The long, almost interminable wait for BlackBerry fans is over, with the new, all-touch-screen Z10 finally launching through most Canadian wireless carriers today. The company formerly known as Research In Motion – now officially just BlackBerry – is counting on the phone to reverse its sliding fortunes.
Will fans be pleased and will the Z10 win over users of rival smartphones? Here are my (extensive) thoughts after nearly a week with the device.
Size-wise, the Z10 is the mama bear of phones. It’s not too small, like the iPhone, and it’s not too big, like many current Android devices; it’s just right. It fits in your hand nicely (assuming you have a regular, adult-sized hand and aren’t Andre the Giant), which means you can perform most of its functions with just one thumb.
At 137 grams, it’s also slightly heavier than the iPhone 5, but lighter than many others. Again, it’s the mama bear. The back is textured and rubberized, so it’s not prone to slipping out of your hand like other purely smooth phones. Like a cold beer on a hot summer day, it just feels good in your hand.
The Z10’s 4.2-inch screen is also one of the sharpest around, with a 1,280-by 768-display that delivers 356 pixels per inch. Apple’s Retina screen on the iPhone 5, which the company has touted as the best display available, serves up only 326 ppi in comparison. Most regular human eyes can’t distinguish those extra 30 pixels, but needless to say, stuff looks pretty good on the new BlackBerry.
Of course, it’s still a small screen – not exactly something you want to watch The Avengers on. Fortunately, the Z10 has a micro-HDMI port that be used to pipe content out onto a proper-sized TV screen. The port is something of a rarity, so far, in phones.
Otherwise, there’s the standard micro USB for connecting to a computer and for charging, as well as a micro SD card slot for expanding on the built-in 16 gigabytes of storage. As with most smartphones not named iPhone, the battery is also removable in case you want to replace it or pop in a second, fully charged one (more on that in a minute).
The Z10 runs on a powerful dual-core 1.5 GHz processor with 2 GB of RAM, which makes most of its functions relatively fast. Most apps open quickly, with the notable exception of Maps (also more on that shortly). BlackBerry touts its web browser as the fastest on the market, and it certainly does seem to be.
The horsepower also lets the phone do proper multitasking. You can have to eight apps open at a time. If you’re running at capacity, the first four appear on the screen and then you can scroll down for the next set of four. If you open more, the phone automatically shuts down apps in the order in which they were originally opened.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the Z10 is its unique interface, dubbed “Flow.” Sure, there’s the same grid of apps we’ve seen on just about every other smartphone, but getting around between them is considerably more fun. There are no physical buttons on the Z10; instead, you swoosh around by swiping left and right, up and down. It takes some getting used to because it is different from most competitors, but once you’re acclimatized, you quickly forget about pressing buttons.
Swiping down from the top of the phone brings up the basic controls, where wi-fi, Bluetooth and volume can be turned off and on, or the rotation lock can be set. Swiping up from the bottom brings back the active app frames, while gesturing right one more time returns to the app grid.
Swiping left from the frames brings up the BlackBerry’s key function, the communications “Hub,” where all email and social media accounts and notifications can be stored. It’s a unified inbox that can be set up to include Facebook notifications, tweets, text messages, appointments, BBM messages, voice mail – you name it. Other smartphone makers have tried pulling something like this off, but the Z10 nails it. The Hub is elegant, quickly accessible and simple to use.
One of the new BlackBerry’s most touted features is its predictive text keyboard. It’s one of those gee-whiz technologies that mostly works. The phone does a decent job at guessing what word you’re going to type next, then displays it over the first letter of that word. If it’s indeed what you’re looking for, you swipe up on the word and it pops into your text. It even works if you switch between languages in whatever you’re writing – you can set three in the settings.
Ultimately, predictive text is both a blessing and a curse. If you’re already a decently fast touch-screen typist, it might actually slow you down since you have to stop and look at the suggested words (it doesn’t help that the displayed words are tiny). And while the Z10 has a creepy way of often guessing right, it’s also wrong enough of the time – in that it frequently doesn’t suggest the right words – that’s it’s not foolproof.
In that way, it’s much like voice control or the gesture commands found on certain video game consoles. When there’s enough of a margin of error, it’s usually faster to go with the proven input method, whether it’s a handheld controller or thumb typing. The same can be said, by the way, for the Z10’s voice control. It’s decent enough, but like Apple’s Siri, it makes enough mistakes that it’s often faster and less frustrating to do things the old-fashioned way.
Nevertheless, for slow or lazy typists, predictive text is a godsend that can truly speed up inputting. The phone is also often smart enough to recognize when you’ve missed putting a space in between words and does so for you.
Aside from all that, the rows of keys are also separated by thick “frets,” so they’re more spaced out than competitors’, which also makes it easier to type. Another bonus is you can erase the last word you typed by swiping left on the keyboard. On the downside, hitting the shift key doesn’t change the letters at all – they’re in a permanently capped state, which frequently threw me off.
All told, some users will love the attempts to ease touch-screen typing. Others, not so much. Just remember: the Q10 BlackBerry, with a fully physical keyboard, is only a few weeks away from release, according to the company. Hard-core BlackBerry aficionados have generally loved the devices for their physical keyboards, they’ll probably want to wait.
I mentioned Maps above – the app is definitely one of the Z10’s weaknesses. Not only does it take a second or two to boot up, which in smartphone terms is forever, it’s also nowhere near as fully featured as Google’s fabled version.
BlackBerry’s Maps does have turn-by-turn navigation, complete with audio directions, but it doesn’t have any transit or walking directions. It also has fewer points of interest and doesn’t seem to be terribly location aware. On a number of occasions, I typed in nearby addresses but instead got results in Missouri or other faraway places.
Other than that, Maps generally works – just don’t expect any bells or whistles. There’s obviously no Google Street View or Flyover, the 3D function of Apple’s much-maligned Maps effort, which is too bad because even Flyover can give you a sense of where you’re actually going if you’re not familiar with the city.
There’s always the possibility that Google will issue a BlackBerry Maps app, but until then the Z10 is stuck with a so-so, bare-bones navigation tool. It’ll do the trick in a pinch, but it’ll be a major step down – and perhaps even a deal breaker – for any Android or Apple users thinking about switching.
The Z10 boasts an 8-megapixel back camera and a 2 MP front camera. As we all hopefully know by now, it’s not the size of the wand (or the megapixels) that counts, it’s the magic that’s in it. In other words, digital cameras are useless without the right software and other processing guts behind them.
In that sense, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it – the Z10’s camera stinks, at least relative to the market leaders. Check out the picture below, taken at the exact same settings on the Nokia Lumia 920, iPhone 5 and Z10. The Lumia is clearly the sharpest with the best contrast, the iPhone a little less so, while the BlackBerry looks blurry and dull in comparison. We don’t even want to talk about low-light photos – the Z10 turns out dreadful black blobs in such conditions.
On the plus side, the Z10’s camera has Instagram-like filters built in and a Time Shift mode, which lets you burst shoot a bunch of photos at once and pick the best one. It’s a good way to avoid those shots where your kids are blinking or grimacing.
BBM video chats also look pretty good and the sound quality of calls over its VOiP function is great too. Moreover, the Z10 also has a nifty “Screen Share” function where users on a video call can show each other their own phone displays. It’s a great feature for real-time collaboration where a photo or document can be discussed and dissected. I’m not aware of any other smartphone having this function yet.
The BlackBerry Balance feature is essentially a second work profile on the phone that is accessible by a password. As with all smartphones, you can block access to the device itself with a password, but Balance allows for a second level of security to be applied to things like work emails and corporate intranets.
You’ll know you’re in your work profile by the purple background (your personal one is blue), as well as by the absence of any frivolous apps, like Angry Birds. Employers can also remotely wipe this section should the user ever leave the company or lose the phone. Companies can also stock their own apps in BlackBerry World, which are accessible to users only when they’re in their work profiles.
Overall, Balance is a neat feature that’s designed to cater to the whole bring-your-own-device trend. Users can have their own personal phone for silly games and photos of their kids, while the employer can have them carrying a productivity device at the same. No need for two phones, and perhaps no need to return your BlackBerry if you leave the job. It’s a smart function that other smartphone makers will inevitably copy.
A lot has been made about how many of Apple’s and Android’s 600,000 available apps are useless – after all, who needs 20 apps for making fart noises? Both BlackBerry and Microsoft have pooh-poohed their rivals’ large repositories and are instead focusing on quality over quantity with efforts to attract the most important app developers.
There may be something to that. Averaging out various studies, it looks like smartphone owners typically download somewhere between 30 and 40 apps but only end up using 10 to 15 regularly.
Going by those numbers, I guess I qualify as something of a power user. Here are the 32 iPhone apps I use all the time:
Google Maps, Cineplex, TimePlay, Flixster, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, The Weather Network, FiRe (voice recorder), YouTube, Kayak, ScribbleLive, Waze, Speed Test, Dropbox, Evernote, Simpsons Tapped Out, Hailo, Air Canada, Philips Hue, GoodPlayer, SiriusXM, Kobo, Kindle, Netflix, IMDb, 680 News, SlingPlayer, Walmart (for photo printing, don’t judge me), iTranslate, Urbanspoon and LinkedIn.
How does BlackBerry compare? Here are the nine that are currently available from that list:
Flixster, Facebook, Twitter, The Weather Network, YouTube, Dropbox, Evernote, Air Canada and LinkedIn. Skype and Kindle are apparently coming.
Statistically, BlackBerry offers about a third of the apps I frequently use. That’s not bad for a new phone system, but it’s also not good since there’s no way I’d consider giving up all those apps to switch. There are a few – Google Maps, 680 News traffic reports and Cineplex for buying movie tickets – that I simply can’t do without.
Therein lies the company’s big chicken-or-the-egg problem. App developers will start creating for BlackBerry 10 if there are a lot of users to reach, but a lot of users won’t switch if they have to give up their favourite apps. This ecosystem trap represents a giant mountain that both BlackBerry and Microsoft must climb if they are to be competitive.
People thinking about making the switch can avoid a lot of disappointment if they first figure out which apps they currently can’t live without, then check to see if they’re available on BlackBerry. Then, it’s a gamble – will they eventually show up?
With the launch of the Z10, BlackBerry has added music and video downloads to its app store, now called just BlackBerry World. The selections are comparatively good in each case and prices are similar to iTunes. New albums tend to be more expensive, at $12.99 versus $11.99, but then some movies are cheaper. The Dark Knight Rises, for example, is $4.99 to rent or $19.99 to buy, compared to $5.99 and $24.99 on iTunes. The only problem is, while iTunes clearly identifies video that is offered in high-definition, it’s not clear what resolution BlackBerry is selling at.
Nevertheless, it’s relatively easy to sync music, photos and your own (as in not purchased) videos from iTunes on a computer with BlackBerry Link. The one further downside to BlackBerry World is that it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast – it could be better organized.
Perhaps the strangest thing about BlackBerry’s entertainment offerings is its total lack of Netflix. There’s no app for the Z10, nor has the streaming video company released one yet for the PlayBook tablet, which is odd given that Netflix is on just about everything (I can even watch it on my toaster… okay, not really).
Why would anyone want to watch Netflix, or a downloaded video for that matter, on a tiny phone screen? As a parent friend explained to me, having Netflix on your phone is very, very important when you have children – it shuts them up during car rides or long waits at the dentist’s office. So yes, a Netflix phone app is key for some people.
Other reviewers have variously interpreted the Z10’s battery life as either woeful or much better than competitors. The reality is, virtually no smartphone on the market has a battery powerful enough to supply its actual capabilities. Screens, processors and wireless networks are all getting increasingly power hungry and battery improvements simply aren’t keeping pace. Battery life is therefore often coming down to how the smartphone itself is being used.
One of the surest ways to drain any smartphone’s battery is to set the device to automatic email retrieval, or “push.” Under this setting, the phone is constantly checking for new email, which quickly sucks power. The easiest way to save battery life is to go with manual email checking.
The BlackBerry is, by its nature, a communications device. As such, it almost feels wrong to set it to manual retrieval, which is why it might seem like the Z10’s battery is worse than competitors.
With push email and notifications enabled and only moderate conscious use, I couldn’t get through a work day without the Z10 draining. On the other hand, when I set email to manual retrieval, the battery life was fine. The catch is that without automatic email, it didn’t feel like a BlackBerry.
Smartphone power users – especially Z10 buyers – would be smart to invest in an extra battery or the portable power sticks that are starting to proliferate. Moore’s Law simply doesn’t appear to be apply to battery development, so we’re all going to have to improvise until there’s a breakthrough.
Look and feel: Nice, solid feel, with a good weight and size. Crisp, bright screen.
Performance: Fast and sleek in most cases, with a few exceptions.
Interface: Slick, different and fun.
Typing: Some will love it, others will find it slows them down.
Maps: Bare bones, a far cry from Google.
Camera: Video call quality is good, but it’s lacking for photos.
Corporate: Nice security features that are sure to be emulated by rivals.
Apps: Not a bad start, but lack of many key apps will discourage switching.
Content: Decent selection at decent prices.
Battery: Not good, but then again, nobody’s is.