Review of the BlackBerry PlayBook: MLB and Technology Meet
Monday, July 11, 2011
MLB reports: The BlackBerry PlayBook, what a terrific name to give a tablet. For a baseball fan, it’s optimal! Imagine a coach of a Little League baseball team keeping track of plays and scores on the PlayBook. It just works. The BlackBerry PlayBook has been on the market for the last three months. It’s gone through a lot of transformations which will be covered in this entry. I will be analyzing the overall look of the PlayBook, Functionality and Apps. From the perspective of a BlackBerry smartphone user, I will be comparing the PlayBook to laptops and other tablets generally on the market. Finally, from a baseball functionality perspective, I will be delivering the verdict of whether the PlayBook is a winner and should be a part of your technology field.
For a little background on myself, I have been a BlackBerry smartphone user for many years. A couple of years ago, I did try out the Apple iPhone 3G smartphone for a year. The apps were nice, no doubt. Being able to stream mlb.tv was great. But the lack of usability of the phone, including the absence of a physical keyboard, was too much for me to handle. As a Baseball Columnist, I have to be ready to prepare stories and reports at a moment’s notice. The iPhone did not do it for me and I was back to BlackBerry, with the Torch becoming an essential part of my computer hardware last September. I use my Torch for everything from drafting and publishing articles on MLBreports.com, to tweeting, updating our Facebook page and taking pictures/videos to upload to our site. I connect with many of my baseball sources through secure e-mail and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), an essential communication tool for BlackBerry users. I find the business-first approach of the BlackBerry gives me more performance for my computing needs than the flashier and fun Apple IPhone. The MLB At-Bat app on the BlackBerry smartphone gives me all the information that I need, along with its great browser. As I was settled on my smartphone, the question was now going to be whether I could jump with MLB reports into the tablet world. This new technology would need to offer me enough benefits to consider adopting it.
TABLET VS. LAPTOP
As mentioned above, one of the primary reasons that I chose to adopt the BlackBerry Torch over the Apple iPhone was the physical keyboard. In my opinion, the BlackBerry keyboard is its bread and butter and differentiates this phone over many of its competitors. The Torch to me was the best of all worlds, the BlackBerry keyboard combined with the touchscreen of an iPhone. Reports have circulated that aside from the Torch 2, BlackBerry is planning to introduce a Bold Touch soon. Both products sound interesting and MLB reports will be keeping an eye on them when they arrive in stores. But as you can imagine, if a keyboard is essential for a smartphone, wouldn’t it be required for my computer as well? That was my opinion until being introduced to the PlayBook.
My current laptop of choice is the Dell Inspiron Duo, the 10.1” laptop that is also a tablet. The screen can be used as a touchscreen during the typing mode on the keyboard, or flipped around to be used as a tablet-only device. When I acquired the Dell Inspiron Duo, it was with the idea that I was getting the best of both worlds in one device. How wrong I was. As a laptop it is great, don’t get me wrong. Personally, I would have preferred at least a 11” model to have a full keyboard, as the 10.1” inch laptops seem to have slightly smaller keyboards that are just not big enough. But otherwise, the Inspiron Duo was fast and delivered all the functions I needed. But as a tablet, the device left a lot to be desired. From everything I read and saw, a tablet should be lightning fast and easy to use. Neither is the case with the Inspiron Duo. It is really laptop that happens to have a touchscreen, but nowhere close to providing what I expected to be tablet-like performance. A true tablet should really be an oversized smartphone with more features. That is the layman’s way of putting it to non-technology people. That was not the case with my Inspiron Duo. The BlackBerry PlayBook delivered on that promise though and more.
When I purchased the Dell Inspiron Duo, I did take a look at the Apple iPad 2. A beautiful device that was easy and fun to use, without a doubt. My decision to go with the laptop over the tablet at that point was again, practically. To prepare baseball articles on the fly, I could not get away from my need for the physical keyboard. Getting a smaller laptop, I envisioned that portability would be the same as a tablet, or close to it. What I found over the following months that even the smallest laptop, unless it is a MacBook Air, gets to be cumbersome. I craved a device that I could carry around in almost any bag, unpack and start-up easily and use at a moment’s notice. I had to learn what I was missed to figured out what would work best in the long-run. So when the offer came to try out the BlackBerry PlayBook, I could not resist. I felt there was a device missing between the smartphone and laptop worlds. The smartphone, while easy and practical to use, was not a good permanent solution for heavy typing and usage. But while the laptop met the purposes missed by the smartphone, the laptop did not have the portability and ease of use of the smartphone. It was time to try something new. So MLB reports was finally ready to jump into the world of computer tablets. The solution: The BlackBerry PlayBook.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE PLAYBOOK
When the review unit for the PlayBook first arrived at our office, I was simply blown away. Being a devoted laptop user my whole computing life, my initial impression going on was that it was going to be very difficult to get me onto a tablet. But being a BlackBerry user, I had a feeling that the PlayBook would be right up my alley. My gut feel was correct. The PlayBook comes packaged beautifully in a box with all the required accessories. It has a rapid charger which charges the battery at a rapid speed (all smartphone users that constantly wait for their phones to charge can appreciate this aspect). The PlayBook charger also works on smartphones, meaning that my Torch can be charged almost 10x as fast compared to my regular phone charger. Now whenever I travel, I carry the PlayBook charger wherever I go. It means all my BlackBerry devices get charged quickly and only one charger has to be carried around. The PlayBook also comes with all the manuals, computer USB cable and a carry sleeve. I upgraded to a leather holder that folds over for easy typing and can be converted as a stand for the PlayBook for viewing videos. Convenience personified. BlackBerry did a great job in presenting the device well. I enjoyed the sizzle, but wanted to see whether the device had the steak, the substance to back it up. Yes it did.
I consider myself a fairly technological adept person. Even so, I still get frustrated when it can take an hour or two to set up a new piece of machinery. Every time I change my computer or smartphone, I find that everything always takes time and there are bugs/errors to work through to get the device fully set up. The PlayBook, refreshingly, has been the easiest computing device that I have ever had the pleasure to set-up. From beginning to end, I had the device ready to go in about fifteen minutes. I charged the PlayBook the night before, downloaded the BlackBerry Bridge application from App World onto my Torch, turned on the PlayBook, followed the instructions and in minutes had the PlayBook completed. The BlackBerry Bridge software was the key selling point to me as a BlackBerry user. The Bridge allowed me to have all the information on my Torch to be available/replicated on the PlayBook without reinstallation. The PlayBook was ready to go and I was ready to learn all about it.
OVERALL LOOK OF THE PLAYBOOK
The PlayBook is portable and lightweight. Weighing less than half a kilogram (for our American readers, which would be just one pound) it is easy to transport to anywhere. Whether you are heading to the ball park, or to a business meeting it is easy to move and doesn’t take much room. The PlayBook can easily fit into any purse, attaché case, “man-bag”, suit jacket or coat pocket. Transportability is key for using a mobile computing device. The small size and light weight was a big bonus compared to a laptop or even the bigger iPad.
With a 7″ High Definition screen, the PlayBook provides optimal resolution and can be viewed in either landscape or portrait view. One of the biggest advantages of the PlayBook is the fact it has a Mini HDMI Port. The key with this is the fact it can be used to connect to a larger screen for presentations. The PlayBook can also be plugged into a television screen to watched saved videos, especially baseball games!
Along with the HDMI port, there is also the normal Mini USB slot for charging the PlayBook through either the computer of plugged into the wall. As I mentioned above, if the user of the PlayBook already owns a BlackBerry Smartphone, the mini USB cord will be transitional. Other devices could be plugged into the USB slot of the PlayBook like a traditional computer, which other tablets missing the USB slot would be lagging.
On the top of the PlayBook, you will find the power button, along with the volume adjustments too. This is simple and easy to use when going back and forth from song to song. The BlackBerry PlayBook also offers optimized business use, as it has a dual camera. The 3-megapixel forward facing camera allows for video chat to occur on the PlayBook. The 5-megapixel rear facing camera takes crystal clear pictures. Both cameras are high definition quality and can do video as well. The dual cameras offer many benefits to PlayBook users. Aside from shooting high quality video and pictures, PlayBook users can conference with each other. Imagine if you were not able to attend your child’s softball game due to work commitments. With another user bringing their PlayBook to the ball park, you can conference into the game on your PlayBook and not a miss a second of the action. Have a friend watching a no-hitter? Conference in on the PlayBook and become a part of the action as if you were sitting in the stands (just remember that all copyrights are owned by Major League Baseball and may not be broadcast without their express written consent, wink).
The overall look of the PlayBook is terrific. It is simple to use and access the buttons, and is lightweight and easy to hold. It is a device that I found that I could not put down. Whereas with a laptop I was always waiting for it to start-up and shut-down, with the PlayBook, I just grab it and start using it. Ease and fun of use combined with productivity and performance. Just what a baseball columnist requires. The battery also has an incredibly long life and even with my heavy usage, I found that I only had to charge the device once in a blue moon. While my smartphone can be a batter drain and require charging twice-a-day, the PlayBook offers battery life second-to-none. Plus, the rapid charger allows a full charge in less than an hour in most cases. One simply could not ask for more from a tablet.
In comparing products, there are two major advantages to the BlackBerry PlayBook that make it far superior to most other tablets on the market. The first is the ability to use Flash on websites. Flash has become the norm for all websites these days. It makes the webpages more desirable to look at and allows for website designers to be more creative with their work. Websites using flash allow the user to be interactive with the website. The PlayBook allows the user to access the best parts of the internet without giving up anything about the internet. So whether you are checking in on MLBreports.com or mlb.com, the PlayBook browser has you covered for all your baseball information needs.
The second major advantage to the BlackBerry PlayBook is the way you can multi-task from app to app. Through the screen, all you have to do is swipe up, and you get back to your main menu of apps. While running any app in the background, you can open up another app or program and access it without compromising speed. The ability to go back and forth from different apps makes this superior to any tablet. At any one time, you can find many apps going at the same time on my PlayBook, including the browser to surf baseball news, Docs to Go in preparing an article, BBM/E-Mail in communicating with others, Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook app is handy and while Twitter does not have its own app, it is fully functional on the browser.
The BlackBerry PlayBook has a unique feature that allows for a Bluetooth connection to a user’s BlackBerry Smartphone. The BlackBerry Bridge app must be downloaded on the smartphone in order to pair the Tablet and Smartphone together. The Bridge feature wirelessly syncs the Messages, Calendar, Contacts and Memopad from the smartphone to the tablet. Shortly after the initial launch of the PlayBook, the popular BlackBerry Messenger was added to the Bridge features. What the Bridge does, is that it mirrors the smartphone to exactly. The Bluetooth connection should be no more than ten feet away from each other to avoid any disconnections. If the smartphone is sitting on the coffee table, and you are on your tablet, you are able to respond to emails, and BBM’s from the tablet and the Smartphone will show the new entries wirelessly. I will admit that I had initial concerns about the PlayBook when it first came out and did not have the Bridge option. But once the PlayBook adopted the Bridge, the device expanded in its capabilities. While other tablets like the iPad that require a separate data plan, the PlayBook can be tethered through Bluetooth and share data for free with your BlackBerry smartphone, depending on your plan. Being able to run the Playbook anywhere without worry of finding Wi-Fi or buying a separate data plan is a definite plus. The only downfall of the Bluetooth connection is the fact that speed of the connection depends on your Carrier’s speed. I’ve noticed that 3G connections through Rogers gives a decent speed, although the most optimal speeds are reached when it is wirelessly connected to a network.
Another unique part of the Bridge is that it allows for documents (PDF’s and Office Suite documents) to be opened on the PlayBook while accessing it from the smartphone. This is pretty cool, as the PlayBook comes pre-loaded with full version of Docs to Go. Another cool feature is the Bridge Browser. If the user is not in a wireless zone, the internet can be accessed using the Bridge Browser icon. This will use the data plan of the smartphone to access the websites. The touch screen feature is simple to use, and it doesn’t use the same technology as the original BlackBerry storm where you had to press down on the screen. It is a similar technology to the BlackBerry Torch, which mirrors the IPhone screen. The tapping feature makes it easy to use. The review unit that I received is the 64 GB model, which can store countless baseball games in its memory. For an active user like myself, that stores a ton of media including ball park video and pictures, as well as articles, the larger memory capacity works well for me. But depending on your usage, the 16 GB or 32 GB could suffice. Options are good and the PlayBook has plenty. Overall, the functionality of the PlayBook is superb and can only get better with improvements to the software updates.
BLACKBERRY PLAYBOOK APPS
This is probably the biggest downfall of the PlayBook. There were not many apps available for the PlayBook at the initial launch and there still aren’t as many apps available as compared to other tablets in the market, including Apple and Android. The main reason for this is because the BlackBerry PlayBook uses an entirely different system software from BlackBerry smartphones. So the applications developed for the Smartphones are not compatible with the Tablet. One of the first social networking apps to become available was the Facebook app. It has improved so that it looks similar to the actual Facebook website, as is the case with the smartphone app. Other social media’s still haven’t created an app for their sites as of yet, including Twitter. As MLB reports depends heavily on Twitter for social media, I was a little surprised and dismayed at its absence. But as the browser is fully functional, using Twitter on the PlayBook is the same as any computer.
One of the reasons for apps not being available on the PlayBook is the promise that Android apps will be downloadable and can be used on the BlackBerry PlayBook in the near future. Once this becomes available, the world of apps will become a huge marketplace for PlayBook consumers. Google’s Android Marketplace is the 2nd largest Smartphone/Tablet app producer, second only to Apple. My hope is that this will become a reality, as the biggest app that is currently missing from the PlayBook is MLB At Bat. Not being able to stream live games on my BlackBerry smartphone is one thing, but with HD capabilities, I want and need my PlayBook to be able to broadcast live baseball games. While the PlayBook can do nearly everything I need from a baseball perspective, including run highlights off mlb.com, full web browsing, article writing, tweeting and posting on Facebook, I still need my live games. Keep an eye out for the Android apps, as this will take the PlayBook from an 8.5 to a 9.5 for me.
One convenient feature with the BlackBerry App World that I wanted to note was that the PlayBook is able to recognize the apps on a user’s smartphone and send alerts if they are available or an update on an app is available. The automatic updates is a great convenience feature and another reason that the Playbook is very user friendly. Overall though the apps on the PlayBook have been a disappointment but with the promise of Android apps the future for the PlayBook looks bright!
If you are an existing BlackBerry smartphone user, this decision is an easy one. Go out and buy your PlayBook immediately. By having the Bridge feature and running E-mail, BBM and Calendar as mirrored on a BlackBerry smartphone, the PlayBook is able to offer full usage and convenience. From there, the HD video, dual cameras, USB port, long battery life, portability and light weight make the PlayBook a winner. The true the test is the usage of the device. While my laptop remains at home 99% of the time, my PlayBook goes everywhere with me. It is easy to transport and instantly usable. Heck, the majority of this article was prepared on my PlayBook on the go. When I have gone anywhere from ball games to dinner parties, people cannot get enough of the PlayBook when I pull it out. The reason? BlackBerry is on to something incredible here. The PlayBook is smaller than any laptop but bigger than a smartphone. In comparison to other tablets on the market, the Dell tablet is really just an oversized smartphone while the IPad to me is more of a laptop without the keyboard. The PlayBook is small enough to be easy to carry, while big and powerful enough for full usage.
For the non-BlackBerry user, this device may not be for you. Without a BlackBerry smartphone nearby, the Bridge feature is not useable. As a result, a stand-alone e-mail service would not be available and many users are not satisfied with using a public e-mail like Gmail or Hotmail. If I did not have a BlackBerry, I would have lacked many of the features necessary to make full use of the tablet. But overall, my impression is that BlackBerry introduced the PlayBook for the most part with the BlackBerry user in mind. Checking e-mails, updating the calendar, video conferencing, preparing documents etc., the PlayBook is a very strong device for the business user. But the PlayBook is a must for other users, including the baseball crowd. Whether watching a ball game through video, taking pictures at a stadium, writing articles and surfing the internet in a coffee shop, my PlayBook goes everywhere.
In adapting the PlayBook to MLB reports, I found the tablet does most of the tasks that I require. Surfing the internet, writing, social media, calendar, e-mails and BBM are all there. The main items that I came away missing was streaming MLB games and a physical keyboard. With the hopeful adoption of Android apps, the streaming live games should be coming soon. As far as the keyboard, while the virtual keyboard is a good size QWERTY, I still found myself typing with one finger. One solution will be to purchase a wireless keyboard and keep it close by when needed. On trips especially, I can see myself keeping a Bluetooth keyboard in my suitcase for late night writing sessions. But failing the physical keyboard, I found the virtual keyboard actually quite user friendly and a good alternative. As with anything in life, nothing is perfect.
So while the PlayBook may not be a 10/10, it is pretty darn close. For a user that is set in his ways and not always quite to change, this is one new technology that has certainly entered my world. In the past few weeks I have gone from not understanding tablets to embracing them. It is time to stop lugging bulky laptops and grab a sleek PlayBook. Once you start using it, you will never be able to put it down. A great job by BlackBerry and the road will only get brighter for the PlayBook as it continues to develop and grow in the marketplace. As still a relatively new product, I am sure that the new software updates will ensure that the PlayBook continues to grow. If you are a crackberry addict, get ready to play ball with the PlayBook. A true home run by BlackBerry, the PlayBook is now the newest member of the MLB reports’ Technology Field.
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