BlackBerry seemed to be giving up all claim to competition with Apple's iPad when it launched its PlayBook last April without certain key features. What use is a mobile device without email or a built in calendar? Didn't that rather miss the point?
From a hardware point of view, the PlayBook was good. Its high resolution screen, potent processor and iron-clad build quality go some way towards explaining why BlackBerry hasn't gone ahead and released a PlayBook 2 yet. Instead, almost a year after the original launch, it's updated the operating system. Does it finally make the PlayBook a player, or is it still an also-ran?
PlayBook 2.0 – unified messaging
This is not just an email client: the long awaited native ability to get Gmail, Hotmail, BlackBerry mail et al without syncing with a phone brings all your messages into one place. It'll display DMs from Facebook and Twitter alongside multiple mail accounts. If that sounds a bit overwhelming, you can filter which messages are shown to make it a bit more manageable, and there's a very fast search function built in, too.
PlayBook 2.0 – calendar and contacts
Mail isn't the only app in this grand unification scheme. Multiple calendars can be displayed along with details of who's at which meeting, and all your contacts are put into one mega-address book, too. That's not such a good thing, mind – who wants to scroll through thousands of Twitter followers to find their gran's phone number?
PlayBook 2.0 – expanding apps
One of the big new features in PlayBook 2.0 is that BlackBerry's hardware gets the ability to run Android apps. The catch is that the developer still has to make a few changes to their code, so you don't get the entire Android Market automatically. Worryingly, there's still no sign of essentials like Skype, Kindle, Spotify, Dropbox, or alternate browsers that support plug-ins.
PlayBook 2.0 – no app sharing
Here's where PlayBook still has catching up to do. It's very easy to manipulate content to your will in almost any app within iOS or Android – they're built for sharing stuff. You can send text, video or pictures from Zinio – say – to Facebook in two taps; one to start the sharing menu, one to select the destination app. PlayBook 2.0, on the other hand, still can't send a picture via email without opening the email client, composing a message and using the attachment function. Very quaint.
PlayBook 2.0 – price
Minor feature deficits aside, PlayBook 2.0 is what should have launched with BlackBerry's tablet and rounds off what's otherwise a nifty little device. The PlayBook itself is still available for less than $500 (we've seen it go online for as little as $219). If you want a small screen tablet, it's not as good as Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.7, but it's almost a third of the price and that makes it a very tempting alternative.
PlayBook 2.0 – verdict
The PlayBook has email – hurrah! It also retains its silky smooth speed and excellent multi-tasking performance, along with the unique gesture-based movement between launchers, docks and app screens – no hard or soft buttons to worry about here. But with limited access to other apps and some frustrating quirks, it's still lagging behind Android and iOS for a vision of the mobile future.
What does make it stand out, however, is the price, which when combined with this new OS makes the Playbook a genuine contender.