BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0

RIM has finally delivered the operating system its tablet hardware deserved. If you've got a PlayBook, then PlayBook OS 2.0 is an essential upgrade.

PlayBook OS 2.0 has been a long time coming. It's a major upgrade to RIM's tablet operating system, adding important features like native email, along with an enhanced browser and support for some Android applications. It's also the foundation of the next-generation BlackBerry OS, the QNX-based BlackBerry 10. So how does the future of BlackBerry look?

Available as a free update for existing devices, PlayBook 2.0 is a hefty 505MB download over Wi-Fi (with an additional 8MB of application updates once you've installed the new firmware). Installation can take some time, and the first boot after an update is considerably longer than normal. However all your apps and data are preserved, and we had no issues with the update on any of our test devices. We did have one issue, where a device's BlackBerry ID was corrupted, locking it out of the App World store. However a simple fix — winding the PlayBook's clock forward a couple of years — reset the timeout on the ID, after which we could connect to App World.

Press and hold items on the PlayBook OS 2.0 front screen to delete unwanted apps, or to move them into folders or the task launcher (see our screenshot gallery for many more PlayBook OS 2.0 images)

A new launcher
At first glance, PlayBook OS 2.0 looks very like the original PlayBook OS, with a launcher full of application icons. Two changes to the launcher are a quick-launch toolbar and the ability to create subfolders for your applications. Folders are created much as in Apple's iOS, by dragging one application on top of another, while applications can be pinned to the toolbar in the same way. Hold down an icon until they all start flashing, and you can then move them around the screen and into folders. There's no change in navigation, with the same swipe and slide gestures handling multitasking.

Native mail, at last
The biggest and most obvious change over PlayBook OS 1.0 is the arrival of the Messages application. Unlike BlackBerry OS on smartphones, which uses RIM's own proprietary messaging protocols, PlayBook 2.0 uses standard internet protocols (IMAP and POP3) and Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync. An encrypted enterprise mail channel is provided by the enterprise device management tool Blackberry Mobile Fusion, which uses a modified version of the Mobile Data System to handle connections to enterprise mail systems.

Messages brings email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn into one single, unified mailbox, with support for rich HTML mail

Messages is a full-featured mail tool, with all the tools you'd expect — including a powerful set of filters to help you search through mail. First you'll need to set up your mail accounts, from inside the PlayBook OS 2.0 settings application, along with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Although you can have several email accounts, there's only support for a single instance of each of the supported social networks, making PlayBook 2.0 clearly a single-user OS. Navigation through Messages is easy, with a series of cascading panes that let you drill down into mailboxes and folders, as well as into social networks. RIM has used Messages to integrate social messaging into the same mailbox as your email, so you can see and send Twitter DMs alongside Facebook messages and the contents of your LinkedIn inbox.

The PlayBook OS 2.0 Calendar uses typography to show how busy a day is: the larger the number, the more appointments you have

RIM has provided tight integration between Messages and the PlayBook OS 2.0 Contacts and Calendar applications. You can drill into a contact's details (including recent social network updates) from an email message, giving you context for your reply. Messages and Contacts build on the technology RIM acquired with Gist, while another acquisition, the social calendar Tungle, is the foundation of PlayBook 2.0's Calendar. Open the calendar and the relative size of the numeral for a day shows how busy it is. You can see who you're having meetings with, linking into Contacts and Messages for further information. This is the type of integration (and innovation) we expect from RIM, building on the BlackBerry heritage while acknowledging the growing importance of social networks.

There is one major flaw in the current release of Messages, as it's currently unable to search for mail on connected Exchange servers — an EAS feature we've found useful on other platforms (and on BlackBerry devices). There's also no BBM support at present, although RIM has stated that it will launch a PlayBook version of BBM in a future release of the OS.

Editing and sharing documents
With PlayBook OS playing to its enterprise strengths, RIM has upgraded the built-in Documents To Go tools with support for the latest PowerPoint, Word and Excel formats. You can create new Word and Excel documents on the PlayBook, and the drop-down menus in the Word and Excel editors give you access to a wide selection of formatting tools — and even for common Excel functions. A new Print To Go tool turns the PlayBook into a virtual document folder. Just connect a PlayBook to an office Wi-Fi network, install the appropriate drivers on a PC, and you can print any file to your tablet to read at your leisure. Files can be sorted into folders, so you can group travel documents together, or store all the files for a specific project in one place.

Documents To Go includes an Excel editor, with support for cell formatting and functions

PlayBook OS's browser gets an upgrade too (to go with its improved HTML5 application development tools). One new feature is a built-in reading view that strips out unnecessary web content. You can activate it in landscape mode with a tap on an icon in the menu bar, or simply by rotating to portrait once a page has loaded. It's not perfect, and some complex pages failed to render, but reading-mode pages are clear, with black text on a white background.

The browser's reading view gives you an uncluttered look at a web page you've already loaded: just rotate to portrait to get the best possible reading experience

A redesigned App World store now supports Android applications, as well as both AIR and native PlayBook OS applications. Android applications need to be repackaged for the PlayBook's Android player (which only supports Gingerbread applications that don't use Google services or device-native code). The Android Player is RIM's implementation of the Dalvik virtual machine used in Android, and developers should be able to port most applications to PlayBook without changing any code. RIM will curate Android apps in much the same way it does the rest of App World.

Bridge 2.0
RIM has also updated its Blackberry Bridge application. If you're using a BlackBerry smartphone and a PlayBook tablet together, you can now use the BlackBerry as a remote control — and also as a Bluetooth keyboard. Touchscreen devices can be used to control PlayBooks connected to HDMI screens, while an Open On PlayBook option lets you use the PlayBook's larger screen and Documents To Go to work with files without copying them from BlackBerry to PlayBook.

Conclusion
RIM has finally delivered the operating system its tablet hardware deserved. If you've got a PlayBook, then PlayBook OS 2.0 is an essential upgrade. Building on its BlackBerry heritage, the new native Messages application merges email with social networks, as well as with Contacts and Calendar information. Focusing on its enterprise roots, the new PlayBook OS feels much more BlackBerry-like — even with Android applications in App World.

PlayBook OS 2.0 is also another step in RIM's transition to QNX and BlackBerry 10. Developers will be able to use it to build and test applications in advance of the next generation of devices, while enterprises will have a tablet they can manage and secure.

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