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BlackBerry Z10 Review

by Michael Fisher on

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The BlackBerry Z10 isn’t just another new smartphone. It’s a symbol of redemption, the net result of the efforts of thousands working to salvage one of the most famous brands in the history of mobile technology. For the first time in years, “the new BlackBerry” isn’t just some repackaged business phone; it’s an iconic flagship on which rests the fate of the company that now shares its name.

“We had to make a serious decision,” BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins said at the coming-out party for its new smartphones; “adopt someone else’s platform, or build a new one from the ground up. We decided to go it alone.”

It’s that stubborn defiance, that refusal to surrender in the face of tremendous odds, that characterizes the reborn smartphone maker. The stakes couldn’t be higher for BlackBerry, and the company finally seems to realize that. That’s reflected in its new high-end smartphone: from its revised physical design to its built-from-scratch BB10 platform, the Z10 is as much a breath of fresh air as an homage to the classic elements that kept BlackBerry on top for so long. But is the new combination finely tuned enough -and did it arrive soon enough- to save BlackBerry from the chopping block? More important, is it something anyone should consider buying? Read on to find out.

Video Review · Specs · Hardware · BlackBerry 10 · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Network · Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Video Review

Specs

BlackBerry will doubtless tailor custom versions of the Z10 for carriers around the world, but those variants are sure to share the majority of the guts featured in our global review unit. The device’s removable, gumstick-like 1800-mAh battery powers a 1.5GHz dual-core processor backed up by 2GB of RAM – ample power to support the new QNX-based BlackBerry 10 software platform. The 16GB of on-board storage is expandable via microSD to an additional 64GB, and an HDMI port sits alongside the USB 2.0 socket on the side of the device, ready to output your media to a compatible TV, projector, or monitor.

For radios, the global-edition Z10 packs support for quad-band EDGE, HSPA+, and LTE, as well as 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi at 2.4 and 5GHz, Bluetooth 4.0, and of course GPS. There’s no wireless charging support on board, but an NFC antenna mounted to the inside surface of the battery cover ensures the space doesn’t go wasted.

For shutterbugs, the primary camera is a backside-illuminated 8MP/1080p component fitted with a five-element ƒ2.2 lens and a dedicated image signal processor, while its front-side counterpart is a fairly typical 2MP, 720p-capable unit.

Finally, if you’re worried about friends with competing devices out-tricordering you on away missions, you can rest easy. The Z10 packs the sensor suite now considered essential for all high-end smartphones: an accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, and magnetometer (compass).

Index

Hardware

The Z10’s dimensions and unusual edge-to-edge midriff have prompted endless comparisons to Apple’s iPhone 5, which is understandable given the devices’ superficial similarity in photos. In person, though, the new BlackBerry is very much its own smartphone. Where the iPhone 5 resembles a delicate piece of jewelry, the Z10 seems built with an eye toward a more hands-on, rough-and-tumble lifestyle. It’s also significantly larger, but at 137g it’s not going to weigh down any pockets with its bulk.

At 9mm, the Z10 is of average thickness – and there’s no edge tapering here to fool the hand, as on devices like HTC’s Windows Phone 8X. The Z10’s sheer sides and sharp corners mean you feel every millimeter in daily use. That, combined with the stippled soft-touch of the battery cover, gives the unit a feel that’s sturdy without being overbearing. The rubbery back coating helps keep the Z10 firmly nestled in a palm, its machined stainless-steel volume and mute buttons resting just under the thumb. They, along with the power/standby key up top, feature reassuring travel and a satisfying clickiness that makes us wish there were a dedicated camera button alongside.

The BlackBerry logo graces both sides of the phone, with the icon called out in chrome relief on the back cover and the full logo placed just below the display on the front. The back logo earns the Z10 extra cool points for doubling as the NFC antenna, but the front logo has the opposite effect: it’s a little too big for our taste. On the bright side, you don’t notice it quite as much with the display turned on.

Speaking of that display: it’s a 4.2-inch panel, which makes it very accessible for one-handed use. At that size, its 1280×768 resolution provides a pixel density of 356ppi, which means text is sharp, and pictures and video are rendered beautifully. It’s an IPS LCD screen, so it sacrifices the deep blacks and higher saturation that an AMOLED panel would provide, and we also wish it were a tad brighter – but it’s still a very nice display.

Breaking with an increasingly common trend across flagship smartphones, the protective layer atop the Z10’s display is not Corning Gorilla Glass. BlackBerry says there’s some kind of anti-fingerprint layer atop the glass it did use, but it’s nowhere near as effective as the oleophobic coatings used on other smartphones. The Z10’s glass picks up -and holds on to- fingerprints and skin oil much more readily than most other modern displays. On the up side, the protective top layer is bonded directly to the display element, so images seem to float right along the surface of the glass. Viewing angles are quite good, even in broad daylight.

And yes, old BlackBerry stalwarts, it’s here: above the screen, to the right of the earpiece, the iconic red notification LED hides beneath the glass. When an alert comes in, the light flashes once every few seconds to remind you not just that you have a new message, but that it’s a BlackBerry bringing it to you. Sure, you can disable it in the settings – but then you’re not just missing messages; you’re slapping all of vintage tech culture right in the face.

Don’t act like this doesn’t get you just a little nostalgic.

Speaking of ruddy artifacts from yesteryear: while the Z10 can be carried naked, it also comes with a nice, crayon-red BlackBerry carrying case in the box. The sleeve serves the dual purpose of protecting the phone and stoking our nostalgia, and magnets hidden within it tell the Z10 when it’s holstered and when it’s not. That allows the phone to automatically douse its display backlighting when it’s stowed, though the holster-specific profiles of previous generations have been removed from BB10. That’s annoying, but we expect BlackBerry to restore this functionality in a future update.

In a time when companies are offering less and less in terms of in-box accessories, with some OEMs even removing chargers from the equation, it’s nice to see that BlackBerry hasn’t forgotten what a premium unboxing experience should feel like.

Index

BlackBerry 10

Behold: the new BlackBerry OS. Click for full size.

No matter how far they wandered down the road to ruin, the folks in Waterloo never forgot how to cobble together a nice hunk of hardware. It’s not build quality we were worried about from the company formerly known as RIM, but the software experience. For years, BlackBerrys limped along with an operating system whose ancient underpinnings were painted over with layer after layer of interface refreshes. And it’s been a long time since even those refreshes looked anything like a modern OS.

The BlackBerry 10 platform represents a rethinking of what a smartphone interface should look and feel like. The QNX underpinnings are hidden away behind a UI that’s refreshingly modern, landing somewhere between iOS’ skeuomorphic textured bubbles and Windows Phone’s harsh minimalism, but without the extremism of either. Instead of completely reinventing the wheel, the new BlackBerry combines new and old interface paradigms to create something unique.

At the center of the experience is the home screen, which displays up to four running apps at the same time. Apps can run in the background if they’ve been designed to, which makes BlackBerry 10 one of the few platforms that allows you to start a YouTube video in the browser, minimize it, and continue listening to the video’s soundtrack while doing something else. It’s not as impressive as Samsung’s or LG’s picture-in-picture technology, but it will come as welcome news to those who listen to music or podcasts via YouTube.

The home screen’s app cards, which BlackBerry calls “active frames,” are a peculiar mix of oversized icon and pseudo-widget. Apps like the calendar can display readable information in their minimized state, while apps like Remember only show a placeholder icon. Eight can be shown at any one time on the vertically-scrollable home screen. A frame can be discarded by tapping the “x” at its corner; this also closes the app. The frames can’t be easily rearranged, though: their order is determined by which was most recently opened, which takes some getting used to. Along the bottom of the home screen are three persistent shortcuts to the phone, camera, and the search app; the latter is an excellent utility whose power for on- and off-device search rivals that of webOS’s Just Type functionality.

To the right of the home screen sits the app list, a series of pages featuring 4 x 4 grids of icons that will be familiar to any Android or iOS user. Like the home screen, the cascading app list displays only in portrait mode. These icons are static for the most part, but the old BlackBerry “spark” has survived into the new BB10 platform, its red badge appearing on any app icon with notifications waiting.

There are far more efficient ways of handling notifications on the Z10, though, and that’s via one of the crown jewels of the new BlackBerry experience: the Hub. It may seem strange to call something as pedestrian as a unified inbox a “crown jewel,” but it’s absolutely justified in this case. With the Hub, BlackBerry has taken one of the best attributes of its older platforms, brushed off the dust, and made it ten times more useful via the aptly-named “peek” functionality. From anywhere in the OS, sliding a thumb up from the screen’s bottom bezel reveals a row of notification icons along the left side of the display. If one of them looks interesting -say you’ve been waiting for a Facebook message and the telltale “f” is present- moving the thumb to the right partially uncovers the Hub, providing a preview of the message list. Reversing the motion calls the current app back into focus, but continuing the swipe all the way to the right completes the transition into the Hub so you can deal with your message.

It’s gestures like these that give the new BlackBerry OS a sense of flow not found on other platforms. The short up-swipe from the bottom bezel is as intuitive and habitual here as it was on Palm’s webOS, much more elegant and efficient than mashing a thumb down on a physical home button. The same movement also allows the screen to be unlocked when the device is in standby mode, which is a nice touch. Both of these gestures are infectious: using them for less than a day had us erroneously repeating them on our Android and iOS devices. Other gestures, though, aren’t as intuitive: A swipe down from the top bezel calls up a settings/shortcuts window on the home screen, or specified settings toggles in certain apps, and right or left swipes in apps like the Hub serve as back/forward shortcuts, depending on the context.

If it seems somewhat confusing, it is – at least, at first. There’s some inconsistency here, with a back key that sometimes appears down below and sometimes doesn’t, and certain features like the “peek” aren’t always supported in landscape. It’s also frustrating that the new BlackBerry forces a user to take an action -swiping the screen- to view a message that’s just come in, rather than displaying it along the top like an Android alert or a Windows Phone toast notification. Offering something as simple as customizable LED colors would help the Z10’s glanceability quotient quite a bit. In its current form, it’s a very “hands-on” device – not always a good thing, particularly when you’re using it as an in-car GPS and you’d prefer not to take your hands off the wheel.

Speaking of GPS: the Z10’s mapping experience needs work. Over the course of two weeks, from Toronto to Boston, we found the maps to provide only the barest of essentials in terms of landscape detail, with little or no POI information. There’s no nice way to say it: the mapping experience on Android, Windows Phone, and even iOS destroys that of the new BlackBerry. We found ourselves yearning for our Galaxy Note II’s navigation during the nine-hour drive back from Toronto, and we actually did need to fall back on Google’s product when our Z10’s mapping app froze -repeatedly- during turn-by-turn navigation.

There are other bugs, too, mostly of the sort we’ve come to expect from new platforms. Interface glitches like erratic edge detection, Google search errors, and slow browser load times didn’t surprise us, but protracted GPS trouble and other bizarre behavior made us wonder if our review unit was a lemon.

To its credit, BlackBerry was very prompt in replying to our support inquiries and even sent us a replacement unit, which so far hasn’t displayed nearly as many bugs or quirks as our first Z10. That’s not surprising, as it seems to be running a newer version of the BlackBerry platform (10.0.10.261 versus 10.0.9.2372). The newer unit has been much harder to trip up as a result. If BlackBerry can maintain a brisk pace of issuing patches via OTA updates, it should be able to eradicate many of the common new-platform teething issues rather quickly.

There’s a lot to like about BlackBerry 10. To draw another parallel to the Palm rebirth of 2009, the new BlackBerry incites much of the excitement that webOS did, without as many of the glitches and downfalls that platform contained in its 1.0 release. In particular, responsiveness in BB10 is very smooth. “Butter” as a UI descriptor was played out even before Google co-opted it for Jelly Bean, so we’ll instead compare the Z10’s smoothness to industrial-grade polymer or Teflon tape. The software responds with consistency not because it resembles a melted dairy product, but because the new BlackBerry is about getting things done, about empowering the user to “keep moving.”

That’s reflected in the new touch keyboard as well, a roomy expanse of buttons whose aggressive prediction and unusual suggestion placement had us confused at first. BlackBerry 10 floats the word it thinks you’re typing right on the keyboard itself, constantly refining and repositioning it based on your next-most-probable letter. On the down side, it results in more eyeball travel than a more conventional top-of-keyboard suggestion ribbon, and it’s almost useless when typing with both hands at full speed. But in situations where a user needs to peck out a text with just one hand free, it’s indispensable.

There’s more conventional help in this regard, too: a dedicated number row cleverly sprouts from the top of the keyboard in password fields, which is a real time-saver. We’ve found the keyboard software quite adept at predicting what we’re trying to say, too – which is good, because both the text-selection and text-dictation tools on BlackBerry 10 are significantly undercooked.

Click for full-size screenshot.

Other elements of the core experience split the difference between good and bad. Our Z10 faithfully syncs with our email and calendar accounts -Google for personal mail as well as Google Apps for business- and our Facebook events and Google Calendar appointments populate our on-device calendar with no issues. The stock browser performs fairly well, scoring 1680 in the SunSpider Javascript benchmark and offering Flash support, but it routinely stumbles on heavier pages.

Media hounds will be pleased to find compatibility with a smorgasbord of audio and video codecs built in to BlackBerry 10, as well as an excellent on-device file manager for moving songs and movies to and fro. Songs synced to the device sounded good over our standard headphones, but the lack of an on-device equalizer meant we were stuck with a middle-of-the-road sound mix. That’s the kind of detail you expect to slip through the cracks when a company is rushing a new OS out the door, but this example will immediately alienate audiophiles, so we hope BlackBerry adds customizable EQ in a future update.

Despite the excellent Hub, the new BlackBerry stumbles slightly in the social media and messaging departments. There are some interface issues with Facebook messenger that render it very laggy, and the BlackBerry-built Facebook and Twitter apps, though usable, are rather bare-bones. The new BlackBerry Messenger interface is nice enough, with its baked-in support for video calling and screen sharing, but you might have trouble finding buddies to BBM with; years of poaching from rival services like Apple’s iMessage and third-party apps like WhatsApp have left our BBM contact list a desolate wasteland.

Sadly, that’s mostly the case with the app situation as well. We’re not going to belabor this point: it’s an important one, but there’s only so many ways to say “this platform needs more apps or it won’t survive.” BlackBerry claims over 70,000 titles in the BlackBerry App World, and while some big names like Angry Birds, IM+, and The New York Times are there, many -like Netflix- aren’t. The company even had to build several, like Gtalk and the aforementioned Facebook and Twitter apps, itself. Even worse, many of the quoted 70,000+ titles are ported from Android 2.3.3 using BlackBerry’s Runtime packager, resulting in an experience that’s ugly at best and unusable at worst. The company’s addition of multimedia content like music and movies to the App World experience softens the blow somewhat, but not enough to take the pressure off.

Like every company with an underwhelming app selection, BlackBerry says big titles are coming – and just like always, all we can say is “we hope so.” In the interim, stand-in features like Dropbox integration and the Evernote plugin for Remember are handy, but they only fill some of the gaps in functionality, some of the time. If you’re a user who wants or needs access to a wide array of applications, BlackBerry 10 is not the OS for you. Not yet.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test the enterprise functionality built in to the new platform. For example, the work/play toggle known as “BlackBerry Balance” is a server-dependent feature that doesn’t function on our consumer-appointed Z10. We did, though, spend some time with the BlackBerry Link desktop software, which ably (if clumsily) synced media and documents on our MacBook Air. We were also happy to see some useful bonus features in BlackBerry’s expert corporate-security vein: the device-location and remote-wipe feature called BlackBerry Protect is available right out of the box in the settings menu.

BlackBerry 10 has a lot of growing up to do. Were it the product of another company, one with less to lose, we’d be concerned about its prospects. But the platform’s problems are in its accoutrements, not its fundamentals; it’s a good-looking OS that’s stable, smooth, and fun to use. If BlackBerry can fix its bugs, effectively educate consumers on its gesture-driven interface, and continue building momentum in app development, the new OS stands a very good chance of lasting the long haul.

Index

Camera

The lens on the Z10’s back side is mounted in a rectangular window very close to its upper-left corner, flanked by an LED flash. Its 8MP BSI sensor is typical of most modern high-end smartphones, as is BlackBerry’s viewfinder interface. The tap-and-drag-to-focus method takes some getting used to, and focus overall is a bit hit-or-miss, but it’s nice to be able to say “just tap anywhere on the screen to take the shot” to first-time BB10 photographers. We especially like that the volume keys double as shutter buttons.

It’s a serviceable camera in favorable conditions, but if the lighting is too harsh, colors appear washed out and texture reproduction vanishes. If the environment is too dark, detail evaporates and much of the shot dissolves into blackness. Also, if you’re rushing to snap a photo, you might as well just leave the Z10 in your pocket; its auto-focus isn’t nearly fast enough for time-is-of-the-essence shots. That’s true for all cameras, smartphone or no, but the Z10’s module seems especially sensitive to such extremes. It’s certainly not the worst smartphone camera we’ve ever laid hands on -and BlackBerry’s “Time Shift” gimmick gives it a dubious bragging point- but it’s also no stranger to mediocrity.

In video mode, results are markedly better: color balance is good, exposure correction is snappy, audio is clear, and auto-focus is reasonably quick. Only the stabilization needs work, doing almost nothing to correct for our shaky hands in this test on a cold day.

With the Z10, BlackBerry has also joined the ranks of companies offering on-device video editing out of the box, with its Story Maker app providing quick and easy tools for whipping up a nice little slide show in a few minutes. It’s not going to generate any Oscar contenders, but it’s a fun add-on that will probably help to soften BlackBerry’s staid, starched, and straitlaced image. We had a good time with it in the wake of the Great Boston Blizzard of 2013.

Index

Battery Life

The Z10’s LTE radio, high-resolution display, and suite of constantly polling apps and accounts are all big power hogs, and unfortunately its stock 1800-mAh battery isn’t entirely up to the task. Testing in the Toronto and Greater Boston areas over LTE, polling Facebook, Twitter, and multiple IMAP email accounts, with occasional browser usage and moderate-to-heavy texting and emailing, the Z10 got us through a day of moderate use – but just barely.

Any prolonged screen-on time sent endurance plummeting. Angry Birds Star Wars was a particularly severe offender, draining the last 10% of our charge in less than twenty minutes on one occasion. We briefly tried extending battery life by keeping our home screen free of active frames (the controversial “closing open apps” approach) but as this goes against the very fabric of the new BlackBerry’s UI philosophy, we didn’t spend any serious time testing it. We’re glad the Z10’s design makes user-replaceable power packs a possibility.

The bottom line is this: if you’re a heavy user, you’re definitely going to want a spare power pack or an external charger, so factor that cost in to your purchase price if you decide to pick up a Z10.

Index

Call Quality/Network Performance

BlackBerry hasn’t forgotten the fundamentals of delivering a good calling experience, but like most other manufacturers, it also treats voice calling as the second-class citizen it’s become. During our testing, we found sounds through the earpiece to be reasonably clear, and the speakerphone was a touch louder than we’ve come to expect from today’s dainty smartphone loudspeakers. Regrettably, there was very little in the way of effective noise cancellation when we tried taking calls on a busy street. Callers said we sounded rough and clipped over the speakerphone, and “fluffy” even in normal calling mode, as though we were talking through a thin blanket. On the plus side, the voice-control button nestled between the volume keys came in handy during a call or two, proving much more useful in its call-muting capacity than in its role launching BB10’s half-baked Siri ripoff, which isn’t really worth discussing.

On the data side, the experience was much better. The Z10’s radio suite had no trouble keeping us connected to both Bell and AT&T’s networks over LTE, HSPA, and EDGE alike. Even in Amtrak’s notoriously bad Northeast corridor between New York and Boston, the Z10 kept us linked to the cellular network while simultaneously kicking out the mobile hotspot that made writing much of this review possible. Data speeds over LTE on both Bell and AT&T were excellent, though we had to use the browser to test them, as none of the ported Android speed-test applications we tried would cooperate with us.

Index

Pros

+ Outstanding integrated messaging
+ Fluid, responsive, innovative UI
+ Excellent multitasking
+ Removable battery
+ Expandable memory

Cons

App selection lacking
Middling call quality
Mediocre camera
Below-average battery life

Index

Pricing and Availability

The Z10 has been available on-contract in the United Kingdom since the beginning of the month, and in its native Canada since February 5th, where it sells for $149 on a three-year contract. In the US, it’s already available from T-Mobile MVNO Solavei for the ridiculous hefty price of $999. Fortunately, it will come to all four national US carriers starting next month, no doubt at much more reasonable (subsidized) price points. The Z10 is also currently available in the UAE at an unsubsidized cost of AED 2,599. The global rollout will continue over the next few months; interested would-be buyers will want to check with their local carriers for pre-order information.

More on BlackBerry from Pocketnow

BlackBerry Z10 vs Nokia Lumia 920

BlackBerry Z10 vs Samsung Galaxy S III

Pocketnow Weekly Episode 029: Hopes and Fears for a New Platform

BlackBerry 10 vs Windows Phone 8: Who’s the Next Underdog?

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Conclusion

If it seems like we’re making a lot of comparisons to erstwhile smartphone-maker Palm in this review, that’s because we are. In many ways, from its agonizing decline to its eleventh-hour stab at resurrection on the back of a compelling new OS, RIM-turned-BlackBerry is Palm’s modern-day equivalent. BlackBerry 10, and to a lesser extent the Z10, represent the company’s last, best hope of a turnaround.

Whether BlackBerry can escape the fate of its venerable predecessor will depend on a lot of factors. We think the Z10 is a good start for “the new BlackBerry,” but the pertinent question now is whether it’s a good smartphone for you. And despite all the variables, that’s a pretty easy question to answer.

If you’re coming from a modern Android, iOS, or Windows Phone device and you’ve become accustomed to the mature and stable ecosystems supporting those platforms, the Z10 is almost certainly not for you. BlackBerry 10 is still nascent, barely on its own two feet, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the diversity and maturity of those competitors. It won’t for some time.

If, on the other hand, you’re upgrading from a previous-generation BlackBerry device, or contemplating your first smartphone, you should definitely consider the Z10. The undercooked ecosystem is still a handicap, but its failings won’t shine as brightly as they would if you were coming from a more robust platform. BlackBerry 10’s gestures will be easier to master without having to un-learn a previous interface. And the excellent unified messaging and multitasking experience will come as a real treat.

The BlackBerry Z10 isn’t the strongest reboot the RIM of old could have delivered, but it gets an awful lot right about the smartphone experience. It won’t be a good fit for all buyers, but in the specific niche outlined above, it will probably make a good number of smartphone users quite happy. In a broader sense, it has accomplished something not many products out of Waterloo have managed in recent years: it’s made us excited for the next BlackBerry. That alone is worth a point or two in our book.

Index


Scored For Me

 

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