayBook in the dark.

Score: 4/10

9. Keep control (How effective are the control buttons ‚ hardware and software)

The PlayBook’s only ‚hard’ or physical controls are the power button, the volume control and a play/pause button. All of these are grouped so closely together that it’s very easy to push the wrong button by accident.

There are also no virtual buttons that let you exit an app or change settings directly. Everything is controlled via the swipe of your finger from the bottom to the top of the screen. For a power user, this limitation will be rather frustrating.

A major mistake, which has now come back to haunt BlackBerry, is the inability to run e-mail, contacts, calendar and BlackBerry Messenger on the device. It comes down to the absence of a SIM card slot in the PlayBook, which means you can only use the PlayBook when connected to a Wifi network. Mail features are stock standard on all other tablets, and are often one of the main reason someone would buy a tablet.

BlackBerry came up with a solution called the BlackBerry Bridge app. It creates a Bluetooth bridge between your tab and your phone, thereby using the phone and its SIM to connect to the Internet. This is a huge chink in the company’s armour because you can only create the bridge between the PlayBook and another BlackBerry smartphone.

When connected though, the BlackBerry Bridge software allows you to send and receive e-mail much as you would on any other tab, allowing you to view your calendar and interact with your BBM contacts.

But this is also an absurdity: Your phone is the delivery vehicle and the PlayBook is an alternative device on which to perform these tasks. The BlackBerry Bridge software won’t let you connect the PlayBook to the App World via the phone’s SIM card or 3G connection. There is only one way to connect the PlayBook to the App World and that is via a WiFi network.

In other words, if you want full use of the PlayBook, you must have a BlackBerry handset and you must be in the presence of a WiFi network.

That said, BlackBerry Bridge is well suited to enterprises. Many companies have been dragging their heals when it comes to integrating employees’ tablets into their IT infrastructure due to concern about security ‚ or lack thereof. With most other tablets, IT administrators cannot easily lock the device down or control what data is stored on it. However, in an enterprise where BlackBerry smartphones are the norm, the addition of the PlayBook poses less security threat to a company’s systems than other tabs. When connected through BlackBerry Bridge, all the data resides on the phone ‚ nothing is ever downloaded to the tablet from the company network.

Once the link is broken, or the phone and tab are disconnected, the PlayBook stores no data gathered from the network, so a lost PlayBook is merely a lost device and not a potential threat of lost crucial company data.

Despite this advantage, the general shortcomings of the software ‚ the tight grouping of the hardware buttons, combined with the lack of virtual control buttons and that little matter of e-mail ‚ really limit the device.

Score: 2/10

10. The iPrice Test (Is it competitively priced? And we all know which device we’re comparing.)

The PlayBook 16GB with WiFi retails for under R5 000, the equivalent iPad starts at R4 399.

Not the most expensive 7‚ , but still an overpriced unit that lacks some fundamental technology you would expect from a tablet.

Score: 4/10

The bottom line

Ultimately, is the PlayBook is a disappointing device, but great in specific circumstances. Yes, it is a serious workhorse and a great entertainment device. Its battery life is excellent and it handles multi-tasking exceptionally well. But, its limited ability to access apps of choice and handle very important tasks such as e-mail, calendar entries and contacts, are major disadvantages.

It is definitey a worthy adversery in the tablet arena, and a device on which its competitiors need to keep a close eye‚ but only once e-mail, contacts and calendar functionality is built in. Watch this space though, as there is talk of RIM including e-mail support in future versions.

Overall score: 60/100

* Follow Sean Bacher on Twitter on @seanbacher

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The question is not about just that one game, but instead it’s about the range of desired apps.

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