For almost a year, I've wanted to recommend the BlackBerry PlayBook as the best alternative to Apple's iPad. Now, I finally can.
What has kept me from giving Research In Motion's debut tablet the thumbs up has been a string of obvious oversights on the company's part, including many glitches in the initial model and the inexplicable decision to release the PlayBook without native e-mail, contacts or calendar applications. That, and the onboard app store was terrible.
This week, RIM took a big step toward neutralizing many of these longstanding complaints, with the release of a free software update for the PlayBook operating system. Version 2.0 of the software – available to all PlayBook users as a free download – delivers e-mail, contacts and calendar apps that are fairly interconnected. Users only have to plug in their social media info, such as a Facebook login, and the software populates their various apps with information such as friends' contact info and upcoming birthdays on the calendar.
The software update also allows users to better manage their apps by creating and managing folders. PlayBook owners in the U.S. also get access to an online video store that has a somewhat anemic but nonetheless fairly current selection of movies and TV shows. In all, PlayBook OS 2.0 looks and runs much better than its predecessor – so much so that it warrants a second review of the tablet. Is it enough to save RIM? Not by a long shot. But it's an important piece of good news – a company plagued by negative headlines for the past 12 months has finally generated a positive one.
Before delving into the new features of the operating system, it's worth noting what the PlayBook already does well (and not so well). Perhaps the tablet's best feature is its ability to handle HD video. Simply plug this thing into your computer, dump some files onto it the same way you would a USB key, and you can start watching video on the PlayBook's excellent (if somewhat glare-prone) screen. As I've said in previous reviews, the onboard speakers on the PlayBook are far better than those on any other tablet out there, making it actually tolerable to listen to music without using headphones.
The PlayBook's Web browser is also terrific. Some Web sites will still redirect you to the mobile version of the site, but they really shouldn't. This browser can handle most anything you throw at it, from Flash video to secure HTTP logins. Get the PlayBook on a WiFi connection, and you're pretty much good to go.
(Once promised as early as last summer, the mythical 3G- or 4G-ready PlayBook never materialized. And given the massive write-off and deep discounts RIM has had to take on the PlayBook since then, it's a safe bet we won't see anything other than a WiFi-only PlayBook in the near future).
The PlayBook's app store was mostly terrible when the device came out last year, and unfortunately it hasn't gotten much better. RIM has handed out all kinds of incentives for programmers to build apps for the tablet – including free PlayBooks to developers – but that hasn't seemed to spur interest. In fairness, there are several excellent apps available right now on the PlayBook, including Evernote, Poynt and Angry Birds. But there's also lots and lots of mostly useless apps that seem to have been built by someone in their spare time for the sole purpose of getting a free PlayBook.
Which brings us to the first of the new operating system's features – the ability to run apps originally built for devices running on Google's Android operating system. In theory, this was a great idea. After all, there are millions of Android devices out there already, and as such, tons of developers building software for the operating system. However the PlayBook can't suddenly run all of these new apps. Developers still have to port their apps over. Even though RIM promises that this process is extremely straightforward, it doesn't look like very many developers have bothered to do it yet. The PlayBook app store remains, even after this latest software update, probably the worst of the major tablet app stores out there.
The rest of the new operating system's features, however, do offer a significant improvement. After downloading and installing the (somewhat hefty, at several hundred megabytes) update, users are greeted with a slightly sleeker-looking interface. Prominently displayed at the bottom of the screen are the new calendar, contacts and e-mail apps – the latter is called “messages,” because it acts as a one-stop hub for both e-mail and social media communications.