With the updated operating system (OS) that Blackberry released, I thought I should give it another real world test drive to see how this tablet faired for me. I put my iPad away and carried the Playbook every day into meetings, workshops, while waiting in coffeeshops. I tried as well to use it at home in the evenings for personal use (though occasionally I succumbed to grabbing my iPad so I could watch some programming on Netflix…an app, like so many others, that is missing from the Blackberry ecosystem). I wanted to keep track of where the Playbook exceeded my iPad experiences and where it fell short.
Unfortunately, for me, the list in the “Fell Short” column was a lot longer than the “Exceeded Expectations” column.
Let’s start of with the positives, of which there are some. The release of OS 2.0 introduced onboard email, contacts and calendar. This is a very welcomed addition to the Playbook. The implementation is well done. For the email, I really liked the ability to have a unified inbox that not only had your email accounts, but also messages from social accounts like Twitter and LinkedIn. I received a fair bit of correspondance through direct messages in Twitter and having them show up in my “inbox” alongside email was excellent. The calendar is fairly well done as well, I particularly liked when glancing at the month view how the numbers for the dates grew larger with the number of meetings on that day. It allowed for a quick glance when trying to pick a future date and easily finding a day where you had a lot of availability.
The browsing experience was a good one for me. Sites loaded quickly, pages rendered as they should. I liked the tabbing approach they use for having more than one browser window – the use of the smart bezel (swipe down from top) to show the hidden menu items was intuitive and worked well. I did have a couple of occurrences where the browser crashed. For example, I wanted to use read.amazon.com so I could use the Kindle cloud-based reader since there is no Kindle app for Playbook. Unfortunately, the browser kept throwing me errors and eventually would crash/quite. Outside of these few issues, the browser was a real pleasure to use for browsing.
This version of the OS also introduced the ability to create folders which worked well in order to organize applications into groups that meshed with my workflow. The mechanism for creating folders was similar to the way it’s done on an iPad and is a very welcomed addition to the Playbook OS.
Lastly, you can indeed run Android apps with the new OS. I was excited by this, because the lack of apps doesn’t allow you to do much with a tablet. For some reason, RIM has buried Android apps in the Blackberry App World – you can’t tell which is which just by looking through the apps. I am not sure why they haven’t created an area that highlights the apps (more on this below under Cons). I managed to find some apps and they run fairly well. They launch a kind of shell (see pic to the right) that acts as a container for Android apps. I used the WordPress app (which is an Android app) and it worked well. You should note, however, that just because there might be an app in the Android market, it doesn’t mean you can necessarily run it on the Playbook. Those Android apps need to be recompiled and placed in the Blackberry App World store. There is a way of sideloading apps (a technical term for hacking an app onto the device) but most people aren’t going to do that – they want apps they can simply download from an app store-like environment.
To begin summarizing the drawbacks, you need only look at what framed the themes in the Pros section of this post. It’s 2012. If we’re talking about “there is now onboard email” or “you can now create folders” for any tablet today, then we are immediately drawn to part of the issue. While done well, those features described above are 1st generation tablet functions. Every other tablet has had these things from the start years ago. The iPad and Android tablets are several generations ahead of the Playbook and the Windows 8 Consumer Preview I downloaded puts increased distance between what Playbook is doing and what modern tablets are doing. The biggest drawback I kept thinking about while using the Playbook was that there was nothing new.
The lack of apps was undoubtedly still the biggest stumbling block for me. I began keeping a list each time I needed an app that I normally use, but I abandoned that list because it was growing long. Multiple times each day I’d need an app that I normally use on my iPad only to find that I couldn’t find it in the Blackberry App World. In other instances, when I did find the apps, they were poorly done and not at all as refined as on the iPad. Evernote is an example of this. I use this app constantly throughout the day and I was pleased when I saw it was available. Unfortunately, the Playbook version of Evernote is but a shadow of the iPad and Android applications. In instances where I couldn’t find an app I needed, I had to forgo what I planning to do (very frustrating), revert to using the app on my iPhone or in some cases use the web version via the Playbook browser (which then necessitated the need for WiFi). I listed above that the ability to run Android apps was a Pro (and it is!) but there was a real lack of apps from the Android ecosystem that were available. I looked for no less than 15-20 specific apps I have on my Galaxy Tab but couldn’t find them in the Blackberry App World.
I was also surprised that there is a lack of messaging apps – like BBM! – which again hobbles the device. I’ve become use to now using messaging tools to chat with family, friends and colleagues and the lack of them on the Playbook had me pulling my iPhone out of my holster more often rather than just flipping from what I was doing on the Playbook to an app, responding and then returning to my previous app. How RIM could omit such an important and often used tablet tool is puzzling.
Lack of applications aside, another thing that I was hoping would be resolved, but was a persistant problem, was the touchscreen. It just isn’t as responsive as to what I’ve gotten use to. In many cases when wanting to type in a field for example, I’d need to tap that area two, three (four, five) times before the cursor appeared there and the pop-up keyboard showed up on screen. In some cases, having to repeatedly tap something onscreen would “buffer” those taps and suddenly I was in some area I didn’t want to be because of mis-tapping something that appeared on screen after I tapped. This was frustrating. Any good tablet must have a screen that is responsive – delays in what you touch and what you see totally kill the user experience and seriously impact productivity.
Lastly, the 7″ screen was an issue for me. I don’t want to consider this as purely a Con, which is why I listed the size also as a Pro. The smaller size is convenient for taking the Playbook around, but that convenience evaporated for me when I needed to use the device for certain tasks. Screen size is a personal preference and in many ways, it’s benefit or drawback is based on the task you are trying to complete, but for me, more times than not it was a hinderance. I prefer the larger screens on tablet (same was true for the Android Galaxy tab…I simply found the 10″ to be more usable than the 7″ when I tested those).
All in all, releasing OS 2 for the Playbook has made the device more usable and more valuable. It is a shame that it took so long for RIM to get the update out – if it had arrived a year ago (or had been the initial OS upon launch) it would have made the Playbook a stronger contender in the tablet market. You can see glimmers of potential when you use the Playbook in it’s current form – here’s hoping that RIM approaches the next version strategically, meaning a) shorter release cycle b) increased and new functionality and c) aims at developing an ecosystem that delivers value to end-users.
I am glad to have given the Playbook a real world test where it became my day-to-day tablet. I’m even happier, however, to now have my iPad back out of the drawer – not having it as my tablet for just under two weeks made me realize just how versatile a device it is for me.