Full Review & War of BlackBerry PlayBook, HTC Flyer, Samsung Galaxy Tab

Thursday, August 4th 2011. | Gadget News

Tablets are being advertised everywhere at the moment, from newspapers, magazines and billboards to the occasional TV slot. Since the first-generation iPad in 2010, there has never been more choice in terms of specifications, operating systems and form factors. The iPad 2 is widely recognised as the benchmark for tablets, but even the most ardent Apple fan cannot deny its limitations, and the 9.7in format is not going to suit everyone.

A number of manufacturers are aiming to cater to those who want a smaller tablet. There are numerous 7in models on the market, the best of which are the BlackBerry PlayBook, HTC Flyer and the original Samsung Galaxy Tab. V3 has rounded up the three devices and put them head to head to see which is the best for business.

Form factor – beauty is in the eye of the beholder
The Flyer and the Galaxy Tab have a very similar form factor and are designed primarily to be held in portrait mode. In contrast, the PlayBook is designed to be operated in landscape mode. The screen on the PlayBook and the Tab can be rotated in any direction, but the Flyer works only on one horizontal and one vertical plane, which can be annoying.

The consensus in the V3 office was that the Tab has the best design, followed by the Flyer. The PlayBook was seen as bland, but I feel that it is well designed and the most compact of the three. At 425g, the PlayBook is the heaviest, although the Flyer follows closely behind at 420g with its metal frame. The plastic coated Tab is the lightest at 380g, which is hardly a surprise as Samsung is making it a habit to make super light devices.

Performance – PlayBook and the Tab surge ahead
All three tablets pack the same 600×1,024 resolution screen, and it’s touch and go as to which has the sharpest display. The PlayBook and the Tab come with TFT screens with 16 million colours and just edge out the Flyer’s LCD display, which looks pixellated at times.

The PlayBook was the last device to market and has the edge when it comes to specifications. A 1GHz dual-core Texas Instruments processor and 1GB of RAM make it easily the quickest. The PlayBook has the smoothest transition between apps and home screens, with no hint of lag. Navigating the interface is done by initiating gesture-based control from the bezel, and the real multi-tasking feature is PC-like and very impressive.

Despite coming with a 1.5GHz single-core processor and 1GB of RAM, the performance of the Flyer is disappointing compared to its rivals. The Sense interface is resource-hungry, and over time we found that the overall performance of the tablet became a little bit sluggish after using it for a few weeks. Interestingly, there are no performance problems with the Galaxy Tab even though it was released well over six months before the Flyer. The difference in performance between the Tab and Flyer is all the more surprising, considering that the Samsung comes with a 1GHz Cortex A8 processor and just 512MB of RAM.

Software – Android dominates QNX, for now
The Flyer and Tab ship with Android, which is not traditionally an enterprise operating system, although the same can be said for RIM’s QNX platform, which is in its infancy.

Samsung ships the Tab with Android 2.2 and minimal customisation. Thankfully, the Tab can now be upgraded to 2.3 Gingerbread, and this is a must as it provides a significant boost in battery life, as well as additional security and performance enhancements. Meanwhile, HTC ships the Flyer with 2.3 Gingerbread, and is expected to make Honeycomb available at a later stage. The Taiwanese manufacturer has integrated its Sense overlay into the OS, which is probably the best feature of the Flyer.

Sense provides familiarity for HTC smartphone users but, as mentioned, it does seem to compromise performance. Apps can be particularly slow to open, and simply scrolling through the main menu can be very juddery at times. Meanwhile, RIM has put its trust in the QNX platform and, although the interface is remarkably intuitive and multi-tasking is excellent, the lack of apps is a problem.

The Android Market currently has hundreds of thousands of apps and, while not all of them are optimised for tablet use, the choice vastly outnumbers the QNX platform at present. RIM told V3 that there are 3,000 apps available for the PlayBook at the moment. The company also plans to make Android apps available on the PlayBook via an emulator this summer.

However, it remains to be seen how the ported applications will perform and whether RIM will operate any sort of screening policy to make sure that malicious software is not introduced into the QNX environment.

Email/messaging – Tab outshines the rest with its versatility
Surprisingly, this is an area where the Flyer and the Tab outdo the PlayBook. The Android devices are able to synchronise enterprise email accounts independently and allow users to access emails on the move, as 3G models are available.  The PlayBook can still be used to access emails on the move, but needs to be connected to a BlackBerry smartphone via the Bridging feature. This places it at a bit of a disadvantage, as the device has no means to access the internet if a Wi-Fi hotspot is not available. In terms of text input, it is difficult to type using the Qwerty keyboard on any of the devices in landscape mode unless they are placed on a flat surface. We were constantly stretching our fingers and thumbs to the point where it was uncomfortable when holding the devices.
The PlayBook has the most basic keyboard, with no secondary functions for the alphabetical keys. Samsung has included a reasonable standard Qwerty, but the Flyer has the best keyboard. This is largely down to the well spaced keys, numerous secondary shortcuts and the great predictive text.

However, when activating the Swype feature on the Tab, it is possible to hold the device with one hand, and use the other to swipe across and type. This is by far the best way to type on such a large device, and means that it can be used reasonably comfortably when held unlike the other two.

Office apps – productivity on the move
Business users will need mobile document editing software on a tablet, and all three come pre-loaded with various tools. The Flyer comes with Polaris Office, whereas the Tab comes with ThinkFree Office and the PlayBook features Word to Go. All three provide basic functionality and, although they are not as good as Microsoft’s Mobile Office suite, the latter two are particularly useful. HTC also ships the Flyer with a stylus in a further attempt to differentiate the device and attract business users.

Additionally, the Flyer can be synchronised with Evernote, which means notes can be automatically synchronised to the cloud and accessed from any other Evernote-capable device. The Flyer is also able to synchronise notes with a voice recording feature, but in practice recordings are very difficult to hear as the pen makes such a loud noise when tapped against the screen. We did find the ability to doodle using the pen very addictive, but ultimately this has limited business use.

Connectivity/internet – Flyer and Tab share the spoils
The Tab comes with a micro SD card and SIM card slot. The latter means that the tablet is the only one of the three that can double as a fully fledged smartphone. Owners can make and receive calls using the loudspeaker or Bluetooth headset.

However, there is no micro-USB connection. Instead Samsung has chosen to ship the Tab with a proprietory connector that means it cannot be charged via a standard cable. This is a little disappointing and could be very inconvenient if you forget your charger on a trip. HTC also allows users to connect micro SD and SIM card slots, although voice calling is not possible as the Flyer has been configured for data-only use. The Taiwanese manufacturer also ships the Flyer with a more traditional mini-USB connector.

The PlayBook has the most connectors, including a proprietory charging dock, micro USB and micro HDMI. Crucially, it lacks any micro-SD card slot, so buyers will have to choose the model they want very carefully as storage cannot be increased.

Connecting to the internet with the Tab and Flyer is very straightforward. The devices can be tethered to any smartphone, or can connect directly if they are 3G models. Syncnronising a BlackBerry device to the PlayBook was easy, but we did have trouble connecting other smartphones such as a Samsung Galaxy S2.

Pairing the device was a rather convoluted process and the PlayBook was unable to automatically recognise the APN settings to connect to the internet. Manual intervention was required to correct this and we were frustrated at times when trying to connect to a simple Wi-Fi network. There is little to separate browsing on all three devices, which is of a high standard. All support Adobe Flash, so there is no problem when it comes to watching videos. The Android-based Tab and Flyer will occasionally load up the mobile version of web sites because they run the same Web Kit browsers as smartphones, but the desktop version is usually just a click away.

There is no clear winner when it comes to browsing as they all provide a solid experience. The Flyer has the the best pitch-to-zoom functionality, automatically resizing text to fit the screen perfectly – something the others don’t do. However, if we were forced to pick a favourite, the PlayBook would just win providing that it connects to the internet. RIM’s device has a quick browser and a great drop down menu that displays tabs and provides numerous shortcuts in a easy to access manner.

Battery life – variable as always
As always the battery life is going to depend on what the device is being used for and factors such as brightness and connectivity. The Flyer and the Tab come with the same capacity 4000mAh battery, whereas the PlayBook features a 5300mAh power supply. With intensive internet and video use, the tablets can be expected to last five to eight hours. Those running the PlayBook will also need to use the multi-tasking feature sparingly or risk draining the device.

Battery life can be increased by dabbling with settings such as brightness, and switching off connections such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 3G when they are not needed.

Pricing – budget Tab outshines expensive alternatives
Going by SIM-free prices, the Galaxy Tab is far and away the cheapest, which makes it all the more attractive. The 16GB Wi-Fi-only model starts at £250, rising to around £370 for full 3G connectivity and smartphone functionality, which is cheaper than the entry-level 16GB Wi-Fi-only iPad 2 that retails at £399. Meanwhile, the entry-level 16GB PlayBook starts at £399, and at present the device is available with Wi-Fi only. This rises to £479 for the 32GB edition and £560 for the 64GB.

The HTC Flyer has the most expensive starting price at around £480 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model. This rises to £550 for the 32GB edition, which also includes 3G connectivity. Although these prices include the stylus and a carry pouch, they will put off many buyers as just too high.

Overall
The functionality provided by all three tablets proves that Steve Jobs’s assessment that 7in tablets are “dead on arrival” is simply not the case. The iPad 2 may still have the best design, but 7in devices are more portable and have more functionality. We would struggle to recommend the HTC Flyer at present as the high price does not justify the specifications and the performance. The PlayBook is likely to be the longest lasting when it comes to specifications, but we would only advise BlackBerry smartphone owners to opt for this as functionality would otherwise be severely limited. V3 looks forward to using the 3G model, which will have increased independence.

V3 recognises that the Tab is near the end of its shelf life, but that doesn’t stop it being the best all-round 7in tablet on the market. The device has unparalleled functionality at this time, and the bargain basement price is the clinching factor. The first thing that owners should do is upgrade to the 2.3 Gingerbread platform. Honeycomb is highly unlikely to be made available for the the Tab, but it works well as it is and will be useable for a good.

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