- Web browsing
- Intuitive UI design
- Well integrated gestures
- Good camera performance
- Messaging hub
- Lack of apps
- Steep learning curve, gesture navigation not for everyone
Say hello to Blackberry’s (formerly known as RIM) last effort at surviving the ruthless competition in the world of smartphones: the Blackberry Z10. RIM has been on the backseat of the smartphone business for the last couple of years since the advent of iOS and Android. The Blackberry OS 10 devices are RIM’s last hope for survival and a lot rests on this product line. Today, we dive into Z10, the latest BB OS 10 device.
The Blackberry Z10 is powered by a dual core 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor with ‘Krait’ CPUs and Adreno 225 GPU. It comes with 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of internal storage and expandable micro SD card support (up to 64GB). That’s plenty for multitasking and running CPU-intensive applications.
An Adreno 225 GPU ensures enough firepower for smooth gaming performance and enough space for the latest games on the market. Connectivity options are ample and include the standard Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, 4G-LTE (in select regions, carrier dependent) and USB 2.0 via a micro USB and ‘separate’ micro HDMI slot.
Powering the phone is a 1,800 mAh battery, and yes, it is removable. According to BlackBerry, the device supports up to 10 h of talktime and up to 312 h of stand-by time. It’s safe to say that the battery will get you through your work day without dying on you. Anyway it is always good to have a charger on hand. The inclusion of NFC allows the Z10 to interact with compatible devices for data transfers, authentications and wireless charging too.
Display, Dimensions & Build Quality
The Blackberry Z10 has a candy-bar form factor and looks more or less like a slab of glass and soft-touch plastic. Nonetheless, the plain looks don’t undermine the premium feel of the polished matte and rubberized finish of the body. The finish also provides decent grip. With it’s elegant, premium and understated looks, this phone sort of looks like it’s made for a James Bond-like personality. Weighing in at 137 grams, the Z10 is a lightweight phone, though not as light as the iPhone 5. Weight is very subjective; I personally prefer phones to not weigh like rocks and find myself very comfortable with the Z10’s weight.
The display, a 4.2 inch 1280 x 768 resolution with a ppi of 355, looks absolutely stunning. It’s a treat to watch videos and play games on the Blackberry Z10. The brightness is adequate, blacks are truly deep and contrast ratio is superb. Above the display we have a standard set of sensors and a 2MP front facing camera capable of 720p video recording.
The back is relatively plain with just the single flash 8MP camera and a big Blackberry logo at the center. The back cover is easy to remove as it’s just held in place by a couple of clips on each side. I suspect that the cover will come out easily should the device fall and some of the clips might break too. Poor construction there. Underneath that is an elongated battery, a micro-SIM card slot, micro SD card slot and the NFC sensor. The sides of the device contain the volume rocker, voice activation controls (on the right), the power button (on the top) and the connectivity options i.e. USB and HDMI (on the left).
BB OS 10 aims to modernize the Blackberry platform and break free from the chains of the traditional Blackberry UI centred on the QWERTY keypad and trackpad navigation. The result is similar to what we’ve already seen with other mobile operating systems such as iOS and Android.
However, where the competition relies on buttons for most of the UI navigation, BB OS 10 only uses gestures. In fact, there aren’t even on-screen buttons for opening the home screen or a multi-tasking menu on the Z10. The Power button is used only to activate/de-activate the screen and has no other function. Gestures will be explained in detail at the end of this section. The Lock screen houses important notifications like missed calls, messages, appointments and reminders. There is a shortcut to the camera at the bottom of the screen too. You have to press the camera icon on the lock screen for a couple of seconds to activate the camera, a measure designed to prevent accidental opening of the camera. To unlock the phone the user must swipe a finger from bottom to top. While this is happening the lock screen gives the user a sneak-peek of the underlying content.
Upon unlocking, you’re presented with the home screen which looks just like the iOS home screen at first glance and handles in more or less the same manner. However swiping to the left brings up the running applications (instead of search menu on the iOS devices) which contains tiles of all your running apps. There can be up to 8 applications stored on this screen. Swiping back to the right takes you to the home screen with all your applications whereas swiping to the left again takes you to the revamped BlackBerry Hub.
Swiping down from the status bar brings out the quick setting toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, silent mode, and rotation lock as well as the notifications panel. Unlike Android, this panel only occupies half of the screen, so you can still see what’s going on underneath.
Coming to the gesture navigation. Application management in BB OS 10 relies heavily on gestures. Once an app is started it may be minimized by dragging a finger from the bottom to the middle of the screen. This places the app on the running apps menu. From this screen, the user can switch and close apps or open a new one.
The UI takes some getting used to, especially with the new Blackberry Hub and the navigational gestures. However, it gets easier along the way and the gestures become more of a second nature. It’s an interesting take at the interaction between a smartphone and a user but it isn’t exactly revolutionary. When an application is opened in the landscape mode, the situation gets tricky as you need to swipe from the bottom side of the display (which is actually the right/left side of the device when held in portrait mode). Also, the fact that you are always present in the messaging hub makes the user interface confusing as well.
Another confusing part is, when you get notifications from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Foursquare, clicking on the notifications takes you to the hub-like interface and not the actual respective app.
Contacts on the Z10 is a straightforward affair. Users can add their Google, Hotmail, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn contacts in addition to local phone contacts. The phone prompts the users to link these accounts during initial setup. There still hasn’t been an implementation of intelligent cross account contact linking in any mobile OS and BB OS 10 is no different. We really wanted to see this feature but alas, users still have to manually link the same contacts with varying names across different accounts.
Clicking on a contact will bring up their details including links to their social media profiles. These profiles use the native social apps for displaying more information. Z10 also notifies the user of the presence of a contact on a social network in case the user and the contact aren’t connected. It is a handy feature for making new friends and finding old ones on social networks. The Updates and Activity tabs bring up updates from the contact’s social networks and recent communication between you and the contact respectively.
Calling & Messaging
There isn’t much to the Phone app in the Z10. Start it up and you’re welcomed by the dialler screen (or whichever screen you closed it on last). There are three tabs: Calls, Contacts, Dial Pad. Calls holds your call history and favourite contacts.
Contacts holds the complete list of contacts. Tapping on a contact here doesn’t bring up their contact card, instead it just slides out their number with a nice animation. The Dial Pad, well it’s just a dial pad, nothing noteworthy about it. The call quality is decent and signal reception is strong. The Z10 was able to pick and maintain signals with ease and there were no dropped calls.
The BlackBerry platform has always been known for messaging. It has an impressive history of email management and free messaging via the BBM platform. The Z10 continues this tradition with some useful features and gesture implementations.
First off is the custom Peek gesture. Whenever a message is received, sliding a finger from the bottom of the screen will minimize the current screen and display the notification icons on the left of the screen. Swiping left from here will open the BlackBerry Hub where the user can read and reply to the message/Facebook post/Tweet.
The BlackBerry Hub is the universal inbox in the Z10. Housing everything from the texts and emails to social media updates, it can be accessed using the Peek gesture or by scrolling left from the home screen. Once inside, messages can be filtered by accounts. BlackBerry has done away with text messaging and email apps and has integrated them into the Hub. Emails can be filtered by accounts.
Also in development are BBM Voice and BBM Video, both exclusively available to BBM users and allow free voice and video calls between BBM buddies. It’s a great way of sharing visual information quickly and reliably. These services operate over Cellular data or Wi-Fi.
Other Features, Apps & On-Screen Keyboard
BBM has evolved and sports a new look along with some really cool features. The first one is NFC support. Now you can add BBM buddies just by tapping against another NFC-enabled BlackBerry phone. The second is a unique QR code for your device. This QR code will allow people to add you by simply scanning the code.
The keyboard on the Z10 looks very much like a standard touchscreen keyboard and comes with portrait and landscape mode support. It is elegant and responsive with a well stocked word suggestion system. Upon typing, suggested words pop up over their first letter. Swiping up from that letter adds the word to the input text. This system is complemented by adaptive word suggestions which learns as you type more and more.
Browsing the Internet on the Z10 is a fast and beautiful experience. The browser application has been built from scratch to be super-fast in loading and displaying online content. Sites load up extremely fast and there are no freezes or lags in the browsing experience. In addition to this, the Z10 also supports 4G-LTE networks for blazing fast Internet speeds. The browser app looks similar to the one found on Windows 8 phones, with a black navigation bar at the bottom. It also has a built in Adobe Flash Player 11 for increased compatibility with various websites.
The 4.2 inch HD display does a commendable job in rendering websites. The high ppi makes sure that font and images look crisp. Unfortunately, the absence of automatic text reflow makes reading a pain because the user constantly has to move from left to right. However, in answer to this problem, the browser app does include a reading mode which removes all the images and other multimedia content from the webpage and leaves behind just text in an easily readable format. Users are also given the option to adjust the font size via an inbuilt tool. Similar to most of the default browser apps on other smartphone platforms, there is support for multiple tabs in the Z10 browser. Bookmarks and browsing history are easily accessible.
As mentioned earlier, the Z10 comes equipped with an 8MP rear and 2MP front facing camera. Also on the back is a powerful single LED flash. The camera can be brought up by holding the lock screen icon or tapping the icon on the home screen. The app only takes half a second to start and then you’re good to go!
It is a simple app and doesn’t have all the options you’d find on a fully featured camera app. However it does get the job done quickly and that is one of the most important things here.
The camera held its own during our tests and we are pleased to report that the images are at par with that of rival phones. Images taken in well-lit areas were as good as any camera we’ve seen, while the ones in low light could’ve been a bit better. Also, when the flash light is used on a subject close to the camera, it blows up the details due to excessive brightness of the flash. The camera takes photos instantly with almost no delay because of the high shutter speed. There isn’t a shutter button, instead one can just tap the screen to take a photo. The volume keys on the side can also be used for the same purpose. The camera app has autofocus but we’ve found that sometimes it takes up to a second to focus which is bad for a camera. There is no tap to focus, but if you hold your finger down to the screen then you can manually re-focus the camera. It’s just a longer way to do the same thing.
Also worth mentioning here is a feature called Time-Shift. What it does is that it takes multiple shots of subjects’ faces once the user clicks the photo and then allows the user to change the faces using the additional versions. This is great for getting those late smiles which always appear after the picture got clicked. Once a photo is clicked, you can tap anyone’s face if it is highlighted by the camera app and a disc will pop-up. Moving the slider left or right will take you to older or more recent versions of the person’s face respectively.
One can capture videos by opening the camera app and then switching to video mode using the icon on the top right corner. The rear camera is capable of recording 1080p videos and the front camera supports 720p video recording. Image stabilization let’s you play the videos smoothly and scene mode options include night and beach or snow modes. While recording, one can toggle the single LED flash light on and off [to give you better effect] and this comes in handy especially when the recording switches between light and dark areas. The camera supports up to 5X digital zoom [the recording quality decreases as zoom increases].
Until Z10, BlackBerry was not very famous for it’s multimedia support. But the new Z10 changes the equation with 16 GB in-built memory, microSD slot and a 4.2-inch full touchscreen Z10 making the device ready to take on any type of media you throw at it. One can drag and drop their media files through a BlackBerry link (BlackBerry Link desktop has to be installed first).
One can play the music through the Music app, where it displays library, recently played tracks and playlists. Capacitive controls at the bottom and aesthetic thumbnails for album art make up for a snazzy look. The screen featuring the track being currently played comes with the grey theme and the essential controls -play/pause, next, previous, back buttons at the bottom and repeat, shuffle buttons at the top. The settings menu does not offer many options, but the handy ‘Play On’ option enables you to stream music from the Z10 to other DLNA enabled devices. Still there is no information about the supported formats. Audio quality on the whole is very good). The video app offers recently played, camera and library options and on clicking on a file, you will land on the player (page). The player page just includes play/pause, back, menu keys and the aspect ratio toggle in the top right key.
Under the photo app, you will find the thumbnails of camera shots with Recent, Camera, Albums and menu options at the bottom. Albums cannot be created on the Z10, they have to be done on your desktop by syncing your Z10 with the computer through BlackBerry link. The photo editor function of the app houses as many as 16 effects to apply to your photos and tools to crop and rotate the image. You can first test the effects and keep them if you like what you see.
What is Z10 all about?
Well, the Z10 is a spectacular device with all the bells and whistles one would expect from a contemporary smartphone. It goes head to head against iOS, Windows Phone and Android OS based devices. However even with all it’s brilliant features and impressive hardware specifications, sadly, it’s not a game changer. We don’t see it being THE device you’d want to have and it most certainly won’t become iconic like the iPhone or the Nexus smartphones. What we do see is a positive future for BlackBerry, for this device is a fresh start in terms of thinking, design and most importantly execution.