Friday, 23 November 2012

Blackberry Playbook Mini Keyboard

Black Friday is upon us and there are some amazing deals to be had! Unfortunately, most items are in limited stock and only a few early birds enjoy the benefits. One such item is the Blackberry Playbook Mini Keyboard which I am using right now to write this blog. I wanted to share a quick review in case you are contemplating a purchase this holiday season.

The keyboard is priced at $69 at some retailers right now, and while not available online they may have a few sitting in stores. It is well built and boasts a 30 day battery life after full charge. The keyboard comes with a rugged leather case which is normally sold separately for about $40-50 alone, so having it available with a keyboard now is a good deal. There are sales at the moment for the rugged rubber/leather case for about $15 so if you are only looking for that, it is well worth it. Not to mention the rapid charging stand can also be had for $15 if you can find it.

Back to the mini keyboard. It is easy to set up and will link not only to a Playbook but your phone, computer, set-top box, game console or any Bluetooth HID enabled device. The keyboard comes with a touchpad which lets you right-click with two-finger tapping and also has scroll features. In this respect, it becomes quite versatile.

I found a few disadvantages however, although easy to overlook once you get the hang of using it. First, the keys on the rows are arranged in a straight grid, unlike a traditional keyboard where alternating rows of keys are slightly offset. This makes it a bit awkward to type on at first, but after a few minutes your fingers learn where the keys are and it gets a bit easier. The keys are truly small so it can be a bit of a task for thick-fingered people, but certainly lets you type much faster than using the on-screen keyboard. It is also easier on the fingers than using the keyboard on your phone if you are familiar with Blackberry Bridge.

The keyboard does not come with a charger, but relies on you to use your Playbook charger or any other USB 5V accessory plug. I am not sure if it needs 1 amp rated charger or if your older phone chargers will work to charge it (although perhaps slower) but it took me about 2 hours to get it completely charged from out of the box.

Finally, the case itself lets you strap in the keyboard with elastic holders at the corners. The problem is that the lower left corner elastic covers the on/off switch for the keyboard, so if you are planning to turn it on and off each time, it can be a pain. I usually just leave it on and it goes into power save mode after a few minutes of inactivity. As well, if you want to activate things again once your Playbook has fallen asleep, simply hit RETURN on your keyboard a few times and it will wake up the keyboard and your Playbook at the same time.

You can select text by double-finger tapping a word, but then to expand your selection you either have to use fingers on the screen to pull the tags at the end of your selected text, or if you prefer using the keyboard you can hold down SHIFT and use the left/right arrow to move your cursor.

The one other drawback is the small stand on the back of the case that you pull out to stand your Playbook vertically. It can sometimes be hard to grab it and pull it out, and it is short and so your Playbook reclines at almost a 30-40 degree angle to the table. I prefer it to be higher, perhaps 70-80 range, so I have to proper the stand leg up on something. It would have been nice to allow several options for angle, but this is a minor issue. A small piece of cardboard can be tucked under the leg to achieve the same thing, so you may have to just carry that along with you if needed.

Overall the keyboard is a nice addition to the Playbook power user. At $69 it becomes a reasonable purchase when you compare to a Playbook that costs about $120 on sale these days, and that many other similar keyboard/trackpad combinations are in the $40-60 range. However, any more than that price and it really has to be a killer product for me. As you can see by the length of my blog entry, the keyboard certainly speeds up the ability to type on the go and makes your Playbook look like a little mini laptop. It is nice and functional and looks good, can be used with other devices. I would pick up another one if they were available, but unfortunately they are out of stock. Let us hope for some more deals coming up in the next few months, because the regular price for the keyboard at $119 just doesn't justify the purchase, in my opinion, unless you are a hardcore Playbook user who must have a keyboard.

A few more things I forgot to mention. Using the keyboard clears up a lot of room on your screen which gives you much improved web functionality, especially if you are typing into web-based applications, forums or emailing/blogging online. Often when the Playbook on-screen keyboard pops up it will take up a good 30-40% of your screen space and you can barely see the website. The fact that a little mouse cursor also pops up gives you much better control over on-screen elements as well, in case you have trouble using your fat fingers normally on the screen. These features also add to improving the experience of using the Playbook and therefore the mini keyboard is a fun accessory to have! By the way, my typing has improved even further in the past few minutes and the fact that the keys are not offset on alternating rows no longer bothers me. You easily can learn to use it and be typing extremely quickly and without any finger fatigue!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Marmalade SDK for Blackberry

It has been a couple months since I received my free Blackberry Playbook and Marmalade SDK license. While the learning curve has sometimes been slow, it really is fun and relatively easy to put together "native" apps using Marmalade! Fortunately, the SDK allows porting using the same code to many other platforms, meaning that the app I develop for Blackberry will potentially also find some life on other platforms!

One of the sites that has been instrumental in providing some basics is which has a number of good startup samples. As well, Marmalade itself comes with a huge library of examples showing the different features available to use in both 2D, 3D and user-interface demos widget demos. I am happy to say that after looking at a few basic demos, and playing around with Marmalade on Microsoft Visual C++ 2010 Express (also free), my physics-based game is nearing completion!

The game is similar to "Angry Birds Space" in that it involves shooting particles instead of birds (from a launch area) towards a target (a puck instead of pigs inside structures). In my case, the objective is to hit a puck with the particles, which pushes the puck towards a target zone. You have an infinite number of particles available to use, but your points go down the more particles you need to push your puck to the target. To make matters more difficult, some of the particles are charged "negative" or "positive" (some are "neutral") and there are various negative and positive-charged spots on the game field (which appear as the levels increase) which cause deflection/attraction of your shooting particle, making it more difficult to hit your target puck. There are also rectangular obstacles which reflect your particles/puck and of course the walls of the screen which are also reflecting.

While not as cute as "Angry Birds Space", the game has potential and while it may be a bit dry and purely physics-based and geometrical at the moment, I plan on improving the game  in the future by applying a "theme" while keeping the same game objectives. For example, the particles could be changed into little animals or eggs, and the puck could be made into a large round fruit. The rectangular objects could be boxes and the negative/positive charge deflections/attractions could be made to be changes in the terrain height indicating mountains or valleys.

I look forward to announcing the game on this blog when it is ready, hopefully in the next 2-3 weeks!

Meanwhile, check out the Blackberry 10 Dev Alpha Blog which I found, which features some links to pre-release apps to try out.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

iPad Mini vs. Playbook Pricing Fun

Now that Apple has unveiled it's latest tablet offering, the iPad mini, we are rushing into the holiday season with Apple having played it's hand and revealing it's cards. This is bad news for Apple, unless they plan on reducing prices over the next two months. We are likely to see a few more surprises with new product announcements from their competitors (Amazon, Google and Microsoft) who are going to aggressively price their product to compete and do their best to take a bite out of Apple's sales.

There has already been much negative buzz about the pricing scheme Apple has set for the iPad mini. At least in my area, their basic cheapest 16GB model comes in at a whopping $329, followed by 32GB model at $429 and 64GB model at $529. Apple needed to follow this pricing because they are offering their iPod Touch (4" screen) at $299 and iPad 2 (10" screen) for $399. They had no choice but to price it somewhere in-between.

Some recent news has determined that Apple's bill-of-materials or "BOM" on the iPad mini comes in around $188. That means they are making $141 in profit on top (75% markup). Apple could easily reduce the price if it wanted to and still earn a profit, but that could also mean they would have to drop the price of their iPod Touch since people may prefer buying the larger screen iPad mini (if it has essentially the same functions as the iPod Touch). The fact is, competing tablets from Google, Amazon, Blackberry and many others in the 7" screen space have already set a a price level which is much lower and is now in consumer minds.

Apple is relying on brand loyalty and has positioned itself in the "luxury" tier. Sure it has a strong content ecosystem and thousands of apps, but I also sense some complacency. Apple has rode the success of the iPhone and iPad for the past few years, and they think they can continue to push out over-priced products and have droves of consumers lining outside their stores waving their credit cards. But there will be a point of saturation.

Consumers loyal to Apple would have likely already bought an iPad over the past few years. Anyone who didn't already buy an iPad is not just waiting for a cheaper and smaller iPad, but is a more discretionary buyer with no particular loyalty, looking at the entire tablet space for value. These are the buyers who likely fueled the increased sales of competing tablets immediately following the iPad mini event. Amazon reported one of it's best day of sales ever on the Kindle Fire, right after the iPad mini pricing was announced. It seems many consumers decided it was over-priced as well.

A recent article from The Gadget Masters titled "3 Reasons Why You Would Be Stupid To Buy The iPad Mini" makes the following statement (and I quote):
"The iPad Mini’s specs are comparable to the BlackBerry PlayBook in most areas. In the areas that the two differ, the PlayBook actually has better specs (1GB RAM versus 512MB RAM for example). At only $149, the PlayBook is a far more attractive option than the iPad Mini, since buyers can save $180 (and get a free upgrade to BB 10)."
For fun I decided to do some pricing comparisons to see how the Blackberry Playbook stacks up with respect to the iPad mini. At my local retailer I can get a Playbook 32GB for $149 and a Playbook 64GB for $219. Note that there is no more 16GB version available. In fact, a recent sale made the Playbook 32GB available at $129 for a short period of time before it was completely sold out. Compare this with the iPad mini at $329 (16GB), $429 (32GB) and $529 (64GB).

You can purchase 2 Playbooks with double the memory of the iPad (32GB versions) at $149 x 2 = $298 and still be $31 less than 1 iPad mini with basic 16GB size. In fact, if you want to compare the same memory size devices, you could purchase 3 Playbooks (all 32GB) at $149 x 3 = $447 and only pay $18 more than the 1 iPad mini 32GB. If you had to buy a lightning dock adapter for your iPad mini, cancel out that $18 and basically 3 Playbooks (32GB) = 1 iPad mini (32GB).

Looking at the 64GB versions, you can purchase 2 Playbooks (with 64GB) $219 x 2 = $438 and pay only $9 more than 1 iPad 32GB at $429. Your 2 Playbooks would have a combined total of 128GB, or four-times that of your iPad mini memory (32GB) at almost the same cost. You could buy 4 Playbooks (with 32GB) $149 x 4 = $596, and be only $67 more than 1 iPad mini 64 GB model.

Finally, if you bought 2 Playbooks with 64GB ($219 x 2 = $438) and 1 Playbook with 32 GB ($149) that would bring the total to $587 for all 3 Playbooks, which is only $58 more than the 1 iPad mini 64GB version. Your 3 Playbooks would have a combined memory of 160GB, compared to the 64GB of your single iPad mini, and your whole family could have fun using them.

Now the market will decide. This holiday season, we will see how many people are looking to buy tablets in general, and out of those, how many people shopping for 7" screen sizes will walk out of the store with an iPad mini. Will we get a phenomenon where people buy this device for gifts because of the associated "prestige", or to meet a certain value requirement for their gift? If you receive a Playbook as a gift, will you think the gift-giver cheapened out on you? Would you be more impressed knowing they over-paid? After all, isn't someone's love supposed to be about the amount of money they spent?