You might not recall, but when the BlackBerry PlayBook came out last year it was close—oh, so close—to being a respectable iPad competitor. But the omission of native email, calendars and contacts was a fatal flaw, both for reviewers and the buying public.
Now, though, PlayBook OS 2.0 is here, righting those wrongs and tossing in Android app emulation and a few other improvements for good measure. After spending ten months DOA, has RIM's great tablet hope finally come into its own?
Why It Matters
There has yet to be a tablet that genuinely challenges the supremacy of the iPad, critically or commercially. Honeycomb-based tablets like the Galaxy Tab 10.1 sport impressive hardware, but the software is still half-baked. Smaller, cheaper tabs, particularly Amazon's Kindle Fire, are assessed with asterisks and caveats and contextual justifications. They're good for what they are.
And then there's the PlayBook. It's always had plenty of horsepower, and a UI design that flirts with excellence. Now that its operating system is finally up to speed and its price has hit rock bottom, the PlayBook has every opportunity to be your best iPad alternative. Except it's not, because it's a barren wasteland in desperate need of an app revival.
Overall, the PlayBook feels snappier with OS 2.0. Apps load a little faster. Pages and menus scroll a little smoother. Navigation feels intuitive and effortless. But as you get deeper into the PlayBook software and its apps, things start to feel less responsive. Apps with browser plugins, in particular, are choppy.
The core software additions—native calendar, email and contacts—are competent, and at times great. The Messages app mostly works, and collects your Facebook and Twitter communications in one convenient location; it just begs for a larger screen. Or at least letting multi-paned tiles slide back and forth on the screen would have been an adequate remedy. The Calendar app, on the other hand, is among the best I've used on any device. It's well-designed, fully functional, gets you the info you need quickly and intuitively, and pulls from more than just your enterprise or Google calendars (hello, Facebook!).
Android apps—when you can actually find one in BlackBerry App world—require no special configuring before launching. PlayBook OS 2.0 automatically opens them in PlayBook's Android App Player, and for the most part, emulation doesn't seem to stunt performance.
But here's the problem. I've checked my email. Gone through Twitter and Facebook. Been up and down my RSS feeds and poked around a few sites with the browser. It has been about 20 minutes and I'm not sure what else to do with the BlackBerry Playbook until another email arrives. I'm not sure there is anything else to do with the BlackBerry Playbook.
Sure, BlackBerry Bridge has added some interesting new functionality, like the ability to send and open links from your BlackBerry phone, or use that phone as a PlayBook mouse/keyboard. Those things make the PlayBook even more appealing if you're a current BlackBerry owner, but don't mean much in terms of its competence as a standalone device.
Many of the gripes concerning the actual OS have been addressed. PlayBook has been made whole. Improved web browsing is probably the most important upgrade here aside from the inclusion of email and calendar, since there aren't really any apps to gather content from. You can be watching an inline flash vid on a page, and still scroll and pinch and zoom with few hiccups. Pages re-render more than I'd like, but it doesn't cripple your browsing.
Some of the smaller flourishes are welcome as well. You can now stick apps in folders. The accuracy of the keyboard and the suggestive text feature making typing all the more pleasurable.
Most of praises previously lavished on the PlayBook still stand. Solid industrial design, even better software, and surprisingly good multitasking performance. The gaping holes that made the PlayBook a loser haven't just been patched, they've been very ably plugged.
RIM may have solved the immediate problems it was capable of solving on its own, but there's still a giant cloud looming over the PlayBook. In fact, it's the same one that looms (loomed?) over the TouchPad. There are no apps. When BlackBerry enthusiasts are forced to get excited about RSS readers, and scrapbook apps intended as tech demos, and solitaire, you know you have a problem.
Try finding official apps for any of the online services you love on other mobile platforms, or even on the desktop. Yelp? Nope. Tumblr? Nope. Spotify/MOG/Rdio? Nope. NY Times? Crossword app only. Kindle/Nook? Nope, only Kobo. Twitter? Even the best third-party clients are lackluster and you have to pay for them. Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime? HA! You can rent/buy a movie TV from RIM's own video store portal, but that'll cost you.
And it's not like you can run janky versions of BBOS apps on the PlayBook either; RIM's phones are built on entirely different code than the QNX base powering the PlayBook OS. And considering we reportedly won't see a proper BB10 phone running QNX until this fall, developers probably won't have much incentive to develop for a single device that's underperforming in the marketplace.
And that's just selection. The lagginess of some apps—even RIM's native ones—can be frustrating. Trying to load stories in RIM's news reader will make you want to chuck the PlayBook through a glass window.
Should I Buy It
For $200, the 16GB PlayBook is, on paper, a way better buy than the comparably priced Kindle Fire. But what are you going to do with it? There are no subscription movie or music services. No games. (No, sorry, Angry Birds and Cut the Rope do not count). No magazines. At least there's a fourth place e-book retailer?
At seven inches, this is a device that begs for apps. The browser, while extremely capable, is limited by the PlayBook's physical constraints. Web pages are made for larger screens and higher resolutions. Apps make content digestible on smaller displays, and this screen certainly qualifies for needing that help. There's a reason netbooks died off so quick.
Could Android emulation fix this? Perhaps, but emulation can never deliver the same performance, and the lack of support for in-app purchases, VoIP functionality, and any app natively developed for Android means that we'll only be getting a very limited selection of Android apps.
Maybe the PlayBook has some great enterprise apps that make this useful in the corporate space. But guess what? The iPad functions just as well in the same setting. BlackBerry Bridge will be a nice added bonus for a very niche set, but a feature confined to one waning ecosystem doesn't exactly sound "killer." And regardless, no tablet should aspire to be a productivity/enterprise device first. They're for consumption more than anything.
Is the PlayBook much improved? Absolutely. The new OS is extremely pleasant, bordering on great. But a device like this needs apps to thrive. We are years away from HTML5 apps being as functional and accessible as their native brethren. Let's hope that by the time developers decide QNX is worth their time, it's not already too late.
Video by Michael Hession.