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RIM attains contender status with PlayBook update

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Company takes big step toward neutralizing many complaints about its tablet computer and Omar El Akkad gives his seal of approval

OMAR EL AKKAD

For almost a year, I've wanted to recommend the BlackBerry PlayBook as the best alternative to Apple's iPad. Now, I finally can.

What has kept me from giving Research In Motion's debut tablet the thumbs-up has been a string of obvious oversights on the company's part, including many glitches in the initial model and the inexplicable decision to release the PlayBook without native e-mail, contacts or calendar applications. That, and the on-board app store was terrible.

This week, RIM took a big step toward neutralizing many of these complaints, with the release of a free software update for the PlayBook operating system. PlayBook OS 2.0 looks and runs much better than its predecessor with significant improvements in many of the new operating system's features.

Here's a rundown of the post-update PlayBook's best, and worst, features.

Perhaps the tablet's best feature is its ability to handle HD video. Simply plug this thing into your computer, dump some files onto it the same way you would a USB key, and you can start watching video on the PlayBook's excellent (if somewhat glare-prone) screen.

As I've said in previous reviews, the on-board speakers on the PlayBook are far better than those on any other tablet out there, making it actually tolerable to listen to music without using headphones.

The PlayBook's Web browser is also terrific. The browser can handle most anything you throw at it, from Flash video to secure HTTP logins.

After downloading and installing the update, users are greeted with a slightly sleeker-looking interface. Prominently displayed at the bottom of the screen are the new calendar, contacts and e-mail apps - the latter is called "messages," because it acts as a one-stop hub for both e-mail and social media.

In terms of style, RIM has done well to keep the user interface understated. The best features are fairly subtle. For example, dates on the calendar where there are several appointments show up larger on the screen.

Simply going to the "Accounts" section of the PlayBook's settings and tapping in your Twitter, LinkedIn and/or Facebook account info will quickly populate all your apps with feeds from your social networks. This kind of universal info-sharing among apps isn't unique to the PlayBook, but it works surprisingly well. Indeed, the messages app, which reformats your Facebook messages by date and sender, is arguably more intuitive than Facebook's own messages screen. You can also dump your various webmail accounts, such as Gmail, into your feed with ease. As well, the video chat app automatically hunts down your camera-enabled friends and adds them to your chat contacts list.

The new file management system is easy to use - basically, tap and hold an app to move it, then move it over another app to create a new folder containing those two apps. A file manager lets you quickly scan the documents, music, video and pictures you have on the tablet. It's not a killer feature, but useful.

RIM has found a way to make its original PlayBook feature, the BlackBerry Bridge, much more useful. Bridge was originally a way to give PlayBook users e-mail, calendar and other apps by streaming them off a BlackBerry smartphone via Bluetooth. Now, you can use Bridge to remotely control your PlayBook from your BlackBerry. You can use your BlackBerry keyboard to type on the PlayBook, to control slides in a presentation, or even open documents remotely to view them on a larger screen. Business-minded users are going to make great use of these features.

And, of course, the price - a 16GB PlayBook costs $199; 64GB, $299.

The promised cellular-ready PlayBook never materialized. For now, it's WiFi-only.

The PlayBook's app store was mostly terrible when the device came out last year, and unfortunately it hasn't gotten much better. RIM has handed out all kinds of incentives for programmers to build apps for the tablet - but that hasn't seemed to spur interest. In fairness, there are several excellent apps available on the PlayBook, including Evernote, Poynt and Angry Birds. But there's also lots and lots of mostly useless apps. The PlayBook app store is still probably the worst of the major tablet app stores.

The new operating system can run apps originally built for Google's Android system. In theory, this was a great idea. However, the PlayBook can't suddenly run all of these new apps. Developers still have to port their apps over and it doesn't look like very many developers have bothered to do that yet.

PlayBook 2.0 comes with a built-in video store, but it's available in the U.S. only. The movies are mostly new - including Bridesmaids and Hangover 2. The TV show selection isn't great, but includes a few gems, such as The Walking Dead. But you'll need a U.S. credit card to watch any of it.

TO SUM UP ...

PlayBook OS 2 isn't going to completely reverse RIM's fortunes in the tablet market. In fact, the company's decision to slash prices on the device is probably responsible for moving more PlayBooks off shelves than any of the features in the new software. But this is nonetheless an important moment for the company. After months of missed launch dates and earnings numbers, RIM has finally kept one of its promises, releasing a product when they said they would. With a software update that finally makes the PlayBook a serious contender, RIM has finally generated a welcome bit of good news.

Read the Globe's in-depth coverage of RIM at tgam.ca/RIM