By Michael Fisher | February 18, 2013 11:50 AM
We took our sweet time covering the new BlackBerry Z10, subjecting it to a few first-impressions, podcast analyses, and comparison videos before capping it all off with our full review last week. Our coverage won’t stop at the review, either: watch for an iPhone 5 comparison coming soon, and a ton of BlackBerry Q10 coverage once that keyboard-packing unit breaks cover later this quarter.
Our review concluded that the Z10, and the BlackBerry 10 platform, “gets an awful lot right about the smartphone experience” and “will probably make a good number of users quite happy.” We stand behind that assertion, and enjoy many aspects of the new BlackBerry UX. In some areas, though, we find ourselves wanting more.
Specifically, there are a few aspects of the new BlackBerry platform that could use a Windows Phone-style touch. Due to its proximity in market share, Waterloo’s new OS will be gunning for Microsoft’s platform above all others in an effort to secure the third-place spot, so we thought we’d list a few lessons the erstwhile RIM could learn from its Redmond-based competitor.
Notifications Should Be A Glanceable Affair
We’re not entirely in love with Windows Phone’s notifications paradigm. While we’ve made several arguments that Microsoft’s platform already provides an “alert center” of sorts in the form of its customizable Live Tiles, we’d still love to see Microsoft implement a true unified inbox for notifications. Fortunately, based on what we’ve heard from the company, that’s almost certainly due to be included in a future Windows Phone update.
BlackBerry 10 brings with it the excellent Hub functionality, building on its experience in unified-inbox design. Paired with the “peek” gesture, it’s an intuitive and well-thought-out approach to the problem of aggregating and presenting notifications, and we love it.
The problem is that none of it is glanceable. When you receive a message or another alert, the Z10′s red light flashes, but you’re given no on-screen clue as to what the alert might be unless you’re already in the Hub. So calling up the notification requires sliding a thumb up from the bottom bezel for a “peek.” It’s not a difficult or complex maneuver, to be sure, but it’s less convenient than Windows Phone’s toast notifications, which flash across the top of the display with no need to touch anything. In hands-free situations with the Z10, like using turn-by-turn navigation while driving, the requirement to touch the phone to see an inbound notification is downright dangerous (not that you should be texting while driving anyway). For a platform that -rightfully- prides itself on its messaging prowess, the lack of glanceable notification information is a large oversight. If it wants to stay competitive, it’s one that BlackBerry should correct before Microsoft can implement its own notification overhaul.
Users Need The Ability To Customize The Home Screen
BlackBerry has succeeded in building a new home screen that’s fresh and logical – even if we’ve seen the underlying fundamentals in a few other platforms before. The Active Frames are a clever means of simultaneously displaying active apps and providing pseudo-widget functionality, while allowing a user to multitask in a straightforward manner.
The problem is that the Active Frames are inconsistent: their display order is governed by what was open most recently, meaning they’re constantly changing position as a user switches between active applications. As any frequent user of the Android multi-tasking ribbon can tell you, that doesn’t make for a clean and efficient workflow, and it plays against the muscle-memory that’s an important part of the smartphone experience.
By contrast, Windows Phone allows a user to size his home screen tiles to three different scales, and it allows him or her to position those tiles anywhere on the home screen. Apps don’t change position depending on when they were last opened; they stay put in their assigned spots on the screen until a user decides to move them. That means that shortcuts to specific titles are always under the expected finger, and glanceable live-tile information is always in the expected screen corner. It’s a consistent, efficient experience – and it looks just as good as, if not better than, the BlackBerry implementation.
There’s nothing wrong with BlackBerry’s card-based paradigm, but if the company truly wants to promote its productivity-based “Keep Moving” mantra, it’s crucial that users be given the ability to change the frame positions at will, and even to anchor them in place if desired.
The Camera Shouldn’t Be An Afterthought
This is less a platform-specific complaint, and more a narrow comparison of two models. BlackBerry’s camera software shares some commonalities with Windows Phone’s: they’re both rather bare-bones, relying on third-party plugins to enhance the experience. To its credit, though, BlackBerry has demonstrated an ability and a desire to stand out in the camera segment, with its novel “Time Shift” feature and stock editing options like Story Maker.
But in the Z10′s hardware, BlackBerry fell short of providing an excellent experience. The camera isn’t horrible, but it’s also nowhere near outstanding. Shots in good lighting situations, given enough time to manually focus, are adequate, but if either the lighting or the photographer’s steadiness are sub-par, the shot suffers tremendously.
Compare that with the Lumia 920, whose PureView camera is one of the best on the market, and you can see that BlackBerry has a long road to travel to reach parity. Nokia built a real beauty in the 920′s optically-stabilized camera module, and fleshed out its hardware capabilities with an array of excellent Lens add-ons. The resulting shooter is so good that it almost makes us forgive the lack of a native Instagram app for Windows Phone.
It might not be fair to compare BlackBerry’s brand-new effort with Nokia’s tried-and-true flagship, but even the lesser competitors in the Windows Phone ecosystem aren’t standing still. The Windows Phone 8X’s primary camera might not be too impressive, but HTC did innovate on the other side of that device, crafting the best front-facing camera in the business. And the shooter on the Samsung ATIV S is the same one found on the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II – an excellent camera if we ever saw one. In a period like ours, with such a heavy focus on snapping and sharing, building an excellent camera has to be a very high priority for any smartphone maker – especially one like BlackBerry, trying to recapture the hearts and minds of the consumer segment.
In the end, the new BlackBerry is going to take its own path to success, and rightfully so. But like many other firms in the mobile tech sector, the company has shown that it’s not exactly shy about drawing inspiration from others. While there’s a lot to like about iOS and Android, there’s also a lot of good to be found in Windows Phone. If BlackBerry still has its sketchpad out and its eyes on the competition, it would behoove it to include the features outlined above in designing BlackBerry 10.1.