In its 2013 Superbowl spot, BlackBerry went with a whimsical ad that supposedly showed off what the BlackBerry Z10 can’t do because 30 seconds is too short a time to show you what it can do. Whether or not this is a misstep is up for marketing professionals to debate. The problem for consumers is that it makes the Z10 look more complex and possibly revolutionary than it is. It’s not really hard to explain what this smartphone does in a few words because it’s designed to be a straightforward experience. It’s not a superphone, not a game changer, not likely to set the world of fire.
And all of that is okay.
The expectation that BlackBerry would deliver a phone far out ahead of the competition is unrealistic given how far behind the company fell. But not every phone needs to be ultra groundbreaking in order to be a good phone and draw in customers. Look at Windows Phone, which may have alienated potential users with its boxy design. The Z10 is a good phone, but not cause for fireworks. And it’s still more suited to people in business suits than your average Joe.
Look and Feel
The BlackBerry Z10 is long and narrow with rounded corners and flat edges. Sound familiar? It looks a lot like the iPhone 5 and has similar dimensions because of its similarly sized screen (4.2 inches). Where the Z10 departs is in the curve to the back plate of the device, making it more comfortable in the hand than the iPhone. Plus, the back is a textured plastic, not glass, and pops off for access to the battery, microSD card slot, and SIM card.
Like a well-tailored business suit, the Z10 is good-looking and put together but not so flashy that is draws attention away from what’s important: in this case, the screen. Edge-to-edge glass covers the front to create an elegant feel.
Naturally, cameras grace both the front and back, the latter supported by a LED flash. The Power button on top is rarely necessary since it’s possible to wake the Z10 by swiping the screen (very cool). Uniquely, between the standard Volume buttons is a convenient Mute button, a touch we appreciate. Rounding out the tour around the edge are the ports: microSD and Micro HDMI.
At 4.9 ounces the Z10 feels solid but is not heavy. It balances in the hand well, which is important for one-handed use. Most people will be able to reach a thumb across the screen easily and the most important areas of BlackBerry 10, such as the Hub, are easy to navigate using one hand. However, because the phone is on the long side, you’ll still have to do some shuffling up and down to get at the volume buttons from the Z10’s natural resting place – no more than most phones these days, though.
The Z10’s 4.2-inch IPS touchscreen bears a 1280×768 pixel HD resolution (that’s 356ppi for those if you keeping score) and has wide viewing angles; no big surprise for an IPS display. Contrast is appropriately deep, but colors don’t pop as much as on competing mainstream phones like the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S3. Nor is the screen as bright as on either of those handsets. That doesn’t affect the sunlight readability, though. Unless you’re directly in a sunbeam, the display is visible at full brightness.
We found the 4-point touchscreen to be responsive most of the time and accurate. Most problems we experienced were when trying to execute gestures. Swiping up from the bottom requires that you start the movement in a specific area, and we sometimes missed it. In apps that stay in landscape mode, it’s more difficult to swipe up to close since the edge is much smaller.
Sadly, the screen is also a smudge magnet, and accuracy goes down in proportion to how dirty the screen gets. Keep a Toddy cloth handy.
To get a fuller picture of everything BlackBerry 10 offers, you should read our full review (coming soon). However, there are some aspects worth mentioning here.
The centerpiece of the operating system is the BlackBerry Hub, and it’s easy to get to it from anywhere else, including other apps. We like the efficiency of being able to swipe up and to the right to either go into the Hub or just peek and see which service has new messages and who sent them. The Hub is a true universal inbox that collates messages from email, BBM, social networks, chat, even incoming calls and texts.
It’s easy to respond to or create new messages and status updates right from the Hub. You won’t always need the computer to do so. BlackBerry’s Voice Command also includes voice typing. Users can ask the Z10 to create a message, schedule a meeting, make a call, and more. The engine isn’t as robust as Apple’s Siri because it lacks some of the natural, conversational commands, but in practice, it’s about on par in terms of accuracy. It understood what we wanted “make a call,” “tweet,” etc., yet had trouble with our pronunciation of some contact’s names. The voice-to-text engine has to upload to a server to translate and won’t work while offline, just like Siri. (Android 4.2 offers the ability to do voice recognition offline.)
This ease of input is exactly what BlackBerry users want. However, it’s the keyboard experience that will determine whether buyers go with this touchscreen device or wait for the BlackBerry Q10.
The design and layout of the new BlackBerry keyboard is simplified but not simple. The look mimics the BlackBerry physical keyboards a little bit. We found that for less accurate typers the keyboard help mitigate mistakes well. The keys themselves are wide, plus they appear to take into account the letter you meant to type if you land on two at once.
The keys only contain letters, no alt-press characters. To get to numbers and punctuation beyond the comma and period, just swipe down. Once you tap a key, the alpha keyboard comes back automatically. This makes typing faster in many situations – there’s no need to switch back to the alphabet keyboard if all you wanted was a question mark. You can still switch to the number/punctuation keys for extended typing if you need to.
The keyboard contains several features devoted to speeding up text input, such as swiping from right to left across the keys to erase the last word typed. Another that could, eventually, get words on the screen faster is predictive text. We say eventually because we found that trying to look out for the words as you type slows things down. Once the keyboard knows your typing style better, flicking the predicted words up will save more keystrokes and require less searching and thinking. It helps that the words appear near keys you’re likely to press next.
Is it better than a physical keyboard? If you don’t have fingernails or large fingers, it can be. However, the Z10’s typing experience is not likely to draw away die-hard fans of actual keys. Still, it has the potential to satisfy people who use any of the many touchscreen phones on the market.
Cameras and BBM Video Chat
The 8-megapixel camera on the back takes detailed and color-rich images in good light and better than average low-light pictures as well. Low-light photos still have noise. The balance is better than average and the flash helps instead of blowing out the subject. You get all this without tweaking the settings much. This is a good thing, because there aren’t many settings to tweak.
Other than image stabilization, a burst-shooting mode, a handful of selectable Scenes, and the ability to change the aspect ratio, there isn’t much else to the Z10’s camera. Blackberry is most proud of the TimeShift feature that lets you choose the best facial expression in a shot for those times when people blink. The Whiteboard scene setting is also worth noting. It’s a feature we suspect many business users will appreciate most.
Videos come out crisp and detailed in bright and medium light. In low light, you can turn on the flash as a constant light, which helps, but may annoy the people in front of you. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the videos have good audio quality, even when the surrounding noise is loud.
The 2.0 megapixel front camera produces better than average pictures and video for a front shooter, which is great for people who’ll take advantage of BlackBerry Messenger’s video chat option or Skype calls when that app comes to the platform later this year. In BBM, we noted that video on both ends is crisp enough with good color and detail. Audio and video stayed synced as well.
BBM also allows screen sharing now, so it’s possible to do a presentation or show pictures to your chat partner as well as talk face-to-face. We noted a small amount of sluggishness during screen share, though not very much.
Hardware Specs and Performance
There’s nothing revolutionary to see here. The BlackBerry Z10 runs on a dual-core 1.5GHz processor backed by 2GB of RAM. It offers 16GB of internal storage and the microSD slot takes cards up to 32GB. Wireless connectivity radios include dual-band a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and NFC. Wired connectivity includes a microUSB port for charging and connecting to a computer and a microHDMI port for HD video output. The Z10 will be available on all four major U.S. carriers and supports 4G LTE, HSPA+, mobile hotspot, and global roaming. The rear camera is 8 megapixels with 5x digital zoom and 1080p video recording capabilities; the front camera is 2 megapixels with 3x digital zoom and 720p HD recording.
These specs are about average for smartphones, though it has double the RAM of many. Yes, there are more quad-core models on the horizon. However, not every phone needs four processors powering it. If the hardware and software are optimized for efficiency, then there’s no need for more cores to get good performance (no lag).
The Z10 performs well with “only” two cores. When swiping between Home screens the frame rates are quite high, making for a smooth experience. Multitasking doesn’t make the phone sluggish and BB10 handles switching between apps quite well. Apps, games, and the Hub respond to input with speed. The only problem we encountered is that the Z10 gets noticeably hot when taxed, such as during gameplay. Not so hot as to be dangerous, but it can get uncomfortable to hold.
As we mentioned in our BlackBerry 10 review, that there are 70,000 apps in BlackBerry World at launch is great. However, quantity doesn’t mean quality. BBW suffers from the same problem as any burgeoning app store: a ton of fluff and filler. That wouldn’t be so bad if more top-tier apps were here, such as TripIt, Yelp, and Netflix. Too many apps are pale knock-offs of better Android and iOS apps or don’t seem right for the platform.
The apps that come pre-loaded on the device at least provide a solid foundation. Naturally the messaging Hub and Calendar are both top notch. The free productivity apps like Docs To Go, Print To Go, and Remember are robust and useful. We also like the easy connectivity to cloud documents services like Box and Dropbox.
We haven’t been able to do thorough battery life testing yet, but the Z10 has a 1,800mAh battery and is supposed to have talk time of about 10 hours. This is roughly on par with your average phone. During our testing over Wi-Fi, the device performed on par with other phones. We imagine it gets about a day of solid battery life on an LTE connection, but will update this review once we’ve done further testing.
Carriers and Availability
All four major U.S. Carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless – will sell the Z10. Verizon plans to sell it for $200 on contract, but no other carriers have announced pricing. The phone is available in the UK right now, but will hit U.S. shores in March.
Is the BlackBerry Z10 a groundbreaking smartphone? No, it doesn’t have any one uniquely crazy new idea. But there’s something to be said for subtlety. The Z10 is a compelling BlackBerry device and runs on a solid new operating system. It will just take time for BlackBerry 10’s app store to fill out.
Business users looking for an all-touch experience will certainly like the Z10 better than previous models. Message-obsessed folks will like the Hub and the keyboard experience. All of the parts are in place. It has an efficient and well-designed interface is a good place to start, and the apps will come next.
- Comfortable, balanced, and good-looking design
- Efficient operating system
- Good performance
- Well-designed touch keyboard
- Cameras capture quality images and video
- Screen is prone to smudges
- BlackBerry World needs more quality apps