Review: BlackBerry Z10

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Is the make-or-break BlackBerry Z10 worth the wait?

If you believe everything you read, then the release of the BlackBerry Z10 is judgement day, for the company formerly known as RIM.

Once considered the leader in smartphones, BlackBerry has seen its share of the market eroded by the likes of Samsung and Apple, who have closed the gap in terms of security and administration while leaving the Canadian manufacturer in their wake with regards to innovations.

Consumers and enterprises have been turning their backs on BlackBerry smartphones and BlackBerry 10 became the company’s last great hope of a revival.

It’s a smartphone too

Given the attention paid to the operating system, it’s easy to forget that the BlackBerry Z10 is a powerful smartphone in its own right, the design of which is not too dissimilar to the developer device that TechWeekEurope was shown last year. We’ve now had extensive time using the final version: how does it perform?

BlackBerry Z10 Hand

The Z10 boasts a 4.2-inch touchscreen and is just 9.9mm thick, meaning that it isn’t too large or fat to be impractical, while the plastic casing and weight of just 136 grams ensure that it sits well in your hands. The decision to include a removable battery goes against the recent trend, but is a pleasant anachronism that will delight power users who need to carry a spare.

Under the bonnet is a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of flash memory that can be upgraded up to 32GB courtesy of a microSD card. There’s an eight megapixel camera on board, along with NFC connectivity and support for LTE networks – although we tested the Z10 on Vodafone’s network, on which 4G services will not be available until later this year.

Typing pro

The most striking thing about the BlackBerry Z10 is the absence of the trademark physical keyboard. BlackBerry has of course released full-touchscreen devices before (for instance the ill fated BlackBerry Storm) but this time it feels as though BlackBerry is genuinely adapting to changing user preferences. The upcoming BlackBerry Q10 will have a physical keyboard, but the touchscreen equivalent is so good, you wonder why anyone would bother.

It adapts to how you type, so mistakes are rarely made even by the clumsiest of writers, while neat gestures – such as holding down characters to capitalise, swiping left to delete or flicking upwards to accept suggested words – save time and effort. The predictive text feature is one of the best yet seen, suggesting words that can be swiped into a message instantly, and is unlikely to result in embarrassing predictions being sent to your friends and relatives.

The competency of the keyboard and the decent size screen make typing emails and messaging on the move quicker and easier, while editing documents is possible, it not ideal.

BlackBerry Z10 Battery

Nice gesture

Similar gesture controls are used to control just about everything on the BlackBerry Z10. There is no home key, with navigation performed by a series of swipes that are thankfully explained in a tutorial the first time you start up the phone.

Dragging your finger from the top of the screen reveals application options, swiping from the bottom exits an application and sliding to the sides reveals more options and opens up other applications. The phone can be unlocked using the touchscreen, but requires a far longer action than similar unlocking mechanisms on other phones.

All this takes a while to get used to, but eventually become second nature and is arguably more intuitive than multi-touch controls on other platforms.

There isn’t an app for that

BlackBerry Z10 AppsThe menus lean heavily on iOS and Android, with apps arranged in the familiar grid formation. Clients for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn come preloaded, while additional software can be downloaded from BlackBerry World.

BlackBerry has launched a range of incentives to encourage developers to port their apps to BlackBerry 10, but this doesn’t disguise the fact that the ecosystem just isn’t as developed, with many key applications missing from the catalogue.

While most enterprises won’t miss the range of games or fart apps present on the App Store, the range puts BlackBerry 10 at a disadvantage when trying to convert users of iOS and Android. However most of the standard apps are decent while the browser is extremely quick, on both Wi-Fi and Vodafone’s 3G network.

Seamless switching between apps and multitasking are two of the main selling points of BlackBerry 10, as is BlackBerry Hub, which aggregates emails, BlackBerry Messenger conversations, texts and social network notifications into one application.

Life balance

Of course, BlackBerry’s reputation has been built on its enterprise features and the company has promised a range of administration and security tools that you won’t see on any other platform. But at the same time it wants to shed the popular notion that its smartphones can’t be both fun and functional. After all, how many people have you seen carrying around a work BlackBerry with another smartphone for their personal use?

BlackBerry admitted to TechWeekEurope that the administrative features may have alienated corporate users. Administrators had the option to block certain functionality and when they exercised that choice, it annoyed the end users. To address this, BlackBerry has made BlackBerry Balance an integral part of BlackBerry 10, giving two environments on the same phone – a managed corporate one and a personal space.

Users in a BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) 10 environment will be able to separate work and personal data and applications, while administrators will be able to create custom application stores with custom software and approved apps from BlackBerry World.

Holding its own

BlackBerry Z10 MenuWith the Z10, BlackBerry has got the balance between consumer appeal and enterprise functionality almost exactly right. It combines modern smartphone characteristics like touchscreen controls and applications with the management tools and features that businesses value.

The keyboard is perhaps the best ever seen on a touchscreen, while the removable battery is a sign that not all users are convinced by some of the more recent trends in smartphone design. There are no gimmicky features ‘designed for humans’, just some truly great ideas that make performing everyday tasks easier.

However there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the BlackBerry Z10 and it appears to confirm our initial impression that BlackBerry has caught up with the rest of the smartphone market rather than advance it.

It’s a powerful smartphone and its specifications are up there with its main rivals, but its biggest challenge might well be convincing deserters and new users to leave iOS and Android, especially since many of the apps they will have become accustomed to simply aren’t available.

It’s too early to say whether the BlackBerry Z10 can help BlackBerry recapture past glories, but the company has given itself a fighting chance by playing to its strengths and not being afraid to change. It has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at its new flagship and has produced a handset that can go toe-to-toe with anything Apple or Samsung have to offer, even if it can’t take the lead.

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BlackBerry 10

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BlackBerry Q10 Rear

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