Once a pioneer of email-centric pagers, BlackBerry changed the enterprise communication space with its range of smartphones that handled emails and IMs like no one’s business. A mainstay of almost every executive in the world, one could not help but see BlackBerry smartphones holstered in trouser belts at airports, that is if users were not thumbing madly at the QWERTY keypad, punching emails or quick BBMs. Despite the launch of the iPhone, BlackBerry did manage to keep chugging along, content in the knowledge that it dominated the enterprise space and iPhone and Android smartphones did not have the trust-factor that BlackBerry enjoyed. Instead the company started targeting the youth, offering them cheap BBM plans and not having a BlackBerry in college could mean missing out on a lot of things usually shared on BBM groups.
But BlackBerry knew it could not remain complacent for long and had to come up with touchscreen smartphones. Yes, it had a loyal user base that swore by its keypads (it still has them) but BlackBerry had to do something drastic to attract new users who were attracted to the iPhone and the legion of Android smartphones. BlackBerry tried its luck with touchscreen in the Storm series that failed miserably thanks to its irritating click-touchscreen. It followed it up with the Torch series that too did not do well in the market – the software wasn’t optimized and froze often and the devices had terrible battery performance. BlackBerry had to come up with something drastically new as its operating system was not good enough to take on a modern smartphone. It did just that – BlackBerry acquired QNX, a highly scalable operating system on top of which it would build its next generation operating system.
Things did not start on the right footing as the company found it difficult to integrate its BlackBerry services on the new platform. The project was marred by multiple delays and the PlayBook tablet running on QNX did miserably in the market. Heck, it was the first BlackBerry device that did not have a native email client, forget BBM integration. There were no usable apps and there was very little one could do with it apart from browsing the web and playing multimedia content. BlackBerry acquired TAT, a company that specialized in creating graphically rich user interfaces to give a brand new UI and look for its BlackBerry 10 platform. And here we are, reviewing the first BlackBerry 10 smartphone, the Z10, to see if BlackBerry has done enough to save itself. Let’s dive in…
The BlackBerry Z10 is a departure from the typical BlackBerry design, which is a great thing. It does not have any resemblance to the Torches and the Storms of yore, and instead shares more design cues with the PlayBook. It sports a metal and glass front with a rubberized plastic back with a dimpled pattern. The device feels good to hold and sturdy enough to withstand a fall or two. With a 4.2-inch display, it is perfectly designed to be used with one hand, unlike most smartphones these days that sport massive displays and expect users to undergo mutation to be able to use them. In my opinion, BlackBerry has hit the sweet spot with a display that’s just right and a form-factor that’s perfect to use as a smartphone.
Another thing users will notice is that the Z10 is devoid of any buttons on its face. There is no home button or a back key or any kind of indication of a menu key. The only buttons on the entire device are the power button on the top and the typical three-way volume rocker on the right edge. That’s about it. It’s a good thing that the designers have kept the surface clean, but I would have preferred a dedicated camera shutter button. Having said that, most smartphones these days are omitting the camera shutter button. On the ports front, there is a 3.5mm audio port on the top, along with microUSB and miniHDMI ports on the left edge.
One thing that really stands out, however, are the relatively thick bezels around the display. At a time when most smartphones are coming with as thin as possible bezels, the Z10 has really thick ones, especially at the top and bottom. It might seem as an overkill to have the BlackBerry logo occupying so much space just below the display adding to the overall footprint. But there is a good reason for that and I will come to it in the software section of the review.
Overall, I find the overall design quite appealing and though it might evoke some memories of the iPhone 5’s overall design, it does a good enough job to excite people while being functional at the same time.
Much like Windows Phone, BlackBerry has managed to find the right specifications that are optimized for the platform. The hardware specifications of the BlackBerry Z10 might look dated, they work really well for BlackBerry 10. The Z10 is powered by a dual-core Qualcomm Krait processor clocked at 1.5GHz. This combined with 2GB of RAM ensures that things move at a fast clip. In the few days that I used the device, I didn’t encounter a frozen screen or apps closing unexpectedly.
The 4.2-inch display has a resolution of 1280×768 pixels which pegs it at a pixel density of about 355ppi. Yes, the WXGA display might sound pedestrian on paper, but works really well for the Z10 considering it is a relatively smaller display than most Android smartphones that sport 720p or higher displays. The viewing angles are great and the display is bright enough to be legible under direct sunlight.
The 8-megapixel camera on the rear is accompanied by an LED flash but sadly, there is hardly anything to write home about, especially if one has used the likes of the iPhone 5 or the Lumia 920. The performance is ordinary and heavily dependent on the lighting conditions. There is a Time Shift feature that clicks shots in a burst mode and recognizes faces. Users can then tap individual faces and see different shots to get the right expression. It works mostly but is dependent on whether the camera recognizes a face. It is not a new feature and Nokia Lumia smartphones too have it under Group Shot. Both the solutions are driven by Scalado’s technology.
The onboard speaker is impressive and loud enough to listen to calls over the speakerphone indoors. Music playback over the speaker is also surprisingly good and sound does not feel tiny. This was quite surprising as some early reviews had indicated the speaker not being loud enough. There is 16GB of onboard storage along with a microSD card slot. The back cover also houses the NFC chip.
The big deal about the Z10 is not the design or the hardware but rather the new BlackBerry 10 operating system. A lot is riding on BlackBerry 10 and it could eventually be the make or break deal for the company. However, that is not saying BlackBerry’s future rests on the success of the Z10 alone as there are more devices in the line-up, especially the Q10.
Anyway, BlackBerry 10 does have a learning curve, steep or not depends on whether the user has used a touchscreen smartphone before. This is especially critical for existing BlackBerry users as there are no back or home buttons to help navigate through the user interface. Users essentially have to learn four basic gestures to master BlackBerry 10. Swiping upwards from the bottom edge of the display will take them to the home screen, which essentially shows the last eight running apps. Swiping from top to bottom in any app will show more options in the app and swiping from one side to another will navigate different screens.
The most important gesture, however, is to swipe from the bottom of the display to the middle and drag the thumb towards the right. This will first give a peek into notifications and dragging to the right edge of the display opens the BlackBerry Hub, where users can check email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other notifications. The UI is not as difficult as it sounds and I was able to master it in a matter of a couple of hours.
Then there is the new BBM, which does not require any BlackBerry plan anymore. Users can now subscribe to regular data plans from their carrier and use it both for BBM and Internet browsing. BBM gets a couple of new features in BlackBerry 10, like the ability to video calls a la FaceTime and also share the phone’s screen with other BBM users. However, I wasn’t able to try out this feature as none of my contacts had a BlackBerry 10 device, yet.
Another key feature of BlackBerry 10 is its onscreen keypad with a text prediction system, which is better than anything I have ever seen before. After just two days of usage, there were situations where I didn’t have to type a word and just pick up the relevant words and “flick” them from the keypad. It takes time getting used to but then becomes really addictive. Hopefully, BlackBerry users who are used to a physical keypad would appreciate this feature, till the Q10 is launched.
However, BlackBerry 10 does have a few kinks, some of which could become big problems for the platform in the long term. Peek is a creative alternative to a drop down notification bar but becomes more of a pain to use over a period of time. The basic problem is that the notification icons on the homescreen lead to nowhere, they are just an indication that there is new stuff that you’d like to see. Going into Hub from the homescreen takes the user to the last item they checked rather than the new stuff that has been received. Then the user needs to reach the Hub page and individually see all the notifications. This needs to be fixed on an urgent basis.
I believe it can be fixed in the next update to BlackBerry 10. However, one that cannot be fixed is the app situation. In order to boost the number of apps in time for the Z10 launch, BlackBerry encouraged developers to port their apps from other platforms. It even held “portathon” events where developers ported a few thousand apps in 24 hours flat. Obviously, the quality is lacking and the Android ports are just terrible. Yes, there are a few apps that have been built specifically for BlackBerry 10 but those are few and far between and finding them on the app store is not easy.
Talking about content, BlackBerry says it will offer a music store in India as well, but it was not live during the time I had the Z10 for review. However, users can check out the music content selection here.
BlackBerry 10 is a mixed bag of sorts. I really dig the UI, provided an update fixes the few kinks that exist. The browser performed well most of the times and I was even able to watch Sony’s live stream of the PlayStation 4 on it, which I don’t believe is possible on any other mobile browser.
The Z10, in itself is a pretty decent device. It looks good, feels good to hold and performs most of the tasks brilliantly. The battery lasted me for about 15 hours on an average with two email accounts, one Twitter and Facebook account, two hours of calls and an hour of music listening. Relatively, it is about the same battery performance that I would expect from a Windows Phone smartphone.
The Z10 is a good start for BlackBerry’s new operating system. But it has to answer two key questions for BlackBerry – will it excite existing BlackBerry users and will it tempt Android or iPhone users to jump ship? The answer to the first question is a little tricky. BlackBerry 10 is a great improvement over BlackBerry 7 operating system and brings in a modern platform, which is almost at par in terms of performance with market leaders. There are a lot of new additions and the new BBM in itself is a great reason to go for it.
However, I’m not sure if the Z10 without a physical QWERTY keypad is the right choice to attract existing BlackBerry users. I spoke to a few of them and all of them said they would have preferred one with a QWERTY keypad to get accustomed to the new UI. Probably BlackBerry should have launched the Q10 along with the Z10 to ensure users have choice.
As far as attracting users from other platforms, I believe BlackBerry 10 will still take a while to reach that stage. The app ecosystem is still being developed and the Z10 does not have any extraordinary feature to tempt users to migrate from other platforms to it.
That said, it is just the beginning and a solid one at that. The BlackBerry 10 UI is different, the onscreen keypad is exemplary and the new BBM promises to be the killer feature that it always used to be. If you currently own a BlackBerry Bold, Torch or Storm, I recommend you give the Z10 a shot, you would be pleasantly surprised.
The BlackBerry Z10 has been priced at an MRP of Rs 43,490, which is a deal breaker for non-BlackBerry users as there are better options available on Android and iOS at this price or lesser.
Photo Credit: Rohit Sharma