Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
After a long wait and pent-up expectations, BlackBerry's new flagship smartphone arrives with a solid new and modern mobile operating system. The BlackBerry Z10, which is coming to Canadian carriers on February 5, is the nexus of BlackBerry's plan to be the one device for work and for personal use. Here's my take on the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone.For my review of the BlackBerry 10 OS, check here.
Design and Form Factor
Anyone who has used a BlackBerry PlayBook will feel right at home with the design language of the Z10. While austere and utilitarian at first glance, the design is enduring and restrained yet quite elegant in an understated way, which is how people like their BlackBerrys.
A 4.2-inch screen is the focal point of the Z10 and it is surrounded by matte polycarbonate plastic on the top and bottom of the front fascia. There's a whiff of the iPhone 5's design and dimensions here, but the similarities are skin deep. The iPhone 5's super-chiseled profile and jewel-like chamfered bevels as well as its skinny and mostly stainless steel body feel very unique.
The BlackBerry Z10 feels solid. Maybe not BlackBerry Bold 9000 solid, but tough enough for a mostly multi-touch device. I love the way it feels in the hand and how recognizable the ridges of the volume keys, the power button even when you have it it your pocket. It is a very well designed smartphone and one created around function rather than frivolity.
One soon forgets the long and tragic history of touchscreen BlackBerry devices in the Storm line and even the more recent Torch models, that didn't quite have what was necessary to compete with the Androids and iPhones of their day. Looks like they got it right this time.
The removable back panel (which is pried open to reveal the microSIM card, the replaceable battery and a microSD slot) is coated in a grippy textured plastic that is pleasant and reassuring to hold. The famed BlackBerry magnets are also in there somewhere as various case accessories will wake or put the device to sleep as it is removed or sheathed.
The BlackBerry Z10 looks and certainly feels like it can compete with the Nokias, Samsungs and HTC's in the market right now in terms of size, features and functionality.
I particularly like the sense of minimalism of buttons and the almost Zen-like quality of the gesture based controls and use the corners of the screen. These are QNX concepts inherited from the PlayBook. A device that also famously had no home button or any confusing software buttons that pretended not to be there only to light up and confuse users once they were touched.
In addition to the power on/off button on the top of the Z10, you get the volume Up and Down buttons sandwiching a Pause/Play button on the right side. Opposite that is a micro-HDMI out port for pushing HD video or presentations to any connected HDTV via a simple cable and the microUSB charging port.
The volume Up and Down buttons seem to work even when the Z10 is presumably asleep or when the screen is black. I've had numerous ocassions where I inadvertently changed the volume of the Z10 by taking it in and out of the sleeve case or my pocket.
The 8 megapixel camera and LED flash are where you expect them to be on the top left section of the rear panel. There's also a front facing camera reserved for video calling or BBM which I haven't yet had the opportunity to test.
Taking pictures or video is done by tapping on th screen which is convenient but I've experienced some issues with the camera not focusing fast enough or poperly before it takes the shot. Built for speed and not for accuracy, you need to compensate by making sure the image is in focus before pressing the glass. See below for some sample photos and video. I plan on taking more pictures with the Z10 in the next few weeks.
After spending over a week with the Z10 and its camera, I've come to the conclusion that the camera is good but not great. Perhaps I've been spoiled by generations of iPhones or even recent shooters from Samsung (Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S), Nokia's Lumia 920 and even LG's Nexus 4, but the Z10's camera falls short in terms of speed, quality and low light performance. I've taken various photos that could have been awesome except that they were not completely focused. Almost as if the camera fires before properly locking on anything thing, specially indoors. Hopefully a software patch will resolve this.
The glass covering the display feels treated and slightly textured. It isn't Gorilla Glass, but feels just as sturdy. Whenever I test a new multi-touch device, I push my thumb as hard as possible on the corners to see if there is any ghosting or to see if any stress points are revealed, an issue with the early HTC One X and various Samsungs.
You can press as hard as you can on the Z10's display and it just wont budge. The fact that the Z10 also has a removable rear case might also make it more resilient to unexpected drops, since what will likely happen is any impact will cause the back cover to pop out instead of shattering the case. Still, as a multi-touch device that is mostly a screen, I'm glad BlackBerry included a nice sleeve case to help protect the Z10.
The Z10 feels excellent in the hand. RIM (or now BlackBerry) really managed to translate the PlayBook's QNX OS elements to a suitable one-handed experience and the Z10's size is just perfect for one handed operation.
Credit this to the intuitive nature of the new BB10 OS. The BlackBerry Peek gesture of holding and then moving what's on the screen slightly to the right to expose the Hub of messages and emails is accurate and effortless.
Boot up time is around a minute and a half the first time you turn on the Z10. Shutdown time is similarly long-ish at around 40 seconds. This feels a bit long but if I remember correctly, the PlayBook also takes its time to boot-up and shut down.
Once on the home screen, things feel quite fluid and fast. Opening apps is instantaneous and accesing and resizing other open apps is similarly lag free.
I had a bit of a problem with swiping up to minimize my current app or screen to 'go home' or choose another app but it could be because I'm not doing it right. A brief tutorial walks all users through the nuances of BB10's gesture based control and it is quite easy to learn.
I would say that next to Apple's iOS and maybe Windows Phone, BB10 is the easiest mobile OS to learn, which makes it ideal for all ages of users. The lack of buttons and fluidity of the OS is just perfect for gestures and multi-touch use.
The Z10 sports a 1.5GHz dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM which help move things along smoothly. Coming from an iPhone 5 and various Android smartphones as my daily devices, I felt the Z10 was just as fast and at times faster in some functions. Multitasking seems to work well with up to eight open apps before the system decides to close open apps to be able to manage resources better.
Having not used a BlackBerry since the Torch 2, I've missed some of the intuitive touches that these messaging-first devices have baked in. Like when it will bring up the addresses of the people whose emails you've just read when you are composing a new message, or how the Hub serves as a sieve for all messaging and essentially declutters your experience by bunching all your alerts and messages in one place.
I also loved how easy it was to set-up my iCloud email address on the Z10. With any other device, I would have to spend 15 minutes surfing the web for the proper SMTP and port information. With the Z10, my address and password was all I needed to get things started. Same with setting up BBM, I was able to walk though the set up right on the phone and in less than three minutes.
The strength of BlackBerry 10 is clearly in multitasking and for that, it truly excels. As someone who suffers through at least one unexpected reset daily on my Samsung Galaxy SIII, the Z10's refusal to collapse under prolonged and frenetic use is truly admirable.
There are some slowdowns, yes. Apps like Twitter sometimes take an eternity to refresh or open windows but that's likely because of the apps and not the system.
I pummeled the Z10's browser with various media-rich pages known to be problematic on other mobile browsers and it shred through them admirably and quickly. The surfing experience on the Z10 is truly generations beyond what we've come to expect from a BlackBerry device.
Installing apps is easy, just like any other smartphone OS. Users don't need to reboot after each app is installed.
The 1280 x 768 resolution display has a remarkable 356dpi pixel density which improves the readability of text and images. Watching video on this device is comparable to many of the current larger screen smartphones in the market today, I find the colours are warmer and not super saturated which suits me just fine.
Making and receiving calls on the TELUS network, I found the call quality to be clear and static free. The speakerphone could have been a bit louder but it was ample for most calling situations. BB10 gives users the ability to manually pick the type of cellular connection they want (when testing the battery I picked HSPA+ over LTE and got a much improved battery life), while you can leave it at the automatic setting, it is good to have the ability to regulate and choose how you get your data.
It is when accessing the apps on BlackBerry World that I realized what a daunting task BlackBerry has ahead of it. Re-entering the mobile market at this late hour, means that a number of key applications need to be created or at least ported to BB10. They did say that 70,000 apps were available at launch and that some very important ones are coming.
But they are not there yet. Not even close.
The apps populating BlackBerry World now are quite substandard. Some feel like lazy ports from the PlayBook and others are clearly rehashed Android 2.3 apps halfheartedly resized to fit the Z10. Some developers should be ashamed to pass off these regurgitated apps as anything new or special.
After using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN, Foursquare and the native BB10 OS apps, one will start wandering into BlackBerry World and realizing that there's a lot of stuff there, but not much of it is really any good. At least not yet.
There's more to apps than Angry Birds Star Wars and developers should be populating app world with good apps right now just before the Z10 begins selling in stores. This is critical to the platform's success.
As I expect to continue testing the Z10, I will add to this review with my findings and observations. Overall, i am very impressed in what BlackBerry has done in creating an entirely modern and unique mobile OS that is likely one of the most solid and enterprise-ready options out there that will also appeal to consumers.
The biggest issue I have with the BlackBerry Z10 right now is battery life. It's not great. BlackBerry devices were world renowned for having stellar battery life but smartphones have changed, they do more than email and messaging and LTE radios are battery hogs.
I'm hoping this can be resolved through a software update or maybe I need a few more charging cycles to prime the battery but I'm barely getting 6 hours of use and that's on mostly on WiFi without hardly any voice calls. (note: using the BlackBerry Z10 on Airplane mode with just the WiFi on kept the device up and running for around 12 hours with fairly heavy use so the LTE or 3G radios are likely responsible for the quicker than usual battery drain.)
That said, the BlackBerry Z10 is extremely promising. In terms of hardware, it is BlackBerry's answer to all the multi-touch flagship smartphones out there right now and it deserves a place among the heavy hitters. Elegant, responsive and intuitive in usability and features, it redefines what a modern BlackBerry device should be. The question is, will it be enough to stoke the fire that loyalists of the brand once had. More importantly, is it enticing enough to draw in new users, specially those who are coming from more mature mobile ecosystems? This will be clearer in the coming weeks as the Z10 hits stores.
I suspect hardcore BlackBerry fanatics will wait for the QWERTY keyboard equipped Q10 but the Z10 will appeal to users looking for a fresh take on the mobile OS with a handset that seems to cover many of the key areas in the must-have smartphone wishlist.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5