Blackberry Playbook 2.0, which arrived earlier this week, is a marked improvement on the first-generation PlayBook platform released along with the 7-inch device almost a year ago. It’s also still probably not enough to make PlayBook a winner in the consumer tablet race.
When Research in Motion (RIM) first began showing off the PlayBook and its QNX-based operating system, I was impressed. The card-like interface — reminiscent of HP’s now open-sourced WebOS — was elegant, smart and powerful. It used not only the screen, but the black frame around it to initiate on-screen interactions.
The PlayBook was a true multitasker: with live video windows running right alongside live web pages and games. But there were also big issues.
RIM insisted on a marriage between your BlackBerry phone and the PlayBook. The Blackberry Bridge should have been a cool concept: access your phone’s mail, contacts and tasks on PlayBook via a Bluetooth connection.
Unfortunately that bridge was rickety — and for some, completely broken. Without that connection, the PlayBook had no native email client. This was shocking, considering mail management was one of the BlackBerry platform’s best features.
BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 ($199 for the 16 GB model), which launched on Tuesday, solves this and myriad other issues. Now there’s a smartly designed native e-mail client. If you don’t want to use BlackBerry Bridge, which works perfectly now, you don’t have to.
The updated PlayBook can now act as a true hub for your messages, contacts and calendar—and not just for your main e-mail account. It can also bring in Facebook and Twitter contacts.
Once I entered my username and passwords for my work e-mail and Facebook and Twitter accounts (I could’ve done LinkedIn, too), the PlayBook was bursting with contacts. Sending, receiving and managing e-mail worked smoothly.
Unlike the email interface on, say, the Amazon Kindle Fire, PlayBook’s client looks like it was built from the ground up to work with the hardware and platform. The Facebook contact integration is a nice bonus; I do sometimes like to focus on my Facebook messages. If you want to use Facebook in full, PlayBook 2.0 has a native Facebook client.
RIM has not convinced Twitter to build a native client, however, so that home screen link still takes you to Twitter’s mobile web site. This is fine for basic tweeting, but no good for posting photos and videos from the PlayBook. I eventually found a $5 app that resembles Twitter’s new Web interface. It works OK.
PlayBook 2.0 happily sucks in all your Twitter contacts, but since it thinks everyone you’re following is a contact, this ends up being a bit overwhelming if you follow thousands of users. Sorry, RIM, Stan Lee is not actually one of my contacts, I just follow him on Twitter.
In the messaging app, you can manage all your Twitter Direct Messages. But that’s not typically how we use the service. Twitter integration needs to be about initiating tweets — and PlayBook 2.0 fails miserably in this area.
I can’t tweet a photo or video from the platform, as I can on the iPad. I can, of course, tweet from within the Web browser — but that has nothing to do with the PlayBook.
Speaking of the browser, it’s great. Pages load quickly and zooming in and out is smooth and effortless. The 1024×600 pixel screen makes web pages look sharp in portrait or landscape mode, and the browser now includes a one-touch “Reading” view that strips away everything from the page except the article you’re reading. It’s nicely done and works without a hitch.
RIM also updated its interface with an Application Dock. This comes with five apps: Messaging, Contacts, Browser, Calendar and AppWorld. You can add one more, or add a folder and start dragging and dropping apps into it. This is pretty much what Apple iPad owners can do, and it’s quite convenient for organizing apps into categories such as “Productivity” and “Action Games”.
PlayBook 2.0 is a more productive device. The virtual keyboard is much improved, with auto-correct suggestions — though they’re hard to read in blue text on black. It isn’t really built for thumb-typing. I felt as if I was stretching my thumbs to reach certain keys and often missed the narrow spacebar.
I do have a new option for typing on the PlayBook. BlackBerry Bridge now lets you use your RIM phone as a remote control. I can type on a BlackBerry device and control the PlayBook’s mouse and cursor with the BlackBerry’ phone’s touchpad and touch screen. This worked like a charm on the brilliantly-designed BlackBerry Bold 9930. The remote capabilities also let you control on-screen presentations.
The Documents to Go Suite is pre-installed, so you can create documents that work seamlessly with Microsoft Word and spreadsheets that port smoothly into Excel.
Here’s another neat PlayBook trick: Print To Go. The app is a sort of mobile documents manager, but it’s the way you gather those documents that’s interesting. You download a print-to-file app on your PC and then print documents, files and photos to Print to Go — which then wirelessly delivers them to your PlayBook.
The Print to Go interface on the PlayBook is a bit of a weak link, however. I found it difficult to organize the documents and folders. When you launch one of the documents, the PlayBook was unaware that you started in Print To Go and offered no obvious way to switch back. Even so, it’s an easy way to grab PC-based documents for a quick business trip with your PlayBook.
There are other highlights. The gaming experience is good (likely thanks to the 1 GHz dual core processor and full GB of RAM). Photos and videos that I either download or take with the device look excellent. There’s even built-in video chat — but just like Apple’s FaceTime, it’s platform-limited. For now, I can video chat with anyone who has PlayBook OS 2.0 (eventually it will work with Blackberry OS 10 devices).
As you might have guessed, I don’t know anyone who owns a PlayBook. However, I was able to test with a friendly RIM rep. The quality was about what you’d expect, and as long as neither of us moved a lot, there wasn’t too much lag.
Put simply, there’s a lot of good stuff in the new PlayBook platform. So why don’t I love it?
Not All Good
First of all, RIM has not changed the hardware. It’s black, elegant and larger than the Kindle Fire. But the buttons are the worst on any tablet I’ve tested. They feel cheap. The power/sleep button is hard to press, yet was accidentally triggered more than once in my backpack.
As slick as the PlayBook 2.0 interface is, I experienced numerous crashes during my testing. I frequently could not launch apps. Other times, they’d simply stopped working. Facebook took a dive when I tried to use the camera. The camera takes almost three seconds to boot up. The browser wouldn’t load until I closed some apps, and the touchscreen is still not as precise or responsive as that of the iPad.
BlackBerry has filled the PlayBook 2.0 with plenty of apps. AppWorld offers access to thousands more. But I still couldn’t find a decent drawing app, like Sketchbook Pro on the iPad. There’s no Amazon Kindle Reader App. There’s a video store pre-loaded on the device, but it’s not really well integrated. And this may be the PlayBook’s biggest problem.
In the year since RIM introduced the PlayBook, we’ve learned some valuable lessons about the tablet market. Yes, you can compete with Apple, but only if you do it in a very specific way. First of all, your product needs to be super affordable: $199 is the new sweet spot for non-Apple pads.
The 16 GB Playbook is now $199. That’s good news; it’s the same as the Amazon Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet (while beating them both on storage space and functionality—the Playbook has two cameras).
But the Fire and (to a lesser extent) the Nook succeeded because they, like Apple, offer ecosystems of content. In other words, they make it simple to consume books, movies and music on the device. Think of it as frictionless consumption. PlayBook has a great platform, but no ecosystem to speak of.
I had entered my credit card info to buy that over-priced Twitter app. Then when I used the video store, I had to start all over again. New user name and password, new credit card details. Same thing for the music store. Each time I launched one of PlayBook’s media stores, I was shown a new user agreement. This will not fly for consumers.
Overall, RIM has done a decent job of making the PlayBook a usable tablet. Based on the areas where PlayBook truly shines — e-mail, calendaring, document creation, remote control via phone — I see it as a strong contender for the business tablet space. The iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook, though, have nothing to worry about.