Initial Foray into Tablet Computing
As I mentioned in a previous article, I’ve finally made the leap into tablet computing by procuring a RIM Blackberry PlayBook. For those interested in why I chose this particular tablet against the grain of the media coverage on this product, please read my commentary in the prior article. This article covers my initial experience of getting the PlayBook setup for use and my first week of integrating it into my daily computing routine.
Setup – Amazingly Simple and Efficient
The PlayBook comes out of the box with a wall charger, micro-USB cable (a nice one is included), sock-like cover, multi-language getting started manual and the PlayBook itself. The physical specs on the PlayBook itself are better covered by others including this tear-down of the exact internal components here. So, I plugged in the wall charger to the micro-USB port and pushed the small power button on the side.
The screen immediately came to life and within a few seconds, a full screen setup wizard began with initially finding my home wireless network and asking for the password to connect. This was my first interaction with the touchscreen keyboard and found the experience to be exceedingly similar to the Kindle Fire and other tablets of having an audible click plus a visual overlay of the key one is typing plus a brief view of the character being entered into the textbox followed by an asterisk replacing that character (regular password field entry masking). It took me a second to understand that the request to “swipe” to move to the next screen was to use your finger to follow the circle graphic movement on the bottom of the display. I couldn’t understand why I seemed to be going back and forth between the same two screens. Once I figured out the desired swiping movement, the intuitiveness became immediately obvious.
The wireless connection was immediate which was a nice initial confidence booster. I was wondering prior to starting the setup how frustrating it would be to have wireless problems on a device I bought specifically for wireless Internet use. Luckily, no problems here what so ever.
After picking the usual date, time and timezone details, I was asked to enter my Blackberry ID. Since I already had one I used to access the Blackberry App Store on my phone, I entered the same one. I’m glad that the phone and tablet are accessing the App Store using the same login details. This means one less on-line credential to manage.
Another nicety was an indication that the setup wizard could be stopped and restarted at any time. Some family distractions were taking place at the same time as my initial setup thus I had to hit the power button a few times to bounce between the setup and family duties.
The next step was a required system software update. Since my plan was to update to the latest anything prior to making serious use of the product, I was glad to get this step out of the way as soon as possible. Being a late adopter, I was hoping I would get the benefit of the latest software including as many bugs fixed as possible. I don’t recall how long this process took to download the 384MB update because I put the device down once the update started and did not return to it for over 2 hours at which it was already complete.
Upon returning to my desk, the device was asking me if I wanted to enable the “Blackberry Bridge” support. I did some pre-research enough to know this was RIM’s mechanism for having their tablet and phones communicate with each other. I had previously downloaded the free “Bridge” app for my Curve from the App Store and thus brought out my phone and went to turn on the “Bridge” support on the phone. Upon doing so on the phone and then also enabling Bluetooth at the same time via the Bridge App (nice that they included in the app rather forcing one to go hunt for the enable setting), I proceeded to indicate to the tablet I was ready to enable Bridge support there.
I was very impressed on how easy this process was all around. The PlayBook presented a QR image and told me to point the phone’s camera at the image. My phone was in camera mode already I assume by being set by the Bridge App and thus I pointed the camera phone at the QR code until the QR code filled the entire phone camera display and a countdown to connecting appeared. Within a few seconds, the phone and tablet indicated they were connected and the blue “Bluetooth” indication light on the phone started to blink. All in all, very simple and efficient process to get this “Bridge” option enabled.
I opted not to setup the Blackberry Desktop Software since my primary PC is Ubuntu Linux rather than Windows or Mac thus I skipped this final step. I was then forced to take two usage “tutorials” which my first reaction was “What? Why can’t I skip this step? I’m a smart guy. I want to figure this out my own way.” The tutorials were very brief and ensured one had a basic understanding of the specific PlayBook gestured needed to effectively interact with the device. In hindsight, I’m glad RIM made me complete those tutorial steps because I was instantly comfortable with gesture device navigation when I was given control of the device post-setup.
Initial Connectivity Impressively Efficient as well - Tethering Success
Having used multiple tablets briefly prior, I was familiar with the general usage of a tablet and was immediately browsing the web and App Store. Even finding needed details about the device was very intuitive and centralized in one menu structure for stuff like MAC and IP addresses, screen and file sharing passwords, etc. My first real challenge in my mind was to test how to tether the PlayBook to my Curve in order to access the Internet through the carrier data plan on the phone. Again, I have to hand it to RIM, I was able to easily disable the wireless and by pressing the image and model of the Bluetooth connected Curve, I noticed my Curve go into “modem mode” and the PlayBook provide status indication of dialing, connecting and getting an IP address. Now I am toggling back to a browser and surfing the web at 3G speeds and seeing the familiar network traffic indicators on my phone. All in all, worked great the first time I tried it.
Next challenge was gaining file level access to the PlayBook. Again, very straight forward process that with, very little if any Google-ing for tips, I was able to setup the PlayBook to share it’s “media” folder as a wireless Windows share (account+password protected) as well as directly through a wired USB cable. Again, impressive to me how easily RIM has enabled this filesharing ability for me not using their Desktop Manager application but rather, low level basic networking functions in Ubuntu.
An interesting surprise was how, through the Bridge Bluetooth connection, the PlayBook was showing all of the media files I had on my Curve. Any option to open a file shows both a Curve and a PlayBook graphic that, once selected, shows the file system navigation on that device. It was intuitively easy for the PlayBook to source files from the Curve with me having to do absolutely nothing beyond that initial Bridge App setup.
Email, Contacts, Calendar, Tasks and Notes
Ok, by now, most of you are probably thinking “Hey, does this guy work for RIM? The media gave the PlayBook harsh reviews, what gives?”
As I mentioned before, my criteria for picking the PlayBook plus my existing Blackberry Curve mobile phone usage with RIM’s initial PlayBook design to work with a RIM phone seems to explain my initially positive experience. But don’t worry, things aren’t fully perfect if you read further.
One of the biggest complaints about the PlayBook from critics is that hard dependency on a Blackberry phone for email, contacts, etc. interaction. I can completely agree why the PlayBook would not be well received by an iPhone or Android phone user given no native email or calendar App support. But for me, the top left of the screen has indicators of new emails arriving and calendar alerts which were exceedingly pleasant and well integrated. As new emails were arriving on my phone, my PlayBook was indicating as such and I was able to touch the alert and be viewing my combined email accounts already setup on my phone. Near real-time updates were taking place between the two devices seamlessly. This seamless updating was happening on more than just email alerts and management.
Something I found almost creepy was how opening the same note in the MemoPad between the PlayBook and Curve showed near really time synchronous changes happening on the two devices. Type a character on the Curve and it shows up on both the Curve and PlayBook. If anyone has used Google Docs and worked on the same document at the same time with someone else, it was a similar experience of close to real-time changes.
This notion that my phone and tablet are constantly talking to each other and the tablet is openly sharing files like a file server wireless-ly to those near by really got me thinking about how highly connective our technology is these days.
The Bad – App Store
I was expecting to be disappointed with the PlayBook App Store selection but I was even more disappointed when I started searching for what I thought would be basic apps. No free ssh app? No free or paid integrated social media app (seesmic, tweetdeck, hootsuite, etc.)? Luckily I did find a free VNC client that works very well in connecting to and controlling vnc enabled systems. I also found a google reader app that allowed me to sync up on online google reader RSS reading to the PlayBook. Thus, I definitely agree with the media’s assessment of one of the biggest negatives of the PlayBook is the lack of the breath of native apps compared to the iOS and Android market. I’ll need to borrow my spouses Kindle Fire to see how Amazon’s set of Fire apps compares at some point.
Almost Bricked my PlayBook
Another interesting experience was locking up the PlayBook on my first attempt to play a media file. I copied over a WMA formatted brief movie as my first attempt trying out the media playing capabilities. Once copied, I started the movie and everything looked great: clear picture and clear sound out of the native speakers. Then, I naturally rotated the PlayBook to a landscape from portrait view and the movie visually froze in mid-diagonal re-orientation. The sound was still going but the picture was clearly frozen. No re-orientation nor swiping made any difference to the frozen picture. I then hit the pause button on the PlayBook and the sound stopped but no change in frozen display. Hitting the pause button to resume didn’t make any difference nor re-start the audio. With a bit of panic I check and I could still interact with the filesystem remotely so the whole unit wasn’t completely frozen. So, with some quick google-ing I found the need to hold in the power button for 10 seconds to reboot the device. My panic subsided when eventually I saw the same Blackberry logo splash on the screen that I saw when I first turned on the device. Once rebooted, everything seemed to work as normal.
PlayBook Rides the Train
One test that passed with flying colors was my goal to use the 20 minute or so train ride that is part of my daily commute to catch up on news via the Internet. Prior to having the PlayBook, once seated on the train, occasionally, I would break out my netbook and hard wire tether my Blackberry to access the Internet and use Bloglines.com to read through my collection of RSS feeds and the Seesmic web app to check Twitter feeds, etc. I must have seemed a bit silly as a 6’4” guy crammed into a small train seat with my over stuffed laptop bag, lunch bag and laptop with dangling cable and phone all hunched together. With my phone still in my pants pocket, I’ve now have my PlayBook out, Bluetooth tethered to the Internet and headphones connected listening to a podcast and swiping through news stories in a slightly less awkward seating arrangement.
Two thumbs way up on the easy of tethered Internet access and news/blog reading. Plus, just like those other tablet users, I’m jumping between the text-ish news feed over to richer web browser content, squishing and zooming the screen with deft finger touches.
Also, it might seem trivial to include a micro-USB cable and simple “sock” like cover, but the Kindle Fire came with neither and thus had to go find a micro-USB cable as well as procure some sort of cover to protect the Kindle from likely nicks and scrapes. With the simple “sock”, it isn’t fancy or exceedingly professional looking as a formal cover, but for me, being able to slide the PlayBook in the “sock” and then into my laptop bag for transport right away is great. Again, simple initial product accessory but really effective for basic users like myself.
OS 2 beta – Too Upgrade or Not Too Upgrade
Now, with all of the hype around the next OS 2 major upgrade from RIM that is presented to be “the way the PlayBook should have worked from the beginning” with native email, etc. clients, integrated social media extensions and build in Andoid App Market/App Player capabilities, the next big question is now that I have the PlayBook working pretty much the way I like for my immediate needs, should I go ahead an install the 2.0 beta and see what improvements have been incorporated … still considering to jump in early or wait for the final release.