BlackBerry Z10 Review: If They Could Turn Back Time…

The totally revamped phone that hopes to save BlackBerry is a damn fine first effort for a new platform. But can a new platform succeed in 2013?

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BlackBerry Z10

My first smartphone was a BlackBerry Curve. I have nothing but fond memories of it–the speed and ease of typing on that keyboard, the battery that lasted for days and days, the indestructibility of the thing. I think a lot of people feel that way about BlackBerry. Which makes it all the harder, because if BlackBerry had released the brand-new Z10 even just two or three years ago, it might’ve had a fighting chance. I like the way it thinks about some things–the gestures are cool, the homescreen’s great–and the hardware is excellent.

Here’s the problem with it: the Z10 is a very promising first-generation device that won’t sell, because it’s competing with platforms with many years of development behind them, and it’s released by a company without the size or the strength to stick around and make sure it gets to the point where it can compete. And that kind of sucks, because it would have been nice to see BlackBerry release something good, and also because the Z10 actually has some pretty cool ideas in it.

BlackBerry Z10 Homescreen

Software New

Okay, so, this is where the real meat of the phone is. I’m going to break it down item by item.

Buttons…Oh, Wait: There are no buttons. There are gestures, instead. Swipe up from below the screen to go “home,” such as it is (more on that in a sec). Swipe from left to right to see options, sometimes. Swipe down from the top to see other options, also sometimes. On the “homescreen,” swipe from left to right to get to BlackBerry Hub, which stores all of your emails, text messages, and various other notifications. When in any app, swipe up from the bottom and then, midway up the screen, swipe to the right, and you’ll get to the Hub.

I don’t mind the gestures; I think some of them are very smart, even. I like being about to get to my email from anywhere, instantly. And the gestures aren’t hard, but they are also not intuitive at all. Hand the Z10 to someone and they’ll have no idea how to do anything. Spend a minute or two reading that last paragraph out loud and they’ll be fine, but I think that may already be too late for some prospective buyers. Why learn a new system when you’re already familiar with Android and/or iOS?

Homescreen: The homescreen is great, because, well, there isn’t one, really. Homescreens are relics; they are unnecessary homages to the old mode of computing, where you had files and folders on a desktop that served as your homebase. You do not really have files or folders anymore; you have apps. (Tinkerers will disagree with that, which is fine, but they are the minority.) Android totally missed the boat on this; it has never ceased to bug me that with Android you are forced to have multiple ways to do things. You hit the home button and you see apps. Hit the app drawer and you have some of the same apps again. This is dumb. iOS makes an attempt to modernize, with its homescreen serving as nothing more than an app launcher. Microsoft’s Windows Phone is somewhere in the middle, with an app launcher in which the app icons also display extra info. But a list of icons isn’t the only way to do it.

BlackBerry 10 does not have a homescreen at all. When you swipe up from the bottom of the screen (the “go home” gesture), you see a grid of thumbnails of your currently running apps. Tap to open, or tap the little “x” to close them. Swipe to the left to get to the BlackBerry Hub, or swipe to the right to get to a more familiar-looking app launcher, which looks like a BlackBerry-ified version of the iOS homescreen. I think this is excellent! It makes it very quick and efficient to really get things done, since you’re not constantly popping in and out of a launcher that’s of no use to you. I also like that it makes it simple to see what’s going on on your phone–iOS and Windows Phone are both kind of inscrutable that way.

Sometimes the thumbnails of currently-running apps display other information–weather apps, for example, sometimes just show the temperature rather than a small thumbnail of the running app. It’s nice, though it’s not consistent among apps.

BlackBerry Z10 Keyboard And Hub

BlackBerry Hub: A totally unified inbox is kind of a cool idea (though of course you can swipe from left to right again, once you’re in the Hub, to select which specific set of notifications you want to read). But in practice I pretty much never want to see my Twitter @ replies side-by-side with my work email. I also found it not very efficient to maintain. For one thing, if you like keeping your inboxes at zero, you’ll have to clear some of them multiple times (in Twitter, for example, you’ll read your @ replies, which marks them read on Twitter, but then you’ll have to do that again in the Hub). Selecting multiple messages is kind of a pain, requiring several taps.

Keyboard: BlackBerry’s name is based on its keyboards–the company thought its old hardware keyboards looked like the drupes of a blackberry. The company’s tried to innovate with on-screen keyboards in the past, with the the-whole-screen-is-a-button BlackBerry Storm, to lousy results. So I’m very happy to report that the Z10’s keyboard is not just the best on-screen keyboard BlackBerry’s ever made–it’s the best on-screen keyboard anyone’s ever made. Better than Nokia’s, better than Microsoft’s, better than Android’s, better than the million replacement keyboards for Android, even better than Apple’s.

BlackBerry’s keyboard has a silver bar in between each line of keys, which makes it much harder to hit a key on the wrong line. The keys are well-sized, well-shaped, and responsive, and the layout is immediately easy to grasp. But it’s the autocomplete function that’s unusual–it looks through your emails and text messages to figure out the words you like to type, and then offers suggestions based on the next letter. If you type “tra,” and you talk about public transit a lot, the word “trains” would appear over the letter “i,” and the word “transit” would appear over the letter “n.” To fill in the word, you just flick the word upwards from the keyboard. It’s a new technique for autocomplete, but I found it pretty useful, and more flexible than other systems which only suggest one word at a time. Some might see it as busy, though.

BlackBerry Z10 Outdoors

Apps: Ah. A problem. BlackBerry 10 is missing lots of key players here. I’m using a pre-release unit, so I’ll assume that the developers who have committed to making apps actually will (even though some, like Amazon Kindle and Rdio, aren’t done yet), but even so, there’s no Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, Seamless, Spotify, IMDb, Gmail, Google Maps, Pandora, Shazam, or Hulu Plus. First-tier games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope are there, but none of the more interesting ones you’d find on Android or iOS. The apps that are there tend to be decent–the Twitter app is better than Windows Phone’s, for example, and I found a very nice podcast app–but there’s no getting around the fact that the selection is limited. And a major exception to those “decent” apps is the default mapping app, which doesn’t seem to use Google or Bing for its data. It has turn-by-turn navigation, but no public transit implementation at all; it doesn’t even show subway stops on the map. It’s very, very basic and years behind even Apple Maps.

Worse, the app situation could well stay inferior. BlackBerry 10 is going to have a hard time getting marketshare, and app developers demand a significant marketshare to make it worth their while to develop apps. Microsoft dealt with this problem by essentially bribing developers to make apps for Windows Phone, but BlackBerry doesn’t have that kind of clout or money.

General Thoughts: The OS feels modern, for the most part, but some of the font and icon choices are aesthetically kind of dated (especially in the app launcher). There’s some inconsistency with the back button, the extra settings you swipe in from the side, and the extra extra settings you swipe down from the top. On the homescreen, when you swipe down from the top, you see basic phone settings–Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the alarm clock, a link to the full settings menu. This is great! But, it should be available no matter what you’re doing, not just when you’re on the homescreen. A personal pet peeve: in some apps, you can’t see basic status items like the battery life or clock. The clock should always be visible!

Speed is also worth noting–BlackBerry 10 is a very snappy OS, rarely lagging or taking too long to do something. That’s great, and no small feat–Windows Phone is still slow to open apps, and even Android had finger-detection problems until this year. BlackBerry 10 also never crashed on me, which is great.

BlackBerry Z10 From The Sides/Back
BlackBerry Z10 From The Sides/Back Dan Nosowitz

Hardware Good

It looks, more than anything else, like a black iPhone 5. It’s got a 4.2-inch screen–a very good size, I’d say, a good compromise between portability and visibility–that isn’t the sharpest or the brightest on the market but which is at the high end on both counts. On the top is a power/hold button, inconveniently located in the middle of the edge so you can’t reach it with your thumb. On the right edge are volume up/down buttons and a play/pause button, the latter of which is unusual and useful, and that’s…it. There are no other buttons: no home, no back, no menu. More on that in the software section. On the left edge is a microUSB port for charging/syncing–that’s the same port used by most Android and Windows phones, plus the Kindle and lots of other things–and a microHDMI for connecting to a TV.

The back is some kind of slightly cheap-feeling plasticky leather, with a chrome-colored plastic BlackBerry logo. The back is removable, so you can swap in a battery, SIM, or microSD slot, which is nice, I suppose, although the back plate is held on by those awful little plastic latches that feel like they’re all going to break at once when you peel off the cover. Built in, the phone has 16GB of storage, though the microSD slot will let you add a lot more on the cheap, and it supports LTE networks from AT&T and, soon, T-Mobile. (When T-Mobile launches their LTE network, that is.)

The phone is pretty nice-looking overall. Not super premium-feeling like the aluminum iPhone 5 and HTC One, or hyper-thin like the Motorola Droid Razr, but nice–simple, modest, but sleek and thin and comfortable. It’s about a million times nicer than the Samsung Galaxy line, that’s for sure.

BlackBerry Z10 Camera Sample

Camera: The Z10’s camera is okay. In good light, it takes very nice photos–it’s especially adept at macro shots–but has a lot of trouble in low-light, producing very little detail and a ton of noise. The interface also takes some getting used to; in every other phone camera, you tap the screen to focus, and then tap the shutter icon to take a picture. On the Z10, touching any part of the screen takes a picture, which meant I ended up with lots of out-of-focus shots before I adjusted.

Battery Life: Not great. LTE phones are generally pretty hard on a battery, but I found that with aggressive use, the Z10 had trouble making it through a whole day. It also seemed a bit slow to charge, compared to other phones. The Z10 has a replaceable battery, so you could theoretically have a second, charged battery in your bag for emergencies, though I don’t know anyone who does that.

Oh, and it costs $200 with a contract. Like every other phone.

In Conclusion

I like the Z10, a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a very nice phone, more impressive than any of the initial Windows Phones, even. I just can’t think of a reason anyone would opt for the Z10 over the much more mature iOS and Android platforms. It’s a sacrifice to give up on common, basic apps, on a good mapping solution, on software that’s had time to iron out its kinks. But BlackBerry is late to the game, and the game is now only for giants–Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Sorry, buddy. It’s just a little bit too late for you.