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.
The BlackBerry Z10 4.2-in. touchscreen smartphone brings the company's product line up to date with other competing smartphones, offering decent hardware and a stellar new operating system: BlackBerry 10. Whether it catches the breeze and flies in a crowded market depends largely on how well BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion) markets it, prices it and supports it -- including with plenty of apps.
BlackBerry announced the Z10 on January 30; it is due to go on sale in the U.S. in mid-March via the four major carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and Sprint.
BlackBerry and the carriers are going to have to work hard to market the Z10, especially considering BlackBerry's paltry 5% market share, putting it well behind Android and iOS. To begin with, the company must dramatically increase its 70,000 applications in the BlackBerry World app store; this is just a fraction of what is offered by Apple's App Store (about 800,000) and Google Play (over 700,000).
Based on my testing of the Z10 over several days, the new smartphone could begin to help BlackBerry reverse its declining share. It is a great smartphone with a fantastic browser and impressive screen resolution that, taken together, address major flaws in previous BlackBerry touchscreen phones.
It does come with some notable problems -- like its uninspired handset styling, lack of bountiful applications and a deadly slow boot time -- but the Z10 nonetheless deserves the attention of smartphone buyers.
Not quite the style
I'll start with that styling problem, which is a big one for me, at least. The simple truth is that the black Z10 just looks like an ugly slab of plastic with a glass cover; it's virtually unchanged from the Dev Alpha version released last fall. There's a grip texture on the rear cover, which is nice enough, but nothing special.
The front, with its curved corners, looks similar to recent iPhones, except that where the iPhone runs glass to all four edges, the Z10 runs glass to the side edges but leaves a quarter-inch-wide band of flat black plastic on both the top and bottom. Where the iPhone display has a black bezel on all four sides, the Z10 has a wider bezel on the left and right sides. There are no control buttons on the front face and the power button is on the top edge.
The Z10 will come in white as well as black; to my eyes, the white version looked slightly snazzier.
BlackBerry Z10 v. iPhone 5 v. Galaxy S III
The new Z10 begs comparisons to two of the latest hot devices: Apple's iPhone 5 and Samsung's popular Android phone, the Galaxy S III. On paper, all three share similar hardware specs. But the real power of the Z10 will be in the new BlackBerry 10 OS, the phone's interface and its related software, which are vastly superior to previous BlackBerry generations.
The other new smartphone: BlackBerry Q10
BlackBerry's new operating system will also run on the BlackBerry Q10, a somewhat smaller smartphone with the traditional physical QWERTY keyboard that is expected to go on sale in the U.S. in April.
At BlackBerry's press conference for the new devices, I got some hands-on time with the Q10 and found the QWERTY keyboard easy to use, which should delight some current BlackBerry fans. The only disadvantage: The physical keyboard cuts down the screen real estate to a 3.1-in. display, almost too small for how many people are using phones today.
At 4.8 oz., the Z10 is a tad heavier than the iPhone 5 (3.9 oz.) and the Samsung Galaxy S III (4.7 oz.).
In size, the Z10 fits in between the other two smartphones at 5.1 x 2.6 x .35 in. The Samsung Galaxy S III is the biggest (except for thickness) at 5.4 x 2.8 x .3 in. while the iPhone 5 is the smallest at 4.9 x 2.3 x .3 in. This makes sense, since the Z10's 4.2-in. display also comes between the Galaxy S II's 4.8-in. display and the iPhone 5's 4.0-in. display.
The three phones all have screen resolutions that are very close to each other -- the Z10's LCD display is rated at 1280 x 768 pixels (LCD) while the iPhone 5's Retina display is 1336 x 640 and the Galaxy S III's Super AMOLED display is 1280 x 720.
The Z10 seemed to me to offer up crisper images than the other two. Maybe that is because the Z10 tops the other two at 356 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 306 ppi for the Galaxy S III and 326 ppi for the iPhone 5.
There are other similarities among the three devices. For example, all three have an 8-megapixel rear camera; however, the Z10 boasts a 2-megapixel front-facing camera , while the iPhone 5's camera is rated at 1.2 megapixels and the Galaxy S III's at 1.9 megapixels. All three have fast processors, with both the Z10 and Galaxy S III running the 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. The iPhone 5 runs the Apple A6 processor. All three support LTE and up to 802.11n Wi-Fi.
The Z10 offers NFC for file sharing and mobile payments, something the Galaxy S III also includes (but not the iPhone 5). BlackBerry didn't talk about NFC features at the launch of the Z10 beyond a mere mention, possibly because NFC has already been available in BlackBerry 7 smartphones.
BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins made a not-so-subtle dig at the iPhone when he told reporters at the January launch that the Z10 uses a removable 1800mAh battery and an industry-standard micro USB port, in contrast with the iPhone's non-removable battery and proprietary Lightning connector. (Apple doesn't reveal its non-removable battery's rating in its specs, while Samsung's Galaxy S III has a removable battery rated at 2100mAh.)
Another question, this time of storage flexibility: The iPhone 5 is sold in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB internal capacity versions, while the Z10 has 16GB storage and a microSD slot that can handle memory cards up to 32GB. Samsung also sells 16GB or 32GB versions for the Galaxy S III along with a microSD slot. I tend to favor the expansion slot approach partly because it just feels more open -- and because I know that I can continually add more SD cards for storing an infinite number of songs and videos if I want.
The BlackBerry Z10 (center), compared to the Samsung Galaxy SIII (left) and the iPhone 5 (right)
In summary, the Z10's hardware features show it to be very close or superior to leading smartphones on the market. But that means nothing without great software and a great OS, and BlackBerry seems to understand that.
BlackBerry 10 OS
BlackBerry 10 is built on QNX, a Unix-like operating system widely used in vehicle telematics and other embedded systems; BlackBerry (then Research in Motion) acquired the company of the same name that developed QNX in 2010.
QNX is known to perform message handling by automatically setting thread priority, which means a high-priority thread receives I/O service before a low-priority thread.
That capability is something other smartphone OSes hope to achieve, but BlackBerry 10 already excels at this priority threading capability, judging by the performance I witnessed.
Starting up and getting around
The BlackBerry 10 uses a full range of gestures to access its comprehensive range of features. But even before you start swiping, you have to power up the Z10, which, unfortunately, I found especially off-putting. Over several tries, it took me an incredible 71 seconds on average from the time I pushed the power button until a home screen of applications appeared.
That average boot time was easily more than twice as long as it takes me to power up and boot the Samsung Galaxy S III running Android Jelly Bean 4.1 or the iPhone 5 running iOS 6.1. Admittedly, many users will only power up once a day, or even less, so maybe this won't become a showstopper.
Experienced smartphone users will find the Z10 intuitive and easy to use, and training wizards will help first timers. For example, you swipe down from the top bezel to access application settings and swipe up from the bottom bezel to minimize an opened app.
When setting up a BlackBerry ID and password, I was tickled to find that I could see the characters I was typing into a password field (rather than a series of asterisks) by tapping a little eyeball icon. I constantly have to retype passwords to get them right, so this is a welcome mini-feature.
BB10 has a standby home screen that is pretty spare, with date, time, new message count and a camera icon in the lower right that you tap and hold until the camera launches. The home screen has the camera icon as well.
You wake up the smartphone from standby by swiping up from the bottom bezel to go to the home screen. On the bottom there are three virtual keys inside a black bar that show the phone, universal search and the camera icon; above that, a screen of application icons are arranged with four icons across and four down.
Touch the search icon to access the universal search functions; you can use typed messages or do a voice search (by pushing a button on the side of the phone). I was amazed at how well my voice commands worked right from the very start.
Just above those three keys containing universal search are a row of small dots that let you navigate through various app screens; according to BlackBerry, there is no limit to the number of screens. You just swipe left or right to go to the next screen. The new BlackBerry Hub is at the home screen to the far left and the Active Frames grid is second to the left.
Just about everybody at BlackBerry has been espousing the virtues of Hub for most of the past year, calling it "a central and distinguishing feature of BB10" in promotional materials, so I was eager to test it out.
A universal Hub
The Hub is a universal inbox with a central repository of all messages and notices, including email, text, BlackBerry Messenger notices, social media updates and updates from third-party apps.
Part of the power of the Hub is that you can instantly view it from within a task or app by swiping up and to the right to "peek" into the hub. That gesture reveals the universal inbox list to the left of the screen, which can be opened to take up the full screen. Or you can reverse the gesture and go back to the app. It worked reliably many times for me and I can see how it will be valuable for busy users who want to quickly return from the Hub to an active app.
From within the Hub, you can drag down within the message window to reveal events and meetings for the rest of the day or the following day. (It's a process called BlackBerry Flow.) Tapping on an event in the message window will open the calendar instantly, and from there you can tap to view contacts associated with the event and past email or other communications you've had with them. It worked like a charm for me.
BlackBerry 10 takes advantage of the multitasking abilities in QNX especially well with a new feature called Active Frames.
It works this way: If you have launched an app in BB10, it will run in the full screen, but if you want to switch to another app, you swipe up from the bottom bezel to minimize the active app. That app remains active and functions in about one-quarter of its size, with four Active Frames fitting on a home screen. The most recently accessed app is shuffled to the top left of the four-frame grid.
When I say the frame remains active, I mean it continues to display current information as determined by the app's developer. For example, a weather app can continue to display the current temperature, or a news site could update its headlines. You can have eight apps running concurrently at one time over two panels. You can also shut down an app by tapping an X at the bottom right of its frame.
The Active Frames concept reminded me of the live tiles concept used in the Windows Phone 8 OS. BB10 doesn't let you resize the Active Frames or arrange them in different locations on a screen as Windows Phone 8 does.
Matt Hamblen explains how BlackBerry 10's Active Frames feature lets you swipe from one app to another.
If you are a confirmed QWERTY keyboard user, BlackBerry 10 may get you to switch to a virtual keyboard. The onscreen keys actually feel wider than other virtual keys on the market. There's a pronounced fret that divides each row from the next to add more room.
On top of the improved virtual keyboard, there is predictive text software that learns what and how a person types. For example, when I was typing "dec" in a sentence, the software displayed "decision" on the fret above a row of letters for finishing a sentence that read, "I was making a decision." I was able to flick the word "decision" into the email message text area with a gesture of my finger.
There are many predictive text programs in smartphones on the market, but BB10 seems to at least be keeping up, if not moving ahead of them.
Voice and voice commands
You can also dictate what you want to compose by using Voice Control, which is quickly turned on by touching and holding a microphone icon on the period key on the virtual keyboard, or by pressing and holding the physical Play/Pause button on the side of the smartphone.
Every time that I dictated a phrase into the Z10, it was recorded perfectly into text. I have never been able to say that about any other smartphone, including the iPhone 5, which is advertised for its capabilities with the Siri voice assistant but almost never works perfectly for me.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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