The BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 update, which was launched On February 21st, brings many enhancements and features to the tablet that greatly improves its functionality and visuals. This update has been expected, and highly anticipated, since the Tablet’s launch in April of last year. Although there have been many false dates and rumors as to when the OS 2.0 update would arrive, it has taken until now for this release to finally come outs. As one reviewer pointed out, that’s more time than it takes to make a human baby. An unforgivable wait many say. I beg to differ. Although it was definitely too long in coming, BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 brings many new features that really make this 7 inch tablet shine.
Due to initially poor sales, the PlayBook has dropped in Price from $499 for the 16 Gig version, $599 for a 32 Gig and $699 for a 64 Gig model, to $199 for a 16 Gig model, $249 for a 32 Gig, and $299 for a 64 Gig version. This puts it directly in competition with the other two popular 7 inch tablets in the $199 price range, the Kindle Fire, and the Nook Tablet. And unlike either of the two aforementioned tablets, the PlayBook is a nice piece of Hardware, sporting a dual-core processor, one Gig of RAM, a HD 1020 by 600 pixel screen (170 pixels per inch) screen, and a 5 megapixel HD camera, to mention just a few features. (See my Playbook OS 126.96.36.19967 review for full Hardware details.)
Its hardware accelerated, fully flash supported browser is amazing to watch in action, especially compared to other tablets and smartphones. The flash and HTML5 support is flawless, and, thanks to its hardware acceleration (introduced in OS 2.0), extremely fast. The multitasking that the Playbook has become known for is fluid and good looking as always, but now visually improved to show larger windows of what is running. Instead of being able to see 5 running apps at a time, you see 3, and they are now larger and labeled so you can see what’s running more clearly. (You can still run as many as you want at the same time).
The home screen has also been greatly improved. Now, instead of tabs (Media, Favorites etc.), you can drag your 6 favorite apps (or folders) to a quick launch bar that is on the bottom of the home screen. With OS 2.0, you can now also drag apps into your own custom pages to sort them in whatever way you want.
The other big change to the home screen UI is that you can create folders by dragging apps on top of each other. You can then drag as many apps as you want into that folder. When you delete a folder, its contents are automatically restored to the page where they were. (It’s worth noting that you can’t delete a folder directly from the quick launch bar, you have to drag it down onto an ‘app page’ then delete it, also all apps in the folder you delete will be returned to their original position in the home screen). Just as in the previous OS version, you swipe up to show all apps, down for settings etc. Nothing has changed with regard to all the basic gestures.
Of course, the main improvements that everyone is excited about are the Calendar, Contacts, Unified Messages apps, and the new native Android runtime. (I will not be reviewing the very large improvements that have been made to Blackberry Bridge, as I do not have a Blackberry Smartphone, so I can’t use Bridge).
The messages app is a breeze to use. Simply enter your Facebook, Twitter, email, and linked in account information into the (new in OS 2.0) Accounts section in the settings menu and all your messages from these accounts will be synced to the messages app. You can easily switch between accounts, filter and search messages, and view threaded messages with ease. But the thing that I think really makes this app stand out is that you can create and/or respond to multiple emails (up to 10) simultaneously. You can switch between them by swiping down from the top and selecting open emails. This is really handy, and is a great showcase for how the PlayBook’s true multi-tasking is a useful productivity asset.
The calendar app is also nicely done. You can create events to be synced in any of your linked calendars like Facebook, Gmail, etc. or just locally, on your PlayBook. It is very easy to create an event and add location, people that will be attending, etc. You can also add an email address to send invitations to people you expect to be at meetings etc. This account must be different from any account you already have synced to your PlayBook, which is annoying, but it’s still a nice feature.
One thing that I really liked in the otherwise fairly ordinary calendar is that the number representing a day is proportional to how many events that day. For example, on days where I have no events, the number is fairly small. However on days when I have, let’s say 5 events, the number (representing that day of the month) will be quite large. This is a quick way to see on what days you are the busiest, and it looks really nice. If you only want to see information from one of your calendars (The PlayBook combines the calendars from all the accounts you link), you can select that one calendar from the swipe down menu, and only see events from that calendar. As on most calendars, you can also choose from week, month, and day views.
One of the other major additions that come in BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 is the contacts app. It syncs your contacts from all your different accounts that you added in the settings menu and puts them in one place. It doesn’t always combine the same contact from multiple accounts, meaning you have to link them yourself. Although it usually does combine them, when it doesn’t it’s a bit of a pain. You can link contacts and add and edit extensive information. Also, you can view that person’s latest posts and updates on all accounts that you have them on, view their company news, upcoming and past meetings with that contact, and locations where you have been together. Sometimes, I have noticed that the app can be a little slow, but it isn’t normally, and hey, I do have almost 200 contacts there.
I felt that the messages app was the most notable of the 3 major new apps in PlayBook OS 2.0, It is fast, easy to use, and has several features that really make it stand out from other email apps, such as multitasking composition of emails and switching between account views with one touch. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about either the contacts or calendar app, but they are both full featured apps that do their job well. And for a tablet that, until recently, didn’t even have an email or calendar app, they are certainly welcome.
Before I go on to the final major change, the integrated Android runtime, I would like to mention some other notable, smaller improvements. The LED Light at the top front of the PlayBook, next to the camera now flashes when you have notifications, like a new email or an update to an app becoming available. The QWERTY keyboard now has an auto-correct function that also learns from your typing patterns in order to give you the right word, faster and more often. The ‘Docs to go’ apps suite has been improved with more features, and now it is only one icon that you click on and select what function you would like to use, instead of the 2 separate icons in the older OS version.
The App World has gotten a much needed interface update, making it more attractive. A new default app ‘Print To Go’ has been added. Using ‘Print To Go’ you can send documents directly from the print menu in your word processor as .PDF files to your PlayBook over a Wi-Fi network. Finally, a basic file manager, it’s the same box you see when browsing files to open in any application, but it’s nice that it’s out there now. There are many more, smaller tweaks, but they’re not big enough to warrant me mentioning them all here.
So, finally, the one many PlayBook owners have been hoping for the most, the android app runtime has finally arrived! It makes it very easy for developers to re-package their Android apps and port them to the PlayBook. However, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped. There hasn’t been the number of apps ported that I hoped for, and definitely not the great fix to the PlayBook’s severe app shortage that I thought it was going to be. So, that is kind of disappointing. Although, having just said that, according to the Official Inside BlackBerry BLOG, there are still at least 3000 apps pending review for approval to be launched to the App World.
So, hopefully there are some more good apps there, waiting to be approved, because even with the android runtime enabling developers to easily repackage their apps into the format necessary for the Playbook, there are still frustratingly few good free apps on the App World. Notably, there are still no Kindle, Twitter, or Netflix apps, also missing are torrent, and a free video player app, to name only a few.
In general, there are very few apps and those that there are, seem to be of quite poor quality. I am starting to see more new apps, and there is the backlog of apps that still hasn’t made it through. But, there are still ridiculously few apps to choose from. As for games, there does seem to be a large number of fairly high quality games from EA studios, GameLoft, and other developers, however, these are paid games that the majority of users, myself included, are unwilling to spend money on.
This has many (more tech savvy) users turning to side loading their apps (putting apps that have not been officially published yet that have been converted from android by someone other than the developers onto your playbook). See my article on side-loading Android apps to the BlackBerry PlayBook for more info, including some of the risks and where to get those apps.
You don’t need to look far on the Internet to realize that there are a lot of predictions full of doom and gloom for RIM and its BlackBerry Product line’s future. Many critics, it seems, have totally abandoned any hope of RIM ever making a viable product again, and seem to carry over that attitude over into their reviews, which especially in the Playbook’s case, have been extremely negative and pessimistic. In my PlayBook OS 1.0 (188.8.131.5267) review, I gave an example of a reviewer that brushed off the PlayBook as a “…Tablet joke…” Although this is a more extreme example, that attitude is typical of the vast majority of PlayBook reviews I have read.
The problem, in my opinion, with this thinking, is that they are brushing off the strengths of the PlayBook as insignificant, while at the same trashing the PlayBook for the features it lacks. When you compare the Ipad to the PlayBook, as most reviewers inevitably do, the one thing that the Ipad always comes out on top for is its app ecosystem. The Ipad has over 200 000 apps at last count. And the PlayBook, at last count I believe (I’m not sure of the exact figures but I believe it’s somewhere around that number) has around 6000. More android apps are trickling in, and there are more than 3000 more android apps backed up waiting to be accepted into the app store. Granted, this isn’t much, and needs improvement, and fast. But with the android runtime included in OS 2.0, it is insanely easy to port your Android apps to the BlackBerry PlayBook. And, hopefully, the app world will continue to grow, because, in all, this really is a great little tablet, that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, and I really hope app developers will start to see that and port their apps to the PlayBook.
(On a side note, it’s worth noting the developer team is said to still be working on making BlackBerry Messenger available for Playbook users. This is another example of a feature that should, ideally have been available at launch, and it will be released at a yet unknown date sometime in the future. Hopefully this won’t take too long to come, as waiting for features that should have been included at launch, or at least, much earlier than they have been, is something PlayBook owners have become very tired of.)
PlayBook OS 2.0 brings a whole bunch of great, much needed updates to the PlayBook, including native Messaging, Calendar, and Contacts apps, hardware accelerated browser, many visual updates, and Android run-time built in. Although these changes are all quite impressive, and the PlayBook is now even more functional and visually impressive than before, these features ideally should have been available at its launch, and there is still one BIG problem. Apps are still scarce and low quality. Although you can side-load android apps, this is complicated, somewhat risky, and doesn’t always work.
This was a much needed update bringing many much needed features, which combine to make an outstanding tablet in all but one area. Let’s hope that changes soon and many more apps are developed for, and ported to the BlackBerry PlayBook.