First look: BlackBerry Z10

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First look: BlackBerry Z10

It’s only a smartphone, but much rests on the BlackBerry Z10’s slim shoulders. It’s the first phone to sport the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 smartphone OS, and carries with it all the hopes of a once-great technology company. With BlackBerry’s (formerly RIM) share price and sales on the slide, the Z10 needs to make a big impact if it’s to have any hope of turning the firm’s fortunes around.

As such, perhaps it’s appropriate the new phone bears more than a passing resemblance to the most successful smartphone around. From the profile of the rounded corners to the flat, chopped-off edges, the Z10 looks like the iPhone 5’s big brother. If it’s a sibling, though, it’s certainly the uglier one, with its textured, cheap-feeling, soft-touch plastic rear and thicker 9.3mm waistline proving much less alluring than the iPhone’s aluminium frame.

Still, we do appreciate the minimalist design – the volume rocker on the right-hand side and the power button on the top edge are the only physical controls – and the 4.2in, 768 x 1280 display strikes the right balance between screen real estate and pocketability.

The Z10 is nothing if not practical, though. Lever off the back of the phone and you’ll discover a replaceable 1800mAh battery and a microSD slot, which can be used to expand the existing 16GB of internal storage. There’s little else missing from the list of specifications: it has both front- and rear-facing 8-megapixel and 2-megapixel cameras, capable of capturing 1080p and 720p video respectively; there’s Bluetooth 4, NFC and dual-band Wi-Fi covering the wireless side of things, plus 4G compatibility.

On paper, the Z10’s core specification looks competitive, with a dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Plus processor backed up by 2GB of RAM, which puts it right up there with the best on the market. And the first time you fire up the Z10, the signs are good. Slide a thumb from right to left to access the app drawer, take a peek at your messages, swipe through an inbox or two and all is well. Web pages in the browser respond well to pinch, pan and scroll gestures, and even HD video streamed via YouTube plays smoothly.

Start to dig a little deeper, fire up a few apps and leave them running, however, and things look less rosy, with animations and transitions from screen to screen juddering frequently. Demanding 3D games were occasionally reduced to a crawl: Wipeout-clone Ragged Edge started dropping frames significantly when the action started to heat up. Running the SunSpider browser benchmark revealed that the browser isn’t the quickest either. It completed the tests in a time of 1902ms – slower than both the iPhone 5 (932ms) and Samsung Galaxy S III (1430ms).

The display is altogether more impressive. Here, the benchmark is the iPhone 5, which reaches an eye-searing 582cd/m² at its highest setting. The Z10 outstrips it. Indeed, we measured it at an astonishing 715cd/m², making it the brightest phone screen we’ve come across by some distance.

We should point out there’s no way to disable the auto-brightness setting, so the BlackBerry Z10 reaches this high brightness only under direct and full sunlight. The rest of the time it hovers somewhere between 300cd/m² and 400cd/m², which is fine. It’s also possible to turn down the brightness threshold manually.

You might think that would help battery life, but, when we came to testing this aspect of the Z10’s performance, we were underwhelmed. The phone has an 1800mAh-capacity power pack, which had 60% remaining on the gauge after 24 hours, during which we carried out a number of tasks designed to simulate a light workload. This figure is about average for a modern smartphone; better than the Samsung Galaxy S III and Nokia Lumia 920, and level with the iPhone 5.

The camera is passable. In low light, photos exhibited much more noise than the same scene snapped on an iPhone 5. We found autofocus unreliable, resulting in lots of soft, blurry images. In better lighting, and when you do manage to get the focus bang on, however, results are perfectly acceptable – well exposed, with natural colours and a decent amount of detail.
There are some fun features to play around with in the camera app, the best of which is the Time Shift feature. This snaps a sequence of shots and then allows you to choose a frame, using a slider to scrub back and forth through the sequence.

There’s also a selection of filters that can be applied to both stills and video, while the Story Maker app lets you put together a quick video montage of clips and photos, complete with backing music and titles.

BlackBerry 10 OS gestures and front-end
The hardware, then, is a mix of good and bad. The software it’s running, however, is a much more consistent affair. In fact, considering this has been built from the ground up, it feels incredibly seasoned. It isn’t the features, though, nor the look of the interface that grabs the attention first; it’s how BlackBerry has implemented the touchscreen gestures.

Like the PlayBook, and also Windows 8, the Z10 makes extensive use of edge-swipes to access key features. With the phone in standby, you can swipe up to unlock the phone. From the lockscreen, a swipe down from the top edge puts the phone into bedside mode. A single swipe from the bottom of the screen in any app takes you back to a multitasking view, where you can switch apps, dismiss them with a tap, or swipe right to left to access the app-launcher view.
Finally, and most usefully, if you swipe up from the bottom of the screen in any app and hold down your finger, you can take a quick peek at your messages, then swipe right to access the BlackBerry Hub.

The BlackBerry Hub
These gestures sound simple, but they make the BlackBerry Z10 feel different to use than the average smartphone, and once we had the hang of them they felt just right. It’s also nice to have a phone that puts messaging at the heart of the OS for once.

The Hub is always a gesture away, whatever you happen to be doing, whether that’s using the up-then-right swipe, or a simple left-right swipe from the multitasking view. Once you’ve brought it up, the Hub works efficiently as a place for gathering all of your communications together.

The default view displays all messages in one stream, from SMS, BBM, email, Twitter and Facebook messages, to calls and even phone notifications. If all that’s too much, you can quickly narrow it down: a swipe in from the left edge of the screen brings up a list of inboxes, allowing quick filtering by message type. It’s also possible to search and compose any message type here.

Phone calls, texting and BBM
As a messaging phone, the BlackBerry Z10 is the very model of efficiency, and this is carried across to the phone, texting, and message-composition features. As with the Hub, you can quickly access the phone app from anywhere; all it takes is a swipe to get you back to the multitasking screen and a single tap. The phone button is always there, in the bottom-left corner.

In the phone app, you can’t use the number pad to search contacts and it won’t suggest numbers as you type. However, the contact search is very quick indeed. You can also forego the phone app entirely by using the universal search function: hit the search key on the multitasking screen, and contact matches appear up top, just below apps. It’s then possible to initiate calls or texts with a single tap.

Call quality is exemplary – voices came through crystal clear at both ends in testing – and there’s even a note-taking tool on the in-call screen for jotting stuff down as you go. As has become customary, text messaging is threaded, and it’s simple to forward messages and copy and paste between apps.

Elsewhere, a couple of key new features have been added to BBM, so it’s now possible not only to have text conversations and make voice calls, but also to initiate video calls and share your screen. These work best over a decent Wi-Fi or 4G connection; images looked smeary and unpleasant over 3G connections.

It’s the keyboard that’s the most important aspect of the Z10’s messaging element, however. It’s what BlackBerry made most fuss over at the launch, and it’s certainly very different to anything we’ve tried before. You can see exactly how it works in the walkthrough above, and there’s no doubt the prediction is impressive. Alas, there are problems. The first is the font used for the suggestions themselves: it’s far too small and subtly coloured. You may fail to notice the suggestions are there at first, and we expect some wearers of glasses to have difficulty reading them. We can’t imagine how developers didn’t think this would be an issue.

The second is that, to keep scanning for these suggestions, your eyes have to be in far too many places at once: as with other word-prediction systems, you have to look at the keyboard when typing, glancing up to make sure you’ve typed the letter correctly; here, however, you also have to keep scanning between the keys. In some situations, we found this actually slowed down typing instead of speeding it up. Another fault is the letters on the keys themselves don’t change case as you hit the Shift key. There’s no typing lag, however.

BlackBerry also made great play of BlackBerry Balance at launch, a feature that makes it possible to effectively split the Z10 in two and give your IT department control of one half while you keep personal content on the other. This isn’t new – it first appeared in 2011 – but it’s certainly useful, enabling IT departments to prevent personal apps from accessing data in the corporate half. It also allows IT departments to remote-wipe corporate data and apps without affecting the rest of the device – a potential plus for companies considering implementing a BYOD policy.

Apps and other content
The big question when any new platform touches down, however, is “how good are the apps?”. It would be unfair to expect the breadth of iOS and Android, but BlackBerry World’s count of 70,000-plus at launch is promising. It’s certainly much more positive than Windows Phone was at launch, and it isn’t too hard to track down entertaining games and useful apps to purchase and install.

We were pleased to see apps like Splashtop remote, Angry Birds Star Wars and World of Goo ready to go, and there are plenty of big names on the list of firms BlackBerry says are “committed” to developing for the platform. These include (but aren’t limited to) eBay, Amazon (Kindle app), Skype and Spotify. Even without these, though, it’s a good effort from BlackBerry. There’s also a solid selection of apps pre-loaded, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare and calculator and compass apps, plus Documents To Go for creating and editing office documents. The maps app has turn-by-turn driving instructions, but it’s nowhere near as slick as Google Maps.

Aside from performance niggles, then, the new wave of BlackBerry smartphones is off to a flying start with the BlackBerry Z10. For a new smartphone on a first-generation platform it feels remarkably mature, with an exceptionally well-thought-out interface that aims to provide something different – and largely succeeds.

There’s a decent selection of apps in the BlackBerry World store, the screen is exceptional and the camera isn’t that bad at all. Even the pricing isn’t overly avaricious: online slipups put it at around $750 outright, about expected for a high end smartphone.

The BlackBerry Z10 marks a confident and encouraging return to form in BlackBerry’s bid to catch up with Android, iOS and Windows Phone. It isn’t quite good enough to compete for overall honours just yet, but it’s a big step in the right direction. 

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