RIM’s PlayBook is without a doubt, one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated devices ever launched.
From its poorly planned debut and lacklustre feature set, to the dearth of available apps (compared to other platforms) and a lack of cellular data at launch, the PlayBook has had a rough ride.
But RIM isn’t giving up on the PlayBook – as evidenced by the newest 4G/LTE version – and neither should folks who want to use their tablet for work and play.
Despite its shortcomings, which incidentally are fewer and fewer as time goes by, the BlackBerry PlayBook possesses two features that make it unique in the tablet landscape. One of those features is the ability to tether your BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook, giving you full access to your BlackBerry’s features but on a much bigger screen.
The second is BlackBerry Balance. Balance lets you create a complete separation between work and personal tasks on the PlayBook, a truly outstanding feature that neither Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android platforms have been able to deliver.
Sure, you can enable parental controls on these devices, but these restrictions disable apps completely instead of creating a virtual wall between work and personal apps. It’s the baby-sitter or nanny approach to control.
With BlackBerry Balance, once you’ve indicated that you want to create a “work” container, you can lock the Messages, Contacts, Calendar and Work Browser with a single password. Once locked, these applications are no longer accessible, but the rest of the tablet’s apps remain available – even a secondary instance of the web browser for personal browsing.
This ability to put all of your sensitive work-related info behind a locked door is a boon to families and anyone else who finds that their tablet ends up being passed from one person to another. RIM’s realization that our tablets – even more than our phones – are becoming shared devices, is a brilliant insight.
It’s not without flaws, however. The first being that in order to use BlackBerry Balance, you need to connect your PlayBook to an enterprise email account which is running RIM’s proprietary software on the back-end. If you just use a blackberry.net email address, or a POP email account like the one give to you by your ISP, the feature isn’t available to you.
Balance also plays somewhat heavy-handedly with your locked apps. For instance, if you have a work account and a personal account set up in the Messages app, once locked, you can’t access either. RIM needs to (and claims to have plans to) find a way to only lock that which is work-related, leaving all personal data accessible.
These limitations notwithstanding, BlackBerry Balance is easily the most compelling and unique feature on the PlayBook. I doubt it will be long before Google and Apple catch up, but in the meantime, RIM has a killer app on their hands.
At a time when the company is holding its breath for the next 4-5 months until it can release the promised line of BlackBerry 10 devices, it needs all of the help it can get.
The new 4G LTE PlayBook launched by RIM yesterday, with all three major carriers, is essentially the same PlayBook the company released a little over a year ago. To say this is a “new” PlayBook would be overstating things. Other than the 4G/LTE cellular data connection option indicated in the model’s name, the only difference is the processor, which received a modest speed bump from 1 GHZ to 1.5 GHZ.
Literally everything else about the 7″ tablet remains the same. Even the box it ships in.
So you’d think that this slightly updated PlayBook would be priced in-line with the non-LTE versions you can find on store shelves today i.e. $229 for a 32GB model. Nope, not even close.
Turns out the 4G/LTE PlayBook, which only comes in the 32GB capacity so far, retails at most carriers for the astonishing price of $549 without a contract.
Let that sink in for a moment…
If you want a PlayBook with 4G/LTE connectivity and a slightly faster processor, you’ll be shelling out an additional $320, or put another way, 139% more.
Just to be clear, this is not an indictment of the tablet itself. The PlayBook, while still under-appreciated by much of the tech media, and certainly not a fan-favourite with consumers, in nonetheless a very good tablet. To see how well it has aged, check out Marc Saltzman’s comparison between the PlayBook and the brand-new Google Nexus 7. The addition of 4G/LTE is a really great option – much like other 4G/LTE devices, it absolutely blazes along. In downtown Toronto at mid-day (peak network usage time) I was able to get speeds of 35Mbps download and 5Mbps upload. Not too shabby.
But poor sales numbers forced RIM to heavily discount all models of the PlayBook, thus changing the landscape dramatically. No longer were we to compare the PlayBook to its larger and more expensive competitor – the iPad. Instead, especially here in Canada where the Kindle Fire isn’t on sale, we now see the PlayBook as a great alternative for people who don’t want an ereader and a tablet – the PlayBook is small enough and inexpensive enough to be both (precisely the territory Google is hoping to exploit with the $209 Nexus 7).
All of which means, unfortunately for RIM, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
There is no world now, in which a 32GB PlayBook with 4G/LTE is worth $549.
The very most RIM can expect to people to pay for this mobile speed premium is $130 – the same price difference that Apple slaps on all 4G/LTE versions of the iPad – which means a new 4G/LTE PlayBook should actually cost $359. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) that is exactly $10 more than the 3-year term subsidized price of the new PlayBook: $349.
Now, I know there are folks out there who will point out that even at $549, the 4G/LTE PlayBook is still $100 cheaper than a comparably equipped 16GB iPad which only has half the storage. That’s absolutely correct. But don’t forget, Apple’s latest iPad is a technological tour-de-force with a screen resolution unmatched by any tablet. And even if comparisons to the iPad were meaningful (they aren’t at this point in time), it can’t change the fact that RIM’s own discounting of the original PlayBook has created this unfavourable situation.
RIM, expecting the backlash from the 4G/LTE pricing, has decided to throw the carriers under the bus. “RIM works closely with its carrier partners on its product launches. Pricing, plans and contracts are determined by the carrier,” according to RIM’s agency, Brodeur Partners of New York.
This seemingly out-of-touch-with-reality pricing might be, in some twisted way, RIM’s way of getting you to buy a BlackBerry. I know, sounds wacky, but hear me out:
For $99 on a 3-year contract, you can get RIM’s range-topping Bold 9900 4G. It may not have LTE speeds, but it’s still a great device for productivity. And because the PlayBook’s biggest draw for BlackBerry owners is the ability to tether the two devices seamlessly, sharing one data connection, you could pick up a 32GB non-4G/LTE PlayBook for $229. Since you’ll already be paying for the monthly carrier charges on the Bold, there’s no need to pay again just to provide the PlayBook with its own data connection.
If RIM still has a surplus of PlayBooks it’s trying to get rid of, which the current pricing seems to confirm, this strategy might make sense: in giving people lots of incentive to buy BlackBerrys and PlayBooks together instead of just PlayBooks on their own, the company addresses two problems at once – getting rid of their soon-to-be-obsolete BlackBerrys and surplus PlayBooks.
It’s a long-shot, to be sure, but these days – sadly – everything about RIM is looking like a long-shot.
I like the PlayBook. Especially at its current $200 price point for 16GB. Everyone I’ve spoken to who owns one still enjoys using it and has no regrets. But I can’t get behind a $320 premium for 4G/LTE connectivity, the value simply isn’t there.
You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals at CrackBerry.com – they’re on a roll. First they publish some leaked photos of the as-yet-unannounced BlackBerry Superphone codenamed “London”, and now they’ve posted some similarly leaked photos of the next OS that will power the make-it-or-break-it devices from RIM.
Makes you wonder if these “leaks” are leaks at all, or a clever guerilla marketing effort designed to create some buzz for the beleaguered tech giant.
It makes sense if you think about it: Given all of the negative press RIM has received as of late, it certainly can’t do any harm to let it slip out that it is indeed working toward a new and improved hardware and software system if only to give some hope to those thinking of jumping ship.
And in a best-case scenario, the company can use the informal feedback from reader comments and blogger reactions to gauge whether they’re on the right track or need to do some last-minute course-corrections. I know that’s certainly not how Apple would go about product development, but RIM can’t claim (unlike Apple) that they have an innate sense of what the user wants before the user knows (or at least it’s been a long time since RIM has shown this prescience).
You can see all of the leaked shots over at CrackBerry.com and make up your mind if you think BB 10 is headed in the right direction. My initial reaction is yes, I like what I see. There’s no question the new UI borrows heavily from iOS, but then again so did Android. Some things just work. But RIM has also borrowed from Android too with the homescreen widgets concept, demonstrating what Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying: “Great artists steal”.
If this phone had been built by anyone other than RIM we might be reading about it in glowing terms with words like “sleek”, “elegant” and “sophisticated” being used to describe it.
But poor RIM can do nothing right these days it seems, even when it partners with iconic design house, Porsche Design.
What you’re looking at is the latest addition to an already crowded BlackBerry model line-up, the P’9981. But don’t worry, you aren’t likely going to see too many of them in stores or even on the street, unless that street is Yorkville Avenue in Toronto or Rodeo Drive in L.A. That’s because the Porsche Design P’9981 is not for you and I. It’s for people who are willing to spend a lot of money for something exclusive, even if there isn’t a shred of new technology under the hood. Because despite the re-worked exterior, the P’9981 is basically just a Bold 9900 in every other respect. RIM doesn’t plan to sell the P’9981 through any of the usual channels, opting instead for the exclusivity of Porsche Design stores. How exclusive is that you ask? Well, let’s just say that if you’re Canadian, it requires some cross-border shopping.
And again, if this had been built by VERTU, a luxury phone maker owned by Nokia, or perhaps a Korean company looking to do something special for the Asian market, no one would bat an eye. But we’re talking about RIM. A company that has had serious network outages, slipping market share, a poorly received tablet, a new operating system that has no launch date and a music service that has yet to see the light of day. So naturally, people hate this new handset.
I disagree. I’m not enthralled by the price – in fact I think it’s completely unjustified. But this BlackBerry is a thing of beauty. I’ve long been a fan of the Porsche Design team and their various products (everything from pens to coffee makers) and the P’9981 is unmistakably Porsche. From its super-clean lines to its flush, full-width glass screen and the all-stainless look – it’s sexy.
So what baffles me about the product is not so much the price (ludicrous) or people’s reaction to it (predictable) – it’s the way RIM chose to tell the world about it. Sorry let me re-phrase: the way they chose NOT to tell the world. At least not the North American press.
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Try to find an article on this phone in the major media from Canada or the U.S. and you’ll come up with little or nothing. Why would a Canadian company like RIM go out of its way to exclude Canadian media from this product launch?
Was it an oversight? I doubt it. Were they experimenting with the power of a virally-driven launch to see if it would get better coverage than a conventional press release? Nah.
I think RIM is embarrassed by the P’9981 and were kind of hoping that no one over here would notice. Which is why the launch of the phone took place in Dubai. A place that is nearly half a world away from Canada geographically, and in an entirely different universe economically.
Is the midst of one of the worst recessions in memory the right time to launch a phone for the uber-elite? Is now the right time in RIM’s history to be focused on style over substance? No. It isn’t.
Is the P’9981’s conspicuous excess a sign that RIM has lost what focus it once had, or is it merely another bump in an already pot-hole ridden highway?
Perhaps RIM should have asked Porsche for a Cayenne instead of a P’9981. They could do with a little extra clearance.
It’s here – the device long dubbed the “BlackPad” by industry watchers and it’s name is the BlackBerry PlayBook. But most people are now calling it the iPad for enterprise.
It has a multi-touch 7″ screen which runs at a typical netbook resolution of 1024×600 and is supported by a 1Ghz dual-core processor and a custom OS (powered by QNX, who RIM purchased earlier) which can run Flash – a big issue for people who have held off buying an iPad for it’s lack of support for this widely-used web content type.
The other area where the iPad disappointed but that newcomers to the field have been quick to improve on is the integration of webcams. The PlayBook sports two of them – one forward and on rear-facing and both support HD resolutions.
It can run a variety of different media codecs for playback, and though you won’t able to see full-HD on the 7″ screen, the addition of a mini-HDMI port means that if you connect it to an HD-capable display, the PlayBook should serve very nicely as a platform for movies and perhaps more importantly, given the focus on business, slide-shows.
Finally, the presence of a mini-USB port will go a long way to appease those who felt the iPad should have had this feature at launch. Interestingly, unlike the iPad, there is no 3G version of the PlayBook – at least for now. Instead, RIM is thinking that you will most likely pair the PlayBook to your regular BlackBerry which will give you 3G and a host of other features – an aspect of the device they call “device pairing”. Once paired, you’ll have access to all of your email, calendar, contacts etc.
Alas, no word on price just yet, but it’s a safe bet RIM won’t target too far from the range that Apple has established for the iPad.
Video below. So readers, is this the tablet you’ve been waiting for?
We don’t have all the details yet regarding full carrier availability, but for those who are anxious to get their hands on RIM’s latest toy, here’s what we do know:
TELUS, Rogers and Bell Mobility are planning to launch the device on September 24th.(see update below) TELUS isn’t offering any rate plan info yet, but Bell and Rogers have said that it will be available for as low at $199 on a 3-year contract. It’s likely that TELUS will offer something similar.
No word yet on which of the other carriers (Virgin, Fido etc.)
The $199 (see update below) price point is a bit of a surprise given that the iPhone 4 is available for $159 on a similar three-year term and actually comes with more memory out of the box (16GB) than the Torch (combined 8GB). However there is a massive untapped group of users out there who refuse to give up their BlackBerrys – especially the physical keyboard – and are desperate for a modern mobile browser which the Torch certainly delivers.
Marc was impressed but not blown away by the Torch’s specs, and suspects that it’s a case of too little too late. Now that I see the pricing, I’m wondering if it’s going to be a case of too little, too late and too pricey. But that, as they say, remains to be seen since very few people have actually had a chance to try out RIM’s first slider-touchscreen phone.
Update, September 24th: Okay, well here we are on the day that the Torch was supposed to launch here in Canada, but clearly that hasn’t happened. The good news is that all of the carriers have now gotten official with a new date (September 30th) but more importantly, a new price: $179 on a 3-year contract. Now that’s still a premium on the price of a base-model iPhone 4, but only by $20. I’ve had the Torch for just under a week now, and while my initial impressions are good, I think it’s going to be a hard sell if RIM is looking to convert any iPhone users to their platform. Stay tuned, we’ll publish our full impressions soon!
Here’s what we now know about the service as of its launch:
- It will be available as a web service at www.slacker.com
- There will be a basic tier of service that is free of charge, but this is essentially a free 30 day trial because as of launch Slacker hasn’t been able to establish an advertising model that would keep it free indefinitely in Canada
- The paid or “Plus” service will cost $4.99 USD/month if you pay monthly, or $3.99 USD/month if you buy one year of service up front
- The paid version includes song lyrics, a station-creation function, no advertising, unlimited “skips”, and a caching feature which stores songs on your device so you don’t need to stream them in real-time
- The BlackBerry App will be supported, and will be available to Canadians as a version 3 release. In the U.S. version 3 won’t be available for several weeks
- The Android app will be released shortly after launch and the iPhone/iPod Touch app as soon as Slacker can get them approved in Apple’s App Store
- Slacker has discontinued production of their own hardware player, the G2, and has no plans to release any other hardware but is still selling their remaining inventory in the U.S. If you manage to buy one, it will work in Canada
- The mobile apps can connect through Wi-Fi (if your device has it) or via your smartphone’s data connection though obviously your data plan will determine how much this connectivity will cost
- If you prefer not to use your data plan, you can sync your smartphone via a USB cable to your PC or Mac
- Song quality varies slightly depending on the platform you are using due to codec differences, but the basic standard is the equivalent of an MP3 encoded at 128 kbps (nearly CD quality to the average set of ears)
- Slacker’s Canadian library of songs is smaller than in the U.S., but the company says that over time the two will reach parity and then grow at the same rate as new songs are added to each service simultaneously
- Though some online forums have speculated that Canadian carriers might seek to block the Slacker app, the company is in talks with all of the major carriers and at this point they have no reason to believe that their app will be blocked by any carrier on any device
- There will be fewer stations in Canada (60-70) than in the U.S. (over 100), partially due to the nature of licensing some forms of content – Hispanic stations and Holiday-themed stations are two examples of stations that won’t be available, however the top 50 U.S. stations will be part of the Canadian line-up
- Slacker has partnered with Canadian music experts to create stations specifically for their Canadian audience, though no examples were given on what they might be including Canadian Rock, Canadian Country and Canadian Today’s Hits
- Any device that supports the Slacker service will be updated to work with Canadian accounts
I will be trying out Slacker on Wednesday when it launches and I hope to have a full review for you soon after. Some of the features of Slacker I’m most interested in are:
- flagging songs for removal from a given station if you never want to hear it again
- creating your own custom stations by adding individual songs, or entire artist collections
- using the BlackBerry app to automatically update my favourite stations overnight so that I have the latest music the next day (if your BlackBerry has Wi-Fi, it will use that connection instead)
If you’re interested, checkout CNET.com’s review of the 2.0 version of the Slacker app for the BlackBerry. You can also read up on the Slacker service in the Wikipedia entry though obviously some of the info needs to be updated.
As I write this, I am waiting for a chance to speak with Slacker’s SVP of Marketing, Jonathan Sasse, to confirm the details, but wanted to update Sync readers with the good news right away.
It appears that the Canadian expansion of the free online radio service is part of a series of announcements from the U.S.-based company which include:
- Slacker Radio 2.0 for iPhone and iPod touch – Greater performance with wireless station caching for listening to music without a network connection
- Slacker Radio 2.0 for Android – Enhanced functionality, including wireless station caching
- Slacker Radio 3.0 for BlackBerry smartphones – Streamlined interface and improved performance with integrated wireless station caching
- Slacker Radio for Palm webOS– New free Slacker Radio mobile app for Palm Pre and Palm Pixi smartphones
- ABC Headline News – Addition of ABC News to Slacker Radio providing up-to-the minute breaking stories and reports
More details to come…
Here are some screen shots the company provided illustrating their app on 4 mobile platforms: iPhone, Android, Blackberry & Palm OS…