BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 Review: A Business Evaluation

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New PlayBook UI, Features

RIM revamped the entire UI of the PlayBook software in v2.0, along with the BlackBerry App World UI. The two most notable new features of the overall UI are the ability to customize, add and eliminate "panes," which users switch between by scrolling horizontally on the home screen; and the additional folder that can be used to group like applications.

I really appreciate both new enhancements, because I like to group my apps in folders and then list all of my folders on one single pane, so I dont have to scroll between panes to access whatever app or service I need. I heard some complaints from other PlayBook users about the new pane system, since it is no longer very similar to RIM's BlackBerry 7 smartphone OS, which features panes with set names and functionality, such as "All" and "Favorites," etc. But that's really a matter of opinion.

The PlayBook also got new LED-based notifications, instead of on-screen only notifications. I'm a big fan of BlackBerry smartphone LED notifications, and I feel the same about the new PlayBook feature. RIM also recently released the PlayBook native development kit (NDK) to give developers access to the LED notification feature, so third party apps that use these notifications should become available soon.

The new PlayBook software also has a cool new "Print to Go" feature that lets you quickly send documents and other files on your computer directly to your PlayBook for viewing while you're on the move. A new PlayBook Video Store makes renting or buying movies and TV shows easy, though the store selection is notably limited compared to the likes of Amazon and other digital media vendors.

A new software keyboard, powered by SwiftKey technology used in Android, gives PlayBook users a tweaked on-screen keyboard that adds a new row of numbers where there used to be only letters, though the overall key size has been reduced to make room for the numbers. The new keyboard also features predictive text, which is a valuable addition since typing on virtual keyboards can be a chore.

RIM also says the Video Chat and Docs to Go apps have been enhanced; I rarely use video chat and when I did I didn't notice any real difference over the past version of the app. I do use Docs to Go somewhat frequently and appreciate that the PlayBook ships will a full-fledged document suite, but I honestly didn't notice too many difference in this app either.

Finally, the PlayBook battery life remains impressive. With my tablet connected to a mobile hotspot all day, various mail going in an out throughout the day and the occasional Web surfing or app download, the PlayBook easily lasts a full day and well into the night. I rarely found myself with a dead tablet, unless I watched a movie or read a book for an extended period of time after a day of use. I didn't notice any real difference in battery life after the update, which is a good thing, because sometimes adding new features or making significant software changes can greatly affect battery life.

Soooo, that's a lot to like. But the PlayBook is far from perfect. Read on for reasons why.

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 Review: Where RIM Missed Its Mark

I'm going to get this out of the way first, so I don't have to dwell on it: RIM took too long to get this software update out to PlayBook users. Way too long. But now that the 2.0 software is officially available, we can all move on.

PlayBook Native E-Mail and PIM

One thing about the PlayBook 2.0 native e-mail app that drives me mad is that it only works in landscape mode. I've been using the BlackBerry Bridge e-mail app to get my corporate mail via my smartphone since it was released, and that app works in both landscape and portrait modes, so I was accustomed to getting my e-mail in both orientations.

Sometimes I lock my PlayBook in portrait mode, when I'm reading, for example, but when I check new messages, it sometimes gets locked in landscape because the mail app is only available this way. Then I have to unlock my orientation and relock it in portrait again, which gets annoying quickly, especially if you're constantly switching back and forth between apps and mail.

The native PlayBook email app also looks very different than the BlackBerry Bridge mail app, and features and functionality are located in different places. This is not ideal for PlayBook users who employ the native app for personal mail and Bridge for corporate mail, since those users will be constantly switching back and forth between the two. It would have been nice if RIM considered congruity with Bridge when it developed the native mail app.

As for the PIM apps, I really like the layout and general functionality of the contacts app, but I wish it didn't pull in all of my Twitter and Facebook contacts, since some of them, especially my Twitter contacts, aren't personal friends or acquaintances, and their listing just gets in the way of my legit contacts. This contacts auto-population feature could be valuable in some instances, but you should have more control over which social contacts appear in your address book.

PlayBook Android Player

I really like the new BlackBerry Runtime for Android Apps feature, a.k.a., the PlayBook Android Player, and it works quite well in my experience. However, I've yet to find more than a handful of quality Android apps via BlackBerry App World, which greatly diminishes the value of the feature. (On the other hand, I have found quite a few cool Android apps that you can "sideload" onto the PlayBook.)

RIM ran a promotion that gave developers a free PlayBook for repackaging their Android apps for distribution via BlackBerry App World, but the promo resulted in few worthwhile Android apps in App World. This issue isn't Android-specific, or Playbook-specific; it's a problem for the BlackBerry platform as a whole. BlackBerry's lack of apps from major software makers and other organizations--including three out of leading professional sports leagues in the United States--makes it hard to feel confident in the future of BlackBerry or to sink your cash into a PlayBook tablet.

Apps aren't everything; if they were, I think RIM would be hurting even more. But the Android Player has a ton of potential to boost the overall PlayBook and BlackBerry 10 app catalogue, and I think RIM needs to find a better way to tap that potential. One way would be to remove or address some of the restrictions that keep all Android apps from being compatible with the Android Player.

BES and BlackBerry Mobile Fusion

Because the PlayBook doesn't connect to existing versions of BES software, IT will need to upgrade to BlackBerry Mobile Fusion--which is the "next generation of BES," according to Alan Panezic, RIM's VP of enterprise software--in order to manage and secure PlayBooks the way they currently manage BlackBerry handhelds via BES. And they'll also have to upgrade their BES software to the latest version (v5.0.3) if they want to manage PlayBooks and pre-BlackBerry-10 devices via one central console. And even though doing so will offer IT a new, cleaner UI and some additional features--Mobile Fusion will soon support iOS and Android management, as well--that still means IT shops must dish out some cash for upgrades.

BlackBerry PlayBook Account Setup with ActiveSync
It's unfortunate that the PlayBook can't just connect to current versions of BES out of the box, because IT could then support it using the software they already have. But because RIM's PlayBook OS and the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS have new, different software foundations, RIM wasn't able to make them compatible with the current BES software. (Read more details on this new relationship from Alan Panezic.)

And because the PlayBook now supports ActiveSync, a few things may change on the back end for administrators. PlayBooks, and upcoming BlackBerry 10 devices, that connect to corporate resources via ActiveSync will not send data through RIM's Network Operations Center (NOC) as traditional BlackBerry smartphones have in the past.

This fact has a number of implications for IT, most notably that BlackBerry services won't use the same data compression technology as they did in the past, which could be an issue for international travelers who roam on different cellular networks. Roaming data can be very pricey in these cases, so the old data compression methods had the potential to save significant cash for workers who frequently travel internationally.

PlayBook Browser, Keyboard and Lack of Cellular Connectivity

One major complaint I have with the BlackBerry PlayBook browser is that it crashes frequently, often when I have multiple tabs or other applications open. And the browser doesn't give me any option to restore the previously opened tabs. Overall, the PlayBook browser is a great tablet browser--it beats out the currently available iPad and the Chrome beta for Android 4.0 in the general HTML5 test--but the fact that it crashes so often greatly reduces its value.

BlackBerry PlayBook Keyboard with Blocked Password Box
Overall, I'm a big fan of the new PlayBook keyboard that ships with OS 2.0; however, when I have to unlock the PlayBook or the "work" apps, I have to enter in my password, and the new row of numbers atop the keyboard overlaps the password entry box, blocking the "Cancel" and "Unlock" buttons. This is a minor gripe, as I can click the "enter" arrow on the keyboard to confirm my password, but it still frustrates me, and I wish RIM had moved the password box up on the screen to address the issue.

My final complaint relates more to the PlayBook hardware than software, but it's a major issue that's keeping the PlayBook from competing with today's leading tablets: Despite RIM's February 2011 promise to deliver 4G versions of the PlayBook, no cellular PlayBook is available to date.

BlackBerry PlayBook Review: Conclusion

So, is PlayBook OS 2.0 too little too late?

It could be. The PlayBook is now a very solid tablet for BlackBerry owners and non-BlackBerry owners alike, but the hardware is a year old, it's still not available with cellular network support, and Apple just dropped the price of the mega-popular iPad 2, to $399, and announced the new iPad, available on March 16.

BlackBerry PlayBook About Screen
However, I'm honestly a big fan of the PlayBook. I love the size. It's durable. It has a number of great enterprise features that set it apart from other tablets. And the new software is, for the most part, quite functional and a joy to use.

Would I recommend the PlayBook to the average user looking for a solid tablet option? Probably not, unless the PlayBook was heavily discounted by 50 percent or more. Over the past year, I've been very hesitant to recommend the PlayBook to people who ask me for advice on tablet purchases, unless they had a BlackBerry. Now I'm hesitant because I fear it may take RIM another year to release the next major software update.

RIM will likely update the PlayBook hardware within the next six months or a year, or maybe even release a larger PlayBook tablet, and I might be more likely to recommend one of those devices because they'll presumably be much more "modern," hardware-wise. But by that point, PlayBook 2.0 might feel behind the times. Which is why it's so (so) important for RIM to keep the software, and hardware, updates coming at a swift pace--something the company hasn't done in the past.

Would I recommend the PlayBook to enterprises looking to deploy tablets? Absolutely I would. The PlayBook is a solid, sturdy tablet option for business users, and along with its new ActiveSync and BlackBerry Mobile Fusion support, it's one of the most easily managed and secure tablets on the market.

RIM's real problem today, and the PlayBook's problem too, is perception. The fact that RIM took so long to deliver this solid update led to generally mediocre reviews and negative word of mouth. That definitely hurt consumer confidence in the company, which has already been degraded over the past couple of years. And then there's the fact that RIM promised 4G PlayBooks more than a year ago, but has yet to deliver.

Today, the average consumer might feel hesitant to embrace a RIM product because of that negative market perception, whether or not that perception is the reality. And, unfortunately, I think that conclusion answers the Too Little too late? question.

This story, "BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 Review: A Business Evaluation" was originally published by CIO.

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