review The artist formerly known as Research in Motion has a new smartphone kid on the block; a new top-line unit which many believe will either make or break the company’s fortunes forever. But does the Z10 have what it takes to get BlackBerry back on its feet? Read on to find out.
Note: Sections of this article are largely identical to our previous preview of the BlackBerry Z10. If you’ve read that article and are only interested in how the Z10 performs in the wild, we recommend you skip the ‘Design’ and ‘Features’ sections and skip to ‘Performance’.
The overall design of the Z10 reminds your writer very strongly of the the Apple iPhone 5. You get the same flat black oblong with rounded corners and the same large screen on the front with a front-facing camera and microphone at the top. In addition, the Z10’s main camera is placed at the top left of its back, where the iPhone 5’s camera is placed; unlike most modern Android models, which tend to have the camera in the top centre of the back. The Z10 also comes in white … again, just like the iPhone 5. The plastic material of the Z10’s front and sides, its physical size and weight; it all reminds us very strongly of an iPhone 5, and we’re confident that many people, when first picking the Z10 up, would wonder for a second if it’s an iPhone.
Other aspects of the Z10, however, are more drawn from Research in Motion’s (now known as ‘BlackBerry’) past. The back of the Z10 has a rubbery stippled look and feel, and the BlackBerry logo is there in a metallic finish. And the Z10’s design has elements in common with the current generation of Android models as well, with a fairly standard-looking volume rocker on the right-hand side and microUSB and HDMI ports on the left-hand side. The model weighs 135 grams and it measures 130 x 65.6 x 9 mm; quite thin and of about average weight.
This is a smartphone which, on the face of it, doesn’t scream ‘BlackBerry’ so much as it screams that it wants to be taken seriously as an iPhone competitor. In general, what the Z10 most looks like is an iPhone 5 impersonator with a few touches of traditional BlackBerry and a few touches from the stock Android world.
Is this a good thing? It depends. If you believe each smartphone should be like a unique and perfect smartphone, then no; you’ll be annoyed that BlackBerry has aped Apple’s iPhone 5 design so closely. However, if you’re like me and liked the iPhone 5’s design, you’ll probably like the Z10’s too. It’s minimalist, lovely on the hands and the build quality is excellent. Hardware-design wise, the Z10 is definitely a winner.
In terms of its featureset, the Z10 is fairly standard for a late 2012/early 2013 high-end smartphone, with no real standout features to give it an edge over the competition.
Its display is a 4.2″ multi-touch LCD model running at a resolution of 1280×768, which means it features 356 pixels per inch; and yes, that’s in Retina Display territory (like virtually every other manufacturer these days). Its main camera is an industry standard eight megapixel model capable of shooting 1080p HD video, and its front-facing camera is a two megapixel model which can shoot 720p. It comes with 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage (plus a microSD card slot under the back jacket) and support for all the normal Wi-Fi, BlueTooth and NFC options.
Plus, you get micro-USB for synching and charging, micro-HDMI output, support for 4G LTE carrier speeds, and the ability to operate as a mobile hotspot. The processor is a dual-core model running at 1.5GHz; it’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus model. The battery is rated at 1800mAh and it’s removable; BlackBerry says you’ll be able to get up to 10 hours of talking on a 3G network and standby of up to 305 hours; audio playback of up to 60 hours and video playback of up to 11 hours.
Of course, the real attraction to the Z10 is the fact that it features version 10 of BlackBerry’s operating system. To say that this is a platform which has been rewritten from the ground up is probably an understatement. The user interface for the platform has been completely revamped and is now quite reminiscent of the iOS or Android operating systems which we all know and love.
It features most of the same concepts (including an extensive app store) as iOS and Android, but it also appears to be a bit more dynamic in its approach; not unlike the way Microsoft’s Windows Phone user interface can be quite fluid. It also places a heavy focus on communications through the dedicated BlackBerry Hub feature; allowing you to receive all of your email from multiple accounts, text messages, social networking mentions and so on, all in one place. And there is also the ability to run Android applications through an included compatibility mode.
PCWorld reports from the Australian launch of the Z10 that a number of local Australian apps have been developed for BlackBerry 10, including from companies like Event Cinemas, goCatch, Fox Sports, Quickflix and Fairfax.
To sum up; what do we have here? We have a very standard hardware design with the Z10 which has broad feature parity with almost every other top-end Android, iOS or Windows Phone handset on the market, but which doesn’t seem to offer any real feature advantages over rival handsets, with the exception of the new BlackBerry 10 operating system unique to BlackBerry smartphones.
The first thing which will probably strike you about the OS as delivered in the Z10 is how much of a direct clone of Apple’s iOS it appears to be. You get the same rows of icons, the same battery, wireless, time and 3G/4G signal indicators at the top of the screen, and the same dynamic when switching between different screens of icons on your home screen.
Inputting text is similar, installing apps is similar, and even many of the individual apps which BlackBerry has developed itself or has preinstalled on the Z10 for you are similar. All in all, personally, I really feel as though BlackBerry has made an out-and-out effort here to directly rip off many of the core features of iOS with BlackBerry 10, and it’s done it in a way which is much more blatant than Android or Windows Phone did. There’s less customisation around those original iPhone features than you’ll see in other operating systems.
Android may function very similarly to iOS, but when you get a bit deeper you start to realise that they are fundamentally different operating systems under the hood. There are just so many little differences in the user interface between the two dominant players that you are always aware you’re not using iOS when you have an Android phone. And of course, Windows Phone has a radically different UI paradigm to iOS (a modern modern UI, some would say).
In comparison, BlackBerry 10 looks and feels incredibly similar to iOS. When you combine the phone’s iPhone 5-lookalike hardware with BlackBerry 10, it’s hard not to feel that BlackBerry has gone a little too far here.
There are some differences in the way you use BlackBerry 10 compared to iOS or Android, however. For starters, swiping to the left-most screen gets you into your message centre (BlackBerry Hub), which centralises incoming messages from a variety of services such as email accounts, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Google Talk and even phone calls and BlackBerry Messenger messages. It’s got some bugs and UI quirks, but overall we found BlackBerry Hub a really quick and useful way to get access to all incoming communication at the same time.
Then there’s how you deal with open applications. Once you open an app, it’ll look and feel pretty much like an open app on iOS or Android. However, switching apps is more dynamic than on iOS. The Z10 has no capacitive or physical buttons for navigation, but you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get into a kind of window manager mode where you can see open apps and switch between them and close them. We really liked this feature; it’s something Apple doesn’t do a good job of, and it’s a reminder that physical and even capacitive buttons on smartphones are not truly necessary any more.
BlackBerry 10 also steals some ideas from Android. There’s often a ‘back’ button on screen, for instance, which is very useful in getting back to the previous screen before the current one.
In terms of the included functionality which you get with the Z10, pretty much everything is here. You get all the normal smartphone functionality — email/unified messaging, phone functionality, web browsing, mapping, camera, music and video playing, weather apps, a dedicated app store for third-party software and so on. Just like iOS and Android, if you can think of a basic feature which a modern smartphone operating system has, BlackBerry OS will have it as well. It’s all broadly quite functional, and sometimes it even looks great — for example, we love the Z10’s lock screen, with the detailed information it presents, and the lovely way it flows up to reveal your home screen as you swipe the Z10 open.
There are some caveats to this situation, however.
Firstly, you need to be aware that although the hero apps (phone, email, SMS, mapping etc) work really well, once you get beyond those apps into the guts of BlackBerry 10, it’s pretty raw. There are plenty of little bugs and user interface inconsistencies here which make it very clear that this is an early stage smartphone operating system. Just like iOS and Android in the early years, time and time again you’ll be left wondering … ‘why did they do that that way’?
To illustrate a few examples: The ‘back’ button and other menus don’t always appear in BlackBerry 10 when you need them, the settings page is horrendously complex and often the experience of using even a first-party app just feels a little it’s divorced from the main operating system user interface. Many things aren’t consistent, and you sometimes have to hunt around to do what should be obvious.
There are also some major bugs. On smartphone review models, it’s our standard practice to wipe the devices before we send them back to the manufacturer, to preserve our privacy once the device gets to the next reviewer. On the Z10, not only did this take an age, but the phone actually crashed badly during the re-initialisation process. We could see the screen very dimly, but it didn’t respond to input, and we actually had to physically remove the battery to get it to switch off. To put it mildly … this is a pretty bad bug.
Secondly, the third-party app ecosystem is abysmal. A quick browse through the BlackBerry World app store makes it clear that while BlackBerry has done an admirable job of making sure that some of the most popular enterprise apps are available and featured right up-front, the depth is only skin-deep. When you start searching for the kind of popular third-party apps which you find on iOS and Android (for example, our go-to for e-reading, Amazon Kindle), you’ll find that they’re usually just not available. The paucity and poor quality in general of BlackBerry World apps is readily apparent.
Sure, you can also install native Android apps — and on paper, this feature should broaden the Z10’s appeal a great deal. However, those apps run in a rather dated version of Android which doesn’t integrate with the rest of BlackBerry 10, meaning it feels like you’re running an emulated version of an app on your smartphone. Not ideal … and the performance isn’t fantastic.
What you’re left with after you take these issues into consideration is a modern smartphone operating system which has promise, and one that can actually be used for most tasks in the real world pretty well. However, BlackBerry 10 just doesn’t match up to iOS and Android right now, and I would say it’s probably not even on par with Windows Phone 8. It needs a lot more development, including third-party app development.
In terms of its camera, we found the Z10’s model not terrible, but not great either. This shot, taken in late afternoon, illustrates the basic issues with the Z10’s photo shooting capabilities. It does a competent job, but its colours are not as rich as those capture by the iPhone 5, and it doesn’t quite handle light as well. As with all of our photos, these shots were taken at the same time and place and merely converted to a mid-level JPG with Photoshop — no other editing was applied.
There are some other issues with the Z10. Firstly, its battery life isn’t fantastic; you’ll usually get through a day of moderate use, but not much further, and it does take a while to charge. While overall hardware performance was solid (you’ll be able to run any compatible game at a decent clip), with decent sound and visuals from the Z10, it does take a while for it to boot up and shut down.
Lastly, there’s the integration with a PC. We tested the new BlackBerry Link software on Mac OS X, and found it lacking severely. It’s slow, the interface is confusing, and it took us an age to get the Z10 to synch a handful of photos to our desktop — a process which is almost instant on every other smartphone platform. BlackBerry Link’s synching capabilities are not yet decent — they need a lot of work. For example, BlackBerry Link appeared to by default want to instantly sync our entire iTunes connection; an approach we weren’t fond of.
When you consider the fact that the Z10 also automatically took over our Mac’s Internet connection, acting as a tethered mobile broadband unit when we didn’t ask it to … we found the whole synching experience sub-par. It’s surprising that this kind of simple stuff hasn’t been fixed by BlackBerry yet. This should just be a basic Mac OS X app.
Folks, this is clearly a first release model and should probably be avoided as such. BlackBerry has a great deal of experience in making smartphones, and the Z10 has great build quality. It feels awesome in the hand and its software is broadly competent — it will get the job done. However, this is a model which is clearly sub-par when you look at what is coming out of Apple, Samsung, HTC and Nokia right now. The only situation in which we can really recommend the Z10 is if you are in a corporation which requires you use a BlackBerry, and honestly, many of those have opened up recently to support the iPhone or a Windows Phone model.
There’s also another factor here.
If you look at the Z10 objectively as a stand-alone product, it’s a decent one. However, it’s impossible to do so. There are so many elements in the Z10, from its hardware design to its software interface, that are clearly ripped directly from Apple’s iPhone. We can’t fault BlackBerry too much for that choice — after all, that’s precisely what Samsung, HTC and so on have done with Android.
However, the fact is that the iPhone was first released back in 2007. Has it really taken BlackBerry more than five years to release a mostly-baked copycat model? It’s hard to believe. In the meantime, the entire market BlackBerry plays in has changed. Consider the fact that HTC released its first Android phone, the Dream, in October 2008. If BlackBerry had been able to get an operating system as good as BlackBerry 10 ready at that stage, or even in 2009, we believe the Canadian manufacturer would be doing pretty well in 2013.
But to be trying to play catch-up with the iPhone’s most basic functions, after five years? That’s a little silly. And the other manufacturers haven’t stood still in that time; recent releases such as the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S 4 have shown that they’re pushing the envelope in every direction, while BlackBerry is just trying to catch up with the basics.
We wanted to love the Z10; it’s got great build quality, competent software and that patented BlackBerry feel. We’re sure some of the company’s faithful will gladly adopt this new BlackBerry, and for those in organisations that require a BlackBerry handset, it’s an instant buy. However, for everyone else — and that’s most people, this is one smartphone to give a miss. Hopefully BlackBerry’s next BlackBerry 10 effort takes strides ahead.
Image credit: BlackBerry