BlackBerry PlayBook 7" tablet

by Philip Greenspun, May 2011

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I borrowed a BlackBerry PlayBook tablet during a trip to Orlando, Florida and attempted to use it for the typical things that I would normally do with a laptop computer while traveling.

The first failure occurred attempting to connect the PlayBook to the wireless network at a Holiday Inn Express, which requires visiting a Web page to enter a password and checking a box to accept terms and conditions. The browser on the PlayBook rendered the form properly and displayed the "you are connected" confirmation page, but every subsequent attempt to use Internet failed and/or landed the user back at the "please type in the network password" page. I had no difficulty connecting a $500 Lenovo laptop computer running Windows 7.


Eventually I ended up in a place with a fully open wireless network and managed to connect (the PlayBook does not offer a 3G or 4G radio, though it can get access at least to email through a Bluetooth connection to a standard BlackBerry). It was time to check email.

I searched for "gmail" in AppWorld, hoping to find a dedicated client program. Instead, the AppWorld search engine returned a blank screen with no indication that no matching apps were found or that the search was complete.

I tried reading Gmail from the Web browser on the PlayBook. The page is rendered in a layout that I've never seen before, either on a mobile phone or a desktop computer browser. I was unable either to delete or reply to messages. Buttons that said "delete" or "send" were presented, but then pressing those buttons did not result in any action or change in the screen content.

Video Chat

I searched for an application matching "skype" and got the same blank screen as when I'd searched for "gmail".

Reading News

Unable to communicate with anyone, it was time to try being a media consumer. Newspaper Web pages came up in a shrunken size with clunky jaggy fonts that were impossible to read. It looked as though everything had been rendered first on a 1920x1080 pixel screen and then scaled digitally by processing the pixels down to the 1024x600 PlayBook resolution. The result was less readable than the same page on a standard Android mobile phone (3.7" screen).

Playing Videos

The National Film Board of Canada has an app for this Canadian-designed tablet. Although three or four attempts to play videos were unsuccessful, with the device ignoring my presses on the "play" button, I was finally able to get videos to play. The sound from the built-in speaker is rather tinny. If placed on a desk, the screen is a bit too small for immersive viewing. If held in one's hand, a natural question would be "Why wouldn't I just play this on my phone and hold the device a little closer to my eyes?"

Overall Interface

Due to the compact size, the on-screen keyboard is reasonably easy and fast to use for typing with one's thumbs, much better than the keyboard on a touch-screen mobile phone (e.g., iPhone or Droid X) and possibly better than the touch-screen keyboard on the iPad.

The touch interface requires training and practice. It is impossible to use the device, for example, simply by touching the backlit portion of the screen and the buttons on the side. The borders of the frame are also touch-sensitive and are required for basic operations, such as getting back to the home screen. The user swipes down, for example, to open a settings menu. If he or she swipes up, what happens? Nothing. The user is supposed to swipe down again to undo he or she just did. How it is intuitive to pull something down and have it move up, I'm not sure.


Not useful as a computer; too light to serve as a doorstop.

My friend has not asked for the tablet back (he got it for free at a conference).


Text and photos copyright 2010-2011 Philip Greenspun.

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