BlackBerry PlayBook 4G LTE hands-on

RIM's attempts to get a cellular-equipped version of the BlackBerry PlayBook have been troubled, to say the least. The company signalled its intentions around Mobile World Congress last February, only to watch as carriers backed off -- partly as RIM focused its attention on LTE, and partly after carriers grew skittish over sales of the WiFi version. A year and a half later, we finally have an LTE version, and with a faster 1.5GHz processor to boot. But do 4G data and a processor bump make all the difference? And does the upgrade stand a realistic shot in a competitive field that has moved on since the original PlayBook? We'll find out in our hands-on. %Gallery-162114%

If you're looking for cosmetic differences, they'll be tough to find. About the only conspicuous change since the 2011 original is the presence of a micro-SIM slot tucked just behind the ports at the bottom. The new PlayBook will be a disappointment for display quality aficionados that would like RIM to move past the 1,024 x 600 (if color-rich) screen we saw last year. With that in mind, the hardware similarity isn't necessarily all bad, as it means the LTE edition is just as thick as its WiFi-only ancestor, rather than fattening up to compensate. Weight and grip are the same as well, which makes it heavier in our minds than the Nexus 7, if still roughly as upscale in feel. Revisiting the design reminds us how much more quality the PlayBook exudes than the Kindle Fire which shares some of its roots: to abuse a car analogy, the PlayBook is the Acura to the Kindle Fire's Honda.

The software is much like what we saw as of the PlayBook OS 2.0 update this past February -- RIM hasn't seen fit to throw in any special software additions to take advantage of that always-on 4G connection. It's good news for those who aren't fans of carrier bloatware slipping into their tablets, although it also means there's no Bridge-free BlackBerry Messenger or built-in turn-by-turn navigation. We're also baffled by the lack of built-in hotspot creation support, which would make a very convincing case for the PlayBook as an oversized router.

BlackBerry PlayBook 4G LTE handson

As for the 4G? RIM is most definitely keeping up with the Joneses here, and that's no small feat. We tried the PlayBook on Rogers' network in Ottawa, and it was not just fast, but consistently fast: multiple tests saw us produce no less than 20Mbps downstream and 6Mbps upstream, with the peak a very speedy 31.9Mbps down and 6.3Mbps up. Of course, your mileage may vary with another carrier, or if you live in a different area. In our experience, access was often faster than a home cable internet connection and made it subjectively difficult to tell the difference between LTE and WiFi. We haven't had time for battery tests, but we can vouch that leaning heavily on cellular access will sap the battery quickly; like most current LTE hardware, we wouldn't risk being overly greedy with all that extra bandwidth.

The 1.5GHz processor (we're led to believe it's a TI OMAP 4460) does make a difference, although it's normally what you might call an improvement by a thousand cuts over the original 1GHz chip. RIM's interface is just a little bit more fluid, apps are ready just a little bit sooner, games like Need For Speed: Undercover are just a bit faster. Where we noticed the clock speed hike is in browsing -- and by a wide margin. Running the SunSpider web browser benchmark, we saw the JavaScript processing time cut by 35 percent versus the WiFi version to 1,397ms, making it faster not just than the WiFi PlayBook but the iPad, the Nexus 7, the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 and even the quad-core Galaxy S III smartphone. Our personal experience also showed that the browser didn't have much trouble keeping up with complex pages. We're not sure what RIM slipped into the PlayBook 4G LTE's diet to make its browsing so quick, but we'd like to try some.

PlayBook 4G LTE

PlayBook WiFi

iPad (2012)

Nexus 7

Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)






SunSpider: lower scores are better

With that kind of speed on tap, and HSPA+ even if you're outside of LTE coverage, the PlayBook does make a bit more sense than its WiFi counterpart. You've got BlackBerry push mail on a tablet, wherever you are; Bing Maps is more than a slightly handy navigation tool; Slacker radio and video chat are that much more convenient. If you depend on or thrive in the BlackBerry ecosystem, it's easy to point to the PlayBook 4G LTE as a quick pick -- it fulfils more of what the BlackBerry line has always set out to do, and it's the 'ultimate' model even if you only sparingly use LTE.

BlackBerry PlayBook 4G LTE handson

It's when you stack up Waterloo's latest tablet against its competition that things get tough. Asking $550 Canadian ($554 US) off-contract for a 4G, 32GB tablet is reasonable in isolation, but it faces competition that can provide a better value, at least under certain circumstances. To get a new iPad with 4G and 32GB of space is about $200 Canadian more, but it also touts a much better (if less portable) screen and a giant tablet app ecosystem. Pay just $100 Canadian more and you'll get a Galaxy Tab 8.9 LTE that isn't as high-resolution or as quick as the iPad, yet still manages to improve on the PlayBook's resolution and app diversity. And if you don't want LTE or 32GB of minimum space, there's not much of a contest: the Nexus 7 has a more advanced platform at a much lower price for the same screen area, the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 is also very competitive, and the WiFi-only PlayBook is cheaper than its LTE cousin at $300.

We're of the same mindset as we were when we looked at PlayBook 2.0: the device is fine, but it's not enough to make an undecided shopper gravitate towards the BlackBerry PlayBook 4G LTE based solely on its technical merits. We'd need more and better apps, a higher resolution screen or some truly exclusive features to make the leap. The tablet therefore remains mostly for the BlackBerry faithful. However, that $250 price difference between 4G and WiFi versions is just small enough that, between the two, we'd spring for the faster and more functional 4G edition.