BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 Review

Blackberry playbook os 2

Editor’s note: This article is written by Vincent who attended PlayBook OS 2.0 media event in Malaysia and, very lucky, won a 16GB PlayBook in a game contest. In this article, you will learn about the new features of PlayBook OS 2.0 update.

When the PlayBook first launched in April last year, the world was taken aback by its lack of native email, calendar and contacts client. It’s Research In Motion we are talking about here after all, a company that popularize mobile emailing. Fast forward to February this year, the Waterloo-based company released a software update, the PlayBook OS 2.0, to finally fix its glaring shortcomings.

The new native email, calendar and contacts clients are not built just sufficiently good to shut up the criticizers — they are built to impress. Beyond that, the new operating system also brought the much anticipated Android app player, as well as enhancements on the user interface and overall features.

Unified ‘Messages’ App

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The new native email client on the PlayBook is anything but basic. Officially, it’s called the ‘Messages’ app, because it will not only do email, but also bring in messages from your social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

You can choose to either view messages from all accounts at once, or select one account at a time to separate your emails from your social network messages, or work emails from personal emails. You can also search your emails by keywords, along with filters like those found in Gmail.

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The email composer offers a wide array of formatting options, beyond what’s typically found on a mobile device. Besides the usual suspects like bold, italic, and text alignment, the PlayBook’s Messages client includes 16 font colors and around 50 font types. Gmail has only 11 font types, by comparison.

If this is not good enough for your mobile emailing needs, I don’t know what is.

Calendar and Contacts App

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Just like the email client, the calendar app is a well-furnished one. I especially like the variable font size of the dates, which grows bigger on busy days. That way, you can easily determine which are your busiest and the most laid back day, all from the month view itself.

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Adding an agenda is pretty simple, with all the standard options that you would expect, including adding attendees. The great thing about it is that you can pull the entire Contacts app within the Calendar app to learn more about any particular attendee.

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The Contacts app does more than just storing contact information. Like the email client, it’s tightly integrated with social networks, and I’m unsure if everyone would appreciate that.

For some reason, RIM decides that it’s a good idea to put everyone you are following on Twitter to your contact list. It may be fine for people like me, who follow less than 100 people on Twitter, but what about those who are following thousands, or even tens of thousands of people? It’s not gonna be pretty.

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Looking beyond that, the Contacts app is pretty informative. It has multiple tabs on the right side that could be used to check a contact’s latest social network posting, his/her company’s latest news (you’ve to fill up the company field of the contact beforehand obviously, but if the contact has a LinkedIn account, it’s done automatically), upcoming meetings based on the calendar app, LinkedIn connections and shared locations (no idea how this one works).

Android App Player

RIM’s aim is to make it as seamless as possible for the PlayBook to run Android apps. There is no way to find out which apps in the App World are ported from Android before you install them. But everything becomes obvious when you launch one, since Android-based applications will still be sporting the Android interface, even on the PlayBook.

Some of the Android-based apps are running really slow on the PlayBook, while some others are running even better than their native counterparts. The experience is as inconsistent as the one on native applications. Case in point: All the three email, calendar and contacts client are very fluid and run great on the PlayBook, while the experience on the App World and Facebook app is mediocre at best.

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RIM claims that thousands of apps were added to the App World in-conjunction of the launch of OS 2.0, but if the specific ones that you’re looking for is not available, it’s possible to directly sideload repackaged Android apps into your PlayBook.

Granted, not all Android apps work on the PlayBook, and while the process of sideloading is quite simple, you may have to put more effort in sourcing the repackaged apps. You may also repackage the apps yourself, provided you are tech savvy enough and willing to spend time on it.

So far, most of the Android apps that I use works on the PlayBook, like Kindle, Dropbox, Path, Shazam and Jango, but more sophisticated ones like Skype will not run properly.

RIM’s decision to enable Android apps on the PlayBook did indeed make the tablet much more useful than it would otherwise be. But that said, it could potentially diminish the interest of developers to develop native apps for the PlayBook. It makes much more sense to develop for Android, which has a much larger user base, and then simply repackage the app for the PlayBook, killing two birds with one stone.

If the trend continues, the App World for PlayBook will transform into a mini Android Market on its own, and the PlayBook will be taken as a pseudo Android tablet with its own unique interface and functionality, much like Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

As of now, it’s still not happening yet and the shortage of apps remains as the biggest hurdle the PlayBook has to overcome in order to appeal the masses.

Productivity Suite Enhancements

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I’ve not seen Docs To Go in action before the OS 2.0 update, so I can’t tell exactly how much better the app has become. But from my observation, I could say that it’s powerful enough for most use cases for either creating or editing Word documents and spreadsheets.

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The new keyboard text prediction (which is universal across the PlayBook) is particularly lovable. As you could have imagined, typing on a 7-inch tablet isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. The text prediction takes the pain away by guessing the word you’re about to type, based on the first few characters you’ve entered, and automatically insert the word as you tap on the space bar.

I can’t be sure if these are already included in the initial version of Docs To Go, but there are plenty of formatting options in the word editor, and there are over 100 formulas in the spreadsheet editor. Surprisingly, the font selection is rather limited. There are only four fonts available in the word editor, and one in the spreadsheet editor. The email composer has around 50 in comparison.

Besides the enhanced Docs To Go app, RIM has included a new productivity app called Print To Go. Don’t get fooled by its name though, it has the slightest thing to do with printing. Instead, the app is used to send documents from your PC to the PlayBook in PDF — no papers involved.

Once the PC software is installed on your computer, you can simply print any documents you want to read and carry on your PlayBook. The app on the PlayBook will then receive and organize your printed documents, ready for you to open using the Adobe Reader app. The Print To Go app itself is incapable of opening PDF files.

Since the app doesn’t really do anything other than receiving and organizing your PDF files, the same can be achieved using apps like Dropbox. Just simply save any PDFs you’d like to read on your PlayBook to your Dropbox folder, and then open it using the Dropbox or BlueBox app on your PlayBook. This could be a better solution for users on multiple platforms, as Dropbox is cross-platform, and Print To Go works only on Windows.

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Updated BlackBerry Bridge

With the updated BlackBerry Bridge app, you can now control your PlayBook with your BlackBerry smartphone using the new remote function. After setting up and enabling the feature, the touchscreen or trackpad of your BlackBerry smartphone can be used to control the cursor on your PlayBook, and you can type away using your smartphone’s keyboard.

Connect the PlayBook to your TV via HDMI, and now you can use your PlayBook on the big screen without leaving your couch. You can also use the same method to give presentations without staying close to the TV or projector. By changing the remote mode to presentation, you can use your smartphone’s touch screen as a clicker.

Pretty nifty actually, but it will only work with BlackBerry smartphones, which is unfortunate for smartphone users on different platforms.

There you have it, an overview of the features and improvements in PlayBook OS 2.0.

So, How Do I Like The PlayBook?

Thanks to LiewCF for his media pass, I attended the PlayBook OS 2.0 media event on February 23rd and won a 16GB PlayBook in a game contest. I finally received the device on the 9th of March, and have started using the tablet extensively since then.

Boy, I’m impressed. The user interface is well-thought at least to say. There is no physical or soft buttons on the front of the device, like most Android devices have, and there’s definitely no home button. Almost every single operation are done using gestures, save for volume adjustment.

It’s clever, and I have gotten used to it so much that I swipe upward from the bezel of my iPhone to quit an app. Of course, it didn’t work. And it’s a shame really. RIM really nailed this one in my opinion.

But as I wrote on Dice, it takes much more than a polished user interface for a tablet to be appealing. For one, no one will know how great your user interface is until they actually use it themselves.

And then comes the million dollar question: What can I do with it?

The multitasking capability is awesome, the gestures are great, the user interface is well-thought, but — what can I do with it?

The App World lacks even some of the most important apps for a tablet (i.e. Skype, Kindle, feature-complete PDF reader that isn’t slow etc). The possibility of sideloading repackaged Android apps helps solve part of the problem, but it’s not user friendly, especially to the non-savvy crowd. Even so, only part of the apps on the Android Market catalog works.

As of now, I’m using the PlayBook mostly for reading Kindle books (sideloaded the Kindle app), PDF magazines (Adobe Reader won’t save my last read location, unfortunately), and of course, the web browser. The Flash player on the PlayBook’s browser is pretty stable, and I occasionally use it to watch Flash-only videos like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and South Park.

The device itself is great. The rubberized back gave me a sense of security (not sure if it’s a false one though) that it wouldn’t get scratched from normal usage. And the size is just nice for reading, and the portability is great. The only regret I have is that I have no chance to make use of the 3-megapixel front camera. There just isn’t a single popular and cross-platform video chat app that is available in the App World. The native video chat service works only between PlayBooks. It’s just disappointing.

And my last complain: the PlayBook will not join ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks. Being a Wi-Fi only device, the PlayBook has to depend on other mobile devices for connectivity when there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot around. To be fair, RIM has done a good job to enable internet tethering on the PlayBook. It works even with my old Nokia N82.

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  1. iAwani April 13, 2012
    • LiewCF April 16, 2012