Tablets

RIM Improves BlackBerry PlayBook With 2.0 Upgrade: Hands-On

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 software update has been a long time in coming; the first we heard about the possibility of support for Android apps was nine months ago. But from my early look, the update was not only worth the wait, but also may be what RIM needs to make its 7-inch PlayBook tablet more competitive and desirable. The free update will come to all PlayBook users in February.

The big news, of course, is the addition of Android app support. Apps have to be tweaked by developers, then approved and added to RIM's App World, but the experience to users is seamless. If RIM gets lots of developers on board with the conversion and keeps apps updated, it could dramatically boost its app selection--long a sore point with the PlayBook.

Android apps looked great on the screen, and behaved the same as native apps in terms of how they looked in the app menu and worked in multitasking. I noticed a little lag opening apps in my demo, but playing games looked great, with smooth graphics even on a 3D app.

A Big Refresh

For starters, RIM has updated the home screen. The favorite icons dock now stays at the top of the apps menu page. RIM joins its iOS and Android competition by allowing you to create folders; just hold down an app icon, drag one app onto another, and change the app name.

The PlayBook even gets a new onscreen keyboard.
The notifications area on the upper left corner of the home screen gets more crowded with e-mail notifications as well as the usual system-level messages. And a new visual shows what updates are coming through a Bridge connection--for example, BlackBerry Messenger content, or calendar invites.

When the PlayBook launched in April last year, its hardware was highly competitive, with a largely appealing, albeit squared-off design. The primary complaints had nothing to do with the hardware; but rather with illogical software omissions (RIM had no email client, and no calendar or contact apps), and a limited native app ecosystem for the QNX-based operating system.

PlayBook 2.0 OS is likely the software that RIM should have launched with. And as frustrating as it's been to wait what feels interminably long for the arrival of e-mail, calendar, and contacts apps--and the long-promised Android support--RIM did a good job bundling these to make for a single, compelling upgrade.

The email app operates similarly to the standard BlackBerry Messenger app. You can combine multiple message sources into a universal inbox, so personal email, work email, and even messages from social sites like Linked In and Twitter (the only two so far). You can choose which accounts you want notifications from; for example, you can select which accounts on your BlackBerry phone should notify you of new messages via Bridge.

The email app lets you format text easily.
In its design, the email app behaves very much like Android's native email app. One differentiator: It makes it very easy to add text formatting to your message; through simple taps or dropdowns, you can change the font and font size, change the text color, indent text, add a bulleted or numbered list, and adjust text alignment.

The software keyboard has been redesigned to add predictive text suggestions, autocorrection, and contextual prediction of your next word. The predictive options meant that the keys had to become more wide than they are tall.

All About Social

The contacts app becomes something of a social hub in RIM's execution. The left pane shows contact information and image; the main pane offers a view of the contact's card, or other information you select from toolbar running along the right-hand side of the screen. As with email, contacts integrate Twitter and LinkedIn to pull in related information.

The toolbar includes options to show: general contact information; work information from that contact's Linked In profile (if they are one of your contacts on that service); social updates from partnered sites (again, limited to Linked In and Twitter for now); company news based on identified company name (which uses the Gist service RIM bought last year); meetings in common, past and present; people you have in common; and places where you've been with a contact. You can only use landscape mode for the contacts app, though.

RIM wants the contacts app to be your social hub.
Cloud syncing means if you make a change to your contacts on PlayBook, it will be made on your phone. And the converse is true, too. Calendar app syncing works similarly. PlayBook 2.0 supports syncing with Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo for calendar and email; as well as with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino.

The calendar app shows week, month, and day views, as well as an expanded Agenda view that shows all related information for a given entry. You can also view people in your meeting, and view their contact info if they're a contact. However, you can't initiate a phone call with a “bridged” BlackBerry by simply tapping on a phone number in the contacts.

One nifty visual: On the monthly calendar, the busier your day is, the larger the date appears relative to other dates on the calendar; this way, at a glance, you can view which days are busiest for you.

More Noteworthy Developments

First, you now get a Video Store, powered by Rovi, for buying and renting TV shows and movies. What's cool is that since it's powered by Rovi, you can use your content on other devices that support Roxio Now.

The calendar highlights busy days in big, bold letters.
That means you can output video to your TV at 1080p via HDMI, and use the BlackBerry Bridge remote control, new in Bridge 2.0, to turn your touchscreen BlackBerry phone into a keyboard and mouse for navigating the PlayBook.

Docs to Go has improved functionality, including PowerPoint editing, enhanced formula support, and the capability to embed images. These features will be unique to the PlayBook, at least for now. You can also send content such as Web pages, photos, emails, and documents from your phone to the BlackBerry via Bridge. Wirelessly turn content on your PC into a PDF viewable on the PlayBook using the Print to Go app. The print driver communicates with the PlayBook using BlackBerry ID, then prints and sends the document as a PDF.

In Video: Hands On With BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0

The BlackBerry 2.0 update looks like its teeming with potential--if it works as smoothly in practice as in the demo. Given the current promotional pricing on the PlayBook, the tablet may actually go from being a fancy brick to a viable tablet option. The BlackBerry Bridge 2.0 client and BlackBerry PlayBook2.0 OS update are both due in February. The client works on BB OS 5.0 and higher, and works with any touchscreen BlackBerry.

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.

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