First impressions: BlackBerry is back in the game but needs more innovation

TORONTO – For BlackBerry fans who have been desperately hoping that Research in Motion would get its act together and once again deliver a smartphone worthy of its old CrackBerry moniker, there’s good news.

While the new BlackBerry Z10, the first smartphone to run the dramatically revamped BlackBerry 10 operating system, didn’t exactly take the tech world by storm when it was officially unveiled Wednesday, it was widely reviewed as a respectable competitor to Apple’s iPhone and the top phones running Google’s Android platform.

BlackBerry fans who held out from buying a rival smartphone out of allegiance to Research in Motion — which is changing its company name to BlackBerry — can now get a mobile experience that’s similar without giving up BlackBerry Messenger and the other features they love about their phone.

Yet BlackBerry 10 does not “leap frog” the competition, as former co-CEO Jim Balsillie famously — and foolishly — claimed it would back in the fall of 2011.

Although the operating system is impressive, the company still needs to do a lot more to firmly re-establish itself as a real player in the smartphone wars.

First impressions of the BlackBerry Z10 are good.

It has a super sharp 4.2-inch screen — with more pixels per inch than the Retina Display that Apple brags about — and has a powerful-enough processor that makes browsing through screens, launching apps and surfing the web satisfyingly fast.

BlackBerry fans who send a lot of email will also love the virtual keyboard, which makes typing on a flat screen feel less torturous than on some other devices. While those who can’t live without a QWERTY keyboard will have to wait until April when the BlackBerry Q10 is expected to be released.

Another feature of the BlackBerry 10 is a unified-inbox called Hub that has the capability to merge the contents of several email and social media accounts into one place.

The new phone also boasts a strong web browser that supports Flash (although it’s disabled by default), a unique feature unavailable in the iPhone and many other smartphones.

And while BlackBerry’s selection of apps was once dire, the company says more than 70,000 will be available when the phone is launched next week, including some 1,000 “top apps.”

These include apps for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Kindle, WhatsApp, Angry Birds, Songza, Slacker, Rdio,, CBC, Tim Hortons, Air Canada, RBC and ING Direct.

Unfortunately, Google Maps, Instagram and Netflix will not be available.

Following its release, many tech observers admitted to being surprised at how strong a product the BlackBerry Z10 actually is — considering the many missteps RIM has had over the years.

Despite the positive reviews, it was clear that BlackBerry remains focused on retaining its loyal customers and cementing its position as the smartphone platform of choice for corporations, rather that trying to appeal to consumers.

One of the first capabilities of the phone to be introduced at the unveiling was BlackBerry Balance, a feature that partitions the phone into two modes for personal and work usage and will indoubetly appeal to security-minded IT departments.

Whereas, the company left the consumer-friendly announcement of pop star Alicia Keys as the new ambassador for the brand as one of the last items at the event.

Corporations that were drawn to the security provided BlackBerry, but felt compelled to seek out other options in the past, now have less reason to experiment with deploying iPhones or other devices.

All but the pickiest of users will likely be satisfied with the BlackBerry 10 experience, which will also satisfy IT departments who may no longer need to worry about managing a rag-tag collection of devices.

And with the BlackBerry Z10 priced at $150 on a three-year contract in Canada, it’s cheaper than an iPhone, which will be a big draw to budget-conscious buyers.

The industry will get a first glimpse Thrusday at how well BlackBerry 10 will be received when sales begin for the Z10 begin in the United Kingdom. It’ll be available in Canada next Tuesday and in the U.S. starting in March.