To say that RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook has been a sore spot for the company would be an understatement. In our initial review, we chided the PlayBook's lack of basic features, such as a native email client, as well as its buggy software. And we weren't alone. The consensus was that the PlayBook was a powerful piece of hardware with a slick interface. It was just way undercooked, which helps explains the lackluster sales up to this point. But now RIM is looking to make up for its earlier missteps with the BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 software update. Is amateur hour really over? Read on to find out.
The first thing you'll notice when you boot up PlayBook OS 2.0 is the changes made to the operating system's interface. The App Dock located on the homescreen, for instance, is now fully customizable. Instead of the preset app categories found in the old interface, users can now add up to six apps of their choosing to App Dock. To add an app to the dock, open the apps menu, long press the app you want to add to the dock and drag it to the App Dock. To remove an app, just long press its icon, and drag it back into the apps menu.
PlayBook OS 2.0 now also supports a folder creator for apps. To make a new folder, just long press an app and drag and drop it onto the app you want to store it. A dialogue box will then appear asking you to name your new folder. Enter a name, and you've got a new folder. The process is actually very similar to that found in both Apple's iOS 5 and Google's Android Ice Cream Sandwich.
By far, the biggest complaint critics and users had about the PlayBook was its lack of a native mail client. In order to access their BlackBerry email, known as Messages, users had to connect their PlayBook to their BlackBerry smartphone via the PlayBook's Bluetooth-powered BlackBerry Bridge. RIM claimed the decision to limit email access from the PlayBook was a security measure, saying that users were more apt to lose the 7-inch tablet than their 4-inch smartphone.
With PlayBook OS 2.0, RIM decided it was high time it included a unified mail client on its tablet. Messages for PlayBook is exactly what RIM should have included with the tablet in the first place. The app has an intuitive interface that makes searching for individual messages extremely easy. Messages has been specifically designed for the PlayBook's larger screen. As such, it offers tabbed and conversation views to help users track their correspondences.
To start using the app, we added our email account by tapping the Add Account tab in the Messages app. Users can choose from a variety of mail options, including Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, Gmail and Hotmail, or connect via an IMAP or POP server. Because Messages has a unified inbox, users can add multiple mail accounts to their PlayBook and view messages from each of them at once. We liked that it also pulled in all our folders, too.
In addition to standard mail clients, Messages also features Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn integration. So messages sent to you through those services will also show up in your Messages inbox. Other advantages Messages for the PlayBook boasts over its smartphone variant include improved message formatting and font color, size and type customization.
Inexplicably, though, the email client doesn't support BlackBerry Enterprise Server; PlayBook owners will still need to use Bridge. Another feature that also requires Bridge? BlackBerry Messenger. Yes, one of BlackBerry's distinguishing attributes is still not on the PlayBook.
PlayBook OS 2.0 gets more social with the Contacts app. It automatically populates itself with every contact associated with each new email or social network account you add to your PlayBook. The social network integration, in particular, is compelling because it allows you to view your friends and followers most recent updates and, profiles, shared locations, shared events and shared connections.
RIM wisely chose to connect the Contacts app with the PlayBook's new Messages, Calendar and Video Chat apps, giving you easy access to all of your contacts in one location. Bring up a contact and tap on their email address and Contacts will automatically launch the Messages app and prepopulates the recipient's box with your contact's address.
Users should also be able to check their contacts' status updates through the Contact app, although an error prevented us from doing so.
As with Messages, the only way users could previously view their personal calendar while using the PlayBook was to link it with their BlackBerry smartphone via the BlackBerry Bridge. Fortunately, like Messages, Calendar has also seen a significant overhaul in PlayBook OS 2.0. Users can now link their calendars to their email addresses, meaning you can finally view your work and personal calendar from your PlayBook in a unified calendar.
The Calendar app offers users five viewing combinations including Month, Week, Day, Agenda and People. The Agenda view allows you to view appointments saved to your email calendar. For instance, if you link your Microsoft Outlook account to your PlayBook, the Calendar will give you the option of viewing all of your work appointments. Similarly, the People view lets you see all of the appointments you have with your Outlook (or other accounts') contacts. Calendar also features Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn integration, offering users a complete view of their schedules rather than just their work or personal appointments.
Cleverly, if you have an appointment with someone you are Facebook friends with, the People tab will provide you with that person's most recent status update. We were also glad to see that RIM gives you the option of switching between a unified calendar view and account specific view. Better still, dates that have a particularly large number of appointments appear larger in the calendar view, making it easy for you to organize your schedule at a glance.
Android App Support
After months of false promises, RIM has finally released an out-of-the-box method for installing Android apps on your PlayBook. We downloaded "Snake HD" and "Pool Break Lite," both Android games. Installing "Snake HD" was simple and after about five seconds--one of which included the PlayBook's screen going black--we were up and running. Performance was smooth, and if it weren't for the fact that the PlayBook's screen went black, we wouldn't have known it was an Android app. Installing "Pool Break Lite," on the other hand, was a completely different story. We tried installing the app several times, but each time the PlayBook would freeze up, Eventually, we had to reset the tablet.
Browser & BlackBerry Bridge
PlayBook OS 2.0 offers several improvements to the Web browser and BlackBerry Bridge interface. The PlayBook browser now features a reading mode that pulls articles from their Web page and displays them in an easier to read pop-up window. Browser speeds remained as snappy as they were before we updated the tablet, while navigating between browser tabs felt fluid and crisp.
The much maligned BlackBerry Bridge has also been improved with the new BlackBerry Remote feature. Now, when you pair your PlayBook with your BlackBerry smartphone, you'll be able to navigate the tablet using your phone's controls. When we paired our PlayBook with a BlackBerry Bold, the Bold turned into a trackpad for our PlayBook, complete with pointer. BlackBerry Remote even enables you to swipe between screens on your PlayBook. The one complaint we had with the app was that the controls were a bit sensitive. Scrolling across a screen and lifting our finger would occasionally cause the pointer to move unintentionally.
The BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0's new Video Chat app is a welcome addition, but it's very limited. When you first launch the app, it will automatically pull in known contacts with BlackBerry IDs. Too bad you can only chat with other BlackBerry PlayBook users. So if you don't know anyone else with a BlackBerry ID, you won't be getting much use out of the app. That's a shame considering how the high quality is of the tablet's front 3-megapixel camera.
PlayBook OS 2.0 includes a new version of Documents To Go Premium, which allows users to create new Docs (Word) and Sheets (Excel) files, or edit existing Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. The most significant changes include a new virtual keyboard, which now features word predictions, as well as a new formatting toolbar. From the toolbar, users can now create bulleted and numbered lists and change your font style, size and color. The app's new Find feature makes it easy to find and replace text. Updates to Sheets include support for more than 100 new formulas, while the new PowerPoint edit feature allows you to edit your PowerPoint files directly from the PlayBook.
The PlayBook's new Print To Go feature is one of the more interesting additions to PlayBook OS 2.0. The app allows you to wirelessly transfer files from your PC to your PlayBook over a shared Wi-Fi connection. After a document is sent to your PlayBook, you can organize it with Print To Go's document management system. It's a neat feature that makes organizing documents a snap. Despite its name, though, Print To go, does not, in fact, print anything. The only thing the app can do is transfer information from your PC to your PlayBook. Apple's iPad, on the other hand, allows you to send documents directly to a printer.
At launch, the PlayBook was relatively light on entertainment features, which is why we like the Video Store in OS 2.0. Powered by Rovi, newer hit releases were available by the truckload. The movie "50/50" cost $19.95 to purchase and $3.99 to rent. The same movie on the iTunes Store will cost you $14.99 to purchase and $3.99 to rent. TV shows, on the other hand, are in short supply. The Action category, for example, had just 11 shows, three of which were cartoons, while the Comedy section had just 23 shows, including "Scooby Doo."
There were some standouts available though, such as AMC's "The Walking Dead" and "Mad Men." Episodes of the shows that were available generally cost $1.99 each, which is about $1.00 less than they sell for in the iTunes Store. Unfortunately, there were no trailers available, so you'll have to make sure you're that the episode or movie you are downloading is the one you want before you buy it.
One Video Store feature we appreciated in particular was Progressive Download, which allows you to start playing as you're downloading it. The feature works by calculating your download speed versus your playback speed. The Video Store also supports playback via the PlayBook's HDMI output, making it easy to download movies and watch them on a larger screen.
BlackBerry App Store
The BlackBerry App World store has also seen some renovations. The Featured Apps, Games and App tabs that line the top of the screen all have a feel to them reminiscent of Google's Android Market. Each of these tabs also have sub-menus such as Categories, Top Free, Top Paid and New Arrivals to make finding apps easier. Unfortunately, there still aren't all that many apps. RIM needs to find a way to draw more developers in.
What's (Still) Missing
While all of the improvements RIM made are welcome, there are still a few features that needed to be added to the Playbook to bring it up to Android and iOS devices. For one, there's no way to automatically sync or backup data such as music and photos to the cloud. And while we like how social networks are integrated into messaging and contacts, you can't, for example, upload pictures directly to Facebook from the photo app, or share items from the browser. The lack of compatibility with other video chat services should have been resolved with the first iteration of the software, and the fact that the tablet still doesn't support BlackBerry Enterprise Server or BlackBerry Messenger on its own is inexcusable.
Overall, BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 is a solid update for the PlayBook. However, most of the improvements it brings to the table are features that should have been there from the beginning. There's not a lot that truly sets the PlayBook apart from the rest of the tablet crowd. Yes, this $199 device is a better choice for business users than the identically priced Kindle Fire. The PlayBook also has features Amazon's slate lacks, such as cameras, volume controls and HDMI output. Nevertheless, while PlayBook OS 2.0 makes RIM's tablet a better communications and productivity tool, it's still not compelling enough to tear people away from the iPad.