Hands-on review: BlackBerry 10 is a big step up, but it's awkward to use in some key areas.
Thorsten Heins, CEO of the company formerly known as Research in Motion and now named simply BlackBerry, has kept his core promise to retool the BlackBerry OS for the modern era. The BlackBerry 10 OS announced yesterday, and available in the new BlackBerry Z10 smartphone in the U.K. today and the U.S. in March, is a big shift away from the outdated platform that has all but faded in terms of sales.
But the BlackBerry 10 OS poses no threat to Apple's iOS or Google's Android, which are both much more sophisticated and much more capable. It's Microsoft that should worry about BlackBerry 10, both because Windows Phone 8 pales in comparison and because BlackBerry 10 echoes many of the familiar messaging capabilities that will appeal to those old-school BlackBerry users who have so far resisted iOS and Android.
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The sharp BlackBerry Z10The Z10 is a slick smartphone, made of textured plastic that is comfortable to hold and Apple-like in its simple design. The 4.2-inch screen is sharp, though middle of the pack in size, larger than an iPhone's and smaller than the popular Samsung Galaxy devices running Android.
Although BlackBerry promotes the device as perfect for one-handed thumb-centric use, the truth is the screen is too large for most people's hands to reach the top, plus I found that thumb taps were often ignored by the touchscreen. The culprit seems to be angle: The screen is quite good at detecting direct, straight-down taps such as from our index finger when holding the device with one hand and tapping with the other. Directly down thumb taps are also registered, but those that come in at 45-degree or shallower angles often are not.
The hardware specs are comparable to other quality smartphones, though the mono speaker is a bit "breathy" and flat compared to the iPhone 5's excellent ones. The battery is replaceable, which is important given the so-so battery life; you'll get a workday's use, like most Android smartphones, but not the two-day life an iPhone typically gets. You can also add an SD card for increased storage beyond the 11.4GB of available capacity on the device, such as to store media files.
Overall, the BlackBerry Z10 is a solid smartphone in line with its competition. The other new model, the BlackBerry Bold-like Q10, isn't yet available, so I could not test it.
After they've completed their approval process, AT&T and Verizon Wireless plan to sell the Z10 for $200 with a two-year contract. T-Mobile says it will offer the Z10 but hasn't disclosed a price. Expect the smartphones to be available at those carriers in March.
Welcome to the Hub -- and mixed messaging capabilitiesFor some time now, RIM -- I mean BlackBerry -- has been trying to act young and hip, even though its core market has long been 50-year-old execs like me.
In addition to the now de rigeur media store, BlackBerry has followed the messaging centrism that Microsoft debuted in the terrible Kin a few years back and then successfully re-debuted in Windows Phone's People app. The Hub lists all your messages and updates in one big list.
It's great for seeing what's new, but I found the list also gets overwhelming quickly -- and I set up just my two main email accounts, my Twitter feed, and my appointments. But you can narrow down to just one stream by tapping the top of the Hub and selecting the account you want to focus on. Tap there again and select the Hub to go back to the view of everything.
All in all, the Hub concept works quite well, and if you're primarily a messaging or reactive email user, it's perfect.
For email, the Hub works like the traditional BlackBerry email app (in fact, BlackBerry 10 has no separate email app). If you like how the BlackBerry has historically handled email, BlackBerry 10 will be comfortingly familiar. I dislike it: Seeing my replies mixed up in my messages just confuses me as to what each message is and clutters what I perceived as my inbox. Fortunately, as in the old BlackBerry, you can turn that reply display off via a preference setting.
The folder navigation for email is very clunky, requiring a trip to the Hub's account list. And when you file a message from the mail list into a folder, you're often moved to the folder with the message open, so quickly filing messages for later is not at all quick, as it is in iOS and Android. But sometimes, filing a message worked as expected, keeping me in the email list; go figure. Also, messages filed to folders on other devices or computers -- common for those of us who move among a tablet, computer, and smartphone throughout the day -- don't get marked as such in BlackBerry 10, unlike iOS or Android.
To act on a message, tap and hold it ("long-tap it," in Android parlance) to have a contextual menu slide in from the side, then tap the icon for the desired action, such as copy or delete. When in a message, use the More menu (the sideways ellipsis icon) to display those options. It's similar to how Android works.
The Hub's email "app" is adequate, but not as easy to use as iOS's, and a little less easy than Android's.
The BlackBerry's text-entry bluesGiven the BlackBerry 10 OS's messaging focus, I was frustrated by its painful text entry and text editing.
The good news is that the onscreen keyboard is nice and clear, and I appreciate the numerals row at the top -- you even get a standard keyboard's symbols when you tap the Shift key. The ability to swipe the Delete key to delete the word to the left of the cursor is also a nice convenience.
But text selection is very difficult, both to move your cursor and to select a range of text. The text cursor is very faint when trying to position the cursor, and it can be hard to exit that cursor-movement mode. To select text usually requires double-tapping it, but often you get the cursor instead. iOS is way better at text selection, and Android is notably better at it than the BlackBerry 10 OS as well.
Although you can adjust the size of text in the overall UI, you cannot do so in emails, and the text size is barely legible for many people. Perhaps the reason for the tiny text is BlackBerry's desire to seem young. Tiny text is a hallmark of 20-year-old programmers, who don't understand that much of the word doesn't see as well as they do (and don't care enough to let you change the default size). Keep your reading glasses handy.
I was also frustrated when composing emails. If you have multiple email accounts, you always have to choose one before composing the message, even when you're working in a particular account. Other OSes assume it's the account whose emails you are reading or let you set the default account. As in other mobile OSes, the BlackBerry 10 OS lets you change the From account before sending an email -- as long as you swipe up at the top of the message to reveal the menu for doing so. It's not as intuitive as in iOS or Android.
The contacts lookup when addressing emails was often very slow. And after you type part of a person's name to initiate a lookup in your contacts list, the BlackBerry 10 OS leaves the partial entry you typed for you to delete. Why?
I experienced more text-entry blues. As you type, suggested words pop up on the onscreen keyboard in tiny, virtually impossibe-to-read small text, by default above the letter it thinks you may have meant to tap in the current word. (You can turn off this unreadable suggested text or have it appear above the spacebar instead.) And the ability to swipe these suggestions into your text is no less work than tapping the suggestion; the much-ballyhooed swipe-up suggestions seems like a gimmick created merely for demos.
The main suggestion appears in a large blue box that is easy to read -- but it's smack on top of the spacebar, hiding that character and preventing you from ending the current word if you don't want to accept the suggestion. (I had to tap a punctuation character, then backspace to delete it, and then type the spacebar.)
The onscreen keyboard is not smart enough to provide special symbols such as @ and _ when entering URLs and email addresses. (Sometimes, @ was available.) And there is no .com button.
Finally, the method to apply formatting to text in emails is unintuitive. Every time I tapped the Format button at the bottom of the screen, I got the onscreen keyboard instead. What you have to do is hide the keyboard (by tapping and holding the spacebar), tap the More button, tap Format in the contextual menu that appears, then tap the Format icon at the bottom of the screen to display the formatting bar. Crazy! After that, the Format button is active at the bottom of the screen, when the keyboard is hidden, so you don't have to re-enable it in the contextual menu. This seems to be a Hub flaw; in Documents to Go, I could just use the contextual menu for selected text to enable formatting.
But the dictation feature -- accessed by tapping and holding the period on the onscreen keyboard -- is exemplary, with voice recognition quality a bit better than both Apple's and Google's. Well, exemplary if I'm not the one speaking; BlackBerry mangles my speech as badly as Apple and Google do. But it did great with other testers' speech. Like those two competitors, you need a live Internet connection so the BlackBerry can send your speech to the company's servers for transcription and then send back to you.
Go with the Peek and FlowI like the Peek UI's ability to slide in from the right when reading a message to see the full Hub list, then either open the Hub or close it and return to my message. It's fast and easy. The Peek interface is also useful in apps, where you can peak to the available documents or images.
The simple Flow interface for shuffling among apps is also nice. You quickly learn you can move from the Hub to your running apps' tiles to your app icons and back with simple swipes, and the gesture becomes second nature fast. But, despite what the folks at BlackBerry claim, it's not really easier than iOS's multitasking dock or Android's running-apps windowlet. Closing an app (the app still runs in the background) and getting to the running apps' tiles by swiping up from the bottom of the screen is also no easier than tapping a home button.
In some cases, it is slower. That's because when you close an app, you are presented with a screen of tiles of running apps, and you have to then swipe to the right to see the various app screens if the app you want is not running. iOS's home button makes that faster, though not as fast as Android's quick access to airplane mode via the notification tray.
BlackBerry did find a different app-switching approach in the WebOS-like Flow compared to what iOS and Android do. It is generally well-executed, but it provides no competitive advantage. Still the BlackBerry 10 OS user interface is easy to learn and overall efficient and straightforward.
Security for more users than beforeA very welcome change to BlackBerry OS is its support of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies such as requiring encryption and passwords. The previous BlackBerry OS protected devices only if a company invested in the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). By contrast, both iOS and Android support EAS out of the box, with further security capabilities available, especially for iOS, if your company uses a mobile device management (MDM) server. The BlackBerry 10 OS now can be used in EAS-secured environments, not just those that buy BES.
I was pleased that the BlackBerry 10 OS automatically encrypts the device -- like iOS. Android supports encryption, but it has to be turned on manually and takes about 45 minutes; plus, to install OS updates, you have to turn it off temporarily. The BlackBerry 10 OS's encryption can't be turned off by the user as long as you're using an EAS account that requires it.
BlackBerry has touted its Balance technology that lets you set up separate business and personal environments on the smartphone, which you can easily switch between and still have a unified view of in the Hub. But Balance requires BES 10, which is available in a demo version (the final version is due in May), so I could not test it.
The rest of BlackBerry 10The Contacts app is nicely designed, with configurable fields per card as in iOS. Each card is a hub to a person's social-networking activities -- a clone of Microsoft's slick People app approach in Windows Phone and Windows 8. The Calendar app is well-designed, and continues to offer the more sophisticated recurring-event patterns of the previous BlackBerry OS. The Remember app for to-do items is also fine. And BlackBerry users will like the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) client and its new support for screen sharing and video chats. The Camera app has some nice photo-retouching capabilities. And the Maps app crisply presents maps and driving directions, though like iOS's Maps app it can route only car traffic, not public transit or foot traffic (as Android can). I do wish that more BlackBerry 10 OS apps supported screen rotation; neither the Maps nor Calendar apps do, for example.
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