Everybody knows what’s at stake for BlackBerry. The Z10 is its shot to stop its considerable bleeding and shut everyone up. But launching a brand new OS with brand new hardware isn’t easy. And it’s even harder to match expectations when both have been delayed again and again.
A touchscreen smartphone from BlackBerry—the first to run the BlackBerry 10 operating system.
Old fashioned BlackBerry users who are ready for a land bridge between their old world and the new.
The design of the Z10 itself is more spare than strike. It’s got all the right lines—similar to the iPhone 5′s—but it’s a much noisier design than you see from Samsung or Apple or even HTC these days. The texture change from its comfortable back plate to the plastic sides to the frame the display is mounted in—there are a few too many things going on for it to really feel elegant.
On the software end, BB10′s look is modern in its animations and fluidity, but miles behind in general design. Its icons look dated, and its fonts, while readable, don’t exactly scream modernity.
The Z10 is a perfectly inoffensive device. It’s thin, light, and its screen is fairly sharp. But the display isn’t quite as bright as others, like the HTC 8X or the iPhone. That owes partially to the relatively muted colour palettes on many of BB10′s icons, but it’s also evident when trying to read an email in the daylight. There, though, its bolder, utilitarian typefaces make up for readability.
Performance-wise, apps loaded fast enough—the Facebook and Twitter apps both perform similarly to their equivalents on iOS and Android, and leaps better than Windows Phone—and slowdown is almost nonexistent. The only time it cropped up was when jumping in and out of voice commands. Those, sadly, are even more unnavigable than Siri and Google Voice Actions.
The software keyboard got a lot of hype, especially about the struts between the horizontal rows of keys and it’s a decent keyboard to type on. At first, the struts on BB10′s keyboard seem like they could be an anachronistic holdover, an attempt by BB10 to just look like a BlackBerry keyboard, even if it can’t perform like one. Using it, though, the additional vertical space helps avoid some of the most common phone typos, like accidentally hitting (or not hitting) the space bar.
The autocorrect is especially non-intrusive most of the time. But while the suggested text options on individual letter keys seem like a neat trick on a demo screen, when you’re typing at speed, you’ll rarely know where to swipe from for a certain word as soon as you need it. That’s pretty representative for a lot of the OS, actually.
You’re not used to using a phone like you use BlackBerry 10. Everything is gestures. Literally everything. There is no physical home or navigation button. To go home, swipe up from the bottom of the screen. To see notifications swipe up and hold, then continue swiping to the right. It’s deeply disorienting when you first start using the phone, and there are zero visual clues to tell you what to do. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to pick up, though.
“Home,” by the way, is not a typical home screen. It’s all your recently opened apps, in tile form, some of which turn into widgets. That home screen gives BB10 the single best implementation of multitasking of any mobile OS right now. The gesture for that is intuitive and the tiles are responsive. But it’s an imperfect solution to a home screen. There’s no place to just revert back to easily where you know where everything is.
In place of the traditional home screen to centralise your experience, BB10 has the BlackBerry Hub, which contains all your messages, IMs, contacts, calendar events, and notifications—the real guts of any BlackBerry experience. And it’s all integrated extremely deeply—you can make a new event from a contact card, and that contact is automatically emailed, and added to the calendar event—so you never have to leave the hub. But while in theory it is a universal inbox that handles all your needs, it works out to function a bit more like a junk drawer. Because everything is in there in a way that isn’t all that delineated, you’ll feel like you have to root around for stuff more often than it just smacking you in the face. You’ll swipe over the Hub looking for notifications and still be in the BBM portion of Hub, or the last email you were reading. It’s a general inconsistency of what you’re getting—are you opening the Hub menu, or a single app’s settings (both of which are accessible from the left side)?
You can get to everything quickly, sort of, but it doesn’t always make sense the way you do. For instance, when using BlackBerry Hub, you can always swipe down from the top of the screen to display your new few appointments. Handy! But random. It’s more like knowing your sunglasses are always in your left-hand cup-holder than knowing that the cup-holder is always on your left-hand side.
In a lot of ways, BB10 feels like older iterations of Android. You always feel connected, like you can do more or less whatever you need or want to, if you could only remember how. BB10 is a powerful OS; it just hasn’t figured out how to be thoughtful yet.
The speed. No, the gestures aren’t intuitive, and that’s going to be a problem for a lot of users. But once you figure out exactly where everything is, how it works, and how to get where, you can zip around from app to app, task to task with admirable efficiency.
You’re on an island. Unlike every other major OS right now, BlackBerry does not feel fully integrated in the way that others do. It’s not just the lack of apps that Windows Phone faces. It’s the lack of in-house services in BlackBerry’s stable. Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have their own cloud service. They all have deep desktop integration, be it with Office and Google Docs, or Apple’s OS X Notes and Reminders stuff. You can sync Safari, IE, and Chrome to their desktop counterparts’ bookmarks and tabs. None of that stuff is as baked-in and evident on BB10.
This might not be a huge problem for the traditional BlackBerry user. But we’ve come to this point because what’s right for the traditional BlackBerry user is no longer what’s right or good for everyone else in the world. For them, most ironically, it will feel like BlackBerry 10 lacks the infrastructure of its competitors.
During testing, after being totally drained and left uncharged for a few hours, the Z10 totally refused to start back up, despite hours of charging. It returned to life overnight, but over an hour plugged into a computer, and 1.5 more plugged into its wall charger should be enough to wake any device up. This did not happen every time it was fully drained—more commonly, it would display a too-drained-to-turn-on icon for a few minutes before relenting and turning back on. But it was strange.
- Call quality was fine, and the speaker is loud and clear even with both parties using speakerphone. The microphone for speakerphone mode isn’t quite sensitive enough to be used from a distance of more than a few feet at a conversational tone. That’s fine, though it seems like a sliiight step down from some of the Bolds.
- Battery life wasn’t great—I rarely made it home at night without needing to charge it—which becomes a problem on weekends. That’s an issue for a lot of phones right now, actually, iPhone included, but it felt especially pronounced here.
- Notifications can be a bit of a hassle. You’ll see incoming notifications from your connected accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn when you swipe up and hold. But the read receipts for those do not push from the services themselves, so those will stay there until you manually press each notification in the Hub. Similarly, there is the familiar red LED to tell you you’ve got new stuff, but BB10 lacks an in-your-face pop-up notification for incoming texts or BBMs, even a non-intrusive one like Android’s.
- BlackBerry Remember is supposed to work like an Evernote or Instapaper for literally anything on your phone—articles, notes, pictures, etc. But as unintuitive as the process turns out to be, it feels like a missed opportunity, just another feature that’s interesting that will (probably) end up going unused.
- The browser loads pages quickly when it decides to accept your presses, but it seems to abort trying to load pages with surprising frequency—even with cellular data turned off and on the same Wi-Fi network as other devices. When it does load, though, it’s lightning quick.
- Copy and pasting is actually pretty good on BB10. You long-press a word to highlight it, with tabs on each end to drag onto additional words. The dragging itself isn’t as immediately fast as on iOS or Android, but if you’re taking your time, it’s more accurate. So it’s a bit of a tradeoff, but probably a good one.
- Voice commands have a wide breadth of things they can do—send emails or BBMs, schedule appointments, take notes, or run internet searches—but in practice it rarely understood what I was saying to it. Even in a quiet room, it would simply ignore whole sentences of dictation. Accuracy is one thing, but taking in sound and deciding that none of it is actual words is another. Then, when it would accept the words as actual language, its processing time was significantly longer than Android’s or iOS’s or even Windows Phone’s.
- The camera is extremely not good in low light, and only average or so in proper conditions. It gets annihilated by stronger cameras like the Lumia 920 and the iPhone 5, though.
If you should, you probably already know you should. BlackBerry 10 still excels at everything that BB has excelled at for years. Its utility for planning and coordinating and taking in and processing a massive amount of information is unchanged. And while there are a bunch of little and not little headaches, the foundation of the OS is promising enough that there’s hope for the future, if you’re debating jumping ship or riding this thing out. But then, you might consider just sticking to more familiar waters with the Q10.
But for most people wondering about going back to BlackBerry? Well, probably look somewhere else. The experiences and services that BB10 serves up are comprable, and in a few ways surpass competitors, but not in any way that would make someone say, hey, I’m going to give up my Nexus or iPhone for this thing.