BlackBerry Z10 Review: Will this save the company from the brink?

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After numerous delays, replacing its co-CEOs, name changes for the OS and the company itself, hiring Alica Keys as its creative director, AND releasing a love song to developers – BlackBerry is back with the BlackBerry Z10, running the brand new BlackBerry 10.

This phone is no doubt a do-or-die moment for BlackBerry. While it still has a core, loyal group of supporters out there, most of the traditional (and the nontraditional) BlackBerry users have departed for something else. Teenagers are flocking to its rivals because of the power of their brands compared to BlackBerry; while business people are bringing their own devices to the enterprise.

I can still remember the time when I got my first smartphone – it was a BlackBerry Bold 9000 (I got it before the iPhone 3G came out). It did me well for about four years, before I jumped ship for Android and never looked back.

The phone does well to satisfy the faithful – who have been dying for a great phone from the Canadian smartphone maker.

For everyone else – not so much.

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Design and Hardware

BlackBerry is not known for their smartphone designs, but the Z10 looks darn good. The build quality is really good as well – it feels sturdy and not flimsy, compared to phones like the Galaxy S III. However, the phone feels like the equivalent of wearing business casual – it has a polished look, but doesn’t scream “prestige”. It doesn’t feature carbon-fibre or faux leather like some of BlackBerry’s previous phones. Instead, the Z10 has a rubberised backplate and noticeable gaps (though not large gaps) between the screen and the body.

The phone measures at 130mm x 65.6mm – largely because of the 4.2-inch screen; and is 9mm thick – thin, but not petite compared to rival smartphones (the iPhone 5 is 7.6mm thin, while the HTC One is 4mm). But it does comfortably fit inside pockets. The dimensions also make it possible to use the phone one-handed without any strain – so if you take public transport a lot and find yourself standing on a train, then you can read your emails easily.

I’ve mentioned this in my reviews a couple of times, but I would like some damn colour on the phone body. Black and white just feels, admittedly, boring. Of course, it’s not BlackBerry’s fault, every single phone manufacturer (apart from Nokia) sticks with the same two colours for their phone. I would love a blue phone. It’s just my two cents – it really doesn’t detract anything away from the phone.

When you first look at the phone, you notice that it doesn’t feature many buttons – there are some physical buttons and no soft-touch ones – and none at the front of the screen. This is predominantly because BlackBerry 10 is largely gesture-based. On the top, you get the power button and headphone jack, and the side features the traditional volume rocker and mute buttons. The other side features two ports: a microUSB and microHDMI port to charge and connect to your TV respectively.

Spec-wise, the phone is on-par with its rivals with a 1.5GHz dual-core processor (BlackBerry has not named who made it though), 2GB of RAM and 16GB of flash memory. Of course, there is also a microSD card slot (under the backplate) that can hold up to 32GB. Also included are an accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, proximity and ambient light sensors. That’s in addition to the standard features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, NFC and LTE support.

Speaking of LTE support, the BlackBerry Z10 will be able to connect to Australia’s LTE network bands from Optus and Telstra. The review phone came with Optus, and the 4G speeds were obviously pretty fast compared to 3G (on my Galaxy S3, on the same network). There were little hitches in 3G coverage when I tried the phone at university, but that’s likely due to Optus as I had similar problems with the S3. On call quality, it’s pretty decent and clear. Of course, I should stress that you might have different experiences because of the carriers, or where you live.

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BlackBerry 10

The most important thing about this phone is BlackBerry 10. The company lost significant market share to Android and Apple, and now is facing a battle for third-place with Microsoft and Windows Phone. BlackBerry 10 is its final chance to show that it is still alive and kicking – not only to fans, but critics and, most importantly, to its investors.

BlackBerry 10 is a total departure from the previous BlackBerry OS. It feels more like a more modern smartphone OS with some design cues from not only Android and iOS, but also the PlayBook OS (both were built from QNX – an operating system bought by BlackBerry back in 2010). Similar to the Nokia/Intel’s MeeGo, the BlackBerry 10 is gesture-based. Swiping up from the bottom will return you back from home in any app, while swiping down from the top will show context menus and – if on the home screen – quick access to settings like Wi-Fi and 3G. There is a learning curve, but Blackberry has also added a tutorial explaining some of the gestures when you setup the phone.

The strongest part of any BlackBerry experience is the keyboard – and this one is surprisingly good.The onscreen keyboard is a definite improvement over years of attempts (remember the BlackBerry Storm with SurePress?). Coming from Android, I was used to swiping letters together and for it to guess the words. However, once you get the hang of what the BlackBerry 10 keyboard offers – then you’ll agree that it’s pretty good.

The keyboard, like others, does predictive text. However, unlike Android where it is a separate row, the words will appear above the next letter of the word. In order to use that word, go to that key and flick up. Also, instead of toggling between the character keysets, just swipe down from the top of the keyboard to change keyboards. These little gestures might be meaningless, but for a power user they add to the experience.

The browser – for lack of a better phrase – “just works”. It’s fast, it’s snappy and there are no major issues to worry about (aside from data coverage – but that’s the telco’s fault). It supports HTML5 and, surprisingly, Adobe Flash. It is disabled by default, but it’s nice to know that you have that option to run Flash content on the browser. Those who are conscious about privacy will also be please to know that the browser has private browsing and automatic deletion of history after a month (that can be changed as well).

Multitasking is also great on BlackBerry 10 – mainly because it is different compared to its rivals. Apps are arranged in ‘cards’ and are still running until you hit the ‘x’ on the lower right-hand corner of the app ‘card’. Some apps will become widgets when minimised – like Calendar, allowing you to quickly have a glance on what’s happening next without opening the app. One little catch, however, is that you can only run eight apps at a time. If you run more than that, then the very last app you opened will be closed.

Then we get to this part – where BlackBerry 10 starts falling apart.

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Instead of having notifications appear on the top of the screen like Android or iOS, BlackBerry 10 has a notifications centre called “BlackBerry Hub”. In order to access this, you can either shift left when in the home screen, or do an upside-down L gesture (swipe up from the bottom and do a sharp left turn) from any app. Its premise is simple – integrate email, Twitter, Facebook, BBM and LinkedIn notifications in one place.

The execution of that idea, however, has some problems. First, you don’t know what notification is or what does it contains. All you get is a blinking red LED light that indicates you have a new email, new Facebook message, or new Twitter reply. It also forces you to leave what you were doing, read the message, and then go back to what you were doing beforehand – unless you want the LED light to constantly blink.

The Hub also acts as a unified inbox for all your email addresses, but it’s not as simple as one may like it to be. Everything has to go through a context menu – except for composing a new message. For instance, deleting multiple messages requires you to go to a context menu (either through the more menu option, or long hold the message) then you select multiple emails to delete. For comparison, the Gmail Android allows you to delete multiple messages by long holding a message without the need of a context menu.

Because the Hub acts as the notifications centre and a unified inbox, it does feel like information overload – especially when you have a group Facebook conversation in the middle of night.  There are so many messages from so many sources that you do feel overwhelmed. There is no option to mark all messages ‘read’ with one touch – you need to do it manually. That, itself, is a pain.

The home screen takes a lot from iOS and Android – especially the apps grid. While you can change around backgrounds and move apps around and put them in folders, there is not a lot of personalisation options available to make the phone yours, I feel. What makes Android (and to some extent, Windows Phone) different is that level of customisation to make it feel unique – through apps and widgets (or live tiles) placed on the home screen.

It makes the phone feel like it is yours, not someone else’s phone. And that is something that probably should have been implemented, given that BlackBerry has been long associated as being a phone mandated by the company’s IT support team.

Another disappointment was BlackBerry’s Voice Control. It isn’t a Siri or Google Now competitor. You can use voice commands like send a message, but you can’t ask it to check the weather or any questions that you may want to ask. If you did that, it will redirect you to Bing. There is no doubt that Voice Control needs a lot of more work. There were some problems picking up words if I was talking too fast, or returning a word that wasn’t what I said.

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However, the biggest problem facing BlackBerry 10 is the one that currently plagues Windows Phone right now – the ecosystem. BlackBerry has sort of inflated its numbers by allowing you to run Android apps inside BlackBerry 10 in order to fill the hole where there are no official apps for services like Instagram, Feedly or GroupMe.

The software emulator uses version Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread (sort of obvious because of the massive UI differences between Jelly Bean and Gingerbread) – so if you planned to use any of those apps designed with Holo, you won’t be able to.

Either way, don’t bother running any Android apps – either through the BlackBerry App World or side-loading – as they will be slow and jittery. I could notice a bit of jitteryness from the game on the left.

Realistically, BlackBerry 10 is not going to break the duopoly of Apple and Android. The real battle is with Windows Phone – the battle for third place. Windows Phone has had a bit of a head start, but it is possible for BlackBerry 10 to become number three. For that to happen, however, it needs a lot more refinement and needs to work on its ecosystem – and porting Android apps designed for Gingerbread won’t help.

Camera

The Z10 features an 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash and capable of recording 1080p video; and a 2-megapxiel front-facing camera that can record in 720p. Picture quality does look alright, but don’t expect it to be better than the iPhone 5’s camera. Colours do look washed out and the focusing can be a problem sometimes. However, it’s good enough that you can see the detail when seeing it in its original size.

The camera interface is, um, interesting to say the least. In order to take a picture, you have to tap on the screen. In order to adjust the focus, you will need to drag the focus window to where you want it to be. And you are sort of limited in what settings you can change with it only allowing you to edit the very basic settings like scene mode, stabilisation, and aspect ratio.

However, there are interesting little features included such as TimeShift. It lets you take a series of shots and you can easily isolate faces and ‘turn back the clock’ to get the best picture possible. However, it does sort of take away from the purpose of ‘point-and-shoot’ given the fact that you have to edit the photo. Another feature is Story Maker – which stiches up video and music together.

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Performance

The Z10 is pretty snappy – there were no response lags when jumping between from Facebook to Calendar or Browser to the Hub (more on that later). However, that being said, it takes ages to start up the phone (and there isn’t any startup animation from the carrier). It’s probably my impatience, but it really shouldn’t take long to go from off to lock screen.

Battery life is not the best. It drains pretty quickly – you will get a day’s worth of battery life on 4G if you use a lot of data with the occasional phone call or two. That being said, if it lasts just a day if you are using a lot of data, then heavy users should probably bring their USB cables to work with them or buy a spare battery.

Is It Worth It?

  • Score:

    6.0 / 10

  • The Good:

    Quality build and pretty good design; BB10 shows promise; really good keyboard

  • The Bad:

    BB10 has some annoying quirks; Android porting not the best; battery life is a problem

  • Bottom Line:

    A start of a new BlackBerry. Fans will enjoy it, but there are better phones out there.

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In order to answer that question, ask yourself are you a true loyalist to the BlackBerry cause? If you answered yes, then this phone will probably satisfy you because it is a BlackBerry phone. And no doubt, the Z10 is a really good BlackBerry touchscreen phone.

For everyone else – there are better phones than the Z10. Don’t get me wrong, the phone is brilliantly crafted and BlackBerry 10, although not perfect, is a great starting point for the new BlackBerry. The Z10, however, is no different to the thousands of phones out there in the market today. The spec sheet for the Z10 is on-par, but doesn’t exceed it.

Then you have to consider the ecosystem – what apps are there? Are you a Spotify or Rdio user? No app for you. Instagram? No app for you. WhatsApp? No app for you. TripView or Train Trapper (Melbourne’s equivalent of TripView) user? No app for you. Runkeeper? No app for you. The list can go on and on. BlackBerry 10 does offer a way to run an Android app on the phone, but like I said, it’s not the best idea.

That said, like Windows Phone, the marketplace will grow – but that’s under the assumption that there will be a large enough share to justify a BlackBerry 10 app. Windows Phone has that problem still, but not as much now as it did two years back. The OS has matured into something that can compete with Android and iOS. If Windows Phone can pull that off – then there is some hope for BlackBerry.

However, time is slowly running out.

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  • http://twitter.com/jessiemarkus Jessie Markus

    Correction: WhatsApp launched a BlackBerry 10 native app on March 13, 2013.