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Critics be damned, the BlackBerry Z10 is a knockout

BlackBerry Z10 designCheck out our full review of the BlackBerry Z10 phone.

BlackBerry is, and will probably continue to be, a polarizing name in the mobile industry. After a long run as the darling of the business world, BlackBerry became everyone’s favorite punching bag in 2012. Once a status symbol, owning a BlackBerry device like the Bold or Curve is now a source of embarrassment. Those QWERTY devices were stunners though, compared to the so-bad-it-was-offensive BlackBerry Storm or the garish Torch – Frankenstein’s monster of smartphones. But 2013 brings with it a new start for BlackBerry with brand new hardware and a reconstructed operating system, both with a renewed focus on attractive and functional design.

The Hardware

Early reviews have pegged it as bland or boring, but the critics are wrong. The Z10 is a knockout. It looks like it’s been pulled straight out of a science fiction flick. The edge-to-edge screen makes it look positively futuristic while its top competition, the iPhone 5, looks like a half-hearted update to a three-year-old design.

Let’s get down to specifics. BlackBerry has learned from its mistakes. The company has discarded its past love of chrome accents and leather and stripped the Z10 of excess details. By minimalizing the casing, and making it only visible on the top and bottom of the display, it makes the screen even more of a focus as the center of the device. The Z10 is all about the display and BlackBerry captured this truth very well, putting the emphasis where it belongs.

BlackBerry Z10 white - back

The design is understated, yes, and that’s probably why so many people may find it boring. But it isn’t dull; it is practical, utilitarian, and quite comfortable. There are no bells and whistles, no blinking lights, and no capacitive buttons ever-present at the bottom. The casing reaches down from the top and up from the bottom only to hold the screen together. The back is unadorned, only broken by the iconic BlackBerry logo. It is what a smartphone should look like, no useless embellishments for the sake of “design,” but instead a device meant to handle your virtual life.

This approach to design is refreshing. To compare it to bigger players out there, Nokia’s Lumia 920 puts huge emphasis on hardware flourishes that can be distracting. The 920 is bulky and features a heavily promoted camera. It is difficult to interact with the device without being distracted by its physical features. It is the same with cheaper-feeling devices like the Galaxy S3 with its plastic body detracting from the software experience, a glossy exterior that shines with greasy fingerprints.

We refuse to praise the Q10 with attached keyboard because it is more of the same from the company and feels like a compulsory device rather than an exciting one. We will say that the Q10 is a welcome update to the once-great BlackBerry Bold, but it’s no more than a slicker version of what has come before. Just download SwiftKey and be done with it already.

The Software

Never in a million billion years would we have expected to be impressed with BlackBerry 10 enough to mention it in an article applauding design. But the Canadian smartphone-maker has done something new here, pushing the reliance on touch gestures for navigation to a whole new level while challenging some conventions in the industry.

BlackBerry Z10 white

For starters, the homescreen for BB10 is a 4×4 grid of your recent apps, breaking from the tradition of first showing users a list of installed apps. Touch an app to open it up and swipe up from the bottom to return home – there is no main button to do that for you. And there doesn’t need to be. From the recent apps, you can swipe from the left or right to access different functions. Swipe to the right and you’ll see the expected, seemingly unavoidable, app grid with all of the apps you’ve downloaded from BlackBerry World, which already has 70,000 apps on it. Swipe to the left and you’ll find the Hub, BlackBerry’s answer to the notification center, and it does the job well. The Hub keeps a time-sensitive list of actions you’ve performed, pulling in BBM, text messaging, email, Twitter, etc., to catch you up. A context menu, usually depicting quick settings, can be pulled down from the top of the screen. There is also an interesting, though gimmicky, feature called Peek that literally lets you glance at what you were doing previously.

The touch-centric user interface is how we’ve always wanted smartphones to work. Using capacitive buttons is cheap, buying into archaic remnants of a time when fingers and screens hadn’t met yet. Reaching the homescreen by flicking upwards is a succinct gesture that also reflects a real world action like you are tossing the app off the screen or pushing it off your virtual desk. The remaining gestures are equally simple, reminiscent of Windows 8, with swipes from each edge of the screen doing something specific. Questions of stability and speed aside, BB 10 has implemented compelling work here.

Of course, we still haven’t done a full review – but that doesn’t change the solid ideas being presented. Whether or not BB10 succeeds in revamping the dying brand, we can’t say BlackBerry didn’t give it 100 percent. The BlackBerry Z10 is gorgeous and a bold (not “Bold”) step forward for the company now known simply as BlackBerry.