Once synonymous with smartphones, BlackBerry, the brand and the company, is now just a shadow of its former self. Blindsided by the emergence of iOS and then Android, the maker of the iconic BlackBerries now struggles to survive with the scraps left by the platforms it once dismissed as a fad.
Facing certain demise, BlackBerry had to start over from scratch. The result of the extreme makeover is BlackBerry 10, a brand new operating system, and the Z10, a full touchscreen device designed for the modern smartphone user.
As Android users and lovers, we were curious to see first-hand how the Z10 looks and feels. Is it really as revolutionary as it’s pegged by its makers? Has the clean slate approach really worked?
In a hurry? Check out the hands-on video at the end of this post.
To set the expectations from the get go, know that the Z10 and BlackBerry 10 are not, by any means, groundbreaking, at least not for a seasoned Android user. What they are is a very promising start for a brand new platform. In other words, BlackBerry may not be out of the woods yet, but no one can blame them for not putting up a good fight.
Looking at the Z10, we liked its subdued, yet elegant appearance, and the fact that the rubbery soft back cover can be removed to allow access to a replaceable battery and a microSD card slot. Especially the swappable battery should be a boon for road warriors and power users, which still make up the core audience of BlackBerry.
We Android users are spoiled with the very best specifications available on any mobile platform. Top of the line Android smartphones like the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One push the boundaries of mobile technology, effectively ruining the appeal of “normal” devices. And the BlackBerry Z10 is precisely that – a normal device, with components that would qualify as mid-range to Android specs junkies, which should, nevertheless, prove perfectly adequate to the vast majority of customers.
The specs on the Z10 are actually pretty similar to those of the US-bound Samsung Galaxy S3, the most popular Android device to date. The two phones share a similar processor and the same amount of RAM. The Z10 is powerful enough to zip through most tasks, with one, glaring exception – boot up time is rather slow. Luckily, after the phone comes to life, lag is almost inexistent.
The 4.2-inch display of the Z10 is, just like its specifications, adequate. It’s a far cry from the full HD eye candy that Android manufacturers like to boast about, but given its smallish size (coming from Android at least) the pixel density is sufficient.
Two areas where BlackBerry could improve its future flagships are the battery life and the cameras. We found battery life to be somehow inconsistent on the Z10, with periods of low activity seemingly draining the battery without an obvious reason. The 8MP camera does a decent job in great lightning, but it shows its limitations in less than ideal situations. One could argue that taking pics is not one of the preferred activities of BlackBerry’s target group, but the truth is BlackBerry can’t afford to focus solely on enterprise and productivity features.
Which brings us to the software department, likely to bring the biggest shock to new users and the old faithful alike. The new BB10 operating system is completely new and unlike anything you’ve seen before, from BlackBerry or other mobile platforms. For one thing, its user interface is based mostly on swipes. There is no reassuring home button, and in fact, there are not many buttons at all. For someone used with Android’s UI, the change can be refreshing, but also a bit confusing.
To access your active apps, you swipe up from the bottom of the app you are currently running. This reveals a list of up to eight active apps, whose thumbnails are updated in real time. In a way, this turns the apps into a kind of widgets, which can potentially be very useful.
To reach the Hub, BB10’s unified messaging service, you swipe up and then right. Notifications from all your messaging apps are available there at a glance, and the Hub can be accessed from any part of the OS.
The Hub is one of the highlights of BB10, with another one being the predictive keyboard. Unsurprisingly, BlackBerry worked hard to provide a worthy digital alternative to the iconic Qwerty keyboard that so many users still swear by. The effort seems to have paid off, as we found the typing experience on the Z10 to be excellent.
One of the biggest challenges of starting a new mobile platform is creating a healthy app ecosystem. While BlackBerry succeeded at attracting many developers to its new operating system, and gave it a shot in the arm by supporting ported Android apps, some important apps are still missing from BlackBerry World. Two examples are Spotify and YouTube, and depending on what you like to do on your device, there is a good chance you’ll find many other apps that are available on Android or iOS, but have yet to make it to BB OS.
To draw the line, the Z10 is a refreshing, modern, and capable take at what a smartphone should be in 2013. It may not have the breadth of features of Android, or its flexibility, but, once you get used with it, it lets you get things done quickly and efficiently.
The deliverance for BlackBerry may not lie in the Z10, but the phone and the operating system that powers it are certainly a leap in the right direction.