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BlackBerry Z10 Review


Review by Andrew Kameka on Monday February 04, 2013.

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BlackBerry Z 10
BlackBerry Z 10

Software & User interface

The BlackBerry OS went stale in recent years, and small iterative changes couldn't fix the problem, so BlackBerry decided to set fire to its house and rebuild from the ground floor. It swept aside the ashes and created a new operating system that looks a lot like what its rivals offer with its own touch. To put it simply: this isn't your Dad's BlackBerry.

BlackBerry 10 is a new approach to smartphones that places an emphasis on gestures and hidden menus. There's no "Home" button like what's seen on every other major platform, because the concept is you shouldn't go Home, you should move on to the next task or app. Swiping from the bottom of the glass button of the Z10 will reveal the screen showing Active apps, which are the eight most recent that have been opened. Users can tap to visit or close an app, or swipe to the right to browse through a traditional app grid.

Gestures are a vital aspect of BlackBerry 10 because they are how users interact with elements that typically don't appear on screen. For instance, swiping down from the top of the phone will reveal a quick settings menu, and swiping to the right will go back to the previous screen within apps. The approach is not always the most intuitive because it's hard to know when a gesture is appropriate. A downward swipe in the browser can expose the webpage's title, but swiping towards the left doesn't trigger the back gesture like it does in other apps. To go to the previous page, the user must tap the on-screen back button. Likewise, the camera app can tap in the bottom corner to make adjustments to the snapshot, but full settings are only available by swiping down from the top. The inconsistency is a minor annoyance, but it sparks frustration with the UI at times.

The built-in software included with the BlackBerry Z10 represents BlackBerry's effort to shake its reputation as the phone of choice for stuffy executives in suits. The Z10 is still the phone with the most enterprise-oriented background, but it branches out into other areas to be a solid consumer device as well. BlackBerry Balance is a killer feature that enables a work and personal mode. The work mode grants access to corporate data and apps in a secure environment that IT managers can use to push app installations or revoke access, and the personal mode lets employees retain control of their phone and install other apps or have some private, personal data. Balance creates a dividing wall between the enterprise and entertainment aspects, and either side can be accessed through a secure door that can be opened quickly.

BlackBerry Z 10
BlackBerry Z 10

Apps

BlackBerry doesn't completely shed its stiffness, but it makes some admirable attempts. The Music, Photo, and Video apps follow a similar design and are effective at the basics, and they even include DLNA streaming to other devices. The Photo app looks rather plain, but it hides a capable editor that can enhance photos and apply filters. The Music app feels half-baked because it does a good job of organizing music and including cover art, but navigating large libraries may be a problem for some because there's no option to browse with a list view until you're choosing a specific song.

Story Maker is one example where BlackBerry breaks from formation and has some fun. The app lets users select a collection of photos or videos and create a video that splices clips and photos with background music. There aren't many options for customization other than changing the order of content and applying some optional filters, but the app is a quick and clever way of creating personal videos on a smartphone.

App results improve when BlackBerry sticks to what it knows best - communication and productivity. BlackBerry enables Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document creation or editing in Docs To Go, a capable app that works well for light editing or computing. The BlackBerry Remember app creates notes that synchronize with Evernote, so users can manage their to-do lists and memory aids just as easily as they manage their work documents.

BlackBerry 10 includes a few quality pre-loaded apps, but the apps in BlackBerry World fall short of doing much to enhance the Z10. It's true that BlackBerry has made strides to launch its new OS with more than 70,000 apps, but a sizable portion of those apps are junk or hastily-ported Android apps that perform strangely. While no one should reasonably expect all of the top smartphone apps to be included in BlackBerry 10, many of the headliners are absent, and the apps available to take their place are less than appetizing. Even the built-in Twitter and Facebook apps are disappointing because they lack features that have been available on the Android and iOS versions for months. The apps look and perform like mobile web apps that were put in BB10 wrappers rather than true native clients.

Browser

BlackBerry Z 10
BlackBerry Z 10

The BlackBerry 10 browser is no-frills from a design standpoint, but it's pretty good behind the scenes. The browser loads webpages very fast and appears to be one of the best of the modern WebKit-based browsers when it comes to handling various websites and designs. There are some issues with sites failing to recognize the BB10 as a mobile device, even when the Desktop preference is disabled, but the browser is as good, if not better, than the default options on other major phones. A tour of the BB10 browser user interface and comparison to other browsers is available here.

Communication & Data

Communication has been BlackBerry's bread and butter for years, and the BlackBerry Z10 comes through on almost all fronts. For starters, the keyboard is fantastic. Fantastic. The 4.2-inch screen is home to a virtual keyboard with large keys, progressively improving word prediction, and autocomplete triggered by touching a letter and swiping up. The keyboard empowers fast typists and will probably ease the transition for BlackBerry enthusiasts accustom to QWERTY keys. Should someone tire of typing, there's the inclusion of video-calling and live screen-sharing between BB10 devices.

Speed is also the cornerstone of the Hub, BlackBerry's unified notification center. The Hub shows notifications from social media apps, texts, BBM, email, and calls. Users can access the notification center from anywhere by swiping up and to the right, so they can quickly check on incoming notifications to know if it's worth leaving their current activity. The Hub also enables actions like responding to messages directly or filtering between specific types of notification. There are times when the Hub can actually feel like information overload and it gets away from its intended purpose of speeding up the communication process, but the integrated center is typically a great asset.

Call quality and data were difficult to gauge because the BlackBerry Z10 has yet to debut officially in the U.S. I used an AT&T SIM and managed to get fast 4G LTE and clear call quality, but experiences will vary by region and carrier. The final retail versions that are tailored for AT&T and Verizon later this spring may yield better results, but I don't foresee any issues related to the quality of data speeds or phone calls.

BlackBerry Z 10
BlackBerry Z 10
Battery

Battery life was average on the BlackBerry Z10, which made it through most of the workday before a charger became necessary. The 1,800 mAh battery will deplete sooner with LTE enabled or using power-hungry features like video calling. The Z10 won't last a full day for a power user, but the slim battery is replaceable and easy to store, so it's feasible to keep a spare battery to swap in when necessary.

BlackBerry Z 10
BlackBerry Z 10

Camera

People typically don't look to BlackBerry for superior smartphone photography, and the BlackBerry Z10 does nothing to change that perception. The 8 megapixel rear camera produces good photos when there's a lot of light nearby, but it does a poor job in low or moderate conditions. Photos are dark, noisy, and often out of focus, which can be frustrating because there are no manual controls in the camera software. The only hope is to tap to take a picture in good conditions and hope for the best. The camera does an okay job, but it could stand to do better. One silver lining of the software is that it includes Time Shot, which takes multiple photos of someone's face in case the person blinks or looks away from the camera, so it can be easier to correct bad photos.

Photo and video samples are available on the next page

BlackBerry Z 10
BlackBerry Z 10

Conclusion

People have clamored for RIM to produce a smartphone worthy of comparison to the iPhone and the Android elite, and the company has mostly been able to meet that criteria. However, there are still some areas of concern with BlackBerry 10, so the BlackBerry Z 10 suffers as a result. There are enough inconsistencies of BB10 navigation and app choices to make it difficult to choose the Z10 over other leading platforms, and the disappointing camera doesn't help provide additional convincing.

The saving grace of the Z10 is that even though the first edition of BB10 has some issues to address, the software debuts on hardware that is a joy to hold. The Z10 has a large screen without an obscenely large body, and it's thin profile and comfortable materials make this one of my favorite smartphones to carry. It also does enough things well - like communication and the browser - to make this a sensible purchase for business-minded individuals and BlackBerry loyalists. Others will see the Z10 as just another smartphone that doesn't quite do what they've already managed to do on their existing device. There's nothing about this that might make others abandon their smartphones, so BlackBerry can't yet convince most consumers that the Z10 makes more sense than more popular and mature options. The BlackBerry Z10 is a hero device, but it's no savior.

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About the author

Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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