RIM finally gets the BlackBerry PlayBook up to speed. But is it too little, too late? (Rating: 3 out of 5)
If viewed as a new product, most users would see the PlayBook with this new 2.0 OS and think, “Okay, this is a decent platform. I can work with this.”
How about when viewed by existing users and reviewers and critics as the continuation of a disappointing saga that began almost one year ago? Well, let’s just say that RIM faces an uphill battle convincing people that the second coming of the PlayBook is relevant to their interests.
The truth is that with very few exceptions, none of the new additions, such as the native email and calendar clients, provide a substantial advantage over iPad or Android.
But it does get PlayBook 2.0 closer to equal footing. With a few exceptions, this update provides solid workday functionality in a 7-inch tablet for $199.
For business users and IT buyers still using Blackberry devices, this has to count for something, right?
Email, calendar functions amongst the PlayBook 2.0’s new features
Before we get to that though, here’s a quick overview of what’s new in the release.
- Native messaging and email client with a unified inbox as well as support for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn
- Update to BlackBerry Bridge, including ability to use BlackBerry Phone as remote control and text entry option on PlayBook tablets as well as the ability to open files from a BlackBerry phone onto the PlayBook.
- Minor improvements to the Print To Go and Documents To Go
- Support for Android apps that have been ported into App World marketplace
- Improved responsiveness
- New Video Chat features, including automatic contact detection and compatibility with presenter mode
PlayBook 2.0 email is forward-thinking, plus attachments
The first and probably most important feature in the new release is the PlayBook 2.0 email client, which is dubbed Messaging.
I suppose it’s not surprising given the Blackberry’s strengths around email and messaging, but this native app will prove pleasing to all PlayBook users.
Setting up email is exactly the same as most other operating systems. You type in your address and the email client (in most cases) automatically sets everything up. It handles non-Gmail.com Google mail addresses just as easily as anything else.
The email interface is surprisingly elegant. Messages look very clear, and similar to iOS, Android, and even Outlook on desktops, you can quickly move between messages via the reading pane. The reading pane includes 6 quick-action icons, such as reply, replay all, forward, flag message, file message, and delete. It’s very easy to move through.
iPad users will be envious of the ability to easily send attachments via email. One other aspect of PlayBook 2.0’s mail client also bears singling out. It’s clear that RIM recognizes a very important facet of business communications: We don’t just communicate via email these days.
For most people, FaceBook, LinkedIn, and even Twitter are also valuable messaging clients. RIM’s decision to include Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn into its email client is commendable.
One deficiency Twitter users will be disappointed by is that as far as the messaging client is concerned; you can only see direct messages and not the timeline view.
A greater deficiency in my opinion is that you can’t use email in portrait mode. Only landscape mode works. With a 7-inch tablet, it’s not a major inconvenience, but it’s puzzling nonetheless. One thing I’ve noticed with 7-inch tablets is that I almost always read books in portrait mode.
PlayBook 2.0 calendar is interesting, but incomplete
In a similar manner to email, the long-awaited Calendar function is elegantly designed, if basic in function. It combines an attractive and intuitive user interface with a surprise or two.
Like most calendar apps, each of your accounts is displayed in a different color, and you can sort your calendar view by day, month, or week. The month view displays the current day’s appointments on the right-hand side of the screen.
Socially connected users will appreciate the ability to sort appointments by individuals as well as by time. A “People” tab allows you to quickly look up the individuals you’re scheduled to meet, eat, drink, or play with.
There are three noticeable omissions from the PlayBook calendar, unfortunately. First, you can’t toggle which accounts are actively displayed and which are not. Second, as far as I can tell, there’s no way to invite people to appointments you schedule via the PlayBook itself.
Finally, just like with email, you can’t view your calendar in portrait mode.
App Worlds remain lacking
Browsing the App World library quickly exposes the weak spot of the PlayBook. Simply put, there’s just not a lot happening here yet.
RIM has made a big deal out of Android compatibility, which allows developers to quickly and easily port their Android apps into the QNX environment. However, while there are a number of Android apps in the marketplace, most of them are of dubious quality and distinction.
These circumstances may change in time, but for the interim, PlayBook users will miss some important apps, like DropBox, QuickOffice, the Kindle reader, native newspaper applications, magazines, and more.
(Docs To Go is an MS Office/QuickOffice replacement, but its limited functionality and lack of support for cloud services makes it a poor substitute.)
Again, however, for corporate and business deployments, the dearth of apps won’t feel as heart-breaking. This said, the absence of Skype and Dropbox is disappointing. But at least Box.net and Evernote are available.
BlackBerry to PlayBook communications and controls
One of the advantages of PlayBook 2.0 that RIM has touted is that existing BlackBerry smartphone owners can control their PlayBook via a wireless connection.
There are lots of possible uses, from remote control of media functions to games and more, but the core benefit here is that the OS is now capable of allowing you to use your phone as a keyboard for the tablet.
As a former CrackBerry addict, I can appreciate the value here. Before I switched over to touch screen smartphones, I fancied myself a speed demon on these phones’ physical keyboards. As redundant as it sounds, being able to sit on a plane, prop the PlayBook up on a stand, and sit back and type away is appealing. It would certainly be faster.
In practice though, I’d imagine that this would see limited use. It’s there if you want it.
The Bottom Line: PlayBook 2.0 may have business appeal
One of the things a lot of people like about the original PlayBook OS is the platform’s potential. The hardware itself is spot on, with a high-quality IPS (in-plane switching) display, a fast processor, fast multi-tasking, and a comfortable rubberized feel.
And from the start, the PlayBook OS also possesses some fairly unique and intuitive gesture controls. As an example, swiping up to access the home screen and multi-tasking still feels more natural to the tablet experience than the iPad or Android’s approaches.
None of these gestures have been replaced or modified, and as I put this update through its paces, I couldn’t help but find myself wishing the designers had incorporated some new controls.
And there’s the rub. RIM has had to spend almost a full year just to get it up to basic functionality. This means a lot of good, progressive, ground-breaking features are still getting left on the cutting room floor.
All this said, there’s enough basic functionality here that, when combined with the low price and the high-quality display, it’s worth considering—from a business/corporate deployment perspective.
For now, I'm calling this release squarely average. That's a whole lot better than the PlayBook was in 2011.