BlackBerry has received a lot of media coverage lately, thanks in the most part to last week’s launch of the BlackBerry 10 platform and the new handsets that will be running it. But despite the fact that it was bringing something truly interesting to market, much of the media coverage revolved around the company’s fall from its once dominant position, and speculation on whether it can survive long term.
This review will not be focusing on those points. I can wholeheartedly promise that I won’t be using phrases such as “make or break” or “last chance” with regard to either BlackBerry or the Z10. I also guarantee that you won’t see the word “beleaguered” anywhere on this page, other than just then of course.
I’m assuming that you’re reading this to find out whether BlackBerry 10 and the Z10 are worth considering. And I’m guessing you’re not here to read more rehashed commentary about how RIM lost its crown and was left behind by the mobile communications market that it once pioneered. Essentially, that’s the past, and BlackBerry 10 is the future. So how is that future looking?
The BlackBerry Z10 is a good-looking handset and its 4.2in screen means that it’s not too large in the hand like many of the flagship phones right now. At 130 x 66 x 9mm it’s still larger than an iPhone 5, but not noticeably so, especially since most iPhone 5s are wrapped in bumpers or cases. The Z10 is also pretty light, weighing in at 137g.
From a tactile perspective, the Z10 feels good in the hand. The back of the phone has a rubberised, textured finish to it, making it easy to get a good grip when taking the device out of your pocket.
There’s a single power button on the top edge. On the right edge you’ll find volume controls with a dedicated mute button between them. The left edge houses the micro-USB port for charging and data transfer, along with the micro-HDMI port for hooking the Z10 up to an external monitor, TV or projector.
Unlike the iPhone 5 and Nexus 4, the Z10 isn’t a sealed unit. That textured back can be removed, granting access to the battery, SIM slot and micro-SD card slot. It’s good to see that the micro-SD card slot can be accessed without having to remove the battery, so you can whip out the card and copy stuff to or from it at will. The removable battery pack will also please anyone who needs to stay connected for extended periods.
The Z10 ships with 16GB of internal storage, which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to smartphones. However, unlike the iPhone 5 and Nexus 4, you don’t have to pay a premium for more storage, instead you can just make use of that micro-SD card slot. And with fast Class 10 32GB cards available for under £20, it’s a preferable route to take.
The Z10 is powered by a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus SoC running at 1.5GHz. If you’re worried that BlackBerry hasn’t equipped its handset with a quad-core processor, don’t be. The Z10 is one of the most responsive smartphones I’ve ever used, which is doubly impressive when you consider that the whole user interface is gesture based. Of course the iPhoe 5 also ships with a dual-core chip, but the Z10 has twice the RAM at 2GB.
That 4.2in screen has a resolution of 1,280 x 768, giving it a pixel pitch of 356ppi – that’s higher than the iPhone 5, Nexus 4 and Galaxy S3. The IPS LCD screen is bright, vivid and readable in most lighting environments. I did, however, find that I needed to have the brightness turned up fairly high for best results.
From left to right: Google Nexus 4, BlackBerry Z10, Apple iPhone 5
But the way the Z10 hardware performs is tightly interwoven with how the BlackBerry 10 OS functions, so this review is as much about BB10 as it is about the Z10. Put simply, both the OS and the hardware represent a bit of a mixed bag, but they do show some promise for future devices and OS updates.
BlackBerry 10 is very reliant on gesture control, and the excellent multi-touch screen interface makes interaction easy. With the phone in standby swiping up from the bottom of the screen will wake the device up with the home screen being revealed gradually as you swipe, as if you were drawing a curtain aside.
The same kind of eye-candy is employed when swiping between home screens, as the new screen’s content appears to overlay on top of the old screen’s icons.
Although BlackBerry was keen to point out that the Z10 has no physical home button, swiping upwards from the bottom of the screen is essentially performing the same task as a home button. That said, when you do swipe up from the bottom you’re presented with all your running tasks, allowing you to quickly switch between apps. It could be argued that double tapping the home button on the iPhone does a similar job, but there’s no denying that switching between apps on BB10 is a breeze.
The BlackBerry Hub can probably be described as one of the killer features in BB10, but it’s not without its issues. The Hub concept is a clever one – it’s essentially a centralised, well, hub, for all your communication needs. At its most basic level, the hub is a dynamic list of every interaction, whether that be a through email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SMS, BBM or even a good, old fashioned phone call.
You can view the Hub as one amalgamated stream or you can choose to monitor a specific account, like email or BBM. The great thing about the Hub is that the native applications don’t need to be running, so you’ll be informed of Twitter mentions without needing to have the Twitter app itself running.
Another great feature is that you can peek at the Hub without needing to close the app you’re currently using. If you’re browsing the web, for instance, and you hear an email drop into your inbox, you can swipe up to the middle of the screen then across to the right – this will reveal the Hub and allow you to check on that email without having to drop out of your browsing session.
But the Hub isn’t quite perfect. First up, the Twitter functionality is significantly compromised, since it only shows you interactions rather than your timeline. Okay, you might not want to fill the main Hub stream up with your Twitter timeline, but it would be good if you could see it when you specifically selected Twitter.
Another problem with the Hub is that your email status doesn’t update unless you’ve viewed messages on the Z10 specifically. So, if I’ve read a dozen emails on my laptop, they’ll remain unread on the Z10 until I’ve opened them there. It’s a bit odd, and not something that I’ve encountered on other smartphones when using a Gmail account.
If you want to get full Google sync, you’ll have to remember to setup your account via the advanced setting and choose Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync rather than the Gmail option. The latter will just sync your email, while using the former will sync your contacts and calendar too. Even when using the Exchange ActiveSync option, though, I could only get the Z10 to sync my primary Google calendar.
Another potentially great feature is BlackBerry Balance, whereby the Z10 can have distinct and separate Work and Personal user environments. BlackBerry Balance is, according to BlackBerry, an answer to the BYOD issue that’s plaguing IT managers around the world.
There’s often a standoff between IT managers and staff when it comes to mobile devices. While the IT manager is primarily concerned with security and data integrity, staff members are often more concerned with having a handset that can do everything they want it to. The result is often staff using unsecured mobile devices for work, or staff having to carry their secure work phone and their personal phone at all times – neither situation is ideal.
With BlackBerry Balance an IT manager can ensure that the Work environment is completely secure, password protected and encrypted. Meanwhile, the Personal environment can be left completely open, allowing the user to download and install whatever they want without compromising the security and integrity of the business side of the device.
Your business will need to be running BlackBerry Enterprise Services 10 to make use of BlackBerry Balance, but for companies already using BlackBerry handsets it’s a no brainer. BlackBerry is counting on the Z10 being a cool enough smartphone for staff to want to use it as their personal device of course, and only time will tell if that turns out to be true.
BlackBerry Messenger has had something of an overhaul too, and you can now instigate video chats as well as instant messaging. Unfortunately, though, WhatsApp still isn’t available from the BlackBerry World store, which means your instant messaging will be limited to other BlackBerry users. BlackBerry did say that WhatsApp is coming to BB10 though, at the launch last week. At least there’s a Google Talk app available if you need some form of cross-device messaging.
WhatsApp isn’t the only popular app that’s missing from BB10 though. Despite the fact that the Kindle app was also mentioned at the launch, it still isn’t available. Likewise, there are no apps for Nike+ Fuel Band, Barclays online banking, IMDB or Sky+ - a whole plethora of apps that I use and rely on each day simply aren’t available on BlackBerry 10.
I had honestly considered switching from my iPhone and using the Z10 as my personal handset, but the lack of app support has made that impossible. It’s also worth noting that many of the apps that do exist on BlackBerry World are actually ported Android apps, which are running in emulation mode.
Although the lack of app support probably won’t bother too many corporate BlackBerry users, it does make the Z10 look less attractive to anyone looking for a single device for Work and Personal use.
While on the subject of apps, the ones that are there are far from perfect. With the lack of Twitter time line in the Hub, the only way to keep an eye on what’s going on is to fire up the Twitter app. Unfortunately, whenever I tried to refresh the timeline the app fell over. I could refresh the interactions and direct messages, but not the timeline – essentially giving me no more functionality than the Hub. In fact the only way to refresh the timeline in the Twitter app is to kill it and restart it.
Remember the days when BlackBerry devices didn’t have cameras because corporate clients saw them as a security risk? The Z10 proves that those days are well and truly over, because BlackBerry has put a lot of effort into the camera on this handset. Spec wise, the 8-megapixel rear-facing camera is par for the course, as is its ability to shoot 1080p video. The front-facing camera’s 2-megapixel resolution is above average, but only really matters if you absolutely have to look your best on those video calls.
Image quality from the main camera is pretty good, but not outstanding. It’s not quite up there with the iPhone 5, which is a surprisingly adept alternative to a compact camera, but you can still get some decent shots. I did like the fact that you can release the shutter by tapping anywhere on the screen, but the Z10 is somewhat sluggish when it comes to focusing.
But the pièce de résistance is the camera’s TimeShift feature, which shoots a burst of shots whenever you take a photo – half of which come before you’ve hit the shutter. You can then choose the frame you like best, while the others are discarded.
However, you can also merge frames with TimeShift. So, if you’re shooting a group photo, the Z10 will detect all the faces in each frame, allowing you to select the best resulting face shot for each person and amalgamate them into the final photo. Catching someone while they blink will be a frustration of the past.
Each face is taken from a different frame in the picture above.
There’s no doubt that BlackBerry 10 is an adroit OS – the Z10 is one of the most responsive handsets I’ve used in a very long time. Swiping between screens, switching apps and starting new ones never results in any annoying pausing or chugging. Everything is pretty much instananeous on the Z10. Obviously any handset will slow down after extended use, but the sheer speed of the Z10 out of the box bodes well for long term usage.
Browser performance is also first rate. The BlackBerry browser has always been a bone of contention, but the BB10 browser is slick and incredibly fast, even when rendering heavy web pages. The BB10 browser even supports Flash, although unless you specifically need mobile Flash functionality, it’s not much of a deal breaker anymore.
The keyboard is another major highlight, and it would have to be really. While hardcore BlackBerry users will be waiting for the Q10 to arrive with its physical keyboard, I doubt many will be disappointed with the Z10’s input credentials.
Call quality is good at both ends, although the speakerphone volume is a little low unless you’re in a quiet room. Data speeds are impressive, especially on a 4G connection – I tested the Z10 with an EE LTE SIM. I did notice that it didn’t seem as keen to hang onto the 4G signal as both the Note 2 and iPhone 5 that I tested previously though.
While there are a lot of positives for the Z10, and many of the disappointments should be addressable, one major point of concern is battery life. There was a time when BlackBerry users would lord over other smartphone users when it came to battery life. They’d boast about how they could jet off on a two day trip and not even bother to take a charger, while others were having to charge their smartphones at the end of each day. Such boasts will not be forthcoming from Z10 users.
Considering that I’ve been using the Z10 as a supplementary device, the battery life can only be described as woeful. So far the Z10 has yet to last past 17:00, having charged all night until around 06:30. Even with the device literally sitting on my desk on standby for most of the day, I’ve yet to be able to squeeze a day’s use out of it.
The battery life issue clearly hasn’t escaped BlackBerry, since the company is already selling a spare battery and charger bundle, which will charge the Z10 and spare battery simultaneously. At £29.95, that bundle is surprisingly cheap, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Z10 should provide far more usage time from a full charge than it does.
Price wise the Z10 is up there with most other high-end smartphones. If you don’t want a contract you’ll be looking at around £500 SIM free, or £450 pay-as-you-go. If you want 4G, £46 per month will get you 3GB of data per month from EE, but you’ll have to sign a two-year contract and still pay £29 up front for the phone. You can get unlimited data via T-Mobile’s Full Monty plan for £36 per month on a two-year contract, but you’ll still have to pay £49 up front for the phone.
Of course the cost of rolling the Z10, or any other BlackBerry 10 devices out to a corporate workforce is a different kettle of fish altogether. That cost will depend on what kind of arrangement your company has with its service provider. It’s fair to assume, though, that the Z10 will be landing in more corporate hands than consumer paws over the coming weeks and months.
BlackBerry has made some giant leaps forward in the past week, not least of which being its decision to drop the RIM brand, but the launch of BB10 and the Z10 handset also herald significant positives for the Canadian company.
There’s no denying that BlackBerry 10 is an intrigueing new mobile OS, which has real potential. But I can’t help remembering that I thought the same thing about WebOS when Palm first unveiled it at CES back in 2009.
BlackBerry 10 needs industry support and it needs it fast. The lack of top-quality native apps is a real hurdle to BB10 adoption, and the lack of BlackBerry 10 handsets will stifle the development of more apps. If BlackBerry 10 were licensed to other handset manufacturers it would increase interest from app developers, but whether the company is willing to do that, remains to be seen.
The Z10 itself is a very appealing handset on many levels. It’s relatively small compared to the giant phones that many of us are carrying these days. It’s light, comfortable in the hand and extremely intuitive to use. The BlackBerry Hub is a brilliant feature, and the ability to peek at it without shutting down your current app is genius.
The Z10 is also intuitive and swift in operation – partly because BlackBerry 10 has some great UI features, and partly because the hardware is pretty good too. As a modern, flagship smartphone, the Z10 definitely measures up to the competition.
But the meagre app choice can’t be ignored, especially when some of the most popular apps on the market are conspicuous by their absence. And even the native apps are a bit flaky – Twitter in particular is nigh-on unusable for anything other than update checking.
And even the lack of app support pales when compared to the truly terrible battery life provided by the Z10. Yes, you can carry a spare battery with you and switch over when the first one runs out of juice, but the fact that I couldn’t get the Z10 to last past the afternoon having charged all night, is definitely cause for concern.
All that said, if you’ve been sitting on your hands waiting for the launch of the first BlackBerry 10 handset, there’s a lot to like about the Z10 and the new platform it’s running. Hopefully a firmway update will improve battery life and the app support will grow significantly over the next couple of months. But even as it stands, the Z10 shows that BB10 has real potential as a mobile platform, and I don’t think that BlackBerry could have asked for more than that.
1,280 x 768 pixels
Processor and battery
Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
Claimed 3G talk time
Up to 10h
Storage and memory
3,264 x 2,448 pixels
1080p @ 30fps
802.11 a / b / g / n
Integrated wireless charging
130 x 65.6 x 9mm