It was one short week ago that I sat at a convention center in Toronto, watching the new BlackBerry unveil … the new BlackBerry. Much has changed in the intervening seven days, including the very fabric of the mobile landscape itself. How long BlackBerry can maintain the momentum behind its new platform is anyone’s guess, but BB10 impressed enough folks -myself included- to make one thing very apparent: it is, once again, a four-horse race in mobile.
The past week has seen us cover the new BlackBerry platform extensively, delivering a software tour, an unboxing, and some initial impressions of the new Z10 flagship right out the gate, followed by some in-depth comparisons against a Nokia Lumia 920 and a Samsung Galaxy S III and a host of editorials. We’ve got our full review of the Z10 simmering along on the front burner as we go; in support of that endeavor, I’ve been carrying the new device as my daily driver for the past seven days. I gave almost an hour’s worth of impressions earlier in the process, on episode 029 of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, but I’ve since had more time to delve deeper into what it means to carry a BlackBerry in 2013. As a kind of sneak peek, here’s some of the highs and the lows -the lame and the luscious, if you will- of the new BlackBerry experience so far.
You’re probably expecting app count to lead the way. While that’s a solid contender for weakness numero-uno -and one we’ll get to in a second- we won’t be leading off with it. Instead, the number-one problem I’ve had with the Z10 over the course of the first week has been of a more … insectoid variety.
Like any new platform, Blackberry 10 comes with its share of bugs. Whether it’s due to the scale of this launch or its accelerated timetable, BB10 has some issues under the hood that need fixing.
Take the Maps application, whose turn-by-turn navigation functionality froze no less than four times on the nine-hour drive from Toronto to Boston, leaving me without up-to-date position information for minutes at a time with no warning. Or the Facebook messaging integration, which is so laggy and unreliable it’s practically useless. Or the hilariously bad voice assistant. Or the browser bug that keeps getting me locked out of Google searches. Or the occasional inability to return to the home screen from an app.
We’ve reached out to BlackBerry for comment on this before we post our full review, to verify we don’t have a lemon of a demo unit, but forum buzz from sites like CrackBerry seems to indicate that at least some of these deficiencies aren’t limited to our experience.
Now, bugs can be corrected with an update, but what about deeper, tougher-to-resolve issues? Fortunately I’ve encountered few such examples, but one of them is the aforementioned app gap.
BlackBerry did a great job at launching its new device with a newsworthy assortment of apps -the oft-quoted “over 70,000”- and they’re to be commended for it. But that substantial figure (intentionally) obscures the reality that the platform is missing some big names. Instagram and Spotify are one thing -I can’t even get those on Windows Phone- but Yelp? Skype? Netflix? They may be “coming soon,” but these are big omissions. The company formerly known as RIM had plenty of time to strike deals with the developers behind the big-name titles, and it’s frustrating to see so many holes in the new App World.
Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, though: given the Z10’s propensity to burn through a battery, I doubt I could get much use out of an expanded app catalog before I reached auto-shutdown, AMIRITE?
Enough of that doom-and-gloom talk. We’ll have more time to cover the platform’s shortcomings in the full review. In the interim, there are things I really love about the new BlackBerry, and first and foremost is the Hub.
I remember using an old BlackBerry Curve as late as 2009. Even back then, I lamented the lack of apps and the painfully stale UI, but I found solace in the logical, reliable unified inbox. BlackBerry did messaging properly back then, and it’s a relief to see it hasn’t lost its touch in these newer, touch-friendlier times. The Hub works with its companion Peek functionality and the smart simplicity of the BlackBerry notification LED to deliver a world-class messaging experience. Everything, from Facebook IMs to Gtalk chats to text messages to emails to tweets, is collected and displayed here, filterable and searchable at will. Sure, other platforms have their notification centers, but there’s something about the way BlackBerry does it that’s just cleaner. Newer. Better.
Less straightforward, but more fun, is the new gesture-based user interface. The four-panel window arrangement may not be the most attractive for a home screen, and the constantly-shifting position of the Active Frames takes some getting used to, but the act of using BlackBerry 10 is so much fun that I can easily forgive these shortcomings. Gesture-based interaction is much more fluid and futuristic than capacitive keys, or the act of mashing a thumb down on an old-school physical home button. Until you’ve unlocked your smartphone with a swipe across the screen, you don’t fully realize just how antiquated lock buttons really are; that feature alone goes a long way toward transforming BlackBerry’s image from archaic to futuristic.
Finally, there’s the spacious and smart gesture-friendly keyboard, which seems clunky and awkward in two-handed use, but becomes indispensable when you’ve only got one thumb available for typing. After only a week, I’ve found myself missing BlackBerry’s time-saving predictive text on my other devices.
As a reminder, folks: these are just our mid-stage impressions. The time for conclusions is still ahead, on the other side of a few more days of sunrise-to-sundown Z10 usage. We’ll be driving the new BlackBerry hard to test its limits and probe its limitations over that period; if you’ve got suggestions or questions you’d like answered in the final review, you know where to put ’em.