How the BlackBerry Playbook Works

Mike Lazaridis, president and co-chief executive officer of BlackBerry parent company Research in Motion, announces the BlackBerry PlayBook at BlackBerryDevCon 2010 on Sept. 27, 2010. See more gadget pictures.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In September 2010, Research in Motion (RIM) executive Mike Lazaridis unveiled the BlackBerry Playbook tablet at a developer's conference. Less than nine months after Apple had unveiled the iPad -- the first really successful consumer tablet device -- BlackBerry entered the tablet wars. But what sets it apart?

RIM launched its BlackBerry line of smartphones in 1999, and they quickly became popular among professionals and executives. The BlackBerry phones combined the features of cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and computers. You could make calls, review your schedule and send e-mails all from the same device. It would be easy to take those features for granted now but in 1999 it was a revolutionary approach in North America.

Since then, BlackBerry's main focus has been on enterprise users. While BlackBerry has launched a few phones for consumers, the company aims most of its products at corporate customers. BlackBerry's promise is to provide devices that integrate with business systems while maintaining strict security measures. The BlackBerry Playbook follows this philosophy.

While the PlayBook has a playful name, it's capable of handling business needs. You can download games for the device but it's really intended to help you conduct work. The PlayBook can interface with BlackBerry smartphones, allowing you to access those features on a larger screen. And just like the smartphones of the BlackBerry line, the PlayBook has built-in security measures designed to protect data.

Let's take a look at the basic features of the BlackBerry PlayBook.


PlayBook Features

The BlackBerry PlayBook has a 7-inch capacitive touch screen, making it smaller than the iPad 2, which sports a 9.7-inch screen. The screen gives the PlayBook a 1024 x 600 resolution. The PlayBook is also lighter than the iPad 2, weighing in at a mere 0.9 pounds (about 0.4 kilograms). But the PlayBook is a touch thicker than the iPad 2 -- it's 0.4 inches (about 1 centimeter) thick, compared to the newer iPad's 0.34 inches (0.88 centimeters).

The PlayBook has stereo sound with four speakers inside the device. There's also a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack for those who wish to spare their neighbors the sounds of Angry Birds playing in the background. The device also has a pair of microphones -- presumably, RIM included two microphones as a noise-cancellation feature.

The PlayBook has two cameras. The forward-facing camera features a 3-megapixel resolution, which is on the low end for standalone digital cameras but right in the middle of the pack for handheld devices like smartphones or tablets. The rear-facing camera is a slightly beefier 5-megapixel model. The rear-facing camera can record video at 1080p resolution. It also has an HDMI-out port that will let you connect the PlayBook to a high-definition television for video playback.

You can use Bluetooth technology to link a BlackBerry PlayBook with another device such as a keyboard or BlackBerry smartphone. This is one of the key features of the PlayBook -- you can pair the tablet with a BlackBerry smartphone to get service over a 3G network. The phone acts as a wireless modem. You can also connect to your smartphone's address book, e-mail client and other features by tethering the two devices together.

The BlackBerry PlayBook shipped without a native e-mail client or calendar feature. To access those apps, you first must tether the tablet to a BlackBerry smartphone. RIM says that this promotes data security -- should someone steal your PlayBook, they can't access your data because it's not stored on the device. But RIM also says that the device will eventually have its own native e-mail and calendar apps [source: Lomas].

The PlayBook runs a proprietary operating system called QNX. The operating system supports true multitasking -- operations can run in the background without going into sleep mode. The PlayBook also supports Flash and HTML5.

Next, we'll look at what makes the PlayBook tick.

Under the PlayBook Hood

The PlayBook can connect to a computer using a cable with a MicroUSB connector like the one seen here.
The PlayBook can connect to a computer using a cable with a MicroUSB connector like the one seen here.

RIM has provided two options for charging a PlayBook. The first uses an industry standard: MicroUSB. With the right cable, you can connect a PlayBook to a computer or adapter, or you can transfer data across devices. The second way to charge a PlayBook is to use a magnetic system. The cable for this system attaches to the device with a magnet. A gentle tug is all it takes to disconnect the cable, which helps prevent accidents when you forget your tablet is still plugged in. But there's one downside to the magnetic option -- you can't transfer data across the cable.

If you popped open a BlackBerry PlayBook, you'd notice a few things straight away. First, you just voided your warranty. Second, RIM has packed the guts of the PlayBook in a tiny, efficient package. Third, unless you send in your PlayBook for repairs you won't be replacing the 20-watt-hour battery anytime soon.

The brain of the BlackBerry PlayBook is a Texas Instruments OMAP 4 dual-core processor running at 1 gigahertz. This is a chip Texas Instruments designed specifically for smartphones and tablets. The chip has enough power to drive multimedia applications without generating too much heat. The transistors on the chip are on the 45-nanometer scale, which is the same scale of the transistors you'll find -- if you have a scanning electron microscope -- on Intel's Nehalem microprocessor.

The PlayBook has a 1-gigabyte DRAM chip from Elpida. It also has a SanDisk Flash memory card for long-term storage. There are three versions of PlayBooks available at the time of this article: 16, 32 and 64 gigabyte models, available at $499, $599 and $699, respectively.

Other chips inside the BlackBerry PlayBook include a power management chip and a Bluetooth/WLAN/GPS/FM receiver, all from Texas Instruments. There's a graphics processing chip from STMicroelectronics and an audio chip from Wolfson. The BlackBerry uses a Bosch Sensortec 3-axis accelerometer and an Invensense 3-axis gyroscope to determine its orientation.

The PlayBook has four speakers. Interestingly, these speakers don't connect to the motherboard with wires. Instead, the PlayBook's assembly allows the speakers to rest against pressure contacts on the motherboard itself, creating a direct connection [source: iFixit].

The BlackBerry PlayBook OS

Rather than port the BlackBerry smartphone OS to the PlayBook, RIM decided to depend upon QNX Software Systems. Research in Motion purchased QNX in 2010, making it a subsidiary company. QNX specializes in building operating systems and middleware for devices. This is the level of programming that allows software to access hardware resources. Without this level of software, apps and programs wouldn't run on devices unless they were hardcoded into the device's circuitry.

The QNX operating system provides a platform for multitasking. Running multiple programs on the PlayBook is easy. Switching between programs is simple as well -- programs appear as cards on the screen. Sliding your finger left or right lets you thumb through active applications. If you want to shut down an application, you can swipe your finger quickly to the bottom of the screen.

The card view and swipe features prompted journalists like Engadget's Vlad Savov to say that QNX copied Hewlett Packard's TouchPad tablet. The TouchPad runs on webOS, an operating system that Palm developed before HP acquired the company. It too uses a card view and swipe interface. RIM executive Jeff McDowell dismissed the criticisms, pointing out that when multiple teams are working on interfaces for a touch-screen device some overlap is to be expected [source: Savov].

To connect the PlayBook to a BlackBerry smartphone, you have to activate an app called BlackBerry Bridge. This creates a secure Bluetooth connection between the PlayBook and the phone. When you initiate the Bridge app, the PlayBook displays a quick response (QR) code on the screen. Scanning this code with a BlackBerry smartphone will prompt the phone to make an encrypted Bluetooth connection with the PlayBook. You can also set up this connection manually -- the PlayBook will display a PIN that you'll need to type into the BlackBerry smartphone.

Once connected to your BlackBerry smartphone, your PlayBook will allow you to check e-mail, calendar appointments and other files through your phone. If the connection between your BlackBerry smartphone and PlayBook should break, these applications will become unavailable automatically.

BlackBerry in the Market

BlackBerry's PlayBook has stiff competition against Apple's iPad and tablets running on Google's Android operating system.
BlackBerry's PlayBook has stiff competition against Apple's iPad and tablets running on Google's Android operating system.
Courtesy Research in Motion

Although RIM announced the PlayBook the same year Steve Jobs announced the iPad, the PlayBook didn't hit the market until April 19, 2011. By then, Apple had a huge head start -- not only did the iPad debut in 2010 but its successor, the iPad 2, hit store shelves March 11, 2011. Could RIM's device compete against the first tablet computer to succeed in the consumer market?

According to Jonathan Geller, the "Boy Genius," a source within the retail industry revealed that BlackBerry PlayBook sales failed to meet sales targets by around 90 percent. To add insult to injury, the same source told Geller that the return rate on the PlayBook was higher than competing tablets [source: Geller].

RIM representatives refute Geller's source, saying that according to the company's conversations with retailers sales of the PlayBook have met or exceeded expectations. A representative from retailer Best Buy was one such retailer, stating that customers were eager to purchase a PlayBook after getting some hands-on time with it in stores [source: Arghire].

Whether the PlayBook can hold its own against Apple's iPad, the multitude of Android-based tablets and HP's webOS devices remains to be seen. But if corporations adopt the device as the next-generation tool for today's executive, expect the PlayBook to stick around for a while.

Follow the links on the next page to get the play-by-play on mobile devices.

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More Great Links


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