BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 OS: Closer, but still no cigar

"It's passable as a sort of business communications appliance but not quite up to snuff with what a 'real' tablet can deliver"

I want to love the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet and its new Version 2.0 operating system released yesterday. After all, the PlayBook OS will be the basis of Research in Motion's future BlackBerry smartphones' BlackBerry 10 OS, and it has a clean, simple, inviting design. Also, you can now access your email, calendar, and contacts using native clients without having to bridge via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry smartphone, one of the most inane limits of the original BlackBerry PlayBook OS.

To be sure, PlayBook OS 2.0 offers solid enhancements, a few of which even outclass the competition. But overall, the operating system and its apps are too limited; it's passable as a sort of business communications appliance but not quite up to snuff with what a "real" tablet can deliver, as any iPad or Android tablet owner can tell you. Competing iPads and Android tablets offer much more functionality, and they're easy to use. They don't confuse simple with simplistic, as the BlackBerry PlayBook sometimes does. And they don't have the too-small (7 inches), too-ugly (a heavy black slab) form that characterize the PlayBook; RIM has not yet updated the actual hardware.

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If you want a reminder of all that was wrong with April 2011's original PlayBook OS and the still-current hardware, read my original BlackBerry PlayBook review. Here, I focus on what's new in the PlayBook 2.0 OS.

Pleasant business apps that don't always work right

You may rejoice that the BlackBerry PlayBook now lets you access email, calendars, and contacts directly, over a Wi-Fi connection. That means you don't need a BlackBerry smartphone to use the PlayBook -- except you probably still do. I was able to connect to my corporate Exchange account and my personal IMAP account, but I didn't get all my email as I did when I tethered to a BlackBerry Bold.

For example, the PlayBook won't sync messages older than 30 days, so some messages -- like my folder of standard reference info sent via email -- are permanently out of the PlayBook's reach. Of course, over time, your folders build up any history you want to retain, so that's a small ding. The PlayBook 2.0 OS doesn't let you create or edit folders, as iOS 5 does, and continues that annoying longstanding RIM BlackBerry "feature" of leaving a copy of a message in your inbox even if you move it to a folder (casting doubt as to whether the message was actually moved, and preventing you from keeping a clean inbox).

A bigger issue was that in syncing to my IMAP account, the PlayBook saw none of its folders, a problem I didn't have on the Bold. In the PlayBook OS, you can't specify IMAP or POP for email accounts, as you can on other PC and mobile OSes. An obscure error message when I checked my personal account's settings suggested that the PlayBook could not connect via IMAP, instead defaulting to POP. There is no way to say for sure. What I do know is that I've never had this issue with any other OS that supports IMAP, whether PC or mobile. Other reviewers have noted syncing problems as well.

You can add Twitter to the Messages app that handles your email, but all you get are your Twitter direct messages, a nice option if you use direct messaging as a parallel email system, but not if you want to post or even read tweets. For that, you'll need a dedicated Twitter app. Sadly, the Twitter "app" included with the PlayBook is a link to the Twitter site, and it doesn't even log you in with the Twitter credentials you set up in your Messages account. Even sadder is the reason for using the Web app: There is no native Twitter app for the PlayBook. In fact, PlayBook app selection in RIM's App World app store is sparse.

The Messages app is laid out nicely, with clear controls and a simple but effective interface. It's an example of good mobile UI design, one of the PlayBook's strengths. The Calendar app has a similarly clean, highly usable design, while supporting sophisticated repeating events that Apple's iOS has yet to tackle.

The Contacts app is the most surprising, in good and bad ways. For example, most of the usual contacts editing and searching capabilities are present, but you can't create groups, a flaw shared with iOS, or even view them, a flaw shared with no other vendor. Another flaw: Despite allowing you to separate work from personal contacts, the PlayBook doesn't let you change which group it assigns your existing contacts to -- not the most useful implementation of the concept.

What's surprising in a good way is the Contacts app's integration with other services. If you're viewing a contact and click the Twitter button, you can see that person's last tweet in your Twitter stream. There's a similar capability to see a contact's current LinkedIn status, as well as any appointments you have with this person. A lot of mobile OSes offer social networking hubs to collapse all your streams in one place, but usually in a lowest-common-denominator approach. The PlayBook approach is useful and smart -- a model for every competitor.

The PlayBook also includes a basic version of the Documents to Go productivity app (RIM owns its creator), which allows you to edit and create Word and Excel files, but not PowerPoint files. The app is OK for light use, but in no way compares to Apple's iWork suite for iOS or the Quickoffice suite for iOS and Android. A big flaw in the PlayBook version of Documents to Go (which does not occur in its iOS or Android versions) is its lack of support for cloud storage services such as Dropbox and Box.net, where your files are likely to reside.

All in all, the PlayBook is fine for calendars and contacts, as well as email if the sync issues are fixed. But that's the heart and soul of what the PlayBook can do for you -- and it can do it only if you have a Wi-Fi connection or are tethered to a recent BlackBerry smartphone to access its 3G connection.

Basic Web browser with great HTML5 support

The PlayBook's Web browser is nothing special. It offers basic bookmarking capabilities, the ability to add bookmarks to the home screen as if they were apps, and a browser history -- much like every other mobile browser. The URL field doubles as a search field in the omnibar approach gaining currency among modern browsers. And the Android-like previews of open browser windows is quite usable. The PlayBook is one of the few mobile OSes to support Adobe Flash, which Adobe itself is discontinuing after the current Version 11 for Android and PlayBook OS. There are the security controls over cookies and private browsing that you'd expect.

But you can't copy and paste text or graphics from the Web pages displayed on the browser -- an odd limitation. The browser self-identifies as a desktop browser, so you get full Web pages when using the PlayBook. I wish there were an option, as there is on some Android devices, to change that self-identification to instead view a mobile-optimized site. There are times when a full website's design emphasizes tiny text and elements that are hard to access on a 7-inch screen like the PlayBook's.

Where the PlayBook's browser shines is in its HTML5 support: It scores 354 out of 475 points in the latest HTML5Test.com tests, beating the previous champ iOS 5's new score of 305 and the Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" score of 256.

Two ways to manage a PlayBook

One of RIM's long-standing claims to fame is its security support, through its BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and its more than 500 policies IT can apply to a BlackBerry smartphone. If you want to manage a BlackBerry PlayBook via BES, you must do so by tethering it to a BES-managed BlackBerry. Otherwise, you get just the management capabilities inherent to Microsoft Exchange; this should be enough for most businesses, but not some regulated ones or for employees with very sensitive information. The PlayBook is not yet supported by MDM tools as iOS and Android 3 and 4 are, so you can't augment those Exchange capabilities as you can with iOS and many implementations of Android.

But the PlayBook honors RIM's security legacy in its support for separate business and personal data partitions on the device. The business partition is both encrypted and password-secured. The Documents to Go app, for example, can work with both partitions, so users have one app to edit Word and Excel files, while keeping the business data and personal data separate. That's an elegant approach to the mixing of personal and business information endemic to BYOD. Although iOS has a similar notion, its lack of a visible file system means you can't get such a clear and accessible separation of business and personal data as the PlayBook OS offers.

The PlayBook OS supports VPNs and secure Wi-Fi, but as is the case of every non-Apple and non-Microsoft OS I've tested, it can't connect to our corporate Cisco IPSec VPN or to our certificate-based secure Wi-Fi network.

The PlayBook that RIM should have shipped last April

Although iPads and Android tablets are overall superior to the BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM deserves credit for coming up with a plausible competitor. It's too bad this isn't the PlayBook that shipped in April 2011, before Apple's iOS 5 and Google's Android 4. Ten months ago, the gap between the PlayBook 2.0 OS and the competing iOS 4 and Android 3 the competitors would have been wide but with a plausible chance of being narrowed in a reasonable pace. At this point, despite with the progress RIM has made, the competition has moved even further ahead.

Puttin the competition to the side, I do like how the PlayBook OS's straightforward interface (very much like the defunct WebOS's UI) stands out from the crowd and, overall, is easy to use. One exception is the unintuitive way you set advanced preferences such as VPN configuration.

Although I can't recommend the PlayBook due to its physical flaws and its limited overall capabilities, it could make a nice business communications appliance for tech-averse senior execs who don't want a full-on tablet. The BlackBerry PlayBook could find a small niche as the business equivalent of Amazon.com's simple media-and-Web tablet, the Kindle Fire, or of the old AOL's simplistic version of the Internet -- especially if RIM delivers sleeker hardware.

But if PlayBook OS 2.0 is truly what the forthcoming BlackBerry 10 reboot is based on, I'm afraid that RIM's smartphones too will end up battling the similarly narrowly functional Windows Phone 7 for the scraps that iOS and Android leave behind. As for the PlayBook, outside of a niche audience looking for the AOL equivalent of a tablet, it'll get trounced by the iPad, which even Android and I suspect Windows 8 will struggle to unseat. In that dogfight, there may be not even scraps left for the PlayBook.

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