Interface and Software, Performance and Battery Life

Interface & Software

This tablet is undoubtedly an odd man out where the operating system is concerned. BlackBerry has always gone its own way, and in the past this was a strength. Today, Apple’s relentless assault and Android’s proliferation have made the market much harder for companies like RIM which choose to go their own way. Just ask Nokia.

Powering on the tablet brings you to a homescreen which is similar to that found on an iOS device. Icons are aligned in rows across the screen, providing no space for widgets. There’s no folder support, either – just a few tabs at the top that help sort your apps. Those tabs are Favorites, Media, and Games. If you connect the PlayBook to another BlackBerry device, the BlackBerry Bridge tab will appear as well.

With only a single app open, there’s not much difference between this tablet and the iPad or any Android tablet. Once you’ve opened more than one app, however, the operating system’s multi-tasking features become apparent. By swiping up or down from the bottom bezel it’s possible to open a carousel view of all the apps you currently have open. Those apps can be moved by swiping left or right, and any app can be brought to the fore or closed. It’s also possible to move back to the homescreen by swiping again. The apps that are left in the background will pause by default, but it is possible to keep them running in the tablet’s control panel.

Although the operating system’s multi-tasking is excellent, I did find it fussy at times. A swipe that I thought would close the multi-task view and send me to an app instead might do nothing, for example. Another area of concern is the notifications bar, and the menu design of the operating system in general. I’m not sure that RIM appreciates how small some of its menu buttons are when displayed on a 7-inch display, although on the other hand, I sometimes feel the same can be said for both Google and Apple’s tablet operating systems.

Notifications are basic. They appear in the upper left hand corner of the tablet, with the exception of notifications tied to critical system information like battery life, which are in the upper right hand corner. When a notification is active, a corner of the app you’re currently using will be tinted red grab your attention.

This works well enough, although it’d be nice to see more variance to the colors to notify you of different events. A bigger issue is the lack of software that would notify you in the first place. There’s no Gmail app, for instance; and worse than that, there isn’t a built-in alternative. I also couldn’t find a decent instant messenger app. The ones that I’m used to an Android and iOS, like imo.im and Kakaotalk, are no-where to be found. In fact, there were only 5 – yes, just 5 – IM apps listed on the AppWorld Market.

Guessing that this will be RIM’s Achilles Heel isn’t any great revelation, and this issue alone will be enough to strike this tablet from the minds of many potential buyers. Although there are a few decent apps shipped with the device, including a web browser that’s quite pleasurable to use, it’s clear that the software support is half-baked.

One extra found only on this tablet is the BlackBerry Bridge. This connection makes it possible to sync the tablet with compatible BlackBerry smartphones. Once synced, information like messages, calendars and contacts will be shared between the devices. It’s a nice feature, but can’t make up for the tablet’s other software shortcomings.

Performance & Battery Life

Inside the PlayBook is a dual-core SoC that goes by the bland-tastic name of OMAP 4430. This is Texas Instrument’s competition to Nvidia’s Tegra 2, and it’s similar in many ways. It too makes use of two ARM Cortex A9 cores running at 1 GHz, and it too offers a megabyte of cache that is shared between the cores.

However, OMAP 4430 supports ARM’s Media Processing Engine, which should provide it an edge in content that relies heavily on floating-point calculations. In addition to this, OMAP 4430 relies on the PowerVR SGX 540 for GPU power, and implements something called the IVA 3 multimedia accelerator. It’s a hardware video en/decoding chip, and it’s the reason why the PlayBook is capable of playing and recoding 1080p video at thirty frames per second.

Since the PlayBook uses its own operating system, which is rather niche compared to Android or iOS, there aren’t any benchmarking utilities available for it. Given this, we have to rely on browser benchmarks – but this still provides us with some useful information.

As you can see, it’s quite clear that the dual-core processor pays off. Compared to the Thunderbolt, which represents the quickest of the single-core devices, RIM’s tablet was substantially quicker. Although adding the additional core doesn’t result in a perfect scaling (as would be expected) it does provide a noticeable boost over a single-core device.

What about GPU and video performance? With no benchmark available, we’re forced to rely on more subjective measures, but all indications are that it’s somewhere near what’s available on the iPad 2. There are not many games available for the device, but it comes with pre-packaged with NFS Undercover, a decent mobile racing game.  The graphics are quite crisp, and about on par with what you’d expect from an older console like Playstation 2 – which is quite impressive, considering the size of this tablet. So far as I can tell, however, the games that match NFS Undercover’s graphical chops are exceedingly few.

Video content proved incredibly smooth, including Flash HD content on YouTube, which is the most intense video content mobile devices are typically asked to handle. Both 720p and 1080p video was no problem – there wasn’t any evidence of dropped frames or other degradation.

What about networking performance? The PlayBook we’re reviewing doesn’t have mobile network connectivity, but it of course has WiFi. Let’s see how it compares to other devices we’ve reviewed in the past.

This result is just a smidgen slower than the smartphones we’ve recently reviewed, and not far below the limits of what’s possible with my current Internet connection. In other words, this tablet should be quite speedy on any home or business WiFi network.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to battery life. This is an area that can vary wildly from one tablet to the next depending not only on the hardware and the size of the battery but also on the software. At least some of Apple’s consist battery life edge in the laptop, tablet and smartphone segments has something to do with the company’s tight focus on power management. BlackBerry’s tablet OS is new, so it could easily sink or swim.

The BlackBerry PlayBook’s battery life is par for the course for a tablet. It lasted five hours and fourty-three minutes streaming YouTube over WiFi at 50% display brightness. Using it lightly for web browsing, the battery barely budged, leading me to believe it would be possible to obtain well over eight hours in lighter use. This is solid, but not mind-blowing.

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