Review: 4G LTE BlackBerry PlayBook

4g-lte-blackberry-playbook-review-1

After more than a year, and amid the drama, speculation and buzz surrounding BlackBerry 10, Research in Motion has rather silently delivered on their promise of a 4G BlackBerry PlayBook.  Putting aside the improved processor, 4G radio, and NFC,  you’d be hard-pressed to find any difference between it and the original PlayBook.  Yet, this could be considered a milestone in itself, marking RIM’s first true 4G LTE device.   In this review, we take a look at the new 4G BlackBerry PlayBook in all its 4G LTE glory.

Take a look at the unboxing video of the PlayBook if you haven’t already!

Straight to the Specs

  • PlayBook OS 2.0.1.668
  • 1.5 Ghz Dual-core TI OMAP 4460
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 32 GB Flash storage
  • 7″ Display at 1024×600 (~170 ppi)
  • 5MP rear camera, 3MP front camera
  • dual 1080p recording
  • 405 grams
  • 4G LTE/HSPA+ antenna
  • Bluetooth 3.1,  NFC, GPS, Magnetometer, Accelerometer, Gyroscope
  • 4800 mAh

Design

As you may have already postulated, the new 4G BlackBerry PlayBook looks almost exactly like the original.  It’s black.  It has the same oh-so-smooth matte-textured backing.  As far as design goes, it’s essentially the same tablet: elegant, bold, and stylish.  Get ready for some déjà vu.

The differences, though quite a few do exist, are pretty subtle.  Let’s start with the more obvious ones.  Peeking at the bottom edge of the PlayBook, the words “4G LTE • 32GB” should let you know that this is no ordinary PlayBook.  Just to the right of that, where the serial number is located, more sets of generally unimportant numbers are visible.

Being a data-enabled tablet, it does require a SIM card.  This card slides in a tray that pulls out from the bottom of the tablet which takes quite a bit of force to open up.  You won’t find this tray on the Wi-Fi only PlayBook for obvious reasons.  Inserting the SIM card was fairly simple.  The tray was very hard to remove without feeling like you were going to break something, though.  Once inside, it initially did not read it properly the first time.  However, re-inserting it again was the charm and it was good to go after that.

Thanks to my trusty micrometer, I found that it’s actually ever-so-slightly thicker than the original 16GB PlayBook.  And by slightly, I mean we’re talking fractions of a millimeter, so I wouldn’t panic just yet.  All that extra 4G goodness has got to go somewhere right?

According to RIM, the 4G PlayBook weighs the same 425 grams as the original.  But why not double check?  To my surprise, despite being slightly thicker, it actually weighs less on my scale!  About 4.7% less to be exact.  I measured a weight of 426 ± 1 grams on the original PlayBook, and this 4G PlayBook weighs in at only 406 ± 1 grams.  I’m guessing that’s all the extra battery that was taken out.

Remember that overblown power button fiasco with the original PlayBook review units, where the shallowness of the button made it aggravatingly hard to press?  Well, I am pleased to announce that RIM has not only solved this issue, but have even raised the button higher than before.  The power button has thus redeemed itself.  See for yourself!

And then there are the REALLY subtle differences that many will never even notice.  The shape of the rapid charging contacts has been changed.  No joke!  The three pins on the original PlayBook are cylindrical with slightly concave indents on the tips.  In the 4G PlayBook, the contacts are now run-of-the-mill cylindrical pins with flat tops!

This. Changes. Everything.  I know, I know, I must be kidding, right?  Not exactly, this is a big deal for me.  Charging the original PlayBook with a rapid charging stand has been a frustrating experience for me.  My Wi-Fi PlayBook doesn’t charge unless I use a secret kung-fu magic finger hold so the pins make contact.  With the new PlayBook, I can just place it on the stand and know that when I pick it up, it will be charged.  I don’t know how RIM managed to mess up magnetic charging contacts in the first place, but they sure made my day with the new 4G PlayBook by fixing it.

And we at N4BB don’t miss a thing.  The contacts on the inside of the audio/headphone jack have been flipped around 180 degrees.  The LED itself looks slightly different as well. The BlackBerry logo on back of the PlayBook has also been indented about half a millimeter as well.

Changes for the better?  Doubtful, but not for the worse either.  These are either slight differences between each PlayBook or minor overall manufacturing changes.

Display

The display, on paper, is the same 7” 1024×600 (WSVGA) capacitive touchscreen as on the original PlayBook.  But there are differences.  Compared side-by-side with the original PlayBook, the 4G PlayBook’s screen is noticeably yellow-er.  Of course, this is very hard to notice on its own. I’m not sure if this is a problem with this particular 4G PlayBook, or the all of the 4G units.  I would say this is a slight step back from the high quality screen we’ve seen from the original PlayBook.  It’s gone from great to merely average.  In the image below, the 4G PlayBook is the one on top.

The contrast is very similar as the original’s, as well as the saturation.  The 4G PlayBook is not as bright as the original PlayBook screen. The viewing angles are also not nearly as good, despite being still acceptable.  Outside, the 4G PlayBook’s screen naturally doesn’t fare as well.  With the Wi-Fi PlayBook’s screen being brighter than almost every tablet screen out there, you could make out the screen in direct sunlight.  This is less the case with the 4G PlayBook.  I’m no longer dazzled by the display quality, merely satisfied.

The screen isn’t resistant to fingerprints and smudges so don’t expect a flawlessly shiny display without using lint-free gloves while handling it.  The PlayBook comes with a cool BlackBerry-branded screen cleaning cloth, and you will probably make good use of it.

Sensors

The new 4G PlayBook is packed with features, much like the original.  It has a 6-axis gyroscope, accelerometer, light sensor, magnetometer, and a GPS.  Not much new here.  They all work sufficiently well…except the GPS.  While trying to use the (barely functional) Bing Maps bundled with all PlayBooks it could either a) not find a GPS signal or b) it thought I was in Guelph (500 km away).  Close, but no cigar.

I’ve even tried the Android Navigation app.  Apparently I’m still in Guelph.  That rules out the chance that it is an app-specific error.  Nevertheless, the GPS works great on the Wi-Fi PlayBook and I see no reason why the GPS in the 4G PlayBook would malfunction.  This is very strange behavior indeed.

4G Connectivity

With both LTE and HSPA+ radios, the 4G PlayBook allows you to have ultra-fast data speeds in major cities, and still reasonably fast speeds everywhere else.  We at N4BB were particularly excited for the LTE capability.  Thanks to Telus, we have access to a theoretical peak download speeds of a blistering 75 mbps over LTE.  There’s also HSPA+, but that’s slower and not as cool.  Let’s start with the LTE results using the “Speedtest” App in App World, here’s what we found.

By struggling to barely get two bars of LTE signal in my area, the 4G PlayBook managed a home-internet-shaming feat of 46.371 Mbps with an average of 22.182 Mbps.  The upload speeds consistently hover around the 1 Mbps level.  With such speeds, the PlayBook is one quick tablet on Telus’ LTE network.  Fortunately, if you happen to wander outside the present LTE coverage, good ol’ HSPA+ is there to keep you connected.  So let’s test out the PlayBook’s HSPA+ speed next.

The 4G PlayBook finishes the test with a very typical result of 7.679 Mbps max and 6.117 Mbps average download speeds.  The upload speeds settle in at around 0.681 Mbps max and 0.536 Mbps average. I did have a full 5 bars of HSPA+ signal to work with so I doubt the speeds get anywhere better closer to civilization.  Not to complain though, as it simply matched my Wi-Fi connection speed.  The fact that HSPA+ pales so much in comparison to LTE makes the HSPA+ result as lackluster.

Also, refusing to label HSPA+ as 3G , 3G+ or 3.5G speeds (even though it is), it is simply called “4G”.  LTE connectivity is simply labeled 4G LTE to differentiate itself from HSPA+.

Audio/Visual

For audio recording, dual microphones are located on the top of the PlayBook and provide stereo sound.  Similar to the original, this is still quite a rare find in a tablet and very welcoming to see.

Front-facing and rear-facing cameras with resolutions at 3MP and 5MP respectively provide very respectable image resolutions when taking pictures.  Much like the original PlayBook, the sensor isn’t amazing, so you won’t be taking great pictures in low light, or up-close (due to the lack of autofocus).   Here is a sample I took of a cup of coffee in medium lighting conditions.

Notice the lack of focus?  That’s because all PlayBooks have a fixed focus camera that requires at least a few feet of distance to an object to focus on it effectively.  And the noise?  Yeah, its not the best sensor I’ve seen.  I think it’s safe to say that this is not a replacement for your Hasselblad, nor should it be.  It’s a mediocre tablet camera.  As with most small-sensor cameras, you can only get great shots with a lot of light.

The stereo speakers are once again, identical to the original PlayBook and awesome.  You obviously won’t get studio quality sound out of any tablet, but the Playbook can dish out some serious volume without losing much in terms of quality or in the low-end . That in itself is quite an accomplishment.

Connectivity

Standard charging and data transferring is done through the Micro USB port.  The Micro HDMI port is still there and so is the magnetic rapid charging port for rapid charging.

The Wi-Fi antenna is still a welcoming 802.11 a/b/g/n.   The Bluetooth radio is 3.1 +EDR (updated) with support of the following Bluetooth profiles: Dial-Up Networking (DUN) Serial Port Profile (SPP), Secure Simple Pairing (SSP), Human Interface Device (HID).  That’s a great step forward from the 2.1 + EDR Bluetooth the original PlayBook had at launch.  Hopefully this will be updated to version 4.0 in the future.

As advertised, the 4G radio sets it apart from the PlayBook of old.  LTE (700, 1700 MHz), HSPA+ (2100, 1900, 1700, 800, 900 MHz).  Covering “faux” G (HSPA+) and the real 4G LTE bands, the 4G PlayBook is a truly portable tablet solution.

Unlike the original PlayBook, The 4G version technically has an NFC antenna. However, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t.  You apparently can’t use it until BlackBerry 10 comes along.  I have to admit that I’m not heartbroken because I’m not missing out on much.  NFC on the BlackBerry platform basically serves to add BBM contacts and transfer stuff between BlackBerry smartphones.  Since the PlayBook doesn’t have BBM yet (natively), you’re left without a way to transfer documents, contacts, or appointments over NFC.  Since the Playbook has great native contacts, email and calendar apps, I don’t see this as a problem, although the very act of integrating an NFC antenna helps to future-proof this tablet in case NFC usage explodes.

Chipset

If you looked up the word “beast” in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of the 4G PlayBook.  You asked for more power, and you’ve got it.  Let me introduce you to the 1.5 Ghz Dual-Core TI OMAP 4460 (conceivably it could even be the 4470).

Let’s check the numbers:

Fossil Speed  is an online benchmark site.  Although the numbers fluctuate quite a bit, we’re just getting a qualitative measure of how much of an improvement the 4G PlayBook’s chip is over the original PlayBook chip.

PlayBook

4G PlayBook

CPU Speed

~1300

~2600

Memory Allocation

~700

 ~700

Right out of the gate, the CPU speed test just goes to show that the new chipset can flex its mighty OMAP 4460 CPU.  The new 4G PlayBook clearly beats the original PlayBook by a factor of about 2.

As far as boot up times go, rebooting the 4G PlayBook takes exactly 3 minutes and 5 seconds, while booting from the off state takes a quicker 1 minutes and 28 seconds.  Why the big difference?  Well, the shutdown time on the PlayBook is significant and does take quite a while.  As we compare this to the Wi-Fi PlayBook, we will stick to OS 2.0.1.668 to keep it a fair test. The Wi-Fi PlayBook reboots in 3 minutes and boots from the off state in exactly 2 minutes.  With a 50% increase in clock speed, it makes sense that the 4G PlayBook boots up nearly 50% faster from the off-state.

And of course, there’s the inevitable comparison to the new iPad, which has upgraded camera, screen and processor.  The PlayBook does pack quite a bit of firepower to seriously give the iPad a run for its money.  Of course, the iPad’s graphics processing ability would still be greater.  I think the 4G PlayBook’s faster processor, NFC radio and 4G radio could even qualify for a “new” prefix in front as well.

Battery Life

Battery life is always a complicated question to answer.  With the new faster chipset in the 4G PlayBook, you might expect that the battery life would be less than the original’s.  But this depends on what you’re doing: watching video, keeping it on standby, or web browsing.   However, the plot thickens…Riddle me this, Batman: How does the 4G PlayBook end up with a smaller 4800 mAh battery, despite being slightly thicker?  At least the smaller battery is what allows it to become lighter than the original PlayBook.  Consequently, I’d expect the 4G PlayBook to lose if it came down to battery life.

Carrying through with my unscientific test on battery consumption, I’ve fired up the same apps and had both on maximum brightness and kept the 4G PlayBook with a 4G(HSPA+) and  Wi-Fi connection.  I wanted to see what would happen under typical usage conditions.  After about half an hour of doing identical tasks on each tablet, I could tell this wasn’t going to be good.

With the Wi-Fi PlayBook having a battery life of about 7 hours.  The 4G PlayBook would barely make it past 4 hours.  Turning off the 4G radio, the 4G PlayBook settled into it a groove, matching the Wi-Fi PlayBook to the percent.  Moral of the story: 4G and battery life don’t mesh well.  This is without LTE.  My guess is that it would be abysmal with LTE on.   But we like to live dangerously.

Updated:

Interestingly, with LTE and Wi-Fi enabled, the battery doesn’t seem to drain much faster than a Wi-Fi PlayBook over–you guessed it–Wi-Fi (even with the poor LTE signal).  I wasn’t using any data though, so the LTE radio might have been on standby to save power.  Switching to just LTE and doing some web browsing and speed tests, I started to see that battery run down as fast as the HSPA+ radio.

Summary, you’re looking at about 7 hours of battery life on medium usage with Wi-Fi, and around 4 hours on HSPA+ or LTE.

Browser

The browser is one of the PlayBook’s best features, and this shouldn’t change for the 4G PlayBook.  With a faster processor, the rendering and JavaScript processing should be quicker.

Note that the 4G PlayBook is shipped with OS 2.0, not the latest (and not so greatest) OS 2.1 Beta.   There has been changes made to the browser in these two versions so keep this in mind.

 

OS 2.1

(PlayBook)

OS 2.0 

(4G PlayBook)

iOS 5.1

(iPad 3)

Chrome on Android 3.2 (Transformer Prime)

HTML5test.com 

393 + 10

373 + 9

324 + 9

371 + 11

Sunspider (lower is better)

2237.2

1453.0

1810

2216

BrowserMark 

61209

80435

99908

107632

Note:  Since I do not own an iPad or Transformer Prime, I’ve simply borrowed the respective figures from reputable sites (such as Engadget).

Below is the SunSpider 0.9.1 result.

The HTML5 test score is dependent only the browser, measuring how well it plays nicely with HTML5.  This score generally increases with the latest operating systems as updates are made.  As expected, the original PlayBook running OS 2.1 wins, beating out the competition pretty decisively.  It is also important to note that the Dev Alpha, while not technically a tablet, scores a ridiculously high 447 + 10 bonus points. This bodes well for both PlayBook tablets which should receive the BlackBerry 10 update (or other intermediate ones) in 2013, significantly boosting their HTML5test.com score.

The SunSpider test is where the 4G PlayBook really shines–or more like amazes.  This measures how quickly various javascript functions are carried out in the browser.  TRANSLATION:  The lower this number, the faster your browser is generally.  With the beefed up chipset, the PlayBook absolutely demolishes the old PlayBook, the new iPad, the Transformer Prime (with its fancy pants Tegra 3), and almost all tablets (and smartphones I believe) in existence at the moment.

With the BrowserMark test, the 4G PlayBook bests the original PlayBook by almost 20,000 points, but still loses out quite clearly to the new iPad and the Transformer Prime.  Since the Browsermark measures mostly JavaScript performance, I find it strange that the PlayBook would do so poorly(or other tablets do so well) after doing so well on the SunSpider test.

Software

As with most heroes, a single weakness can be their greatest downfall.  In this case, the Achilles’ heel of the 4G PlayBook (like the original) is software.  Unfortunately, almost nothing has changed on the software front.  The only differences are the SIM card and Mobile Network options in the Settings Menu.

Compared to the competition, the PlayBook simply does not have the services, software maturity or applications to best the likes of the iPad or Android tablets.  Unlike the launch of the original PlayBook, the 4G PlayBook does ship with OS 2.0, bringing with it respectable email, calendar and contacts apps.  Beyond that, the 4G PlayBook begins to show chinks in its armor.  Among the 15,000+ apps in App World, a few big-name apps such as Skype, Netflix and Hulu are missing.  The Bing maps application is functional, yet poorly designed and lacks features and effort (quite frankly).  There is no native photo-editing solution.  The music player and Docs to Go just aren’t good enough.  Adobe Reader is just a PDF Reader; no more, no less.

Yet, just like the original, there are some moments where the PlayBook just shines.  There is quite a selection of quality games.  Print to Go is an awesome and unique app.  The video chat app works very well.  The weather app is simple and very good-looking, much like the voice notes app.  Despite lacking the features and polish of the native apps, BlackBerry Bridge is a feature unlike no other, sharing personal data between smartphone and tablet, synchronously and securely.

There is a silver lining though.  Two words: Android apps.  With a simple sideload of some of Android’s most popular apps, you can achieve most of the same functionality as an Android tablet.  Google Maps, RepliGo Reader, Gallery, Flipboard, Winamp, Whatsapp, Kik, Google Navigation, eBay, Dropbox, LinkedIn…the list goes on.  The Android Player isn’t up to snuff yet, but it does work.  It is quite a process, so it may be limited to the more technologically keen. See our how to side-load Android apps tutorial here.

Value

We finally come to the most understated category of reviews: value.  At $550 (off-contract), the PlayBook 4G LTE isn’t anywhere close to the starting price of $199 (I’ve seen it on sale for $179 at the moment) for the Wi-Fi PlayBook.   At first glance, I can’t see as much value to the everyday consumer when compared to the bargain-of-the-year Wi-Fi PlayBook.  For the extra $350, you get 16GB more storage space, a 4G LTE and HSPA+ radio, NFC capability (in the future) and a (significantly) faster processor.  That’s almost two extra Wi-Fi PlayBooks, right?  Yet, as “Bill Nye the Science Guy” would say, consider the following:

List of LTE Tablets

Price Lowest price with contract 32GB?
PlayBook LTE $550 $350 Y
Galaxy Tab LTE $550-650 $200 N
32 GB iPad LTE $720-750 $720 Y
Droid XYboard LTE $530 $530 Y
PanTech Element LTE $400 $250 N ( but expandable)
HTC Jetstream LTE $550 $400 Y

I’ve compiled a list of what kinds of LTE tablets I can get and the price of them on and off contract (correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what I’ve found).  When compared most tablets, the PlayBook lines up pretty much with most of the mid-range LTE Android tablets with 32 GB of internal storage.  But comparing tablets is a difficult task.  The only competition is budget Android Honeycomb tablets which compromise hardware features for app selection and Google services.   You’ll likely get a slower tablet, worse display, cheaper build, worse speakers, no 1080p video recording and no stereo speakers/microphones.  Comparing the 4G PlayBook to the iPad is laughable in terms of value.  The PlayBook is easily 200$ cheaper without a contract, and about half the price of the iPad on contract.  The iPad offers lots of apps, a very nice screen and Apple’s services.  The PlayBook has many advantages over the iPad as well so it really depends on what you want and becomes a subjective decision.

But at $550, the 4G PlayBook isn’t the superb deal like the Wi-Fi PlayBook, but may serve a certain niche in the enterprise/business market.  Say you want a very portable, data-enabled, durable, fast, reasonably-priced, very secure tablet, the 4G PlayBook would be your best bet, but not by far.  The Samsung Galaxy Tab series is FIPS certified (perhaps not to the same level though) but generally costs more, and lacks certain hardware advantages.

Looking into how the 4G PlayBook will hold its value is difficult. The Wi-Fi PlayBooks have lost about the same amount of value over time as most tablets have, despite their superior build and hardware.  This is because of the immaturity of the operating system and inferior app selection.  The stability of the operating system, and the future upgrade to BlackBerry 10 is what keeps the long-term value of the PlayBook from diminishing further.  The 4G PlayBook will suffer from the lack of apps and marketing appeal just like the PlayBook has.  It is such a great piece of hardware that will last years and should remain a powerful tablet when it does receive the BlackBerry 10 upgrade.

Summary

With 4G connectivity, a faster processor and NFC, the 4G PlayBook is a rock-solid upgrade from the original PlayBook.  I’m actually surprised they didn’t call it the PlayBook 2, or the new PlayBook for that matter.  The processor is a straight-up beast, the build is still solid, the LTE speeds are very fast.  It’s a very future-proof tablet solution, provided BlackBerry 10 does deliver the complete software package.

With a large price gap between the two PlayBook models, it’s not the most worthwhile upgrade for the money.  What the PlayBook needs more than anything else is software; software that empowers the user to accomplish complex tasks with the least amount of work.  Hence the reason for BlackBerry 10.  Sometime in mid-2013, the PlayBook series of tablets should receive the upgrade to BlackBerry 10, which should offer a comprehensive tablet solution for consumers.  The 4G PlayBook, as it stands, should appeal to enterprise customers who are looking for a professional, secure, always-connected tablet without the company swimming in red ink.  For the average consumer, the original PlayBook is much more of a steal and still is quite fast and capable, especially with a paired BlackBerry smartphone.

Overall, this tablet improves on the Wi-Fi PlayBook in many ways, including some that you’d never expect.  With these hardware improvements, the software weaknesses are also more glaring than they were before.  Looking at the negatives, you’re not going to be as impressed with the display and the HSPA+ will drain that battery quick.  But the latter part was expected.  Its lighter and faster, but I’d rather more of that weight go to a larger battery.

We all know that the iPad sells because it has the selection of apps, elegance, and the simplified user experience that many consumers want.  Unfortunately, the 4G PlayBook won’t be a best-seller, or even on the podium for that matter.  It will likely appeal mostly to enterprise customers looking for that portable, powerful, secure tablet solution.   Ignoring software, it truly is a no-compromises tablet.  However, the software on the 4G PlayBook is still unchanged from the original PlayBook.  Realizing a 4G PlayBook running a complete version of BlackBerry 10 would have been a great success f0r RIM.  Remember the potential of the original PlayBook?  Double that and you have completely described the 4G PlayBook.

 





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