We've had BlackBerry's brand new BlackBerry Z10 handset for the better part of two weeks now. We wanted to put it through its paces as much as possible because, let's face it: BlackBerry put a ton of work into the new operating system, even delaying it a year, and it's the first time that we've had a chance to use a completely new mobile OS since Windows Phone made its a debut a few years ago.
There's a lot to love about the BlackBerry Z10, but there are also two huge elephants in the room: iOS and Android. BlackBerry 10 needs to be an answer to both mobile operating systems if the company hopes to regain its lost market share, especially among consumers and the ever growing bring-your-own-device enterprise model. Is the BlackBerry Z10 an answer? That, my friends, is what we'll address in this review.
BlackBerry Z10 Video Review
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to note that our BlackBerry Z10 is the one that was handed out at BlackBerry's press event as a review sample. As such, it is not the device that will eventually land on U.S. carriers and is simply an unlocked version with support for AT&T's 4G LTE network. The device is equipped with a 4.2-inch display with a 1280 x 768-pixel resolution, which represents a 355ppi count. Unfortunately, it's not made of Gorilla Glass and so we found that, unless our fingers were nice and greasy, it was hard to swipe the screen at times.
The Z10 is powered by a 1.5GHz TI OMAP 4470 processor and is packed with 2GB of RAM, an 8-megapixel camera, a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for BBM video chat, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and an oddly shaped 1,800mAh battery.
In general, we're really pleased with the build quality of the BlackBerry Z10. Despite the plastic battery cover, it feels really well built and seemingly on par with the high-quality build you'd expect from HTC. We also like that the aforementioned removable battery cover is among the easiest we've ever used, and that it opens up the ability to add in a microSD card for additional storage or swap out the battery.
We don't really like the large chins above and below the screen, especially since there's already a wide bezel around the screen, but we suspect that may be where BlackBerry stowed the phone's antennas.
We can talk about hardware all day long but what we're all really here to see is how well BlackBerry 10 stacks up, right? We come bearing good news: it's really fast and fluid, thanks to the 1.2GHz processor and 2GB of RAM. We also like several of the new features BlackBerry added to the experience, including BlackBerry Peek, a revised BlackBerry World store and BlackBerry Hub.
The software is gesture based. You can swipe up at any time to unlock the screen. You can also swipe up (with the phone on) to return to the home screen at any time. In addition, you can swipe up and move your finger to the right – this activates BlackBerry Peek – and "peek" into your BlackBerry Hub. BlackBerry Hub is your unified inbox of notifications from email, BBM, text messages, social networks and more. The gesture interface certainly took some getting used to, however. We found that we weren't completely adjusted until we had used the Z10 for six days or so.
Your main home screen is populated by open apps, and each is active in what it displays. You can see missed calls and texts, for example, or highlights from the BlackBerry World if that's open. If you swipe to the left, you're greeted with the standard array of applications in a grid, much like on most smartphone platforms these days. We do wish that BlackBerry kept the old QNX and webOS option to swipe apps off of the screen to close them, but instead you'll need to make a deliberate poke to an X on the corner of each open app.
Speaking of apps, BlackBerry rebranded its app store to "BlackBerry World." You can download movies, music and TV shows and it's a much better experience than the company has ever offered before. There are some big name apps, but generally we were disappointed by the 70,000 apps that are available at launch. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Foursquare are all there, but Instagram and other favorites are still missing. It's still a young platform, though, and you can sideload Android apps using CrackBerry's handy guide.
If you love BlackBerry because of its amazing keyboards, then we have more great news: the keyboard is one of the best we've ever used on a touchscreen smartphone. The frets are there (those are the silver spaces you may remember from physical BlackBerry keyboards) and the phone actually begins to learn how you type as you use it more. There's a heat sensor under the screen that starts tracking where your fingers hit on the display so that it can start adjusting contact points as needed, and we found that the keyboard became more and more accurate as we used it. In fact, there's even an awesome "swipe" feature that predicts the next word, which you can then swipe up to the screen. You'll need to check this out in our video to get a better understanding of how it works.
You can hide the keyboard inside any application by holding the spacebar down, which is a nice touch.Speaking of your inbox, and email in general, we found that the client worked really well. Emails came in blazing fast, often faster than on our computer, but another team member noticed that his emails were often very delayed. BlackBerry did away with its famous push email of the past, however, so it's still not as instantaneous as receiving messages on older BlackBerrys used to be.
While we're on the topic of email, we should address the calendar briefly. We found that the BlackBerry Z10 simply would not add a calendar event during our first week with the device. We have no idea why it didn't work, but it suddenly started working just fine. Hopefully this isn't something you'll see with a new carrier-approved Z10.
Finally, BlackBerry finally added a modern browser in the Z10. It offers full support for Flash, something iOS never offered and Android recently ditched, and we found that somewhat useful for several websites. It's really fast, you can open multiple tabs at once and more. Overall it's a much improved browser that's on a par with the experience you'll find on other smartphone platforms.
BlackBerry 10 supports voice actions but it's nowhere near as accurate or as useful as Google Search or Apple's Siri. You can use the engine to set an appointment, search the web, sent a BBM and more, although we found that it didn't always dictate what we said properly. You also can't use it for other tasks, such as asking the weather or a sports score. It's a nice start, but it's severely limited in its capabilities and generally wasn't that useful. The feature can be activated by pressing the button between two volume buttons on the right-hand side of the phone or through an application.
If you thought Apple Maps was bad then you're in for a treat. BlackBerry Maps is atrocious and often couldn't find a simple point of interest nearby that both Apple Maps and Google Maps were able to identify. It's also far from elegant and rather ugly looking, which means it's not exactly user friendly. Thankfully, as we mentioned above, you can sideload some Android applications to fix this weak point. Turn-by-turn directions actually worked well, however, so it has that going for it.
As we noted in the hardware section, the BlackBerry Z10 sports an 8-megapixel camera and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for video chats. The 8-megapixel took unimpressive pictures, but we did like the Time Shift feature. It basically works like most burst-modes do on other cameras, but lets you go back through and pick the best shot. HTC and Samsung have similar features, so it's far from new, but the actual user interface was unique in that you can seemingly move back or forward through time to choose the photo where a friend is smiling.
BBM Video chat with the front-facing camera worked really well and it was on a par with FaceTime and other clients. We also appreciated the screen sharing option, which allows you to share your screen with another BlackBerry 10 user – it's great for showing off videos and photos but is generally an added bonus that will probably be best suited for IT departments.
The signal strength on the BlackBerry Z10 was exceptional, which was a bit surprising since the phone wasn't even tuned by AT&T. Call quality was very good as a result, and was comparable to most Android smartphones and the iPhone. We love that visual voicemail is built in, too. One note, however: Bluetooth works really well in the car, but the phone's screen doesn't turn off when the call ends, as is the case with most phones we test. Instead, it will simply sit there with the screen on until it times out. That's a weird issue that needs to be addressed; it's an unnecessary waste of battery life.
We were able to surf using AT&T's 4G LTE network, but we're going to hold off on judging the speeds (they were fine) until we have a device with a carrier stamp of approval.
The BlackBerry Z10 packs a relatively small 1,800mAh battery, but despite its size we found that it performed really well. We're very demanding smartphone power users, and the Z10 was able to keep up during an entire full day of checking email from two inboxes, surfing the web, cruising Twitter and Facebook and more. We were generally quite pleased, although as usual your mileage will vary depending on how demanding you are on your phone.
Unfortunately, that might not be good enough. It's not simply good enough for BlackBerry to run in the same race as Android and iOS, it needs to run faster to succeed and eventually catch up to two competitors that are already far ahead in market share. Our concern? We're not sure that BlackBerry is running faster, but is probably more about at the same pace as the other two smartphone platform market leaders.
I'm not sure BlackBerry 10 is quite there yet to catch up to iOS and Android, especially due to the lack of applications and a relatively late start on the market. It's definitely a tough recommendation to anyone who truly values a large selection of apps and games, despite offering an amazing keyboard, solid email and more. It doesn't necessarily do anything poorly, it just doesn't do anything "better" than iOS or Android, really.
As there's nothing inherently wrong with the platform and the debut device, the BlackBerry Z10 deserves a solid 8 rating on our mobile review scale. The BlackBerry Q10 may be the one phone that BlackBerry enthusiasts should hold out for, since it will be the first to offer all of the aforementioned features tied in with a full keyboard.
In the meantime, we'll be watching this race very closely.