RIM's PlayBook is a beautifully designed piece of technology, but lacks basic features available from every other tablet in the market.

Eric Zeman, Contributor

April 19, 2011

12 Min Read

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

Research In Motion's tablet computer hits store shelves on Tuesday. Should anyone plunk down $499 for this late-to-market iPad competitor?

With the launch of the PlayBook, it feels as though Research In Motion has its back to the wall and is under the gun. It has lost share in the critical smartphone market--one it helped define--to competitors Apple and Google. Worse, Apple and Google beat it to market with tablet devices, which fall between the PC and smartphone. RIM needs to reverse its market share slide and show the world that it is still an innovative and relevant player.

The PlayBook tablet, which runs a brand new operating system from RIM, delivers a mixed message.


The PlayBook is a beautifully designed piece of technology. It is simple and lacks flair, but the spartan approach to its appearance is what makes it so classy. It as strong lines, an attractive and comfortable-to-hold matte finish, and has a very good weight and size. It's still not going to fit into your pants pocket, but it will easily slip into a coat or jacket pocket.

The external controls are kept to a bare minimum. On the top rests a power button, volume keys, and a play/pause button. The power button, used to power the device on/off or wake the PlayBook, is practically useless. It is buried too deep into the PlayBook's surface, making it difficult to use. The other three buttons work just fine. A 3.5mm headset jack is also on top, though shoved to the far right side.

On the bottom, RIM has positioned a mini-HDMI port, miniUSB port, and a magnetic port for use with a dock and/or other accessories. This is a pretty typical arrangement for the tablet form factor, and none of the controls (save for the power button) get in the way of using the PlayBook.

The seven-inch display, which RIM believes truly sets the PlayBook apart from its larger competitors, looks fantastic. It is bright, crisp, and colorful. The preloaded images in the gallery look amazing, as do websites and the HD videos on board the tablet. At no time did I feel like the smaller screen got in the way of using the PlayBook's operating system.

QNX/Adobe Platform

QNX, which RIM likes to tell us "runs nuclear power plants," is the underlying base for the operating system. Making use of Adobe's Flash and AIR, RIM has crafted a gorgeous user interface for controlling the PlayBook--even if it borrowed some elements from the competition.

The touch screen doesn't stop once it reaches the bezel of the PlayBook. Nay, the bezel itself is touch sensitive, and is used by the operating system for a number of controls. For example, touch the bottom of the bezel (right where it says "BlackBerry") and swipe up. This motion is used to switch applications. Swiping up while using any app brings up the multitask interface. All the open and/or running apps are placed on cards that float in the upper two-thirds of the display. If the app you want is already floating on one of visible cards, simple tap to open. An application tray is placed in the bottom one-third of the display, and can be used to access more apps.

RIM did itself a favor with the design of this app tray: It mimics exactly the way BlackBerry 6 works on the Torch and other BlackBerry smartphones. There are four segments to help sort through apps (all, favorites, media, games), and pressing any will narrow down the list of visible apps.

How about closing apps? From the multitasking pane, simply flick the application off the top of the screen. That effectively closes the application. This idea was clearly taken from Palm's webOS, which behaves almost exactly the same way.

The top bezel also is touch sensitive. When using any application, swipe from the bezel down to access the controls/settings for that particular application. Some applications have more features and functions that are buried in this part of the OS, so it takes some exploring to find them.

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

You know what's entirely absent? All the annoying lists and folders that RIM uses in the BlackBerry OS menus. Interacting with the PlayBook is fluid, fast, and fun. It helps that the device didn't crash or otherwise cry for help at any time while I used it. It was solid as a rock, and, for the most part, responsive.


How does the PlayBook hold up during actual use? Battery life is fine. It easily lasted 10 straight hours, which seems to be the benchmark for tablet battery life. Consider this benchmark met.

Since the PlayBook is only available with a Wi-Fi radio right now (3G coming later this summer), I was unable to perform any type of 3G/4G tests. As far as Wi-FI is concerned, it worked perfectly. Using the on-board tools, it was easy to join my protected Wi-Fi network and hop onto the Web.

Once on the Web, browsing is really, really fast. Web pages load quickly, and the PlayBook showed no fear of Flash-heavy websites. The desktop version of some sites, such as Google Reader, rendered perfectly on the PlayBook. (The desktop version of Google Reader doesn't work in iOS or Android.) I like the way the PlayBook's browser organizes open tabs in the drop-down tray at the top of the screen. This lets you jump to other websites without first leaving the current website. I was able to run at least a dozen tabs at once. Web browsing on the PlayBook is very good.

The Bluetooth radio, mostly meant for tethering to BlackBerrys, worked as advertised. I also was able to pair it with Bluetooth headsets (both mono and stereo). Bluetooth is essential for the Bridge application and Internet tethering.

Typing on the PlayBook felt cramped. This is one aspect that makes you yearn for the larger displays of the iPad or Xoom. The reduced size of the software QWERTY made it too small for me to type as I would on a physical keyboard. I was reduced to hunting and pecking, which really slows down text input. I also made a million mistakes, which to me says the word prediction feature isn't as robust as it should be. Is typing a make-or-break feature? For a RIM device, you betcha. I can't imaging typing long emails, let along lengthy documents, on the PlayBook. On larger devices, I've had no trouble adapting to software QWERTYs.

Without any serious games available, it is hard to say just how well the PlayBook's processor will hold up under heavy strain.

The PlayBook has two five megapixel cameras, once facing the user and once facing away from the user. The on-screen controls for the camera work well and are easy to figure out. The PlayBook even shoots decent photos and HD video. Media capture with the PlayBook can be viewed in the gallery applications, but there is no way to share. With no way to share media, it really cuts down on the usefulness of the camera. The PlayBook doesn't have a video chatting application available, though RIM says one will show up soon.

Business Basics

You know the deal by now. The PlayBook does not ship with email, contacts, or calendar applications. It does include Word, Sheet and Slideshow to Go, a calculator, weather, voice notes, clock and Adobe reader, however.

BlackBerry users (who aren't AT&T customers) will be able to use the BlackBerry Bridge application to wirelessly connect their BlackBerry to the PlayBook. Only then does the PlayBook have access to email, contacts, and a calendar. I do not have a BlackBerry, so I was unable to test this feature. InformationWeek's Fritz Nelson, however, gave it a spin.

Also missing: BlackBerry Messenger. BBM is RIM's bread-and-butter instant messaging software. It's one of the reasons that many BlackBerry addicts cite as their reason for sticking with RIM in the first place. RIM's best app is not on board its most important product at launch.

Worried about security? Don't waste the energy. With no email, no business apps, and no real business use for the PlayBook, there's no need to worry (yet).

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardown

About the only really effective business tool available on the PlayBook out of the box is the browser. If your business runs a lot of browser-heavy apps, then perhaps they may work.


If you thought this PlayBook review was going well so far, here's the big but.

Upon taking the PlayBook out of its box, users first have to set up Wi-Fi access and check for system updates. The PlayBook found an updated version of the OS and downloaded it (437 MB) before installing the software and then rebooting. Total time between opening the box and actually being able to use the PlayBook--a minimum of 15 minutes. Not that big a deal. At least you don't have to connect it to a PC, first.

With so few applications available to me, I almost immediately took the PlayBook for a spin through the BlackBerry App World. I can't offer you a count of apps that are in there at launch (RIM claims 3,000), but the selection is unbelievably crappy. I think I recognized perhaps five titles out of the five or six score that I looked through.

What's missing? Basically everything. Look at the apps on your BlackBerry. Pretty much none of them are available. Essential ones, such as Facebook, Google Search (hell, Google *anything*), banking apps (at least from banks located in the U.S., where the PlayBook is initially available), business apps ... the list goes on and on. The PlayBook has a serious application problem, one that RIM needs to remedy ASAP.

Beyond the missing applications--the lack of which all but render the PlayBook nothing more than a Web browsing device with a decent camera--other basic functions are missing entirely.

For example, I wanted to load some media (music, photos, video) on the PlayBook. I connected the PlayBook to my Mac. The PlayBook told me drivers were being installed. Nothing happened. Then, the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software launched, and told me to update, which I did. Then I rebooted. Both machines. I connected them together with BDM running. Still nada. Using a few tricks from Fritz Nelson, I attempted to connect the PlayBook to my Mac via its IP address. Though my network preferences and the device both told me the PlayBook and laptop were connected, it simply didn't show up at all. That means I couldn't load any media whatsoever. This is about the most anti-user device I've ever encountered when it comes to an amazingly basic feature such as connecting it to a computer. How difficult is it to mount the PlayBook as a USB mass storage device? Apparently pretty damned difficult.


The PlayBook is obviously not finished. It lacks the most basic features available from every other tablet in the market. Sure, RIM says an update will fix everything in the coming months. I'll believe it when I see it. Anyone else remember the disaster that was the BlackBerry Storm? It took RIM and Verizon Wireless *six months* of updates to get it even halfway stable. With so many tablets that are simply better than the PlayBook, I can't imagine why anyone would stick it out and wait for RIM to deliver the promised features at some unknown time in the future.

If you're looking for a tablet *today* (whether for work or home use), then I highly recommend pretty much any other tablet you care to grab. The PlayBook isn't done, and it's definitely not ready for the enterprise.

That's not to say that the PlayBook is all bad. It certainly isn't. RIM has crafted a fine piece of hardware with a good screen and good battery life. Its small size makes it extremely portable, and the user interface is pleasing. The PlayBook will certainly improve over time (how can it not?). It may not be the best device possible today, but it might be one day.

What gives me real concern is RIM's behavior regarding the PlayBook. RIM knows this product isn't complete, yet it is shipping it anyway. RIM knows people want email, but it isn't making email available yet. RIM knows what the competition is offering, and barely manages to include half the features that its competitors are including, all while charging the same price. Worse, RIM's co-CEOs have defended the PlayBook to death, despite the misgivings voiced from nearly every reviewer and analyst who has laid hands on it. Their obstinate behavior is baffling and bothersome.

It would have been better for RIM to bite the bullet, delay the PlayBook for another month or two, and release a real killer device that was 100% ready. Instead, RIM has released the framework for a killer device. It has the device part nailed. Now it needs to forge a killer.

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About the Author(s)

Eric Zeman


Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies.

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