This is a new beginning for BlackBerry. A new flagship device with a new operating system, looking to excite the fans of the BlackBerry platform and breathe new life into a company that’s lost massive ground to Apple and Google.
The BlackBerry Z10 treads ground that BlackBerry has covered before: the Storm and the Torch 9860 models both tried to crack the touchscreen-only approach, and whil they had their advocates, they didn’t exactly stir excitement.
It’s interesting, then, that BlackBerry has launched the Z10 first, rather than the safer Q10, which is essentially an evolution of the popular Qwerty Bold. The move outlines a real commitment to stepping forward, it gives the impression that touch is what BlackBerry wants, or the recognition that it's what consumers want.
So can BlackBerry 10 on the BlackBerry Z10 give you that touchscreen experience so well refined in competitors? Is the Z10 a viable alternative to Android, Windows Phone or the iPhone? Or is the BlackBerry Z10 only going to appease those BlackBerry users who want to, finally, have a touchscreen device to shout about?
BlackBerry design hasn’t been the most dramatic over the past few years. Rather like Porsche, sticking to a tried and tested formula has very much been the path. That makes sense when the keyboard is the top priority, but with the Z10 you don’t have that crutch.
The BlackBerry Z10, then, has an opportunity to showcase BB design. Although there’s only so much you can do with a device that’s based around a 4.2-inch display, distinct design is still possible. Look at HTC or Apple: the choice of premium materials, precision manufacturing, attention to detail.
Some may say that the BlackBerry Z10 is as close to a generic touchscreen device as you can get - a slab of smartphone. That’s a touch unfair, because it does have some merits, but we have to admit that it lacks flair.
The size is something of a contentious point. Not because it is big, per se, but because it doesn’t make as efficient use of space as some of its rivals. Take the Motorola RAZR i for example. This features a fractionally larger display, yet is noticeably smaller (seen below). The BlackBerry Z10 measures 130 x 65.6 x 9mm and it weighs 137.5g. It’s the 130mm that feels too big: it’s almost as tall as the Nexus 4, and that adds half an inch of screen size.
But that aside, we actually like the feel of the Z10 in the hand. It feels well built, a solid lump. The back might only be a plastic clip-on plate, but we don’t mind that. It isn’t as luxurious as the woven glassfibre of the Q10, but we don’t see that as a problem.
The squared edges mean it feels thicker than some of the sculpted larger screen phones out there - like the Samsung Galaxy S III - but it does mean it will stand, like a monolith, unsupported. Sure, it doesn’t really add much, but you can at least perch it on your desk whilst you watch a video.
On the top of the phone is a central power/standby button, along with the 3.5mm headphone socket. The volume rocker sits on the right-hand side, with a central mute/voice command button. The external speaker sits at the bottom, but isn’t muffled if you stand the phone up, so works rather well, and the quality of this speaker is better than previous devices.
On the left-hand side of the phone you have two connections. The Micro-USB for charging - you’ll get used to that - as well as syncing, and the micro HDMI so you can hook your Z10 up to a display, either to share a video you’ve just shot with family, or to roll-out a PowerPoint presentation.
Hardware and display
Sitting at the core of the Z10 is a 1.5GHz dual-core processor with 2GB of RAM. You get 16GB of internal memory as well as the microSD card slot, allowing expansion cards up to 64GB, so storage shouldn’t be a problem.
There’s plenty of connectivity on board, as the Z10 offers 4G LTE and HSPA+ so, should your network support it, you’ll enjoy fast data speeds. Additionally you have dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and NFC, so it very much keeps up with the Joneses on wireless connectivity front.
There’s also a whole host of sensors, like the conventional GPS, and all the motion sensors you’d expect. We've had some problems with the rotation switching though, as it seems to take a while for the phone to rotate and sometimes it just refused to, or would get stuck in the wrong aspect, which is a little irritating.
There’s an ambient light sensor that will change the brightness of the display, adjusting around the manual brightness slider in the settings, rather than having "auto" and "manual" settings.
The display itself, as we said, measures 4.2-inches on the diagonal. That puts in in the middle ground of smartphones in modern terms, but with a resolution it offers 1280 x 768 pixels, it gives you a pixel density of 355ppi, up there with the current high-end devices. That’s reflected in the visual experience of BB10, which is nice and sharp, with plenty of refinement, and you don't need to zoom all the time, as fine text is rendered very well.
The display is bright enough to remain visible in bright sunlight and although it's reflective and attracts fingerprints, they’re easily wiped off. Throwing pictures and video through the screen is also great too: it's vibrant and colours are nice and punchy.
BlackBerry 10: Gesture navigation
But hardware is only half the picture here. The BlackBerry 10 software launches on the Z10: it’s a glittering showcase of what to expect from BlackBerry handsets in the future. It’s based around a new way of interacting with your device and as you’ll have noticed, there has been no mention of navigation buttons in the sections on design or hardware.
That’s because BlackBerry is differentiating itself from the rest of the smartphone world by doing away with them. Sure, it was a feature of the PlayBook too, and much of what we see in BB10 evolves from the BlackBerry tablet.
So, rather than returning to a central home page or menu, BlackBerry is pushing something they call BlackBerry Flow. Essentially this is just the basis for navigation and it’s all centred around gestures.
The main gesture is swiping up from the bottom over the BlackBerry logo on the Z10 which takes you to the "active frames" view. This is, in essence, how navigation and multitasking is handled, because in this area you can then swipe right to access BlackBerry Hub (messages of all types), left to get to your apps, or simply tap on one of the running app frames to return to it.
So, is it very different? No, it isn’t a huge departure. The active frames are pretty much what Android's "recent apps" gives you, but the way it's all strung together is unique. Swiping up will first of all give you a "peek" at your notification icons.
The advantage that the UI holds is that everything is basically accessible after that first gesture and certainly it feels like a better multitasking approach than iOS gives you. But BlackBerry doesn't seem to have targeted speed of navigation in BB10. The swipe from one app page to the next seems strangely sedate, unlike the crisp snap you'll find in other operating systems. So while BlackBerry has made BB10 different, it's not necessarily faster or less effort to actually use. You can jump from one page of apps to the next, or back to messages and this is very fast, so it's not that BB10 can't go quickly, it's that someone decided to make it leisurely.
But from the active frames view, you also have access to the camera and universal search. Universal search can be tailored to your liking, and will not only search your device - contacts, messages, calendars -but can then be prompted to extend that search wider - the web, maps, apps. It's a great feature. You can also access the camera directly here, as you can from the lock screen, which is always handy.
Combining gestures by swiping up and to the right takes you through to BlackBerry Hub. This is one of the features that those who use messaging services heavily will appreciate. For a couple of generations, BlackBerry OS has offered an integrated inbox, which is at a basic level what the BB Hub is.
It’s evolved, allowing you to easily sign into a number of services, with support for lots of different email platforms, as well as major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This will then deliver messages into one area so you can see quickly what’s going on in the world. Incorporated are those social notifications, along with things like alerts from BlackBerry World, so BlackBerry Hub really is a one-stop-shop for communication.
For a long time messaging has been the foundation of the BlackBerry and that hasn’t changed: it’s still a great experience. Core to messaging is BlackBerry Messenger, the famous BBM. This is BlackBerry’s own messaging service and one that has lots of merits. What was once an IM platform has evolved and the integration of video now means it’s set to compete with things like FaceTime on iOS.
The BBM experience is good: we like that you can see when a message has been delivered, as well as read, so you know if it’s getting though to the other person. Bringing video calling catapults this into the modern era, but the limitation of being stuck on the device is a problem: FaceTime, at least, offers desktop integration, and a third-party app like Skype has cross-platform features, although it has to be said, BBM feels faster and more dynamic in daily use.
Skype and WhatsApp, which will open up cross-platform support for BB10, are promised as coming in the future, however BBM's appeal is in its integration as much as anything else, which other services don't really get close to - or haven't in the past.
With a number of services supported, it's easy to get started with your existing contacts, calendars and email. In the account settings there's the option to add accounts, with the advanced settings giving you Exchange, Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo, and manual IMAP, POP, CalDAV and CardDAV, so you can find your own way if you don't want to leave it to the automatic process.
Generally this all worked very well for us, only coming unstuck with recognising multiple calendar accounts in a Google account. Try as we might, we've not been able to get the second calendar to appear, something we'd previously used the Google Sync app to bypass. We're sure there will be a solution.
Apps and BlackBerry World
With the launch of every new platform comes the great debate about apps. The argument is clear though, some want lots of apps; some are happy with core functions. For many smartphone users, however, the experience changes drastically with the arrival of more and more intuitive apps.
At a core level, the BlackBerry Z10 comes with a number of preinstalled apps, including those for the main supported social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn. They integrate in BlackBerry Hub, which is great and you can quickly reply to messages there, rather than moving backwards and forwards between apps.
The Twitter app stands out as one that feels incomplete: there are some quirks in the app that almost beggar belief. For example, the image previews that the app shows are all square. It takes the image posted to Twitter and changes the aspect, as shown below (compared with Android). There also seems to be no control over how often the app synchronises: the settings contain nothing other than legal notices and fluff.
Moving over to the selection of apps in BlackBerry World, it was a telling sign that BlackBerry highlighted big-name apps to come. On one hand, when customers have a choice of platform, you don't really have the luxury of delaying, you have to launch with the premium apps that people expect. But on the other hand we won't be too critical of BlackBerry. There is a wide array of apps on offer and a commitment from all sides to get more apps on the platform: Kindle, Skype, WhatsApp, and more are promised, but looking for Netflix, eBay, Amazon highlight that there is a long way to go.
What we will say is that there seems already to be a lot of rubbish in BlackBerry World. Rubbish might sound harsh, so we'll qualify: there are a lot of paid-for apps offering you third-party access to a service that should be free, like Google Maps. It's these things we stumble across, rather than the premium apps we want to find.
What we don't have on BlackBerry is an app experience that really showcases the platform. Windows Phone launched with a fanfare, demonstrating apps that were unique in design, beautiful in many cases. Instead BlackBerry World is filling with Android ports. While that's a practical solution to bringing apps to the platform, we can't help thinking that customers could just have those apps on Android on an existing handset. BlackBerry needs innovation in apps to be distinct.
BlackBerry Maps on BB10 offers turn-by-turn navigation as well as the normal searching functions and browsing. There's no street view or 3D buildings or anything else, just street mapping, but we can live with that as long as we get where we're going.
Searching isn't fantastic and seems to lack the power that Google Maps offers. For example, searching for Nando's returned results 3 miles away rather than 300 yards away, probably because of an out-of-date database. Embarrassingly for BlackBerry, a quick Google search found our local peri-peri restaurant in a flash.
This doesn't reflect well on BlackBerry Maps, but that's not the end of the troubles. The Maps app offers a lot of clever options. You can set favourite locations, you can access contacts with address information and use this to find locations quickly without plugging in the address.
Unfortunately you hit the same search woes: accessing our contacts, even when we were supplying a full address with postcode, BB Maps would serve up suggestions using only part of that address, so it's a rather hit-and-miss experience. In one case we had seven suggestions, none of which were correct.
The same applies when contacts have an address. Clicking on the address sees Maps open, but then you have no information that there's a search taking place, you just appear at the location after a lengthy pause. This is inconsistent with searching from the universal search option, which tells you what's going on with a spinning dial.
Moving on, you get turn-by-turn navigation as standard. This, like Google Maps, will let you find somewhere and then punch a button to get driving directions. Navigation is adequate: route selection is perfunctory and it misses the tricks that you'll get from something like TomTom, however re-routing is fast and we got to where we were going.
Things to be 'appy about
There are, it has to be said, some very nice features of BB10. The "active frame" for File Manager, for example, gives you storage stats: showing how much space you have in each location for storage. The same applies to the AccuWeather app: back out to active frames and the weather display conveniently fits the window so you can see what it says at a glance. Contacts will revert to a contact image, so visually, it's nice to look at.
The Story Maker app too, although it might sound gimmicky, will very easily string together photos, video and music, adding titles and making a quick fun animated slideshow with a few button presses. Almost everything is done for you and, dare we say it, it feels like the sort of thing Apple would do. This perhaps demonstrates that BlackBerry is at least thinking about consumer appeal.
Sharing is widely integrated and BB10 is happy to share with plenty of services, leveraging all those accounts to connect you with the outside world. It's closer to the Android approach than it is to the rather cagey iOS route and we like it a lot.
Then you have things like Docs To Go that will support your files, so you can pick up a Word doc from Dropbox, open it and sensibly edit it, all of which is much appreciated at a native level without having to buy additional apps or install anything, making working on the go easy.
Copy and paste works well enough and you can copy most things, but we're not so keen on the cursor placement ring, which seems to want you to put your finger over where you want the cursor, so you can't see what you're doing.
When the dots join up in BB10 it's a real pleasure, but sometimes they don't. For example, if you see an image you like on a website, you can save it locally, but then it opens from the File Manager with only the option to share it. Open the Pictures app and you then get the option to edit it too. Choose to edit a photo after you take it and once you save, you're booted back out to the active frames view, leaving you to go back into Pictures, or Camera, to do what you were going to do with that image before you edited it.
With the physical keyboard gone, attention turns to the touchscreen experience. The experience on the BlackBerry Z10 is very different from previous touchscreen BlackBerry devices and, we're happy to report, very good. That's critical to ensure that people aren't turned off instantly, as the BlackBerry keyboard here is as good as you'll find on competitor devices.
Visually it reflects the BlackBerry design, broken up with horizontal bars and keys of a decent size. They're easy to hit when typing rapidly, but it's the smart features that we like the most (and which suggests that SwiftKey drives it). First up you get suggestions as you type. That's nothing new, although these suggestions are generally better than rivals', offering up contextually relevant words. The words appear on the keyboard itself, and swiping up selects that word.
There are two options for this: the first (default) is for the next word to appear above the next letter you might type: for example, the word "next" will appear above the letter "n". The second is to have all the suggestions in the top row. We find this the better option, as they are easier to spot and select, in our opinion, but that might be because we're used to that system from other devices.
There is also auto-correction - again nothing new - as well as recognition of when you've missed a space. In many cases, tapping the spacebar will give you the correct word, so typing isn't just a breeze, it's actually a pleasure.
One slight oddity, perhaps, is that the keyboard always shows CAPS, although will type in both upper and lower case as appropriate. This follows the convention from hardware keyboards in the BB family and behaves in the same way: a long press on a key will give you a capital letter.
This makes it easy to put caps on things like names, but means you don't have such easy access to alternative characters such as punctuation or numbers. It isn't always a problem though, as the keyboard will cleverly recognise some text fields, like passwords, and add the number keys along the top.
Perhaps the only criticism we have of the keyboard really comes from the point of view of the user interface design. In many places you'll find that the navigation options for the app are at the bottom of the display and using the keyboard will obscure them. Fortunately you can manually display or hide the keyboard at will, but there will be occasions where you're your moving it out of the way so you can get to the options that should fall to hand more obviously.
Entertainment: Music, Movies, Pictures
With the move into a larger device, with a great display, it's obvious that entertainment is key. BlackBerry World now contains a whole collection of content for you to consume, with music and movies and TV shows, and there's a Newsstand app for reading magazines.
The prices, though, look rather expensive: Emili Sandé's Our Version of Events is £5.99 on Google Play, £8.00 on BlackBerry World. Taken 2 is £11.99 (HD) in Google Play, and £15.99 on BlackBerry World. At least you have to option to access this content, on the device if you want it, but BlackBerry needs to remember that cash is king and make these prices competitive.
You can sideload content of course and we found that typical MP4 files played very happily, so if you have existing DRM-free content then the BlackBerry Z10 makes a great video player. There's a current lack of apps like a native BBC iPlayer app or Netflix, but with Flash support in the browser, you still have the option of accessing content online, if a site is optimised for mobile browsers as the BBC's is.
On the music front we like the clean music player app and you get features like lock screen control, meaning you can skip tracks after a press of the volume button. Of course, the mute button also works as a play/pause button, and you can set the volume buttons to skip tracks with a long press which is handy.
Sound quality is good through a set of decent third-party headphone, but we weren't particularly taken with the hard plastic in-ear buds in the box. There's no sign of any equaliser and we like the clarity of the music delivered. It's not too bassy, although we dare say some might want the option to alter this.
We like the fact that YouTube (the app is just a link to YouTube mobile) will play music with the screen off. That's because it's playing from the browser, so conceivably, any browser-accessible music service (we signed into Google Music) will also play, although you have to head back into the browser to control it.
Sharing is possible, allowing you to play content on compatible devices and allowing access over your network, with controls to designate what types of content (music, movies, pictures) is shared, as well as the HDMI out.
The browser experience on BB10 is good and leverages the space that the Z10 display gives you. Loading pages and navigation is fast and support for Flash (which you can disable) means you get a very complete web experience. Tabs are easy to handle and you can open lots. We got to 20, then stopped.
They aren't handled as well as Chrome on Android and you don't get the benefit of additional features like syncing with your desktop. There is a private browsing mode, however, but it has to be toggled, so it's more fiddly than Incognito mode on Google's hero mobile browser.
However, we found the browser to be stable enough, with nice slick zooming, a convenient Reader view to give you just the text, and universal search from the address bar. This defaults to Bing searches, although you can opt to use Google, Bing or Yahoo if searching using BB10's universal search function. Overall, it's a great, fast, browser and we found it coped with everything we threw at it.
There's an 8-megapixel camera on the rear of the BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry has been really pushing the photo capabilities of this handset. In the spotlight is a clever shooting mode called Time Shift. The aim of this is to be able to get perfect shots from groups of people, by letting you select the best shot for each of the individual faces in the photo.
It works by capturing a series of images, but then identifies each face and lets you choose the best face from each of the shots. This you can repeat, until you have a complete set of smiling (or grimacing) people. Sometimes the edit might bleed in a little background colour, but otherwise it works, and it's incredibly easy to use.
Of course you have regular shooting modes for stills, with burst shooting and image stabilisation offered. Otherwise control comes down to whether the flash fires, and the aspect, and that's about it. It's simple and you're not overwhelmed with options.
Focusing is automatic and pretty fast, even in lower light, and didn't throw up too many problems for us when testing the camera. There's the odd issue, like failure to focus when too close, or identifying that focus has been obtained when it hasn't, but the majority of the time it's fine.
However, touching the screen captures the image, so what you have in focus is what you get. A long press will confirm focus, taking the shot when you lift your finger off, but once again, it offers focus only on the central reticule. You can use volume up as the shutter button too, which we found the better option, giving more precise control.
The results are average. In good conditions you get reasonable shots, but low-light performance isn't great, with indoor shots being marred with noise. That's not uncommon in smartphone cameras, but the BB Z10 feels a generation behind in this aspect.
A front-facing camera with a 2-megapixel sensor is in place for video conferencing or the odd self-portrait. The low light performance is poor on this camera and best avoided, as the results are pretty mushy.
On the video front, you have the option of image stabilisation again, although we found this gives the appearance of wobble, very evident on the screen, with the display looking slightly behind the action in front of you, although this doesn't all come through to the video itself. Static video gives you plenty of detail, with the option of 1080 or 720 HD modes, and autofocus will keep things sharp, but there's plenty of pulsing as it tweaks focus, again, making video capture feel a generation behind current smartphones.
Battery life, calling
The stamina of the battery is one of the key battlegrounds for smartphones. What use is a phone that can’t last the distance? It’s also an area where the BlackBerry Z10 disappoints. The Z10 is powered by a 1800mAh cell, but getting it through a full day is something of a challenge.
We’ve been using three different handsets while testing the battery for this review and they’ve all been through numerous charging cycles. All our Z10 models, however, display poor battery life. Sitting in standby, ie, connected to Wi-Fi but with the display off, we’ve found that the Z10 will get through 75 per cent of its battery life in a day. We set the Z10 alongside the HTC One SV, signed into the same accounts, serving the same notifications, and the HTC used only 25 per cent in the same time. Sure, you can turn down the frequency of syncing, turn push off and so on, but you’re then telling this device to not do what it’s good at.
What that translates into in real terms is a phone that needs to stay near power, or you’ll have to carry a spare battery. That’s going to be something of a disappointment to Bold users used to getting through the day easily. We’ve asked BlackBerry if this is something that can be fixed with software and the impression we got was that it wasn’t a priority. For a flagship device, trying to sell a new platform, we expected more.
On the calling side of things, however, we've nothing to complain about. As an actual phone, the call quality is good with the Z10 and there are the normal in-call options. We found there was plenty of volume and did not experience any dropped calls.
The BlackBerry Z10 ushers in a new era for BlackBerry. The user experience from the new BlackBerry 10 software is good: it's easy enough to master and navigate around, with BlackBerry's strengths coming to the fore. The messaging system is still fantastic, BlackBerry Hub and peek are really convenient if you're a heavy communicator and universal search is always useful.
There's a degree to which we can forgive some of the software quirks, but some of the inconsistencies leave us with the feeling that BlackBerry 10 isn't quite there. For BlackBerry, it's a leap forward, but against the competition, BlackBerry still has work to do. Unique it may seem, but there isn't enough here to draw you away from rival devices.
As for the device itself, we've enjoyed using the Z10. The handset feels solid enough, and the display looks good, but it lacks outstanding features. It doesn't trump the big names in design, in performance, the camera or battery life - it's just another phone. Whilst we know the app selection will be improved, the current apps aren't anything to get really excited about. Sure, Time Shift is a nice camera feature, but that's about all we have.
It's significant step forward for touchscreen BlackBerry devices, so if you want to stay on the platform, then you should be happy that this is a device that gives you some of the great multimedia attributes that rivals get. However, if you're an outsider, or thinking of leaving BlackBerry, then the Z10 doesn't go far enough.
The BlackBerry Z10 just about brings the platform into contention, but as we enter a new year, BlackBerry will soon be playing catch-up again.
Additional photography by Rik Henderson.