Hands-on: BlackBerry Z10 review

After months of waiting, the new BlackBerry is here ready to save the day - and the company, for that matter. Pocket-lint has been living with the new BlackBerry Z10 to find out whether the new phone and the new OS will be able to deliver the goods.

What follows are our first impressions, a glance into what to expect, a preview. We've stopped short of a full-blown review because we feel we are still learning lots about the new OS and the new hardware, and to try to give you a final verdict in such a short time would be unfair.

What follows is just the starting block. As we learn more about the phone we will note our findings and have a more comprehensive review very soon.

Design

The BlackBerry Z10 is the touchscreen flagship model, with a Qwerty keyboard version coming in the form of the BlackBerry Q10. It measures 130 x 65.6 x 9mm and comes with a 4.2-inch four-point multi-touch LCD display with a resolution of 1280 x 768 pixels, a sharp 355ppi. The screen isn't finished with Corning Gorilla Glass as found in most top-of-the-range smartphones, but RIM promises us it is still very much scratch-resistant and tough enough to endure daily rigours.

While the screen is only a fraction larger than the iPhone 5, the phone is considerably bigger. It's only slightly smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S3, even though that phone has a much bigger 4.6-inch display.

The front features a 2-megapixel camera and no buttons, although the bezel surrounding the screen looks like it could have happily taken plenty. Instead, you get a silver BlackBerry logo at the bottom so you know what you've got in your hand. As with the company's PlayBook, there is a volume and voice activation button in a single configuration on the right side, and a separate power button next to a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top.

The left-hand side of the phone features a micro-USB for charging, and a micro-HDMI port so you can quickly use the Z10 as a presentation tool to connect to a monitor or a projector, or hook-up to your TV for movies.

The back features an 8-megapixel camera with 5x digital zoom, 1080p HD video recording and LED flash.

Unlike the iPhone or the Nokia Lumia 920, the backplate can be removed to reveal the 1800mAh battery, the microSD card slot for expanding the memory, and the micro SIM card. The thin backplate also holds the NFC chip.

The design is simple, but rather large considering, especially when you look at what the competition has achieved in the same space. It's only slightly smaller than the Sony Xperia Z for example, but that packs a 5-inch screen and is thinner.

There is a lot of black space. The back feels cheap - although not SGS3 cheap - although it does feel like a phone that will still be in one piece in 12 months' time.

Inside

Specs are specs, what is important is whether the given power will let you complete and enjoy the task at hand.

Here you get a dual-core 1.5GHz processor with 2GB of RAM, 16GB of memory, and the usual array of Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi, GPS, and 4G connectivity that you can turn into a mobile hotspot. It also has all the usual sensors, including the rather comically named Magnetometer.

All that tech powers the new OS, which is all about swishing and swiping your way around. Booting-up from a cold start takes an age as the BB OS alway has, and while there isn't any lag in the performance of the gestures, it's not overly fast either.

You feel that it says, this is the speed you should be working at, rather than you ever thinking it's going too fast. If that sounds disappointing, it shouldn't. The OS is responsive, but if you've ever used an Android device, you'll know that the ability to scroll through your home screens is slowed only by how fast you can swipe with your finger and that isn't the case here.

That processing power does sometimes affect apps too. The Z10 is slower to load Angry Birds Star Wars, for example, than the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S III.

Camera

The camera is one of the key focus areas for RIM and one of the key ways the Z10 shines. The Z10 features an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus. There are three shooting modes: normal, stabilisation, and burst; and five scene settings: auto, action, whiteboard, night, beach or snow.

You can set the flash to fire automatically or not at all or change the aspect ratio from 16:9 or 4:3. Unlike Windows Phone or Android there is no control over exposure, white balance, ISO, or the ability to tap to focus either. You can pinch to zoom, and you can use the volume key to snap a picture if you don't want to touch the screen.

Where the BlackBerry Z10 and BB10 differ from Android and iPhone is a feature called Time Shift. This allows you to take a picture, then zoom in on different people's faces to get the best frame of them. It means that if you were smiling, but Mrs Pocket-lint was blinking, you can fix it so you are both smiling, eyes open, in the same photo all at the press of a button.

It's a fantastic feature and one that we can see many people using, especially if they take group pictures of family and friends.

Video is recorded at 1080p as standard, although you can downgrade the footage to 720p. You can also turn the light on and use the digital zoom while recording.

Battery life

It's too early to tell what the battery life is really like as we've not been able to use the phone enough to give you a full verdict just yet, but we aren't impressed so far. In our tests we've had NFC running, but not used it, and had emails set to 15-minute intervals rather than push. We have used the phone in a standard manner (we deem ourselves as heavy users).

One of the big selling points of the BlackBerry Bold was that it had a great battery life: here we've struggled to get through till 6pm from an 8am start.

It's not helped by the fact that there isn't an easy way to see how much battery you have left aside from a small icon in the top left of the screen. There is no percentage marker, no time indicator, just a guess at how much is left.

RIM says it believes the battery will last up to 10 hours of talk and up to 305 hours on standby on 3G. It doesn't give a 4G battery life claim, so those looking to pick up the new BlackBerry on EE might be in for a shock.

BlackBerry 10

A new beginning, a fresh start, a different way of using your phone. That's a fairly accurate way of describing the first 24 hours of using BB10, although you'll soon start to notice a mish-mash of features from previous BlackBerry operating systems and others too.

The main influence has been the BlackBerry PlayBook. BB10 has inherited gesture control from the PlayBook OS. There is no home button, for example, while the grid icon layout copies iOS and the opened apps panel reminds us of Android.

Swiping

Hit the power button and you are presented with a lock screen that shows you several icons if you've got messages be it email, text messages, or other notifications. It's all very Windows Phone in its approach and this list of icons is visible at any point wherever you are by swiping up from the bottom bezel with your finger. 

Once you've unlocked the phone, there are three core areas. The app grid is like any other app grid on any other OS out there. You can folder apps, you can re-arrange them, basically manage them as you would on BB7, iOS or Android. Swipe across to your left and you get the open apps page, that will list the up to eight apps you have opened. These take up more real estate on the screen - and with the Z10 you'll get four per page with the option to scroll down to see another four.

Swipe to the left again and you get your unified inbox listing all incoming and outgoing messages, be it a text message, BBM, email, or even Twitter or Facebook messages as well. The idea of the integrated inbox is still very much alive.

Swipe again to the left and you are given the navigation bar for the BlackBerry Hub, letting you go into the individual inboxes so you can split things out if you need to.

Swipe down brings you further options depending on where you are - settings when looking at the apps grid, individual app settings, or something else - while at any point an inverted L shape gesture on the screen takes you back to the BlackBerry Hub.

The idea is that whatever you are doing you are only one gesture movement away from your inbox.

Once you've mastered which way is what, the OS is fairly straightforward. The Hub has some interesting tricks up its sleeve like swiping down at the top of your inbox to reveal your calendar appointments for the day. The design is clean and crisp, although we are disappointed that to delete an email is still a two-button process (three if you don't turn off the confirm step). The design and feel still says BlackBerry, something BB users will be happy with, but with a modern, forward thinking, design.

Keyboard

Powered by SwiftKey, the keyboard is one of the most important parts of the new touchscreen phone, especially when you are trying to convince all those owners of the BlackBerry Bold that you've got the best offering on the block. Designed to look indentical to the new Qwerty keyboard of the Q10 (which itself is a modernisation of the Bold keyboard) RIM has not only made the keyboard well spaced out and easy to use, but also predictive.

There are two ways of benefiting from this. The first is that you just type as fast as you can and it learns your typing skills to correct your mistakes - including any lack of using a spacebar - or you swipe up on the words that appear on the keyboard to save you typing them out in full.

Go to type "dot com" for example in the browser and "com" appears above the letter "c" for you to swipe up.

So far we've not really embraced the predictive words, but are enjoying the auto-correcting keyboard. Yes there is copy and paste. Yes, it works in virtually the same way as Android.

Browser

RIM has done a lot to improve the browser and even on a standard 3G connection (via Vodafone), the speed was very impressive, outperforming the iPhone 5 and Chrome browser on the SGS3 we've been testing it against, although we have to stress, we are still testing it.

The browser still supports Adobe Flash, for those who still care, and that means you do still get to use services like BBC iPlayer without worrying that there isn't a dedicated app (the one in BB World is just a link to the website).

We've struggled however to get the browser to work with mobile sites, but that might be just a teething problem we are experiencing. Another reason this is a hands-on review rather than a full review.

BBM and other core BlackBerry apps

BBM now gets BBM Video calling so you can chat to people face-to-face, and there are a number of core but not essential apps like a compass, the iconic BlackBerry alarm clock when in sleep mode and a stopwatch if that's your thing.

Our phone was pre-installed with Box and Dropbox, although there isn’t any preferential treatment. Apps like Docs to Go, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Weather are all present too.

For those who like to get lost, there is a Maps app that seems to work as described. It will give turn-by-turn navigation, however it won't let you opt to walk. It's RIM's way or the highway.

Importantly, the phone dialpad is good and easy to use, although BlackBerry users will be annoyed they can no longer just start typing in a number or a name to get the contacts details up.

We will be detailing much more in an in-depth BB10 hands-on in the coming days. 

Apps

If you like apps and want to enjoy the latest consumer app releases then as it stands the Z10 and BlackBerry 10 OS isn't for you, but this is day one. As a new (ish) platform, it's behind the curve on support for third-party hardware, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Developers and hardware manufacturers are too busy building speaker docks or devices for Android and iPhone. Microsoft has been fighting the same problem with Windows Phone, and it's still not there yet, three years down the line, so BB10 will have to make it's mark before the ecosystem expands.

Manufacturers and "hip" developers have been steering a wide berth around BlackBerry for some time and the reality is that this isn't going to suddenly change over night. Yes, there are plenty of BB10 apps here and if you are an enterprise customer all the ones you need are likely to be supported - more so than on Android and iPhone.

BB10 still has a lot to prove and if you are moving from an iPhone or Android device you will feel you're stepping backwards in terms of app support, not forwards. If you are still on BlackBerry and are looking forward to BB10 and the whole app situation has not bothered you yet,  then it still won't bother you.

Verdict so far

BB10 and therefore the Z10 has some really nice features to it. Based on the time we've spent with it so far, we love the keyboard, although suspect Android users will get something equally as powerful in the next iteration of SwiftKey, and we like the Time Shift feature in the camera app.

While the messaging element, or BlackBerry Hub, has remained core to what is on offer here and very nice too, we can't help feeling that RIM has done what it has always done: made an amazing smartphone for its customers and no one else.

That's fine when RIM ruled the roost and it had lots of customers, but there is nothing overly amazing here that is going to woo back Android or iPhone users who are disgruntled.

Those disappointed with the Android experience are likely to go iPhone or Nokia's Window Phone 8. BlackBerry is having to fight a battle on many fronts and we're just not sure this is the device to give them the power to survive that fight.

This is not the end of RIM though: when it comes to enterprise customers, Android and iPhone don't come near it. The BlackBerry Balance feature will be applauded by system admin guys around the globe, while BlackBerry Bold users who are brave enough to ditch the keyboard will now own a device that means they won't have to carry two phones with them.

But the Z10 isn't going to appeal to the kids, another of RIM's core audiences, or pull people back from self-imposed exile.

For some the Z10 will be amazing, but for most, it just won't cut it against the incredibly strong competition already out there. 



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