Review: BlackBerry Z10 is a bold reimagining of a smartphone
At a Glance
A stylish design and a fresh interface breathe new life into the BlackBerry phone, but the Z10's hardware has a few weaknesses, too.
It's been a long time since a BlackBerry phone ignited our collective imaginations. But the BlackBerry Z10, from the newly rechristened BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion), certainly has done that. The Z10 (due in March on multiple carriers, though only Verizon has announced a price: $199 with a two-year contract) puts BlackBerry back in the game in a real way, with its attractive hardware, its elegant and innovative BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system, and a relaunched app store that now offers music and video too. And it might just be enough to help stem the BlackBerry exodus and recapture some of the company's past glory, not to mention market share.
Might is the operative word here. BlackBerry undoubtedly faces an uphill battle in its quest for relevance. The smartphone market has evolved dramatically in the past few years since BlackBerry began its downward slide. As a company, BlackBerry needs to compete not just on a phone's hardware but also on its operating system and app and media environment. BlackBerry is definitely a latecomer, but it gets enough right with the Z10 that owning a BlackBerry handset might actually have a shot at being cool again.
Hardware: Snazzy display
The BlackBerry Z10 has a stylish look, with matte-black accents at the top, bottom, and edges, as well as a softly textured back. On the back, like a bull's-eye, sits the BlackBerry logo, which doubles as the NFC antenna. The back is easy to remove, and easy to snap into place. Underneath, you get access to the battery, the micro-SIM card slot, and the MicroSD card slot.
The front of the Z10 has no buttons. Rather, the display is the dominant feature, accompanied by another BlackBerry logo that serves a starting point for the phone's gesture interface (for example, you swipe up from the BlackBerry logo to wake the phone or to minimize an app). The 1280-by-768-pixel IPS display, sheathed in Gorilla Glass, measures 4.2 inches. While this size is appropriate for one-handed use, it's neither as large as some of the current jumbo phones in the Android world nor competitively sized with mainstream Android models (currently at 4.6 inches).
The Z10's display packs 356 pixels per inch, which is higher than the 326-ppi pixel density of the Apple iPhone 5's 1136-by-640-pixel display. In my hands-on tests, text appeared sharp and clear, and colors looked reasonably accurate, although some images—particularly those that weren't overly bright to begin with—felt a bit darker, and skin tones seemed slightly off in comparison with competing handsets. The white balance appears to be the culprit: Colors run warm, and the display has a greenish cast, which leads to whites looking more yellow-green than pure white.
At the top of the Z10 sits a power on/off and physical wake button; along the right edge are the volume up and down buttons, separated by a physical mute button. I found the physical mute button a welcome and handy addition. Likewise, I appreciated the volume buttons' ability to double as physical camera buttons. I was less impressed when I found that the mute button also resumes music playback that I'd previously paused. (The mute button doubles as a play/pause shortcut for music; long-press it, and you'll activate the Z10's voice commands.)
I wasn't a fan of the location of the Micro-USB and Micro HDMI ports, either. Both are situated in the middle, left edge of the phone. That location is less than ideal if you're trying to charge the phone while you talk—something I find myself doing with a cell phone all the time.
Inside the Z10
The BlackBerry Z10 has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus processor with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of built-in storage. The phone felt highly responsive in my use, but that responsiveness was typically limited to the core BlackBerry 10 OS and some apps. Other apps, unfortunately, felt less responsive, or exhibited judder when I scrolled through text, for example. Even the Bing-based Maps app felt poky. I suspect that some of this could be attributable to the way those apps may have been translated to BlackBerry 10; perhaps they were not native apps, but rather Android apps ported over (and not optimized) for the new OS. Or, if they originated as Android apps and are running inside an emulator, maybe the emulator is merely slow and not optimal for high performance, as is often the case with emulators. As a user, you won't know the origin of an app, of course, which makes the performance question feel like more of a game of chance than it should, based on my early experiences.
As for the rest of the Z10's hardware, it has the usual complement of hardware sensors (accelerometer, magnetometer, proximity, gyroscope, ambient light sensor), GPS, NFC (for mobile payments and file exchange), mobile-hotspot functionality, and global roaming.
The Z10's camera app is simple to use, and has standout features such as Time Shift for capturing different facial expressions in multiple group shots into the best single composite image. However, in spite of the rear-facing 8-megapixel camera (and 1080p video recording), images appear subpar. Even my iPhone 4 running a two-year-old version of iOS produces better images. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera handles 720p video recording.
In my mixed usage, the BlackBerry Z10's battery seemed adequate enough to squeak through a day, but I suggest having a charger or portable battery pack if you're a heavy user. I used the phone with my own micro-SIM card on T-Mobile's 4G network.
Voice calls and navigation
Speaking of using the Z10 on T-Mobile's 4G network, I found call quality slightly disappointing. (BlackBerry did not supply a micro-SIM card, which is why I used my own for these tests.) Although the other parties could hear me just fine—even noting that I sounded great—I found that audio sounded a bit muffled. It wasn't so much so that I couldn't understand people, but it was enough to make me wish for more clarity.
The Z10 has voice controls, which is to be expected on a modern smartphone. Regrettably, the voice controls seem about a year or two behind the competition. The voice sounds machine automated, not quite as natural as Google Now, Samsung's S Voice, and Apple's Siri. And it isn't as smart. I told the phone to “set alarm”—a basic task I expected the voice command to be capable of in the era of Siri—and instead the Z10 asked me if I wanted to search the Internet for “set alarm.” Oops.
The new BlackBerry 10 OS relies heavily on gestures and swipes, much like the PlayBook 2.0 Tablet OS. The gestures aren't exactly the same, but they are somewhat similar. You swipe up to minimize something, and swipe down from the top to reveal settings and shortcuts. (No quick access to airplane mode? Phooey.) Swipe right to get into the Hub, and right again to drill down deeper to notifications, BlackBerry Messenger, text messages, calls, and specific social-media and email accounts.
You swipe left from the Hub to reveal the Active Frames, which show thumbnails or “active” widgets (if available) for open apps. The apps shown rotate through based on which one you most recently accessed; the catch, though, is that you have to scroll down (not left) to find those apps, a move that's counterintuitive (though I appreciated BlackBerry's subtle visual cue).
As much as I liked—and adjusted to—the new interface, I occasionally found myself frustrated when a swipe seemed not to register. Several times, for example, I needed to use the physical power button to reawaken the device as opposed to just swiping up from the BlackBerry logo.
Poky Web browsing
Although BlackBerry touts the BlackBerry 10 browser on the Z10 as the “fastest and most feature-rich HTML5 browser ever developed for a BlackBerry device,” the browser lags behind the competition in performance.
Our lab ran tests comparing the BlackBerry Z10 with Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 8 phones, and the Z10's browser consistently finished as one of the slowest among our field.
On Peacekeeper, another browser-based test, the Z10's browser scored just 273, landing significantlly behind the Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 8 competition—even on devices using dual-core processors. The iPhone 5 scored a whopping 667 on that same test.
Meanwhile, on our own custom Page Load Test, the Z10 took a lazy 25.1 seconds to load a media-laden page. By comparison, the iPhone 5 required 8.2 seconds, while four Windows Phone 8 phones (the HTC Windows Phone 8X, the Nokia Lumia 810, the Nokia Lumia 920, and the Samsung ATIV S) averaged 9.6 seconds. The Google Nexus 4 took just 6.6 seconds.
Those results bear out my experience with the browser, as I noticed that pages often seemed lethargic when loading. I also discovered that many sites loaded their basic mobile-browser pages instead of a richer, resized mobile version. This issue may resolve over time, though: For instance, in my tests this problem affected Google News pages, but BlackBerry representatives told us that such pages are the version that Google is serving to the phone right now “since it is all they have tested so far.” The good news is that the browser is very usable, and it has Adobe Flash built in. Like other mobile browsers, it has a “Reader” mode to show just the text of an article, without distractions.
New BlackBerry keyboard
BlackBerry has always been known for its keyboards, and the Z10 with BlackBerry 10 upholds that tradition. The new on-screen keyboard provides wide, easy-to-tap buttons. Its hallmark is how the predictive text works, adding a string of possible words in between the keys as you type; a simple flick of the finger selects a word and adds it to your text.
The predictive text does a surprisingly good job of suggesting the words you are actually planning to type. If you start with the W key, for example, the word would hovers above the O key, what hovers above the H key, we hovers above the E key, and so forth. By swiping upward over a suggested word, you add that word to your message. According to BlackBerry, the feature also adapts to your own text input over time, suggesting words that are in line with the words you use the most, though I haven't used it enough yet to confirm how well it learns from your usage patterns.
Even without the personalized suggestions, I found the predictive-text feature (along with the way it's implemented) to be a big timesaver for tapping out quick messages. Creating a message such as "On the way, I'll be there soon" involves typing several letters and swiping upward a few times with your thumb instead of writing the whole thing. This keyboard essentially eliminates the need for acronyms and text-speak such as "OTW," "BRB," and "OMG," as typing full words takes much less time.
It actually takes a bit of coordination and muscle memory to switch between tapping letters, swiping upward, and occasionally moving your thumb to see the words it's suggesting. But then again, this arrangement is easier and more intuitive to use than tapping a suggested word that sits above the on-screen keyboard, as many Android phones' native keyboards do.
In both portrait and landscape orientation, the Z10 did a solid job of making my fast-and-furious touchscreen typing more coherent and accurate than other devices have managed. And the gesture shortcuts and predicted words were quite convenient, once I got used to them.
Moving content onto the Z10
Before you connect the Z10 to a PC or Mac to transfer content, you must first install BlackBerry Link and the necessary drivers for your computer to recognize the Z10. On some PCs, you may have to update and install additional software, which is why the installation process requires an Internet connection.
Once I set it up, I could easily tether the Z10 via Micro-USB and transfer music, pictures, and documents from my PC to the phone. Interestingly, I could have two folders transferring simultaneously, something I can't do on most Android tablets, for example.
The fresh-looking BlackBerry Link software is optional to use. It can also serve to back up and restore your data to a device.
BlackBerry includes a setting called “BlackBerry Protect,” which lets you remotely locate and secure your smartphone by locking or wiping the device. This feature identifies the phone via your BlackBerry ID.
The new BlackBerry 10 OS also includes parental controls (but no individual profiles, as on Google's Android 4.1).
The BlackBerry Z10 in particular has many other security functions, as you might expect from a BlackBerry phone, and it also has unique features such as BlackBerry Balance, which separates your personal Z10 environment from your business Z10 environment. However, most of those features, including Balance, require your company to be running BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10.
The BlackBerry Z10 has its rough spots. Even so, for a first-gen device on a new OS, it's a solid smartphone effort. If you already have a BlackBerry handset, or if your company is about to move to the new Enterprise Service 10, this phone has much to recommend and is a reasonable choice. If you're not tied to a specific app environment and open to experimentation, the Z10 is worth a look, too. But if you simply must have the latest apps, and are looking at buying the Z10 instead of an iPhone or Android phone, you may want to think twice. At the moment, the app universe on the BlackBerry Z10 is a mixed bag: It offers more variety than expected at launch, but predicting how those apps will behave and perform is difficult, and that could be an issue in the short term. In the long term, as more native apps come out, their quality and performance may be less of a problem—but that's pure speculation at this point.