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BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 feature breakdown: Can RIM save its forsaken tablet?

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 - Holding

After almost a year of poor sales, Research in Motion has officially released its latest effort to revive its struggling 7-inch tablet. The BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 is now available for everyone who owns a PlayBook and has a Wi-Fi connection that can handle the massive 411MB download. The update adds long promised features like email, contacts, and calendar apps, all of which integrate with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and email services like Gmail. Improved BlackBerry Bridge support and a bunch of other small tweaks were also included. But does it make the tablet appealing to those who don’t already own it?

Below is a break down every new feature we can find with tons of screen captures and hands-on impressions. Our video impressions are on the last page. 

Hardware

The hardware of the PlayBook really hasn’t changed. In our initial review of the tablet, we noted that it is one of the nicest looking and best tablets around. A year later, this is still true. The PlayBook still has competitive specs with nice stereo speakers, 1GHz dual-core processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB of internal storage, a 2MP front camera, and an impressive 5MP rear camera that lacks an LED flash but makes up for it by being fantastic otherwise, especially for moving video. The screen itself is nice as well, with touch capacity that stretches slightly past the  borders of the screen. Newer models have an LED light that can flash different colors as well. Battery life is good too. The only real problem we’ve ever had with the hardware is the power button. It’s very difficult to press. Luckily, you can unlock a PlayBook by swiping across the screen, but turning the screen off or the entire device on still requires crushing the tip of your finger or nail into a button that has no excuse for being so hard to press. If you can get over the power button though, it’s a great tablet. 

Having said that, after using 8-inch tablets like the Motorola Xyboard 8.2, we really wish that the screen of the PlayBook was just a hair bigger so that it could fit a full 1280×800 pixel resolution. Currently, it sits on an odd 1024x600px resolution. The size of the PlayBook itself shouldn’t even change. Just grow the screen a bit. Easier said than done, I suppose. 

Upgraded Interface

We’ll get into all of the new app upgrades in a moment, but it should be noted that RIM has done a nice job tweaking the PlayBook OS interface. Much like the previous version, this OS still works a lot like WebOS. There is an organize-able list of apps that you can bring up from the bottom of the screen. When you open an app, it opens full screen, but can be minimized with a flick up, allowing you to quickly swap between open apps. Minimized apps appear as cards that you can swipe through, but they’re now slightly bigger and have a larger X button on the bottom. 

BlackBerry PlayBook OS - OLD vs New

The slide-up app list screen now has a customizable tray for highly used apps. You can customize this. Much like Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) you can now make folders of icons as well, which is a nice addition. The Favorite’s drawer is still present, though it’s not immediately obvious. Just swipe to the right when you have the apps tray maximized. 

Overall, the OS still performs quite smoothly and looks a bit nicer, but we still have a few issues. More than once, core apps failed to open or shut down unexpectedly. This is usually resolved by re-opening, but it’s troublesome. Also, while we love that the PlayBook keeps apps fully running, it also can’t really hold more than 5-10 apps in active memory at once, meaning some of the unused apps get shut off without notice — they just disappear. It would be great if RIM could also add the app freezing capabilities that have made iOS and Android so appealing. There’s nothing worse than losing your place when you’re in the middle of something. We love how quick and responsive the PlayBook is, but RIM, ya gotta throw users a bone here. 

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 - App List

Finally, we know it’s wrong to ask this, but it would be nice if you could stack app cards together or re-order them — common features in WebOS. HP would throw a fit, but a good idea is a good idea. Sadly, it’s probably also a patented idea.  

Email

When the PlayBook shipped in April 2011, it was missing one of the features that made BlackBerry phones famous in the first place: a great, fast email app. Until now, to access email, you had to use the Web browser. Now, email is built right in, so you get notifications and all of that jazz. So far, we like it. Much like email on the TouchPad, RIM has made the app use expanding columns to allow you to view more of your email or more of your list of mail. As seems to be the trend in the new apps, Email is built to be viewed in landscape orientation and all of the navigation is lined up vertically on the left and right sides of the screen. On the left, you can switch between email accounts and direct messages on Facebook, Twitter, and Linked in, and on the right is a standard set of context-sensitive functions like Reply, Reply All, Forward, Trash, Flag, Mark Unread, etc.

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 - Email

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 - Composing Email

Composing an email is the nicest part of the whole process. Unlike almost any other tablet, the PlayBook lets you add formatting to your email. You can change fonts, add Bolding, modify the color, and a bunch of other things. It’s quite pleasant, as is the entire email experience. RIM took forever to add email, but at least they’ve done a good job implementing it.  

Contacts

The Contacts app is a somewhat useless app. It aggregates you contact lists from every social service you connect to the PlayBook and shows you those profiles. Unfortunately, it tries to do a bit too much and fails to do the most important things well. While it pulls in information from Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter fairly well, it tries to display every contact type using a bunch of side tabs with labels like Details, Status, News, Meetings, People, and Places, most of these tabs are empty. Almost no contacts we have on any of the services seemed to fill up the tabs. It’s hard to know what each of them are really for or what services will use them.

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 - Contacts

The Contacts app also doesn’t seem able to aggregate contacts together — you have to link them all manually — and if you’re using a Gmail account, it doesn’t pull in all of your contacts details. You also cannot make Contact groups or easily message anybody from this app. Attempting to make a new contact will only save it to your BlackBerry ID account. We found this app quite limited.

Calendar

Aside from some integration issues, the new calendar app is much more useful than Contacts. This app lets you view your Facebook, new calendar app also does everything you’d expect. Week, month, day, and agenda views are available. The monthly view also increases the size of the days of the month that have more activities scheduled, allowing you to visually see what days are hectic without having to enter the agenda view.

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 - Calendar

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 - Calendar Compose

We had no problem syncing Facebook Events, but Gmail and Yahoo were a different story. Though RIM claims the PlayBook syncs with Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo as well as Microsoft Exchange, we could not get it to load a Yahoo account for email or calendar and the Gmail integration is a bit broken, only displaying one of our many calendars from Google Calendar, with no way to access the others. 

Get a closer look at BlackBerry’s new PlayBook 2.0 software by watching our hands-on video, also featured at the end of this article.