I’ve used and owned a wide variety of phones in my time, but never a Blackberry. That said, I can distinctly recall the early days of RIM. They made a one trick pony, which was a handset dedicated to checking email. A buddy of mine owned one in lieu of what was then a cell phone. Laughable now. Fast forward 12+ years later and RIM, now officially Blackberry, is desparately treading water to stay afloat in what is a sea filled with iOS and Android devices.
With the majority of the market lost in just a few years time, Blackberry returned to the drawing board without so much as a peep during the latter half of 2012, or so one would probably recall. Rumors circulated, the vultures circled and then all of a sudden RIM emerged from the ashes and showed off the Z10 and Q10 handsets.
The Q10 was more a “been there, done that” handset, where as the Z10 appeared to be an experience that was more analogous to that of the iPhone. After all, it sports a similar form factor that is arguably more akin to that of the HTC One. But the iPhone 5 is the handset to beat, even if it may not be the most popular.
Unlike the Blackberry Storm, which was Blackberry’s initial foray into the touchscreen handset targeted at consumers, the Z10 is a solid, consumer driven device that mixes work and play fairly well. The metal chassis leaves little to be desired, though the rubber plastic backing, while convenient (I’ll tell you why in a second), takes away from the Z10’s allure value since it’s made from less opulent material, unlike the iPhone 5’s all metal body. However, the battery on the Z10 can easily be replaced simply by popping off the back cover with a finger tip, and for that it will score big points with those that want to carry additional 1,800mAh batteries with them. Removing the back cover also exposes the SIM card and microSD card slot, which is currently compatible with up to a 32GB cards. I’m happy to report that you don’t need to remove the battery to swap the microSD card, though the same can’t be said for the SIM card.
Though the Z10 isn’t completely devoid of buttons, but it does stray from tradition compared to the Android and iOS devices as it sports no “home” button on its face. This makes for a sleek appearance and relegates the OS to perform the task, something I’ll address later in this review. Gaps between the screen and the body are relatively evident at a glance, but they do little to upset the aesthetic that Blackberry has strived to achieve. Adjacent to the headphone port, located at the top of the device, is a power/lock button. Like iOS, you’ll need to swipe to unlock the Z10 by sliding your finger from the bottom of the screen up, as further indicated by a set of runway like arrows that flow upwards. A volume rocker switch with a center button (for playing/pausing music), miniUSB and HDMI port are placed on the right and left edges of the Z10, respectively.
Unlike a few Android handsets (e.g. the Nexus 4), the Z10’s speaker is placed on the bottom bezel of the phone, a location analogous to that of the iPhone. The result is clear speakerphone calls even when the phone is placed flat on a surface. That said, the speaker is reasonable loud, and while it won’t replace a set of standalone ones, it’s suffices in most scenarios when needed.
From a dead stop, the Z10 takes just over a minute to power up and reach the phone’s main app screen, where upon a few more seconds are needed to acquire a signal from Verizon’s 4G LTE network. If the battery has been completely drained it will take well over 10 minutes to return the device back to a living state. Both of the aforementioned figures are extremely slow compared to the iPhone and many Android devices – my Nexus 4 takes just slightly over 30 seconds to power up and reach the main screen.
Nevertheless, the Z10 never felt sluggish when streaming YouTube videos or surfing the web, which can attributed to the Snapdragon S4 processor as well as the relatively nimble BB10 OS. I also attempted to download a processor intensive game, but failed because I didn’t have cart blanche access to the store. As a result I downloaded the Star Wars version of Android Birds. It ran smoothly, and without hinderance. Graphics and animations were clear and didn’t show any signs of jittering. Moreover, with a YouTube video running in the background (paused of course), I was able to perform the aforementioned test with the audio running simultaneously – a feature that isn’t available in Android or iOS and allows you to effectively add your own soundtrack.
The battery on the Z10 is pretty solid. Running a variety of Youtube videos – one after the other – I was able to achieve just shy of 5 hours of playback over WiFi. This is with the screen lit and the video streaming from YouTube’s servers to the phone.
Measuring 4.2-inches, with a resolution of 1,280 x 768 and 335ppi, the Z10 display is relatively impressive…on its own. Compared to the Nexus 4, which isn’t an industry standard, whites are of a slight yellow tint. Blacks are decent, but lack detail and are over saturated as compared to videos on the Nexus 4. Conversely, white details hold up better on the Z10 better than the Nexus 4. But, for the most part even photos taken on the Z10 look better on the Nexus 4 screens as details are less washed out and offer more color accuracy compared to the real thing.
Powered off, the display is more reflective than the Nexus 4 and the iPhone 4s (sorry, no iPhone 5 on hand). It’s a marginal difference, and not one that makes viewing the screen not impossible in brightly little scenarios, such as sunlight, but a little bit more frustrating. Colors, unlike an AMOLED screen, as seen on the SIII, don’t explode onto the page, and text remained tightly wrapped and easy to view. That in mind, the iPhone 4s’ screen still outperforms, though it’s a small difference at best, and alone a none issue.
On a final “display” note, I found that I was able to type more accurately on the Blackberry Z10 than my Nexus 4. Sure, it lacks the same pop up letter notification, but from word to word I made fewer mistakes. I also found the predictive text function interesting, which displays the next word Blackberry believes you’ll type above its first letter on the keyboard. I’m not sure I’d ever use this feature full-time, but considering the proximity to my fingers, I found it more accessible than the stock Android version.
The lack of apps in the Blackberry store is a significant and dissuading factor, and one that will keep me away from the device. Pandora, Spotify, and many other mainstream apps that have long been available on iOS and Android aren’t present, though there are a few that seem to be unofficial, or unbranded versions. Moreover, BB10 is designed to be Android app compliant, but that still requires devs to make the app, and it’s not one many will bother to do since their isn’t a significant Blackberry market, at least for now.
Of the apps that are there, YouTube, Facebook and others, they seem to work without flaw. However, YouTube is merely a redirect to a mobile version of the site, and Facebook can’t view events and must open them in the Z10’s browser. So you can see, there is little to keep you using the device even if the hardware and software seems to be in good order.
Lack of apps aside, there are a few built-in ones that can be quite useful. BBM offers video chat and if you’ve seen the commercials, screen (expect an Android and iOS version of the app in the coming weeks). And while I didn’t use Blackberry’s map app, it seemed to be ok, though it lacks the spit and polish you may have come to expect from Google Maps.
Photo capturing with the Z10’s 8MP camera is a blazing fast experience, or at least feels so. Tapping the screen, or pressing volume up or down activates the camera’s shutter button. Auto focus is accurate and can pin point most objects without too much confusion. Auto white balance appears to be accurate and image quality on the whole is decent despite the display’s shortcomings. Low light performance (flash off) is modest, but largely lack luster since the iPhone 4s was capable of capturing a more discernible image in the exact same lighting conditions. Flashed powered on both devices, and the Blackberry still struggled to keep pace with the iPhone 4’s camera, producing a less crisp, more noise filled image with darker edges.
That said, in brightly lit scenarios, the Z10’s camera truly shines (pardon the pun) and is by all accounts very usable – check the photos above and below. In select scenarios the Z10 keeps pace with the iPhone 4s, though the iPhone, at times, out performs it in terms of color and contrast accuracy.
Android and iOS dominate the mobile device market. So it stands to reason that Blackberry couldn’t completely reinvent the wheel, but nor could they completely ditch the Blackberry OS that was associated with their past success. The result is an OS that offers an experience that is both nimble and intuitive and plays complement to that of the Android and iOS. So for someone like me, who has never set a toe in Blackberry OS waters, I was able to, with relative ease, instantly pick up the Z10 and use the device. More importantly, I was able to punch in my Gmail info and instantly have all my contacts and calendar info available.
As mentioned, unlocking the device is as simple as swiping from the bottom of the screen up. You can first activate the screen by hitting the power/lock button, but it’s not mandatory – just swipe from the bottom up. Much like Android and iOS you can swipe from right to left and scan through apps. While their icon designation leaves something to be desired, it’s an experience that is analogous to that of any other smartphone. Once an app has been opened, it flips back to the left most screen and opens a tile next to the HUB – there is room for 8 tiles/apps in total, though to view the bottom 4 you’ll need to scroll down. Open a 9th app and the last tile is shoved forward, replacing and closing the oldest.
A single swipe from left to right from the home screen opens Blackberry’s HUB. The HUB contains a list of all your updates – social, email, text messages, BBM, etc – in one place, allowing you to view (or select some) your communications at glance. While in the HUB, scrolling up exposes the upcoming calendar appointments, though if not completely pulled down it will snap back – I grew frustrated with this.
The bottom of the home screen, while not in an app, contains shortcut buttons. And although they’re exceedingly small, they’re easy to press and jump to the running apps or a page that contains the app icons. If that doesn’t fit your fancy, a universal search feature is accessible by tapping the magnifying glass icon. Punching in a word, or part of a word, returns results immediately, producing a mix of located apps , contacts, messages, calendar events, past chats and more. It’s so fast its awe-inspiring, though keep in mind my Z10 didn’t have much search history to chug through.
All together BB10 is solid. You’ll inevitably make some missteps as the icons to copy and paste may not be apparent at first glance, but as with any new or unfamiliar OS you’ll just need to practice patience.
It’s a shame: the Z10 is a solid piece of hardware, and while my heart is in Android, I often found myself swiping up to unlock my Nexus 4, or from left to right in the hopes that a HUB would open. The Z10’s keyboard is remarkably good, and as mentioned I was word for word more accurate on it than my Nexus 4, which has a larger screen. Photo wise the Z10 holds it own, and although the iPhone 4s out performs it, it’s a marginal difference in select instances.
Despite Blackberry building what appears to be a solid OS that can handle just about anything that is thrown at it, it still lacks the feeling of belonging. Perhaps part of this is derived from the rather nascent and desolate app store that is devoid of the main stream applications I depend on, such as Spotify, Pandora, Instagram and a stand alone Gmail app. Or perhaps it’s because I want a me-too device that has an existing, and more importantly, mature eco system, such as Android and iOS.
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