The PlayBook has always been a nice piece of hardware; it’s been the software side of things that gives the device its unenviable reputation.

The next version of the device’s QNX-based operating system arrived last week, and it plugs a number of holes left outstanding from its 1.0 release.

That’s half a GB of update coming down over the air. Click to enlarge.
(Image credit: Chris Duckett/TechRepublic)

Thankfully, the ability to use email and calendars only with a paired BlackBerry device has been nixed in favour of native email, calendar and contact applications. The applications are solid, nicely presented and integrate well with Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter networks. Access to Exchange is granted via the Exchange ActiveSync protocol.

Updates to the browser make it handle a larger subset of HTML5 and CSS, and the browser performs better as well, although performance is rarely a critical issue with a WebKit-based browser. Hopefully, smaller updates will occur outside of the grand updates, for no other reason than to improve the browser periodically. While the browser can handle webGL, albeit slowly, as the standards and techniques solidify, this browser runs the risk of lagging behind — unless RIM starts updating it regularly.

Another long-awaited feature in this release is Android compatibility; just don’t expect to see it branded throughout BlackBerry’s App World. Besides a navigation bar and a new separate application area for Android apps, the experience is no different from native applications. This is a two-edged sword that RIM has picked up. There are a number of BlackBerry Java developers who are finding out that their place on RIM’s road map has became a cul-de-sac, and, as I have said previously, the best course of action for those Java developers would be to move to developing Android applications and making sure that those apps remain compatible with the BlackBerry ecosystem. Given the new integration with Android applications, I see no reason why Java developers need deviate from that course and be able to serve two ecosystems for the price of one.

The special application launcher for Android applications, this is not reachable from the normal Tablet OS launcher; it will appear after hitting back to close an Android app. Click to enlarge.
(Image credit: Chris Duckett/TechRepublic)

One needed improvement over the beta builds of the 2.0 release is better multimedia codec support — the PlayBook excels is in media consumption, and the ability to natively consume formats like Matroksa is a welcome addition. Previously, the PlayBook would play the video track, but the audio codec was lacking.

Then there is BlackBerry Balance, the feature that separates the work environment from the consumer applications. The impetus behind this feature is to prevent work-related information from finding its way into personal communications via emails, calendars and the like. I was a little surprised when the feature was automatically turned on when I set up my work email account (there must be a BlackBerry server buried deep in corporate HQ) and asked me to create a password for Balance. This password is needed every time that you switch into the “work” area, much like Windows’ User Account Control feature or sudo for the Linux/BSD folk, and, after a while, it becomes a royal pain to keep entering time after time.

If the sysadmin says so, you will be seeing a lot of this little Balance dialog. Click to enlarge.
(Image credit: Chris Duckett/TechRepublic)

I understand why the feature is there, and appreciate that for the corporate environment it is absolutely necessary, but it has its flaws. The most annoying one is that to open the email app requires entering your Balance password, even if all you want to look at is personal email. While a “work” and regular version of the browser application exists on the device, the email, calendar and contacts applications are consolidated into one unified “work and personal” experience — this results in having the enter a Balance password every time the PlayBook awakens — which, for a device that sleeps to save power after being left alone for a solitary minute, adds up to considerable pain.

A much better experience for the communication applications would be to escalate permissions from personal to corporate when the user initiates it; that way, at least personal contacts, events and contacts can be used without the additional prompt that the work environment demands. As it currently stands, if your corporate administrator demands that “work” information and applications be locked with a password, that password will intrude to your non-work life.

And here is the petty but so annoying gripe that threatens the very use of the device: the keyboard feedback sound for typing is not mutable. Turning down the master volume will make it go away, but if a user were to listen to music and type something at the same time, the constant tapping sound would be highly distracting. (Update: Thanks to mcksmith in the comments, the volume slider for the keyboard is labelled as feedback in the keyboard tab at the bottom of system settings.)

In using the PlayBook over a period of months, it’s clear that this is a device aimed at businesses, and the addition of features like Balance only confirm this. In the current environment, with an iPad update looming and Android tablets improving, recommending a PlayBook over either of these tablets would not be a good move.

But inside an enterprise with a proper policy set-up, the potential in the device starts to be seen. RIM needs to play to its strengths and use its reputation based on security and governmental certification. When I look at this device from a system administration point of view, I like what I see. In a world where employees are increasingly bringing their own devices into the workplace, being able to form a perimeter around corporate information while simultaneously letting the user do whatever they want in their own personal area is a good feature to have.

RIM really needs to forget about trying to get PlayBooks into the hands of consumers; that horse bolted a long time ago, and RIM is not going to catch it anytime soon. But promoting the device to enterprises may save the failing product line yet.

To view a comprehensive gallery of the PlayBook 2.0, I recommend this one from ZDNet UK.