Tagged: PlayBook

Hipstreet Equinox 2 10.1" Android tablet review

Now might just be the worst time in the year to be making a buying decision when it comes to tablets.

Not only do we have more choice than ever when it comes to these devices, but those choices seem to be expanding daily.

A few months ago Google launched its first tablet, the Nexus 7, a 7-inch model made by ASUS, for the extremely competitive price of $229 – less than half the price of an iPad. Yesterday, Microsoft revealed its pricing on the new line of Windows 8 RT devices known as “Surface.” At $499 it too is cheaper than the iPad, albeit not by much, but has a much larger screen and vastly expanded support for external peripherals and memory.

Plus, it’s a virtual guarantee that tomorrow, Apple will be launching its own line of smaller iPads, rumoured to be called the “iPad Mini” with price range between $250-$350.

All of this creates an environment where consumers will be able to choose not only three different mobile operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows 8) but several excellent choices when it comes to the hardware that these operating systems run on.

It’s into this incredibly packed and competitive market that Canadian company Hipstreet hopes to sell its 10.1″ Android tablet, the Equinox 2.

On paper, the Equinox 2 sounds like it hits all of the right notes:

  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • 5 point multi touch screen, 16×9 ratio, 1024×600 resolution
  • MicroSD card reader
  • WiFi b/g/n
  • 4GB capacity – expandable to 32 GB with Micro SD card (not included)
  • 1.2 GHZ processor with 1GB DDR3 RAM
  • Rechargable lithium polymer battery built-in
  • High speed direct mini USB 2.0 interface (x2) plus HDMI
  • Built in speakers
  • Built-in front facing 0.3MP camera
  • Multiple language format
  • MSRP: $229

Not a bad set of specifications. At first glance, with the exception of built-in memory, it appears to offer much more tablet for the buck than the similarly priced Google Nexus 7. But specs can be deceiving – especially when it comes to portable devices. Tablets, smartphones, portable gaming systems – even laptops – get handled a lot and our tactile experience with these products depends heavily on their use of materials and build quality. This is where the Equinox 2 hits a fairly significant snag.

You notice a couple of things right away after picking up the Equinox 2:

– The back panel is made of plastic. And not the kind of grippy plastic that you might find on the Nexus 7 or even a BlackBerry PlayBook.  Instead, it has a glossy black finish which is both smooth and oddly tacky to the touch. When you first look at it, it has a kind of high-end piano-like sheen to it, but within minutes of handling it, that sheen is replaced with a mess of finger prints, smudges and dust particles. The material acts like a Swiffer for dirt. So while many devices use plastic as all or part of their exteriors, not all plastics are equal.

– The Equinox 2’s edges are flat, but become bevelled where they meet the screen’s surface. At both the flat-to-bevel and bevel-to-screen transitions, there are hard ridges that  feel uncomfortable in the hand after a while – it’s a small thing, but given that HipStreet encourages Equinox 2 owners to use it as an e-reader, you would expect a device that feels great to hold for longer periods.

– The screen surface is also plastic. Unlike the back and sides of a tablet, which can be successfully designed with plastic, a touchscreen’s surface has to possess certain qualities: Effortless finger glides for the hundreds of taps and swipes you’ll be performing; an even surface so that distortion is kept to a minimum; static-free – even though finger smudges are unavoidable, extra dust and dirt particles are not. The Equinox 2 misses the mark on all fronts.

The surface itself is riddled with small undulations – mostly toward the edges but a few creep into the main viewing area. As a material, high-quality glass alleviates all of these concerns, whereas cheap plastic makes them worse. How much worse? The resistance I feel while dragging my fingers across the Equinox’s screen surface is significant. If you’d never tried a device like the iPad or PlayBook, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was normal for a touch-screen. It isn’t. Even the surface of my decidedly dusty computer desk proved to be smoother for finger-dragging. And when you combine the friction of the surface with the hit-and-miss nature of the screen’s responsiveness to taps, the effort of interacting with the Equinox 2 becomes truly annoying.

A very noticeable light leak appears in the lower-left corner of the Equinox 2.

Turn the Equinox 2 on, and further evidence of poor design and build quality present themselves.

With the tablet lying on its back on a smooth surface like a tabletop, even slight pressure against the device’s bezel caused the screen to distort in a roughly thumb-print sized area just above the middle of the screen. You could see this when tapping almost anywhere on tablet’s screen or even on the back panel.

The screen also exhibits moderate-to-bad light leakage on the lower left side of the screen, where the gap between the plastic touch panel and the LCD beneath it is particularly noticeable.

At 10.1″, the Equinox 2 offers plenty of size, but the low resolution of 1024×600 means the pixel density is very low, resulting in graphics and text that are rougher around the edges and harder to read than tablets with the same resolution but with smaller screen sizes. Despite the tablet’s ideal movie ratio of 16×9, the resolution isn’t sufficient to deliver all of the detail in a 720p HD video. If you want to see videos in their native format, you’ll have to use the HDMI port.

My gripes about the Equinox 2’s design and build quality aside, the tablet does have some strengths.

The inclusion of USB ports that support not only the connection of the tablet to a PC for content transfers, but also the other way around – to read and write data from accessories like thumb drives and portable hard drives, is a great feature often only found on tablets that cost twice as much as the Equinox. Likewise, having an HDMI port is handy for those who want to watch videos on the big screen. The ability to expand memory via MicroSD cards is also a plus, though frankly given the Equinox 2’s paltry 4GB of on-board storage, popping in an 8 or 16GB MicroSD card is practically a requirement to enjoy this device.

The Equinox 2 boasts more ports than the average tablet, including a USB Host port.

But these features are only of real benefit to the user if you have great apps and other content to run on the Equinox, which brings me to my next major reservation with HipStreet’s latest tablet.

It runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which in my opinion is the first version of Google’s OS that gives Apple’s iOS a serious run for the money. Apps open quickly, and transitions are managed smoothly. Switching between open apps is a snap, and the included Dolphin browser is serviceable if not super-speedy. The Equinox 2 runs ICS well enough, but there’s a catch.

Not all Android tablets and smartphones are the same. Well, they’re the same in principal – Google makes the base Android OS free to use by any company on any device – but if you want the full Android experience, you need to buy a device that has been certified by Google as “Compatible“. In other words, a device that has passed Google’s test to ensure that all 3rd party apps written for the Android OS will work, and one which is eligible to run Google’s own native apps such as Chrome, YouTube and Maps. Moreover, a device must be compatible if it is to provide access to the Google Play Store – which the primary source of downloadable apps for Android.

Hipstreet’s Equinox 2 appears to be amongst the group of Android devices that is *not* compatible, and that’s a big catch. The result is that not only are Google’s most popular apps missing from the Equinox 2, there’s no way to get them because the device doesn’t have access to the Play Store.

Instead, the tablet ships with a different app store, known as GetJar. GetJar is a universal app store of sorts in that it isn’t built for any one operating system. Instead it caters to them all. But GetJar is by no means a substitute for the Play Store. Only free apps are available from GetJar, and while the store attempts to ensure compatibility of the apps with your device, it’s not as reliable as the Play Store. Some popular apps can be found on GetJar. I downloaded and installed Skype, Angry Birds and the Kobo ereader apps which all work just fine on the Equinox. But there are no YouTube or Google Maps apps, and many popular free apps for compatible Android devices are missing like Amazon’s free Kindle app, or even Facebook.

When you combine the Equinox’s unfortunate build quality with its lack of decent native apps or the ability to access the Google Play Store, you end up with a tablet that simply can’t compete with other products in this category, despite its attractive price.

It pains me to reach such a negative conclusion on a Canadian product, but I wouldn’t be doing you the reader, or Hipstreet, any favours by candy-coating my impressions.

If you’re in the market for a tablet, you’re on a budget and want to shop Canadian, I highly recommend RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook. For $129, you can pick up a 16GB model which will blow away any 7″ tablet dollar-for-dollar and many larger ones too. And while the PlayBook still lacks the kind of app support you can find on either iOS or fully-compatible Android devices, the app store is still growing and may see an additional shot in the arm once RIM releases its BB 10 models in the new year.

If after reading this, you’re still interested in the Hipstreet Equinox 2, you can find it at The Source and Staples stores, where prices range between $179.99 and $229.

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BlackBerry Balance is the PlayBook's killer app

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.

BlackBerry Balance locked on a RIM PlayBook

Using BlackBerry Balance you can lock your work apps while maintaining access to all of the other PlayBook functions. Click for larger image.

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.

BlackBerry Balance running on a PlayBook

When BlackBerry Balance is locked, you can still see that work apps are running, but you need to unlock them in order to see their full screens. Click for larger image.

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.

BlackBerry 4G LTE PlayBook: Same tablet, crazy price.

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.

RIM intros BlackBerry Mini Keyboard for PlayBook

Now that RIM has managed to sell a decent amount of their BlackBerry PlayBook tablets, it’s time for something a little different.

Check out their newest addition to the PlayBook line of accessories: the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard. It’s roughly the same size as the PlayBook itself, it has a 30-day battery life and can be recharged from any Micro-USB connection including the one that shipped with the PlayBook, and it connects via Bluetooth.

And none of those specs are a reason to buy this $119 keyboard, which by the way, ships with that stylish case pictured above.

No, the real reason you’re going to want this keyboard is the integrated touchpad placed right below the space bar. This one feature not only make using the PlayBook for productivity much better than the tablet on its own, it might just make it the PlayBook the best productivity tablet on the market, period. I say this of course without every having tried the device, but if the description from RIM is accurate, this is the rare exception when an accessory dramatically improves the functionality of the original device.

Consider: The touch pad enables full mouse control when using an app called Citrix Receiver – designed to connect you to a remote Windows machine so you can have complete remote-control of that desktop. This means you can move the PC’s cursor, click by tapping, right-click by two-finger tapping and scroll vertically by swiping up and down on the pad with two fingers.

The result is that, unlike using bluetooth keyboards with the iPad, you no longer have to reach for the PlayBook’s screen when you want to interact with an on-screen element. Basically, it turns the PlayBook into a proper laptop replacement, at least from an ergonomics point of view. The trackpad even works when navigating the PlayBook’s homescreens and apps.

The  BlackBerry Mini Keyboard goes on sale next month for $119, but you can pre-order it now from The Source and save yourself $20.

RIM shoots… and scores on their own goal

NHLPA member and New York Rangers goalie Martin Biron demonstrates the fit of his goalie mask in a video created using a BlackBerry PlayBook

 

Update, Monday February 27: RIM and/or the NHLPA appear to have fixed the problem described in this post and all of their videos now look as good as the ones included at the bottom of the article. Thanks to reader Kyleigh for pointing this out!

Original post:

This is PlayBook 2.0 week, the week when everyone who owns a PlayBook gets the opportunity to upgrade their OS to a version that finally brings the 7″ tablet up to snuff with the other tablets on the market. High-fives all around right? Well, yes – and no.

Given the celebrations, it would definitely seem to be the right time to get the word out about the PlayBook with a marketing effort that speaks directly to consumers. And if it could highlight one of the great features of the PlayBook – like the fact it can shoot 1080p HD video from both the front and the rear cameras – something which it’s biggest competitor, the iPad 2, still can’t do -so much the better.

It was with this goal presumably in mind that RIM launched its partnership with the NHLPA – the folks who represent the professional hockey players of the NHL. The partnership has led to a new website where fans of the game can come to watch up close and personal videos of their favourite players, all shot using the PlayBook.

But this is where things take a nasty turn. The videos are horrible.

I’m not referring to the content. I daresay that NHL fans would happily watch any video that gave them a glimpse inside the private lives of their hockey heroes which the short video clips certainly deliver.

I’m talking about the actual video quality. They look like they were shot using a VGA-quality webcam and then streamed over Skype using a heavily throttled connection. The frame-rate appears incredibly low – I’d guess somewhere around 15FPS (video needs to be at least 24FPS in order to look smooth) and in many places the audio goes out of sync with the video.

In one of the videos, New York Rangers goalie Martin Biron shows off his new mask. He dons the mask and proceeds to shake his head vigorously side-to-side to demonstrate how well it fits. At least, we assume that’s what he’s doing. But if it wasn’t for the shaking sound produced by the neck-guard rattling, it would be impossible to tell: his masked face simply blurs a little -it’s like watching a high-speed train pass one foot in fr0nt of your face.

When you consider that the PlayBook is actually capable of some fairly decent video capture, it’s hard to imagine how these videos ended up looking so bad.

If I didn’t already know better through using a PlayBook to shoot video, watching these clips would not convince me to buy. In fact quite the opposite. Which is really a shame because OS 2.0 really is an amazing upgrade. From the new Mail, Contacts and Calendar apps which are all now native to the OS, to the clever social integration which lets you compile a contact’s professional, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn info all in one handy location – this update finally delivers on many of the promises the platform made when it debuted last year.

A part of me actually wonders if this ultra-low-fi video was intentionally created. Each clip starts with a very jerky animation of the NHLPA’s logo followed by a BlackBerry PlayBook. Unlike the videos that follow, you can tell this was a stylistic choice and not some limitation on the part of the designer. But why? Why create a series of videos that make your product’s capabilities look so inferior? For despite the PlayBook’s advantage in the resolution of its twin cameras, many viewers will wonder if the iPad 2 produces a better result.

I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the intent was not to focus on the PlayBook’s video quality but just to generally get people talking about how cool the tablet is. But in the campaign’s inaugural week, the video is the only feature we’re given to discuss.

Or perhaps this is merely another indicator that RIM still needs to work as much on its marketing activities as it does on its products.

Check out some of these YouTube videos that have been shot with the PlayBook and decide for yourself if the NHLPA’s behind-the-scenes footage is a good testament to the device’s capabilities.

RIM denies report that it has killed the PlayBook

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook is no more says analystDetails are slim, but according to a report on BGR, Collins Stewart analyst John Vinh has reason to believe that Research In Motion is no longer making any new BlackBerry PlayBooks and intends to exit the tablet market completely.

Here’s the quote from Vinh:

While Quanta last week acknowledged that it had laid off a significant number of production workers from a factory focused on producing the PlayBook, our research indicates that the ODM has essentially halted production of the tablet. Additionally, our due diligence indicates that RIMM has canceled development of additional tablet projects.

We’re a little shocked to hear this, especially given our recent post asking why the PlayBook isn’t selling better than it is, but times being what they are we can’t say we’re totally surprised. After watching HP fold their TouchPad tablet after only a few weeks of worse-than-expected sales, it may simply be that RIM has lost its appetite for a market segment that has failed to yield the results it was hoping for.

Could RIM actually be planning to halt the PlayBook? Yes.
In recent days we’ve seen retailers slash prices on the gadget and layer on additional incentives for buying one – once again raising the specter of the TouchPad which went through its own series of price cuts before ultimately being given the fire-sale treatment. These price drops will not sit well with RIM. The company is used to selling its devices for healthy profits and then making additional dollars on the enterprise software side to manage those devices. The PlayBook never really capitalized on this ecosystem the way the BlackBerry handsets do.

But this should all be taken with a grain of salt. After all, only yesterday RIM announced how it was planning to support the promised compatibility with Android apps on the PlayBook. And while that announcement disappointed many developers given the features RIM had decided not to support, it was nonetheless a signal that things were still moving ahead as far as the PlayBook platform was concerned.

Update:
RIM has responded to Vinh’s report with the following email:

RIM doesn’t typically comment on rumors, but any suggestion that the BlackBerry PlayBook is being discontinued is pure fiction. RIM remains highly committed to the tablet market.

[Source: BGR]

Rumour: BlackBerry PlayBook to ship April 10, pre-order tomorrow

image courtesy of RIM.comWe don’t have much on this, so it could all turn out to be horribly wrong, but if Will Robertson is right, it looks like Sears Canada will begin taking pre-orders for the BlackBerry PlayBook tomorrow, with shipping to follow on April 10th. As unusual as it seems for Sears of all places to be getting the jump on a hot gadget like the PlayBook, Robertson appears to have received an affiliate program email from them claiming that they will have it and that he should let his readers know.

That info, according to BoyGeniusReport, jibes with what they had heard and reported on – at least as far as the ship date is concerned.

Sadly, there’s no pricing attached to that email. I guess we’ll just have to wait.

So if you’ve already decided that the iPad 2 and the Motorola Xoom hold no interest for you and the PlayBook is the tablet to have, it may be worthwhile to check out Sears.ca when you wake up tomorrow.

Update, Mar 12: Looks like it was horribly wrong after all. No sign of  a pre-order on Sears.ca and Will Robertson’s original post has been updated to say “date is unconfirmed, hope it comes out soon, I can’t wait to get one.”  That’s because Sears slipped up and sent that first email by mistake. Check out their back-peddle:

***Playbook Correction Notice ***

Please note that the information about the Playbook launch dates is incorrect.  While Sears Canada will be selling the Playbook, the date that pre-ordering starts and the date that the Playbook will be available for sale are not yet confirmed.

Please remove any reference to the Playbook date immediately as they are not endorsed by Sears Canada

We apologize for any inconvenience and look forward to sharing Playbook order dates as they become available.

And in case you missed it, here’s our tablet round-up… er, minus the iPad 2…

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