BlackBerry Z10 in-depth review: Good phone, truly great OS

BlackBerry's new smartphone has a superior display and navigation, making it a device worth checking out.

While I'm on the subject of audio, I should mention that the speakers are acceptable, although the sound quality often came out as tinny. BlackBerry isn't apparently trying to sell the Z10 as a great music playback device; the company seems to making a bigger issue of the video-related capabilities of the new smartphone.

Browsing

Compared to earlier browsers on BlackBerry devices like the Torch, the new HTML 5-based BlackBerry Browser is a joy to use. It loads pages quickly and is responsive when you scroll around pages or use a pinch gesture to zoom out or in.

I repeatedly loaded websites from various news organizations on the iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S III and the BlackBerry Z10, using the same carriers and Wi-Fi. Each time, the Z10's browser consistently tied with the other two in terms of loading speed.

The touchscreen is impressive, especially when working with the native browser. I never had a problem navigating through various Web pages with the Z10 by using different types of touches, and almost every previous smartphone I've ever tried balked on at least some.

Interestingly, BlackBerry is still supporting Adobe Flash in addition to HTML 5, although Flash support is not enabled by default. If you visit a website with Flash, the BB10 browser offers the option to enable it without needing to open settings or reload the Web page. I know quite a few websites that still rely on Flash and this function could come in handy.

The browser also lets you easily save a page as a bookmark or a home screen icon by clicking a dot below the Web page to open a window and then clicking either "Add to home screen" or "Add Bookmark." It just works. Bing, Google or Yahoo can be set as default search engine.

At the launch event, BlackBerry officials barely mentioned the improved browser, but I think it's something the company should be emphasizing.

For this review, I did all my browsing page load trials over Wi-Fi, but also found the browser worked remarkably well over 3G wireless from AT&T. I wasn't able to test LTE capability in the Z10 because AT&T hasn't launched LTE in the Virginia market where I live.

Keeping in touch

BlackBerry 10 makes use of BlackBerry Messenger, a text messaging service that's especially popular in Europe, to provide video chats and screen sharing. Unfortunately, it only works over Wi-Fi, 4G LTE or HSPA+ (but not 3G). I tested both video chat and screen sharing several times with a colleague using a Wi-Fi connection on my end and an LTE connection over his, and was impressed with the features' speed and ease of use.

Matt Hamblen chats with CIO.com's Al Sacco using the BlackBerry Z10.

Video chat is possible with many new smartphones, but the BB10's approach aims for simplicity, and achieves it by letting you set up a screen share with one touch of a button. Once in the video chat, you can access screen-sharing almost instantly with a single icon.

Separating work and play

One feature that could make or break the new OS is BlackBerry Balance, a dual persona separating work and personal data. It works with the new BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 software that runs on servers behind the corporate firewall.

Balance will allow users and IT to separate work apps and email and other data from personal apps, email, music, video and other data -- right on the OS. Each separate area can be reached from either "work" or "personal" icons on the touchscreen display, but emails and messages from both personas can be mingled in a common inbox, if you want.

The advantage of Balance to IT is to be able to strip away work-related data from the smartphone via the server if needed; for example, if a file is seen as too sensitive to reside on worker's Z10 phone, or if a worker leaves and wants to keep personal data on the Z10 after all the work data has been wiped away.

In a world where more and more workers buy their smartphones to use for work, this dual persona approach, also called containerization, is becoming popular with many mobile device management providers, and BlackBerry seems to be staying competitive with its Balance offering.

Adding apps

There are a number of pre-installed apps on the Z10, including those for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Foursquare.

For photographers, BlackBerry 10 has an interesting feature called Time Shift, which allows you to make sure the people in your photo are posed correctly -- for example, with eyes open rather than caught in a blink. When you activate Time Shift, it actually takes a short video that is made up of different frames. You can then tap on each person's face on the touchscreen display to produce a circle around the face. A knob on the circle can then be dragged to find the frame with the best shot of that person. (It's kind of a spooky app, since you are creating an image of a point in time that actually never occurred. )

The pre-loaded Maps app on the Z10 is provided by TeleCommunication Systems, which built the maps app for some Verizon Wireless phones as well. It seems to be a fully reliable mapping and traffic information app, but it is not as fully functioning as Google Maps, which has mass transit information built in.

At a Glance

BlackBerry Z10

BlackBerryPrice: Not yet availablePros: Superior display, fast and innovative navigation, great voice control, vastly improved browserCons: Dull-looking body styling, slow boot time, acceptable but limited number of apps

Whether Google would ever want to provide Google Maps for the BlackBerry 10 is questionable, but look what Google did for the iPhone 5. Stranger things have happened.

Much has been made of the shortage of apps in the BlackBerry World app store, although BlackBerry is boasting that it will keep adding more and more every day. But the BlackBerry store already includes many of the major apps that I care about. I probably only really use 30 or fewer apps on a regular basis, and probably just around 10 on a given day. Not a lot, in other words.

The reason a large app store matters is probably less important to individual smartphone users and more important to developers who want to write apps for a platform that is robust and will survive to become a money-maker. Clearly, writing apps for iOS or for Android is where the successful developers want to be.

Bottom line

The range of hardware and software innovations in the BlackBerry Z10 running the BlackBerry 10 OS shows that the company desperately wants to carve out a bigger future in smartphones. Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors that extend well beyond the actual Z10 device that determine if it's going to succeed, including the number of apps that run on it, correct pricing and marketing of specific features beyond a broad-brush branding campaign.

The smartphone could be a real hit. It has to overcome a plain, boring body and an agonizingly slow boot time. On the other hand, the phone's slightly superior display, great browser and its amazing touch and interface capabilities -- including voice control -- should persuade more developers to get on board to write more apps to help it do well.

If U.S. carriers sell it at the right price (which would be no more than $149, in my opinion) and promote it properly once it finally launches in mid-March, it could do well. But U.S. carriers will also have to figure out where it fits in the range of devices they offer, which will include an upcoming Galaxy S IV and an iPhone 5S, among others -- all, no doubt, with bigger and better features.

There's a chance that the Z10 will not emerge fast enough in the U.S., but still do fairly well in Europe or elsewhere, which would be a pity for American buyers. It's a good phone and a great OS. The question is whether that is going to matter.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "BlackBerry Z10 in-depth review: Good phone, truly great OS" was originally published by Computerworld.

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