It's no secret that over the years, many BlackBerry users have switched to the iPhone or Android based phones. Some even to Windows Phone. But there is still a very dedicated and vocal group that has patiently stuck with the platform and the moment of truth for these hardcore fans is finally here as RIM launches their first BlackBerry 10 OS based phone- the Z10. Is this latest BlackBerry based on an entirely new platform worth the wait? That's what we're here to find out today.
Before I get into the review, let me tell you a bit about my Smartphone history as I believe that plays a very important role for anyone evaluating any new platform. My first experience with Blackberry was with the Curve 8300 almost seven years back. Ever since then, I've always had a Blackberry. Over the last few years, the BlackBerry shifted from being my primary device to a secondary one but its always been there. I primarily use the iPhone as my main device although I do switch to an Android or Windows Phone based device when something new comes along. So I was certainly excited when the Z10 landed on my desk as I’ve always had a soft spot for BlackBerry.
Like most modern phones, the BlackBerry Z10 is a slate that somewhat resembles an iPhone due to it’s minimalist look. Following the footsteps of the BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM has chosen to not put any buttons on the Z10 and instead rely on swipes for getting around. Measuring 130mm x 65mm x9mm and weighing around 125g in your hand, the BlackBerry Z10 feels much lighter than you would assume. Although the plastic body does not feel as premium to hold as the iPhone 5, it still feels very solid and well constructed.
The back cover snaps out, somewhat like it does on the Samsung Galaxy S III and, is very flexible though it has a bit of a rubberized finish giving it a pretty good grip on the phone. On the top you have the power/lock button along with a 3.5mm audio jack while the right side has volume buttons as well as a convenience key that, at the moment pauses media or switches to a Siri like voice recognition app. The left side has USB and mini HDMI connectors allowing you to charge the device or easily connect it to a display while an 8MP camera with a flash is expectedly placed on the back.
The BlackBerry Z10 has a 4.2” screen enclosed within a bezel that is also covered with glass. The slightly larger sized screen than the iPhone 5 continues to be very usable with one hand which I certainly prefer over gigantic screens that require both hands. Right above and below the screen you have two pieces of matte plastic giving it a somewhat similar look as the iPhone 5 from the back. Over the course of a week I noticed some marks around this area- they’re not exactly scratches but more like scruffs. Above the screen sits a front-facing 2 megapixel camera as well as the notification LED that BlackBerry is famous for. The speaker grill and the mic reside at the edges of the glass panel.
Specs-wise, RIM has loaded the BlackBerry Z10 with a dual core 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM8960 SoC which is the Krait based SnapDragon S4 with the Adreno 225 GPU. RIM adds 2GB RAM to the device to keep things moving fluidly on the 4.2” screen which has a resolution of 1280x768 pixels that roughly equates to a PPI of 356- higher than the iPhone 5. You get 16GB of storage built-in along with a hot-swappable MicroSD card slot. The only area where the Z10 disappoints as far as specs are concerned is the exclusion of LTE in the Middle East. While other parts of the world will get an LTE device, we will be restricted to 3G/HSPA connectivity. Other radios present on the Z10 are Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi.
BlackBerry 10 is a completely new OS for RIM and is based on the QNX platform they purchased and first introduced in the PlayBook. If I could compare, I would say it is somewhat like what Microsoft did with their Windows Phone OS- a reboot that was pretty much worked upon from scratch. That’s a considerably tough challenge for any company and especially for RIM. Not only do they have to please their existing user base but also attract ex-users that are now on competing platforms. Their challenge was to introduce something very new and modern without losing the essence of BlackBerry. And to a large extent, they have succeeded in doing that with BlackBerry 10.
Getting around the OS relies almost completely on swipes and gestures which is certainly a novel, and sometimes natural way of doing things. But I’m not convinced that it’s always the most efficient way. For example, switching between applications is like iOS where you need to go to the task switcher screen and select the app. while both Android and Windows Phone on have a back button that is very helpful in that regard. Also, there are times where within an application you can swipe from any of the four sides to get to different menus, options and screens which can get a bit confusing.
Where you can see the OS shine is how gracefully it handles transitions and flicks- everything is butter smooth on the Z10 which shows the beauty of an optimized hardware/software solution. Not only is everything very smooth but the fact that applications in the background are actually running versus entering paused state they do on Android, iOS or Windows Phone is mighty impressive. For example, on any phone I’ve tested based on the above OSes, try playing a YouTube video and then load another app- on the Z10, you continue to hear the audio from the YouTube app as it continues to “run” in the background whereas every other phone will pause that.
One of the best things about BlackBerry 10 is it’s integration with different types of accounts. You can add your corporate and personal email accounts, social accounts as well as dropbox and evernote account allowing you to quickly get started with your phone with pretty much all you need as a business user. Following account setup, I found some of the built-in applications on BlackBerry 10 superior to the ones bundled with iPhone or Android platforms. Three apps that I particularly liked are Contacts, Calendar, the Browser while universal search is probably the best I’ve seen in a mobile device.
When you add social accounts such as Linkedin or Facebook or Twitter, thanks to RIM’s acquisition of Gist, the Contacts app pulls all the data from these applications and gives you a really rich and visual look- you can see your contacts profiles, updates etc. without requiring a third party application. The Calendar is also really nice and increases the size of dates on days you are busier. Also with meetings, you can easily pull up data related to the contacts you’re meeting- stuff like their linkedin profile, updates by them on social networks as well as a history of your communication with them.
Coming to the bread and butter of BlackBerry- the two areas where the Z10 needed to excel in is typing and communication. As far as the keyboard is concerned, well, it’s simply the best keyboard I’ve used on a touch-screen phone. Not only are predictions incredibly accurate and swiping them up easy, but just typing in general is freakishly accurate. As far as emails and communications is concerned, BB10 is built on a solid platform but one that can use a bit of tweaking. You still have the awesome universal inbox which brings messages from all your applications but it’s been renamed to the hub. And through a quick swipe up and then right, you can peek into the hub when you get a new notification. This is a superb touch that allows you to see all our activity without actually exiting the application you’re in. It works well most of the time but I did notice that during gaming, it’s a hit or miss affair.
There are other things that also need more polish- for example moving between emails when you have a message open is not possible- you have to go back to the inbox to move to another message. Also when viewing emails, there is simply no need for three buttons at the bottom to reply, reply all and forward. Instead RIM could have just used one key for all three and allowed things like delete or arrows to move between messages. Deleting an email is also a bit of a chore where you need to hold on that email and then select the trash from the bottom of a menu. This makes the email client less efficient than the one found on OS 7.1 devices but since these are all software features, I’m hopeful that RIM is listening to feedback and looking to add them in firmware releases.
Using your BlackBerry as a personal device for listening to your music and taking pictures works well. The 4.2” screen is large enough to enjoy watching videos but at the same time manageable with one hand. The apps for music and video are nicely laid out and you can use the universal search option to find music or videos on your device. Sadly podcasts don’t have a built-in app but I did find a good one on the BlackBerry store.
The BlackBerry World app store was adding applications each day while I was evaluating the phone and considering that this review was written before the device was officially announced, I’m sure that there is more to come. I did manage to download a few games and apps and the experience was pretty easy and fast. You will no longer have to wait for ages to install apps on the BlackBerry and hopefully no need to reboot when upgrading one either (there wasn’t anything that was updated in the few days I tested the device so can’t verify.) As far as games are concerned, I payed with Angry Birds Star Wars Edition and that played equally well on the Z10 as it did on the iPhone 5. The slightly larger screen size of Z10 made the experience better though.
Coming to the 8 megapixel camera, I’d say that that the shots we took form the Z10 were similar in quality to your average Android based phone but not quite as good as the iPhone 5, the HTC One X+ or the Nokia Lumia 920. Here is a comparison shot between the iPhone 5, the Galaxy S III and the BlackBerry Z10 in our office.
As you can see, the pictures look a bit washed out on BB10. You will get better shots out in the sun but as far as indoors is concerned, the camera quality on the Z10 is strictly average. Once you take a picture, you do have some tools to enhance or add effects to the picture that make it look better but it’s still not as good as the other device. A good feature is the time shift feature that we spoke about some time back that uses the Scalado’s technology to take multiple pictures and then shift frames in parts of the picture such as people’s faces so you always end up with a smiling group picture. Also fun is the Story Maker app that lets you create quick and fund videos by mixing different audio and video tracks on the fly and then adding some effects to the final output.
Social apps like Twitter, Facebook are bundled with BlackBerry 10 and look pretty much like their counterparts on other platforms. There is a YouTube app as well that is more of a mobile site browser for YouTube than an actual app. There is Siri like application that allows you to speak to your device for certain actions. Sadly this didn’t work too well for me and the app pretty much always had trouble understanding the person I wanted to call or text. The same sentence would work without issues on Siri.
Finally, a review of a new BlackBerry device will be incomplete without mentioning BBM and RIM has certainly added a lot of polish to the new version which looks pretty slick and offers audio as well as video chats- however, I couldn’t get any of that to work possibly because of our wonderful control of telcos to block any VoIP form of communication. That being said, BBM continues to be the best IM experience on a phone and that really hasn’t changed.
Wrapping things up, RIM equips the Z10 with a 6.8 Wh battery that has a capacity 1800mAh. Purely on paper, that appears a bit lower than the one found on some Android devices, but this is a BlackBerry and you know that it will last you longer than competing devices. In the one week I had with the device, the battery always lasted me till the end of the day. One particular day, I forgot to charge it at night and didn’t get to see the red icon on the battery until the afternoon.
Overall, there are some brilliant touches to BB10 that make you wonder why they aren’t part of every phone- for example, when you are in your inbox and use the volume key, the media control functions show up in the volume box on the screen allowing you play/pause/skip whichever media application is active on your device without actually going into the application. However, there are many places that the Z10 feels like a 1.0 product. For example, the keyboard letters don’t turn into small or capital letters when you press the shift key and the accelerometer is not as responsive as the iPhone or Galaxy S III. And while you’re in landscape mode, certain swipes just don’t work. The home screen is also one that could use some work- you can see the notifications but you can’t actually tap on them to get to them right away.
All of these issues can be sorted through a software update and I’m sure RIM will address them sooner or later. The slightly more worrying bit for me was that on multiple occasions, when I moved out of a Wi-Fi zone and into cellular territory, the phone would just not connect to the data network. I could make calls or send text messages but I would not receive any email or use an app that required a data connection. I tried switching the airplane mode on and off but that didn’t help and only a reboot of the unit would bring the data connection back on. What’s worse is that on two occasions, a reboot did not bring the device back on at all and I had to do a battery pull. I have reached out to RIM over these issues and am hoping that they’re just restricted to my particular unit.
In the end, the biggest challenge for BlackBerry 10 lies is with third party applications. I’m sure RIM is trying their best to get the bigger applications on their new platform but this will continue to be a challenging task. Case in point is the Microsoft/Google war where even a giant like Microsoft is having trouble getting Google Apps on their platform. And last I heard, WhatsApp didn’t have an app ready for BlackBerry 10 which could be a big blow for current BlackBerry users looking to upgrade to BB10.
All in all, RIM has laid out a great foundation to build upon with BlackBerry 10. There are some great elements to it but then again there are places where work is needed. It’s definitely a must-have upgrade for current BlackBerry owners as long as their favorite applications make it to the new OS. But for people who have moved away to an iPhone or Android, I don’t think BB10 has enough to bring them back. At least not yet. That being said, I’m really looking forward to see what happens with software updates as well as third party apps on the BlackBerry 10 this year. That is, what will ultimately decide the fate of RIM.