A new flagship phone and a new OS, but is it too little, too late?
BlackBerry is about to enter the battle of its life, and as you'll see in my review of its new flagship phone, the Z10, it's using everything in its arsenal to win. Maybe win is the wrong word; perhaps victory for BlackBerry right now is something more like not losing everything. Because if you've been following this story, you know that everything is what's at stake.
The company is coming back into the game with force, that much is clear. Its new touchscreen smartphone is the serious contender BlackBerry has been claiming it would be, packing in the specs, software prowess, and services to take on even the most entrenched players in the game. This isn't a feint or a half-step, it's a long bomb with all the blood, sweat, and tears behind it you would expect from a company that's lost a significant piece of its value (to say nothing of its market power) over the last handful of years. But there are those entrenched players, and consumers as well as enterprise customers have proved fickle in the face of changing technology. The fans have gone or are going — can the Z10 win them back?
This isn't just about a single phone or a single OS, it's about BlackBerry's fight to stay afloat. Can the new phone along with BlackBerry 10 put the company back in play, or is this too little, too late? Read on for my full review and find out.
The Z10 will not look radical to any consumer, and I get the feeling BlackBerry wants it that way. This is not some daring departure, a flash of color and playfulness like the latest crop of Windows Phone devices from Nokia and HTC. This is a safe, refined look; classy but understated, not unlike BlackBerry's previous efforts in smartphone design. If anything, the Z10 looks like a beefier, wider version of the iPhone 5 — in fact a friend of mine commented that it looked "just like" Apple's latest handset. And that's not an entirely inaccurate take on the industrial design here.
The Z10's general form mimics the iPhone in more than a couple of ways. The curved corners of the slabs share an almost identical circumference, the screens are separated by an equal amount of surface space on either end of the front panel, and a solid band of what feels like light metal (it's actually plastic) runs around the casing of the phone. The Z10 does deviate in some notable ways, of course. Besides being larger (the phone has a 4.2-inch display), there's no home button on the front of the BlackBerry device. BlackBerry also places the sleep / power button in the center top of the bounding component (with a headphone jack next to it), and adds a mute button in the center of the volume rockers (located on the right side of the phone). Micro HDMI and Micro USB ports are on the left side of the slab.
Unlike the iPhone, the back pops off the phone to reveal the SIM, battery, and microSD. That back is made of a dimpled, soft-touch material that I found myself habitually running a finger across when I was using the phone. I like it, and would love to see more phone-makers considering the tactility of their devices like this.
The Z10 is a fine, handsome phone. It's well made (in Mexico by the way, and some will be made in Canada), feels solid in your hand, and is inoffensive enough in its design that it won't really shock anyone. On the other hand, it won't necessarily draw a lot of attention either, and if BlackBerry wants to spark some kind of excitement about its new hardware design, this device won't get the job done.
A safe, refined look not unlike BlackBerry's previous efforts
A modern smartphone, stocked like a modern smartphone
Inside the Z10, you'll find a healthy compliment of feeds, speeds, and other things that rhyme with feeds and speeds. Probably. The phone is powered by a dual-core CPU clocked to 1.5GHz (BlackBerry hasn't specified which processor). The device has a fat 2GB of RAM alongside 16GB of internal storage (that can be expanded, of course, all the way up to 48GB with the use of a 32GB microSD card). And yes, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, an accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, and ambient light sensor are all here too, as they should be. The phone will be available on Verizon and AT&T equipped with LTE radios; I tested the AT&T version. It's a modern smartphone, and it's stocked like a modern smartphone.
The Z10 has two cameras, a rear-facing 8 megapixel shooter capable of 1080p video, and a front-facing 2 megapixel camera which can do 720p video capture. Both are reasonably clear and useful, though you're not going to be doing much serious picture taking with the front lens. The backside cam produced decent if somewhat washed out looking shots, and focusing could sometimes be a problem (particularly in burst mode or with macro shots). The camera also seems to suffer from the all-too-common pink blotch in the center of the image, which can make shots with lots of pale or white tones look off color, literally.
BlackBerry 10 provides some interesting tools for dealing with photo taking, most notably that burst mode, which the company calls TimeShift. It allows you to snap and then choose a frame from a series of shots after (and supposedly before, but not really) the frame you wanted. I'll talk about that more in the software section, but I did find the function to be reasonably useful in a number of scenarios.
The display on the Z10 is a handsome 1280 x 768, 356 PPI LCD screen, and I found its color reproduction, clarity, and touch response to be among the best I've used. That said, the screen's backlight seemed noticeably darker than many devices I compared it to (particularly the iPhone) even at full brightness, and color tone and saturation seemed to lean towards a yellowish / greenish hue. As a standalone, you won't notice the differences, though next to other devices there's a clear variation in the overall nits it's outputting.
As I expected, call quality and general audio output (both earpiece and speaker) on the Z10 performed excellently. The sound was loud and clear with no distortion, and made talking on the phone (something I generally try to avoid) pleasant when it happened. I can't exactly recommend listening to music casually through the speakers on the Z10, but if you must, the sound reproduction is decent enough to hear most details.
Data was no slouch compared to other AT&T LTE devices I tested, and both cellular and Wi-Fi antennas seemed to latch onto networks easily and not let go without a fight. That's not a surprise, but it's good to know that BlackBerry is still at the top of its game when it comes to the basics.
BlackBerry is still at the top of its game with data and reception
I've been deeply disappointed by the battery in the Z10
Performance on the Z10 was generally snappy and responsive. Zipping around from one app to another, jumping into and out of messages, and managing content on the device worked as expected with few hiccups. There were times when an app or message would seem to stall on loading, but those were few and far between, and I'm mostly chalking that up to version 1.0 bugs. There were certainly no deal-breakers.
Battery life is another story altogether. I regret to report that I've been deeply disappointed by the battery in the Z10. The company has historically made much of the BlackBerry line's power-sipping abilities, but those talents have not been on display while I've been testing this new phone. On several days during my test period, I found that the device could not make it through an entire workday without requiring a recharge or battery swap. If I took the phone off of the charger around eight or nine in the morning, by six or seven at night the phone was completely dead. It wasn't an everyday occurrence — some days I made it into the evening with no trouble — but it happened enough that it gives me cause for concern. LTE devices aren't really known for their modest power needs, and it would seem that BlackBerry's first entrant into the data-rich world of 2013 is no different than the competition... and perhaps worse.
Like many new phone releases these days, the big story isn't really about the hardware; much of what's released is a variation on the latest chipsets and screens, and that's no different in the case of the Z10. The story here is really about BlackBerry 10 — BlackBerry's last shot at proving it has a place in the mobile race.
BB10 is a total departure from previous BlackBerry smartphone OSes, but shares much in common with BlackBerry's ill-fated tablet, the PlayBook. Both are built on the foundations of QNX, which was acquired by BlackBerry in 2010, and they're intimately linked from a code and UI perspective. But BlackBerry 10 feels like a completely new OS, and deserves a deep look.
BlackBerry 10 is built around a handful of basic concepts and gestures, some of which would be difficult to discover without a tutorial, yet seem obvious once you've mastered them. That is to say the OS is not especially intuitive, but it works well and makes sense despite that fact.
Since there are no physical navigation buttons on the phone and no persistent onscreen navigation, gestures are used to move through the software. There are really two main gestures required to get around: a swipe up from the bottom of the screen, which brings you to your homescreen no matter where you are, and a swipe up, hold, and slide to the right to reveal (or "peek" at) your BlackBerry Hub, a unified notification area which also doubles as your inbox for email, text messages, and more. That gesture takes a little getting used to — think of it like the beginning of a McDonald's "M" arch.
BB10 can best be thought of as an operating system with four main states: on your homescreen, in an application, in your messages (BlackBerry Hub), or in your app drawer.
The "center" of the phone is a unique take on the homescreen, a page representing your currently running applications (up to eight only) in a grid of large, rectangular icons. Those icons sometimes do double duty as widgets, switching over to glanceable information (like the current weather) once you minimize the application. From that screen, you can swipe left to a rather standard list of application icons and folders, or if you swipe to the right, you get your BlackBerry Hub. The only other consistent state is within an application itself.
The interface shares much in common with Android and iOS, and at times feels like a hybrid of the two. While you do have some widget functionality on your homescreen, it's strictly controlled and tied to running apps. The application drawer functions almost identically to iOS', allowing you to slide icons around and drop them into folders as the system automatically rearranges your grid.
The homescreen concept is interesting, but failed to convince me that it was a better solution than what Android proposes. The idea that an app can become to a widget when not running is novel, but you have no sense of which app will become a widget, and you have no control over whether or not that widget will always be visible. In fact, you have no control over your multitasking / homescreen arrangement save for the fact that you can kill a process. The apps order, or if they stay in place, is determined simply by which one you've most recently had open. And once you get to app nine... your old apps are dismissed unceremoniously.
The end result is a feeling of unpredictability. Not only can you not control which apps remain open or where they're located, you also don't have a consistent sense of where to find certain pieces of information. If you're like me, you like to be able to glance at things like the weather quickly and conveniently — even Apple gets this one kind of right in iOS' Notification Center — but BlackBerry 10 provides no such option.
The Hub might not be the best way to manage a constant barrage of alerts
The BlackBerry Hub exhibits similar issues, though I think the concept is far more compelling. The most basic way to think about the Hub is as a unified inbox, except this inbox encompasses nearly every type of notification or message you will receive on the phone. Email from multiple accounts, BBMs of all types, SMS and MMS, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, phone calls, system notifications (such as app update notices), and more. Notifications or messages can be viewed in a consolidated manner in the main hub view, or broken out into their respective groupings.
At a basic level, this idea makes a lot of sense. Instead of just representing a notification, it becomes one and the same with the information the notification represents. Additionally, grouping all of your messages together makes it easy to triage your work and easily see everything that's waiting for you.
Unfortunately, there's a lot about the execution that doesn't work. For instance, you can't see what kind of notifications you have waiting for you unless you peek over at your list (there are actually icons that show you what's new, but you still have to use the peek gesture to see them). Additionally, the Hub doesn't always represent your overall lists of notifications or messages — when you hear an SMS notification and go to check it out, you're greeted with whatever you were doing last, which forces you to then hit a "back" button that appears in applications, or swipe over (a gesture that works in some places, but not in others). In general, I felt like I was doing a lot of extra work to see the most recent stuff in my Hub.
Compared with how iOS and Android handle notifications, the Z10 felt clunkier and more confusing in some ways. I would rather have a representation of a notification that is abstracted from the actual message, because that allows me to dismiss the transitory notices without having to necessarily deal with the content itself.
The unified inbox is a great idea, but having to deal with both your actual inbox and your notifications on the same level creates complications that I think could be mitigated. It's not that the BlackBerry Hub concept doesn't work — I actually think it works quite well — it's that it might not be the most efficient way to deal with a constant barrage of alerts.
The Hub feels sloppily executed, as do other parts of the UI. As I mentioned, a "back" button does appear sometimes, a crucial piece of navigation without which the phone would be impossible to navigate. Why isn't it always present? It's almost as if BlackBerry wanted to use an Android motif, but didn't want to seem like it was piggybacking on someone else's idea. Weirdly, some apps avoid the back button and bring in other navigational elements. The Facebook app and USA Today apps utilize a drawer system that mirrors Android's Holo app guidelines, so instead of tapping the back button, you're supposed to swipe or hit a drawer icon. And yet other first party apps (such as Remember) use a combination of a drawer and back button. It gets confusing fast, and often what I expected to happen simply didn't. The interface zigs when you expect it to zag.
Adding additional confusion, there's another, hidden menu available in applications if you swipe down from the top of the screen. In most apps this reveals settings for the application, but outside of apps, it brings up a system settings tray that looks a whole lot like Android's window shade notification area. You cannot get to the settings menu for the phone within apps, however; you must first back out to the homescreen or another neutral system area. Why is this the case? Why didn't BlackBerry just incorporate app setting panels into that dropdown? Or better yet, why not just expose app settings in another location in the app?
Still, all of these issues aside, I wouldn't say that the general UI is ineffective. Despite some points of confusion, once you get the hang of what the phone is going to do (and specific apps), you do get into a kind of flow. After a couple of days with the device, I found my frustration was significantly reduced, and I was actually enjoying some of the workflows of the device. In particular, I think BlackBerry's concept of the upward swipe to take you home works as it should — I didn't find myself wishing for a home button. Actually, it reminded me in a rather distinct way of webOS, and when I went back to other phones, I found myself wishing for the gesture. I don't feel BlackBerry 10 deals with multitasking or notifications as effectively as other platforms do (most notably Android), but it's not a total strikeout.
BlackBerry took some chances here on the user interface, and while I think there's big room for improvement, I also think the company has been largely successful in carving out a unique experience that doesn't feel different just for the sake of being different. Better however? I wouldn't say that.
Aside from the general functionality of the new OS, I found the overall design of BlackBerry 10 to lean towards the bland side. Font choices, layout, and icon design didn't immediately stand out as bad, per se, but I certainly wouldn't describe the look of the OS as high-minded. Some icons, in fact, seem downright amateur (text messages for instance), with a weird palette that recalls Windows XP. In other cases, icons appear to be a straight rip-off of other platforms (the unfolded map, really?). And whatever standard font BlackBerry is employing here looks poorly kerned to my eyes. Additionally, there doesn't seem to be the appropriate amount of padding in some places, making text flow appear flabby and thrown together.
It's not all bad (or even all mediocre), however. The clock on the Z10 is probably the best looking digital-analog on a device right now (particularly in the gorgeous, neon orange night mode), and the compass app is a spirited, 3D take on a basic tool. It's clear there are great designers at Research In Motion — but the company needs to get them into the spotlight more often. BlackBerry 10 doesn't exactly put design first, but it's not in last place either.
One other general thing: that keyboard. BlackBerry has probably more to lose when it comes to keyboards than any other phone-maker out there. The company's past experience with touchscreen keyboards has bordered on disastrous (hello, Storm), and as the maker of the finest physical QWERTY keyboards for smartphones, the stakes are high.
I'm happy to report that not only has BlackBerry delivered an extremely good keyboard for BlackBerry 10, but that once you get the hang out of it, the new keyboard may beat the competition in some areas. In particular, I found its next word prediction (that is, taking a guess at what you're going to type) to be excellent, and though it seems a little bizarre at first, the way it predicts full words above keys as you type actually comes in very handy. In particular, one-handed typing gets a lot easier when the word you're looking for is within reach, as is often the case with the Z10's keyboard.
I won't say that the keyboard is perfect — I had moments of frustration with it — but I will say that BlackBerry is competitive and then some with BlackBerry 10 in this department. It's an excellent virtual keyboard, and a very responsive typing experience.
As I said above, all of your devices messages are handled in essentially the same interface, which works in some ways, but can be a pain in others.
For starters, the email experience on the Z10 is pretty solid. I won't say it's as simple or straightforward as Mail for iOS or Windows Phone's mobile Outlook, nor is it as feature-packed as Android — but it's capable and generally speedy. If I had to nitpick, I would say that the bizarre HTML formatting it forces messages into can be a pain (it can be changed, but only through a hidden formatting menu which lives beneath your keyboard), and its multiple message management leaves much to be desired. For instance, if you want to delete a handful of messages, you must first long press on a single message (which brings up a contextual menu), then select the multiple message selection button (yes seriously), and then tap the other messages you'd like to work with. It's a pain if you get a lot of mail.
Deleting messages also demands that you access a contextual menu, and there's no way to move from one message to another without leaving the message you're in and tapping on a new message from your list. It makes efficient email management (or management of any of your content in the Hub) kind of difficult and slow going.
The Hub also integrates services like Twitter, which I think is wonderful. However, BlackBerry makes the same mistake Microsoft does with Windows Phone by treating Twitter messages like email. You can see a list of incoming @ messages to you, but in order to read the full message you must click into every single one of them separately. Maybe folks at Research In Motion don't use Twitter that much, but it's supposed to be a realtime communication tool, not another version of email. The simple solution is to allow messages to expand to multiple lines, thus alleviating the need to dip into every reply you get.
BlackBerry 10's browser is everything a modern mobile browser should be. It's good. Really good. Loading even heavy websites was no problem for the Webkit-based app, and thankfully most sites that are mobile-ready rendered just as they would on the iPhone or an Android device. One interesting point worth noting is that BlackBerry has built Flash functionality into the Z10's browser, making it one of the last mobile alternatives if you absolutely must look at Flash content on a smartphone. I won't say the performance is good, but it's there if you need it, which is kind of a nice change of pace.
I'm honestly just happy that it works as advertised. If you've dealt with BlackBerry's browser efforts in the past (even the much-improved browser on the last round of BlackBerry 7 devices), you'll know this was an area the company needed to succeed in. And it has.
BlackBerry 10 comes loaded with a custom variation of Bing Maps, which provides standard mapping information, as well as a turn-by-turn option for all your road tripping needs.
It goes without saying that the map data pales in comparison to Google's efforts, and it probably needs to be said that the actual experience of using the app is not even in the same ballpark as the superb iOS or Android versions of Google Maps. In short, it's a subpar — bordering on intolerable — experience. When searching for businesses, the Maps app was abysmal at figuring out what I wanted; I searched for a restaurant in my neighborhood called Dumont, and it showed me a map of Dumont, New Jersey. And that's just a taste of what you can expect when using the app.
Turn-by-turn seemed to work well, though I'm confused as to why there is no landscape mode for navigation. That's right: navigation is portrait only in BlackBerry 10.
In short, the mapping situation in the new OS leaves much to be desired. After using iOS' version of Google Maps, I can only hope that Google decides to craft a similarly slick variation for BB10. Until then — double check your directions.
The browser's great, but double check your directions
BlackBerry went out of its way to make its camera unique
BlackBerry has made some smart decisions in BlackBerry 10, including the deep integration of third-party services at a native, system level. This is true with Dropbox support in the file manager of the phone, and it's also present in the to-do / reminder app Remember.
Remember offers the ability to sync with your Evernote account natively, providing access to your notes (and the ability to create new ones) right inside the app. For the most part, the experiment is a success, though I found the implementation lacking in a couple of key areas. Most notably, the app doesn't seem to support inline images, relegating your visual clips to a weird pile of attachments. That's nice if you're heavy on text — but I tend to find a lot of imagery and drop it into Evernote, and this makes getting into your files a pain. Secondly, there's no way in the app to really browse your content — you're either editing it or you're not, so forget about a casual look at what you've saved or clipped.
BlackBerry has gone to no small amount of trouble to make its camera software unique, and for the most part, the company has succeeded. While not the most intuitive (or bug-free) camera interface on the market, the BlackBerry 10 camera UI does offer a couple of novel tweaks that make it slightly more interesting than your average phone.
The most notable feature of BlackBerry's new camera suite is its TimeShift mode, which functions as a kind of burst shooting mode, and can capture a handful of snaps of the same scene in a short amount of time (about the time you typically take to focus and shoot). Furthermore, the camera detects faces, allowing you to zero in on particular expressions for a shot and then select those frames for your final product.
The novelty works well and actually seemed to produce slightly better results than the average snap-and-pray approach, though I'm not entirely convinced it makes the camera on the Z10 any more useful than an iPhone or decent Android shooter. Still, it's good to see someone trying to do something new, and I'm sure people will find creative uses for the functionality.
Story Maker is a curious case of BlackBerry reaching outside its safety zone — to tremendous effect.
The app is basically the BlackBerry take on iMovie, which is to say you can create compact, simple edits of your video content that you can pair with music from your library and some surprisingly cool, templated effects. I don't have a lot to say about the app except that it's an excellent example of what BlackBerry is capable of. It's fun. It's useful. I liked it. Would buy again. A+++.
BlackBerry says that it's launching the Z10 and BlackBerry 10 with about 70,000 apps. I know what you're thinking: that's a lot of apps to come with out of the gate. Unfortunately, while testing the device I felt like it was really something like 69,000 really mediocre (or just plain bad) applications.
I don't want to knock BlackBerry for trying, but I would have rather seen 25,000 apps that really mattered than this big number of apps that are instantly forgettable, or worse. Many of the applications in BlackBerry World seem to be slightly altered PlayBook apps or strange riffs on PlayBook apps. Others struck me as unfinished or experimental. That's not to say there weren't some highlights — there were — its just that you have to slog through a lot of garbage to find them.
But perhaps the strangest and most egregious part of BlackBerry's app play is its inclusion of Android apps. Yes, Android developers can submit and sell their apps in BlackBerry World alongside other, native BB10 applications, and there is essentially no way to tell the difference between the two. But man, is there a difference.
The Android apps I tested while using the Z10 performed abysmally on the phone. Sluggish, ugly, and disconnected from the core OS. In fact, because these apps are being run in a software emulation of Android — Gingerbread no less (that's version 2.3) — they bear little to no relationship to the rest of the operating system. Even the tool you use to select text and the contextual menus are from another operating system! It's a terrible choice on BlackBerry's part, and one I hope the company quickly abandons. It's not a shortcut to having a lot of apps — it's a shortcut to having a lot of bad apps that turn customers off.
On a happier note, BlackBerry has wised up and found a way to offer its users a full suite of film, TV, and music content — much in the way that Apple has with iTunes, Microsoft with its various stores, and Google with its Play services. I was a little disappointed that there's no way to stream content, however. If you want to watch a movie or listen to some music, you've got to get the file downloaded onto your device first. In case you're wondering, that's something like 300MB for a single episode of How I Met Your Mother. Ouch.
A good phone, but why the Z10? Why now?
The Z10 is a good smartphone. Frankly, it's a better smartphone than I expected from RIM at this stage in the game. It does everything a modern phone should do, usually without hesitation. It doesn't do everything perfectly, but it does many things — most things — reasonably well.
The problem with the Z10 is that it doesn't necessarily do anything better than any of its competition. Sure, there are arguments that could be made about how it handles messages or the particulars of its camera, but no one could argue that there's a "killer app" here. Something that makes you want or need this phone because it can do what no other phone can do. That's not the case — in fact if anything is the case, it's that the Z10 can't yet do some things that other devices can. Or at least, can't do them quite as well.
And that's where I end up. The Z10 is a fine device, well made, reasonably priced, backed by a company with a long track record. But it's not the only device of its kind, and it's swimming against a massive wave of entrenched players with really, really good products. Products they figured out how to make years ago. Products that are mature. The smartphone industry doesn't need saving.
If you love RIM and the BlackBerry brand and really want to keep supporting them, buying a Z10 wouldn't be a mistake. But I think there are better phones on the market, and I don't yet see a compelling reason for most customers to choose this phone over those better ones. So why the Z10? Why now? Until BlackBerry can answer that question, I would be careful about how you spend your money.
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