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.
If you want your corporate e-mail on your PlayBook, you'll still have to go through your company's IT department, as you would with a BlackBerry. (In fact, I'd wager that a big part of why it took RIM so long to get native e-mail on the PlayBook is the difficulty of marrying consumer-friendly social messaging and contacts with the traditionally ultra-secure architecture of the BlackBerry message network). But simply going to the “Accounts” section of the PlayBook's settings and tapping in your Twitter, LinkedIn and/or Facebook account info will quickly populate all your apps with feeds from your social networks. This kind of universal info-sharing among apps isn't unique to the PlayBook, but it works surprisingly well. Indeed, the messages app, which reformats your Facebook messages by date and sender, is arguably more intuitive than Facebook's own messages screen. You can also dump your various Web mail accounts, such as Gmail, into your feed with ease.
The same universal inbox feature extends to the PlayBook's video chat app, which also automatically hunts down your camera-enabled friends and adds them to your chat contacts list.
If the new built-in productivity apps are the PlayBook's most significant feature, the new file management system is probably the least significant. It's easy-to-use – basically, tap and hold an app to move it, then move it over another app to create a new folder containing those two apps. Rinse. Repeat. RIM is right to have included it in the update, but nobody's going to go out and buy a PlayBook for the file management capabilities. The software update also includes a file manager that lets you quickly scan the documents, music, video and pictures you have on the tablet. Again, it's mildly useful, but not a killer feature.
More importantly, RIM has found a way to make its original PlayBook features – the somewhat-derided BlackBerry Bridge – much more useful. Bridge was originally a way for RIM to give users e-mail, calendar and other apps on their PlayBook by basically streaming them off a BlackBerry smartphone via a bluetooth connection. Now, users who have both the tablet and the phone can use Bridge to remotely control their PlayBook from their BlackBerry. That means you can use your physical BlackBerry keyboard to type on the PlayBook, or control slides in a presentation without picking up the tablet, or even open documents remotely from your BlackBerry to your PlayBook in order to view them on a larger screen (that last one isn't really a Bridge feature, but it's very cool regardless). Business-minded users are going to make great use of these features.
Canadian users aren't going to like this, but in the U.S., PlayBook 2.0 comes with a built-in video store. As I happen to be in the U.S. while reviewing the tablet, I can tell you the selection is all over the place. The movies are mostly new – including Bridesmaids, the Hangover 2 and what I assume is the latest Twilight movie. The TV show selection isn't great, but does include a few gems, such as The Walking Dead and the terrific, underrated comedy Party Down. Of course, you'll need a U.S. credit card to watch any of it.
On the style side, RIM has done well to keep the user interface fairly understated. The best features are fairly subtle. For example, dates on the calendar where there are several appointments show up larger on the screen. One of RIM's best acquisitions in recent years is a small user interface design firm called The Astonishing Tribe. Those guys are starting to leave their fingerprints all over the PlayBook, and will probably have a big say in how the next generation of BlackBerrys look, too.
PlayBook OS 2.0 isn't going to completely reverse RIM's fortunes in the PlayBook market. In fact, the company's decision to slash prices on the device will probably be more responsible than any of the new features for moving more PlayBooks off store shelves. But this is nonetheless an important moment for the company. After months of missed launch dates and earnings numbers, RIM has finally kept one of its promises, releasing a product when they said they would. A friend of mine who works at the company often complains that the media likes to only focus on the negative when it comes to RIM. But that's because the company has given reporters and investors little else to focus on. With a software update that finally makes the PlayBook a serious contender, RIM has finally generated a welcome bit of good news.