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A week with the BlackBerry PlayBook

posted under category: General on May 19, 2011 by Nathan

If you've followed me on twitter even a little bit over the past week, you probably learned that I was at CF.Objective(), and that I have a new BlackBerry PlayBook. I've been tweeting about it like crazy, I just can't stop. I don't remember being that excited about the iPhone, probably because everyone already had theirs. It's nice to be on the cutting edge once in a while.

So it's been a little over a week since I got my PlayBook. I'm not a BlackBerry fanboy, like I said, I've got an iPhone, BBs never appealed to me. Also, I didn't buy it, I haven't wrapped any money in it, it was a gift, and if they did it just to make people talk about it, they win; I have been talking.

In a couple minutes, after making my way past the gorgeous packaging, I was setting up my PlayBook. It guides you through a few easy, non-invasive steps, no credit cards involved, install a 300mb update over wi-fi, restart and it's all good. They left me with some helpful videos on how to use the device, I found them interesting and I wanted to know what I was doing, so I watched them.

The multitasking interface has taken a bit of criticism from my friends. They don't want to learn a new interface or they aren't so sure about this swiping from outside the screen. Yes, the frame is touch-sensitive. Somehow, I found it perfectly natural. Switching between apps is a swipe from side-to-side, going back out to the menu is a swipe from the bottom. The application context menu is a swipe from the top. The menu bar (battery / wifi / clock etc.) is a swipe from one of the top corners, and the keyboard from the bottom left corner. Multitasking is a rich experience and more akin to a desktop computer, like hitting [win]+[tab] on Win7 to switch tasks. I find it so natural that I keep trying to swipe-up on my iPhone.

The PlayBook multitasking interface

So after playing with the interface, I loaded up the App Store Market World. I will skip being tactful. The apps suck. They are so bad that I am seriously thinking of building a few things for myself that I need and use daily, like an Evernote client (where I am writing this), a Read It Later client, a Netflix streaming client (if only), file browser, a twitter client, and some decent games. The list goes on and on. The apps are either not there, or are so bad that it doesn't matter. The good news for developers out there is that it means the field is ripe for the picking. Really, any app that's not built-in is a good idea to create.

The browser however is amazing, simply for the fact that flash works, and it works well. Browsing the web was responsive. Zooming in to content is a bit slow, but it works fine. Navigating is a lot like the browser on my iPhone.

Videos on the 1024x600 screen are beautiful. High-definition mobile video is the new hotness for me. I love it. I loaded a few movies up for the plane trip to & from CF.Objective(). It takes everything I throw at it - MP4s, WMVs and Divx avi videos mostly.

At first I had no idea how I was going to get files on & off. I plugged it into my PCs USB port, installed the drivers and started copying files, then I found my favorite setting. With 1 setting I can turn on file sharing, and with another, I can turn on file sharing over wi-fi. As soon as that goes on, a new share appears on my network, I navigate to it and start copying files. This is reason enough to hate every other smartphone and tablet on the market. This is both obvious and amazing to me.

Extending that is downloading files from the browser. If you download office files, you can open them in the msoffice-like apps that are preinstalled. If you download a PDF, you can open it in the preinstalled acrobat reader. If you download a zip file, you can just save it until you want to transfer it to your desktop PC. Again, it's both obvious and amazing. Not something you will find in iOS.

The plane ride was good, I played with the browser in the airport, I watched over an hour of video on the plane, then that night when I was showing it off at the conference, the battery was around 80%. Even trying to give it somewhat heavy use, I can't kill the battery in less than 2 days. I don't have the patience to use it continuously for long enough to tell you a real answer. I did manage to kill it today finally - two full days of use, on and off, and finally watching high-def videos made it happen. As far as I can tell, there is no global messaging system, so it didn't let me know the battery had reached 0%, it just started to shut down.

The cameras are there. Front & rear. I got a mixture of quality all based on lighting. Normal indoor lighting is very grainy, and outdoor shots look like a digital camera, but are usable. The worst part is the delay when taking a photo. Let's say I hit the button when you started reading this paragraph. It actually took the photo right about now. *click*

PlayBook photo from the Hyatt 23rd floor.
From the Hyatt 23rd floor, overcast daylight gave a pretty good shot.

PlayBook photo, Marc Esher shot Ben Nadel.
I think Marc Esher shot Ben Nadel here. Notice how it was the camera delay that caused the photo to come out blurry.

The worst thing of the whole experience, and mind you I am coming from an iPhone, is the text editing. The keyboard in landscape is too small for my hands, too big for my thumbs, so I have to peck at it. In portrait it is about right for two thumbs. That's fine, but actually editing text, selecting text and moving the cursor is awful, even unusable. Fixing misspelled words and automatic capitalization is nonexistent. You can tell when I tweet with it because there are no capital letters and [space][space] doesn't insert a period. It took Apple a number of years to get to where they are now; I hope it doesn't take that long for RIM.

There are a few things I haven't even tried yet. I understand it does HDMI video out in the background while you can do somethign else in the foreground, like play a game while your wife watches a chick flick (you heard it here first, folks). Also if you have and love a BlackBerry phone already, BB bridge gives you mobile internet and access to your phone's email & contacts. Yeah, I'm not doing that.

Bonus: I discovered a few tricks that you may not know. First, you can take a screenshot on the PlayBook by hitting the [Volume UP]+[Volume Down] buttons at the same time. Second, you can navigate the local hard drive using the browser by going to file:///. I created an HTML document with my speaker notes and uploaded the files to the PlayBook, then navigated to the local file in the browser - that gave me an offline copy of my presentation notes to use on stage. Sweet!

To summarize, I am very thankful to RIM for bringing me this new toy. As far as a consumer device goes, it's a game of contrasts - the PlayBook has the best tablet browser that I have seen anywhere, but the worst text editing, the best multitasking, the worst app store, the best file sharing and management, but a lame camera. The foundations are laid for something incredible. I like this device. I really do. Its strengths are worth taking a look at in spite of its shortcomings. And with that, I'm keeping it, and I'll show it off to anyone with eyes because it's so dang pretty.

PlayBook photo of Elly reading a book.

Nathan is a software developer at The Boeing Company in Charleston, SC. He is essentially a big programming nerd. Really, you could say that makes him a nerd among nerds. Aside from making software for the web, he plays with tech toys and likes to think about programming's big picture while speaking at conferences and generally impressing people with massive nerdiness and straight-faced sarcastic humor. Nathan got his programming start writing batch files in DOS. It should go without saying, but these thought and opinions have nothing to do with Boeing in any way.
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