Craig A. Hunter


The PlayBook lands RIM in pre-underdog status

There’s this notion in sports that fans will automatically pull for the underdog, but I find that’s not always the case. Underdogs are often met with skepticism at first, and have to prove themselves before they can garner support. Consider the recent NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) went from being an outcast to being the tournament’s darling underdog team, by charging their way into the final four with a string of impressive victories.

Judging by the initial round of reviews, the new PlayBook is firmly entrenched in the skepticism phase of pre-underdog status. I was surprised how poorly the device was received in the press, and how universally poor that reception was. Since I was on the hook to get a PlayBook unit of my own for development purposes, I decided to share my opinions as well.

My PlayBook arrived via FedEx this morning, and that’s already an improvement over the adventure I had getting an iPad 2 on launch day. Out of the box, I had to go through about 10 minutes of setup, and then download and install a software update (to – that’s a lot of version digits) that took another 10 minutes or so.

The overall PlayBook user interface looks quite good and has a refined air about it, but users will notice that the UI has a much more heavy, deliberate feel than iOS does. After spending 20-30 minutes working on the PlayBook, I switched over to my iPad 2 to compare something and was amazed how the whole iOS interface felt light and frictionless. Big, big, difference. Certain parts of the PlayBook UI appear to benefit from hardware acceleration but other parts do not. In general, it is responsive, but not to iOS levels (it’s more along the lines of Android, for those who are familiar with the subtle differences between Android and iOS).

Typing on the Playbook is great -- the software keyboard is fast and responsive. It also sounds great, with a muted mechanical “chunk” that is a lot nicer than the pencil rap sound the iOS keyboard makes (which I always disable right away before it drives me crazy). But oddly, the PlayBook's keyboard does not implement auto-complete or auto-correct, and shortcuts like auto-capitalization and auto-punctuation are inconsistently applied throughout the OS and apps.

The PlayBook’s multitasking interface, and its use of various swipe gestures, is fairly clean and effective, and it looks cool. But the more I used it, the more tedious it felt. After thinking about it, I really started to feel like this was more of a software development showcase than an efficient UI model. A good multitasking interface (for example, the basic multitasking operations we take for granted on a desktop OS like Mac OS X or Windows) fades into the background, putting the emphasis on the apps. You don’t really even think about multitasking itself. In the case of the PlayBook, the busy multitasking interface takes over and becomes a central hub of the OS. You start to perceive apps and tasks as spokes. It works, but I am not sure I like how prominent it is.

I spent a lot of time in the PlayBook’s web browser. Overall, it works fine and loads content quickly, but I found the screen’s aspect ratio to be poor for browsing in both orientations. It’s a bit like looking through a mail slot at content that is usually sized for a more balanced aspect ratio (I have a similar complaint about browsing on my 11-inch MacBook Air, but it offers 30% more pixels than the PlayBook and isn't nearly as bad). The iPad's size and aspect ratio ends up being a lot more usable for browsing than what the PlayBook offers.

There's also the matter of responsiveness. Compared to the iPad's browser, the PlayBook is loaded with a teeny bit of molasses when you want to pinch, swipe, or scroll content on complex sites, and there are graphical glitches and annoying delays when switching orientations. Often times, swipes end up triggering taps when they shouldn't. The PlayBook browser is also not real savvy about content sizing, and always seems to require extra taps or pinches to achieve a readable configuration that Mobile Safari on iOS gets right on the first try. Browsing on the PlayBook ends up feeling very much like an Android device – perfectly usable, but not up to iOS standards. Still, for anyone coming from a BlackBerry phone, the PlayBook will seem like a godsend when browsing the web.

I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on Flash, since it is a touted feature of the PlayBook and has become a big talking point nowadays. Let me put it diplomatically. Only two parties should care about Flash: 1) Adobe, since it’s their bread and butter, and 2) Flash developers, since it’s their bread and butter. Everybody else needs to move on. As a consumer and a developer of non-Flash software technologies, I think we should demand better, and the PlayBook Flash experience is an example why. It’s just not good.

Oh, playing videos works fine, but most other Flash content is horrible and frustrating to use. I visited numerous automaker websites, where Flash is used heavily, and saw poor response, poor feedback, missed taps, misdirected taps, and slow animations. How am I supposed to “build my own” car when I can’t select the transmission, and then it jumps to the forkin’ accessories section to show me mud flaps when I really wanted to pick a color? Flash on touchscreen devices continues to disappoint.

Others have noted the absence of native e-mail on the PlayBook, and I agree it’s a glaring omission for a device that could otherwise stand on its own (and is far more advanced than any current BlackBerry phone that a user would tether to for the "bridged" e-mail solution). This posed a bit of a problem when I wanted to transfer some screenshots off the PlayBook. First, I attempted to access them via USB tether to my MacBook, but this required installation of software on the MacBook and a reboot, which I refused. Sorry, but I haven’t reached a productive uptime of 63 days on my MacBook by restarting every time I need access to mundane tasks. I was able to use my ISP’s webmail through the PlayBook web browser, and was pleased to see that the webmail attachments interface gave me access to pictures, videos, music, and documents on the PlayBook. Somebody at RIM thought that through. Incidentally, the same operation on the iPad does not work, since there is no user accessible file system from the iPad's web browser.

As far as apps go, well there are very few good ones available through the PlayBook’s App World (and that app itself is a bit primitive, with category icons that look like they were rendered by kid using a box of Crayolas – a stark contrast to the rest of the icons on the PlayBook, which look quite good). Outside of a few apps from major developers and magazine publishers, much of what is available on App World is embarrassing to look at. I saw a weather app that consisted of a single picture and the temperature rendered in a small Times font. That’s an app apparently.

On the hardware front, the PlayBook is solid and looks good, and is a lot more comfortable to hold than either generation iPad. In landscape, the PlayBook is slightly wider (about 3/8”) than the iPad is in portrait, and I can hold and thumb-type both devices pretty naturally in these particular orientations.

The PlayBook's screen is sharp and bright, with excellent color and contrast. With about 1.3X higher DPI than the iPad, everything looks a lot crisper on the PlayBook. In terms of cameras, the PlayBook clobbers the iPad 2, and I continue to view cameras as a major weak spot of the iPad. There’s just no comparison. In terms of camera software, however, iOS wins with faster response and smoother operation (even on devices like the iPhone 4 with lots of pixels in the image).

Battery life has been fine thus far. Though I didn't attempt any run-to-empty tests, I did use the PlayBook much like I use my iPad throughout the day, and the battery held up just fine.

In contrast to early reviews, I found the PlayBook’s power button fairly easy to operate, so either RIM made last-minute changes, or all those other guys have really fat fingers. It’s not raised like the sleep button on iOS devices, but I could press it with a finger tip, no problem. My only real gripe with the PlayBook hardware was the micro USB socket, which has more slop than I’d like.

Overall, I will echo other reviews and say that the PlayBook hardware is good, but the software is lacking. It’s definitely a big achievement for RIM, and puts them in the game in a serious way, but they need to make key improvements in areas like UI responsiveness, browsing, included native apps (notes, e-mail, calendar), keyboard features like auto-correct and auto-complete, and App World content. These are not big efforts when you consider that RIM has already done the hard work and cranked out the core features, but they will take time. RIM needs to step up its game a bit if it wants to move past skepticism status and become a true underdog.

Past Topics:
Theodolite HD Arrives for iPad 2   March 17, 2011
On the topic of GPU acceleration in a mobile OS   January 4, 2011
On Palm, Competition, and iTunes Sync   October 4, 2009
Palm needs a home run, but bunted with the webOS SDK   July 17, 2009
Development of the Mars Flyer iPhone App   July 5, 2009
10.5.3 Fixes DNS Problems Plaguing Some Leopard Users   June 3, 2008
In an iPhone-enlightened world, Kindle has an obvious flaw   November 21, 2007
iPhone web app development has its limitations   August 20, 2007
There's way more to Intel Inside than a sticker   August 17, 2007