Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of email. Yes, email! Sure, many of you have given up on the stuff in favor of more instant means of communication, but don't worry, because that's here too! Yes, the BlackBerry PlayBook, which was released 10 months ago, is now finally able to send messages all by itself. Sure, BlackBerry Bridge is still there and more useful than ever, tying the PlayBook even closer to your work-issued smartphone, but the 7-inch slate finally feels like it can stand a little more solidly on its own two feet. Thankfully that's not all -- this recently refreshed tablet has a few other tricks up its sleeve, most notable being the ability to run some (focus on the some) Android apps without having to resort to any messy tweaks or hacks. The experience isn't entirely clean, nor does it quite feel like the refresh the "two dot oh" moniker implies, but it is a nice step forward. Click on through to see what you get.
BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0
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No, the biggest point of discussion at the PlayBook's launch was what it couldn't do.
The biggest point of discussion at the launch of the PlayBook wasn't the thing's stout build quality, its stoic good looks or even its finger-friendly gestures. No, the biggest tale was what it couldn't do. It lacked a dedicated email app, had no concept of a calendar and couldn't even keep track of your contacts. Sure, there was a Gmail icon sitting there next to the other apps, but that was just a link to an optimized version of the web interface. It didn't fool anybody. As we mentioned, more and more people are forgoing email for other means of communication and those still down with POP are largely sending their missives through some online service or another. But, for a platform that made a name for itself by producing the most email-friendly smartphones on the planet, producing a tablet by the same name that's completely ignorant to the stuff was a glaring oversight. Of course, the PlayBook could send emails, but only when paired with a willing BlackBerry smartphone via the Bridge app. That 'ol Bridge is still here, which we'll discuss in just a moment, and now users are swimming in a wealth of messaging options. Both Bridge and Messages let you send and receive emails and, should you configure the same email account in both you'll get not one but two notifications with every email you receive! That is every bit as annoying as it sounds.
Thankfully Messages is much more than just email. Through it you can aggregate messaging from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn -- the most important social network for suits -- though you are limited to only one of each. (Sorry, Twitter schizos.) You can, however, have as many email accounts as you like, coming through Exchange, Hotmail, Gmail, IMAP, or POP. Add a bunch and everything will be all jumbled together into a single view of what's going on. Every friend request, every Twitter DM and every desperate "Know of any openings?" message from that guy you used to work with that summer who quit in a huff and quickly had second thoughts. The integrated view is nice if you're a casual communicator, but if you're the social sort things quickly become overwhelming. Thankfully, with a tap in the list of accounts on the left you can display only content from that source, and you can also filter by folder (or label, in the case of Gmail). While you can view other content, this is not a replacement for the various other social apps in there. For example, unlike the (generally quite good) Facebook app, in Messages you can only view messages, friend requests and events. No status updates here. The email sending interface is clean and simple and pretty much everything you would expect. There's a box for "To," a box for "Cc," a third for "Subject" and, finally, the place where you type in the body itself. No, Bcc is not supported, but attachments thankfully are, and you can choose any file you like.
Contacts and Calendar
Yes, there are new applications to manage these things, too. We signed in with our Gmail and Facebook accounts and the tablet made quick work of our pending appointments, listing them all in a simple, straightforward calendar view. You can create new events and push them to any of those accounts, but the functionality is somewhat limited compared to the real thing. For example, you can create an event on your Google Calendar, but you can't specify anything more than a simple pop-up reminder. The Contacts app is similarly functional, pulling down whatever your social networks want to serve up. However, it's not particularly smart. For example, we have plenty of friends in LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter who appeared two or three separate times in the list. You can manually link them together if you're so inclined, but that sounds only marginally more entertaining than manually defragmenting your hard drive bit by bit.
Happening across an Android app in the App World is a bit like winning the lottery: you're unlikely to do either by chance.
As nice as it is to finally have some proper integrated messaging, the most talked-about feature here is the ability to run Android apps right out of the box. You'll find them in the App World -- well, you might find them. RIM didn't want to make these stand out beyond the standard apps, so happening across an official APK is a bit like winning the lottery: you're unlikely to do either by chance. So we specifically went looking for some clues on what to search for, and we had the most luck poking around the CrackBerry forums for posts by lucky winners. In this thread we found a short list of available apps and downloaded two: the Dolphin HD browser and Pool Break Lite. The apps download and install quickly and smoothly enough, like any other app, and they're listed right next to any native apps with nothing untoward about their icons. Just make sure you save up a little extra patience the first time you run them. Select one and you'll be presented with a black screen telling you that the app is "initializing" and ask that you "please wait."
It's basically like rebooting the tablet, but thankfully that's just a one-time thing. Android apps will later load more quickly and, once in memory, seem to run well. We prefer the (still excellent) stock PlayBook browser to Dolphin HD, but that's not to say the other one doesn't swim very well in these unusual waters. It does. We wanted to try out a little game performance, and are happy to report that Pool Break Lite too ran well. It admittedly isn't the most polygonally demanding of all titles in the world, and the multi-touch navigation in the app was a bit jumpy, but the tablet had no problem emulating the Android calls to make it run. Developers will be glad to know that, after submitting their apps to App World, they can charge money if they wish, and indeed many already are. In-game ads are also supported, but RIM provides no Android support for its own BlackBerry ad services.
BlackBerry Remote will turn your Bold into the best HTPC remote on the planet.
The biggest new feature in the 2.0 version of BlackBerry Bridge, which ties your phone to your tablet, isn't actually directly related to Bridge at all. It's Remote, which adds the ability to use it as a very smart, very expensive remote control. Pair the two and you can use the phone's display like a trackpad, moving a cursor about the tablet and performing gestures on the edges. You can also use the phone's keyboard to type or enter a Presentation Mode for easy navigation through a PowerPoint hosted on the tablet. It's really great, but what's even more great is that this works with any device -- any device that can talk to a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, at least. We've seen this hooked up with PCs, Android tablets and more, so even if you don't have a PlayBook you'll be wanting to install the new Bridge app. It will turn your Bold into the best HTPC remote on the planet.
Print To Go
Docs To Go has been around since the beginning, giving simple viewing and editing for Office-like documents. New in 2.0 is Print To Go, which you're probably thinking gives the ability to print from your PlayBook. Actually it's the other way around. If you install the Print To Go client on your PC (no Mac support currently) you can print documents directly to your tablet, wirelessly. It shows up like a printer and anything sent through it can be easily viewed offline later. Nice and simple -- if you have a PC.
It's clear that RIM doesn't even want to bring it to its own platforms, and so we're going to go ahead and stop wondering about when it will show up on anyone else's.
This is the part where we'd like to write about how great the new BBM integration is with the PlayBook 2.0 OS but, sadly, we can't -- because there still isn't a BBM app outside of BlackBerry Bridge. Yes, you can BBM on the tablet if you have a tethered smartphone, but it's time to be able to do it without. For a long time we wondered when, not if, BlackBerry would bring BBM to other platforms -- iOS, Android, we knew people who would pay real money to use it. Now, though, it's clear that RIM doesn't even want to bring it to its own platforms, and so we're going to go ahead and stop wondering about when it will show up on anyone else's.
The PlayBook was clearly designed at the outset to only be used with a crutch, and that crutch is a smartphone. Using the tablet just felt a bit uncomfortable without a reassuringly blinking blue light from a nearby BlackBerry. With the 2.0 release the PlayBook is rather more independent, less codependant, but still far from a strong figure when stacked up against the competition. This is a positive refresh that current owners will want to apply as soon as is readily possible, but it won't bring many new users to the fold. The Messages app fills a void and the Android app support is a nice plus, but the former is simply something that should have been there at the beginning and the latter offers far too limited selection now to be a proper selling point. Both feel like too little and both have arrived far too late. Sadly, the best new feature here is not on the tablet at all -- it's the BlackBerry Remote app for smartphones.