I want to love the Blackberry Playbook tablet and its new Version 2.0 operating system. After all, the PlayBook OS will be the basis of Research in Motion's future BlackBerry smartphones' BlackBerry 10 OS, and it has a clean, simple, inviting design. Also, you can now access your email, calendar, and contacts using native clients without having to bridge via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry smartphone, one of the most inane limits of the original BlackBerry PlayBook OS. See also: New iPad review.
To be sure, PlayBook OS 2.0 offers solid enhancements, a few of which even outclass the competition. But overall, the operating system and its apps are too limited; it's passable as a sort of business communications appliance but not quite up to snuff with what a "real" tablet can deliver, as any iPad or Android tablet owner can tell you. Competing iPads and Android tablets offer much more functionality, and they're easy to use. They don't confuse simple with simplistic, as the BlackBerry PlayBook sometimes does. And they don't have the too-small (7 inches), too-ugly (a heavy black slab) form that characterize the PlayBook; RIM has not yet updated the actual hardware. (Also see: Group test: what's the best tablet PC?)
If you want a reminder of all that was wrong with April 2011's original PlayBook OS and the still-current hardware, read our original Blackberry Playbook review. Here, I focus on what's new in the PlayBook 2.0 OS.
BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0: Pleasant business apps that don't always work right
You may rejoice that the BlackBerry PlayBook now lets you access email, calendars, and contacts directly, over a Wi-Fi connection. That means you don't need a BlackBerry smartphone to use the PlayBook -- except you probably still do. I was able to connect to my corporate Exchange account and my personal IMAP account, but I didn't get all my email as I did when I tethered to a BlackBerry Bold.
For example, the PlayBook won't sync messages older than 30 days, so some messages -- like my folder of standard reference info sent via email -- are permanently out of the PlayBook's reach. Of course, over time, your folders build up any history you want to retain, so that's a small ding. The PlayBook 2.0 OS doesn't let you create or edit folders, as iOS 5 does, and continues that annoying longstanding RIM BlackBerry "feature" of leaving a copy of a message in your inbox even if you move it to a folder (casting doubt as to whether the message was actually moved, and preventing you from keeping a clean inbox).
A bigger issue was that in syncing to my IMAP account, the PlayBook saw none of its folders, a problem I didn't have on the Bold. In the PlayBook OS, you can't specify IMAP or POP for email accounts, as you can on other PC and mobile OSes. An obscure error message when I checked my personal account's settings suggested that the PlayBook could not connect via IMAP, instead defaulting to POP. There is no way to say for sure. What I do know is that I've never had this issue with any other OS that supports IMAP, whether PC or mobile. Other reviewers have noted syncing problems as well.
You can add Twitter to the Messages app that handles your email, but all you get are your Twitter direct messages, a nice option if you use direct messaging as a parallel email system, but not if you want to post or even read tweets. For that, you'll need a dedicated Twitter app. Sadly, the Twitter "app" included with the PlayBook is a link to the Twitter site, and it doesn't even log you in with the Twitter credentials you set up in your Messages account. Even sadder is the reason for using the Web app: There is no native Twitter app for the PlayBook. In fact, PlayBook app selection in RIM's App World app store is sparse.
The Messages app is laid out nicely, with clear controls and a simple but effective interface. It's an example of good mobile UI design, one of the PlayBook's strengths. The Calendar app has a similarly clean, highly usable design, while supporting sophisticated repeating events that Apple's iOS has yet to tackle.
The Contacts app is the most surprising, in good and bad ways. For example, most of the usual contacts editing and searching capabilities are present, but you can't create groups, a flaw shared with iOS, or even view them, a flaw shared with no other vendor. Another flaw: Despite allowing you to separate work from personal contacts, the PlayBook doesn't let you change which group it assigns your existing contacts to -- not the most useful implementation of the concept.
What's surprising in a good way is the Contacts app's integration with other services. If you're viewing a contact and click the Twitter button, you can see that person's last tweet in your Twitter stream. There's a similar capability to see a contact's current LinkedIn status, as well as any appointments you have with this person. A lot of mobile OSes offer social networking hubs to collapse all your streams in one place, but usually in a lowest-common-denominator approach. The PlayBook approach is useful and smart -- a model for every competitor.
The PlayBook also includes a basic version of the Documents to Go productivity app (RIM owns its creator), which allows you to edit and create Word and Excel files, but not PowerPoint files. The app is OK for light use, but in no way compares to Apple's iWork suite for iOS or the Quickoffice suite for iOS and Android. A big flaw in the PlayBook version of Documents to Go (which does not occur in its iOS or Android versions) is its lack of support for cloud storage services such as Dropbox and Box.net, where your files are likely to reside.
All in all, the PlayBook is fine for calendars and contacts, as well as email if the sync issues are fixed. But that's the heart and soul of what the PlayBook can do for you -- and it can do it only if you have a Wi-Fi connection or are tethered to a recent BlackBerry smartphone to access its 3G connection.
BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0: Basic Web browser with great HTML5 support
The PlayBook's Web browser is nothing special. It offers basic bookmarking capabilities, the ability to add bookmarks to the home screen as if they were apps, and a browser history -- much like every other mobile browser. The URL field doubles as a search field in the omnibar approach gaining currency among modern browsers. And the Android-like previews of open browser windows is quite usable. The PlayBook is one of the few mobile OSes to support Adobe Flash, which Adobe itself is discontinuing after the current Version 11 for Android and PlayBook OS. There are the security controls over cookies and private browsing that you'd expect.
But you can't copy and paste text or graphics from the Web pages displayed on the browser -- an odd limitation. The browser self-identifies as a desktop browser, so you get full Web pages when using the PlayBook. I wish there were an option, as there is on some Android devices, to change that self-identification to instead view a mobile-optimized site. There are times when a full website's design emphasizes tiny text and elements that are hard to access on a 7-inch screen like the PlayBook's.
Where the PlayBook's browser shines is in its HTML5 support: It scores 354 out of 475 points in the latest HTML5Test.com tests, beating the previous champ iOS 5's new score of 305 and the Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" score of 256.
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