BlackBerry Z10: 48 hours with BB10's touch-screen handset

Before BlackBerry unveiled its first BB10 devices, ZDNet's Ben Woods got the chance to spend a couple of days reviewing some of the headline features and poring over the hardware. Here's how the phone fared.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

The BlackBerry Z10 is the first of BlackBerry's (formerly Research In Motion's) handsets to use the BlackBerry 10 operating system. We've already reviewed some of the handset's key features, but what's it really like to use it as your day-to-day phone?

How did the BlackBerry Z10 fare after 48 hours of use? (Credit: Ben Woods/ZDNet)

The first thing that struck me about the device was how similar it looked to the previous few generations of the iPhone--but that's tough to avoid when you're aiming for "slick-looking, thin phone in black, please". Besides, that's no bad thing: while I don't enjoy using Apple's OSes, I've always liked its approach to hardware design.

Prior to my time with the Z10, I'd been using the Nokia Lumia 920 (which is well known to be far from dainty). Next to the 920, the 9mm-thick Z10 felt positively skinny, though it's by no means the slimmest on the market. It's also reasonably lightweight; unlike the 920, I can't imagine it getting particularly heavy in the hand or weighing down pockets too much, unless you're into skinny jeans.

The Z10 packs a 4.2-inch (720p) screen, the display is vibrant and sharp, and of a high enough resolution to satisfy me. It's no Retina quality, but it's no slouch either. It's also really responsive to the touch and the OS didn't leave me hanging around wondering whether it had registered my input. Scrolling, in general, is super-smooth.

The BlackBerry 10 OS that powers the Z10 is based around the ideas of Hub, Peek, and Flow. Flow refers to the way you navigate to respond to messages, emails, calls, and other notifications, without having to move away from the app you're using, achieved by "Peeking" at the "Hub" (the OS's single inbox that brings together messages, notifications, and so on).

The system works reasonably well, and as more than just a gimmick--I used it several times to take a quick look at text messages and emails received while watching a video. That said, it will take a little bit of time to get used to it as the default way of checking for updates.

Like using an iPhone for the first time back when it was released in 2007, using the Z10 feels fresh and logical, although not altogether new--the home and app screens really are an amalgamation of Windows Phone's Live Tiles and the rows of apps found on iOS and Android.

Simple and surprising

That's not to say that there aren't novel or nice touches sprinkled throughout the OS. For example, when I started using the browser for the first time, it recognised that I was viewing a Flash-heavy site and asked me if I wanted to turn Flash on in the browser settings, as it's turned off by default.

Simple features make it pleasant and occasionally surprising to use.

Other simple features make it pleasant and occasionally surprising to use. A little tab appears above the time when the screen is locked and, if it's night time, allows you to quickly switch into night mode--muting system sounds and notifications--and gives you access to your alarm clock from the same screen, too. I simply didn't know this option was there before the tab appeared (although, as it turns out, you can pull down from the top of the browser while the screen is locked to access it).

Perhaps the most unexpected part of the navigation for me was the frequency in which I defaulted to using the universal search to open apps.

Similar to Microsoft's decision to drop the Start button for Windows 8 and replace the functionality with a search bar, BlackBerry has a universal search accessible from the bottom of the screen that will return matching apps, email, or other messages containing your search term or contacts. You can also extend your search to the Maps, Yahoo, Bing, Google, BlackBerry World, or Help apps. I quickly found myself directly typing the name of an app into the search to launch it, rather than scrolling through pages of icons looking for it.

Keyboard and camera

While the keyboard on the Z10 is a virtual one, it's one of the smartest and most accurate predictive text systems I've used.

As well as having a virtual second layer keyboard that learns where exactly you strike each key and adjusts the layout accordingly, it also pops up predicted next words in-line with that letter on the keyboard. If you want to insert the word, just swipe up, if you want to delete a mistake, just swipe backwards.

It's not all plain sailing with the phone, however. While there's nothing wrong with Z10's camera quality, the Lumia 920 has spoiled me--it's one of the best smartphone cameras I've used, and the Z10 just doesn't compare.

BlackBerry hasn't made a lot of noise about the camera, but there are plenty of useful features to be had: face detection mode that takes 11 stills so you can select the best frame, filters for making boring shots more interesting, and auto-enhancement, brightness controls, and white balance are all present and correct. None of that can change the fact that it's a middle-of-the-road camera, though.

Apps and maps

The other obvious problem, and one BlackBerry has been working to try and rectify, is the apps in the BlackBerry World store. In an effort to stave off criticism, the company had a number of big name companies make their BlackBerry 10 apps ahead of launch, so you'll find the BBC iPlayer, Daily Mail, Bloomberg, AccuWeather, Yahoo Messenger, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and a host of other recognisable names.

However, problems arise when you start looking for that one specific app you rely on, which inevitably seems not to be in the store yet.

(Credit: ZDNet)

BlackBerry World itself is simple to use, and the integrated download and installation of an app without leaving the item's description is a real bonus, lacking only the option to launch the app once installed. If the BlackBerry 10 OS, and the handsets running it, do well enough, developers will follow. And, while we wait to see how far that transpires, BlackBerry is planning to open up more APIs in the future, such as giving developers access to the BlackBerry Hub.

BlackBerry Maps (powered by TomTom) worked well, providing turn-by-turn voice guided navigation without a fuss.

It also lets you choose alternate routes according to which is simplest, shortest, or fastest, and shows traffic info. I didn't sport a native public transport navigation option though, which is a notable omission, and I was left wondering whether all TomTom-based maps call roundabouts a "traffic circle".

Like its keyboard, security also springs to mind when most people think of BlackBerry, and while there's a host of enterprise-tied features, like Balance, there are also good safeguards in place on the handset, including BlackBerry Protect's ability to remotely locate and deactivate lost devices. I particularly like the granular nature of the BlackBerry permissions system, which allows you to grant or revoke access to certain parts of the OS for each app as it requests them.

The verdict

In the short time I spent using the Z10 as my run-of-the-mill handset, it impressed me.

I had been braced for another minor disappointment from RIM/BlackBerry, and while it has had to play catch up and introduce features now found as standard on other OSes, it has done so with a style and ease that Windows Phone should be scared of.

The minor touches I mentioned earlier aren't make-or-break features--no one is buying a handset based on its ability to show Flash, or quickly switch the clock to night mode, or any of the numerous other "huh, neat" moments you can discover for yourself--but as a user, they make me happy.

RIM has been smart in more than one sense here: it has launched a product that has the enterprise chops to serve its core audience, but more than that, could potentially inspire a sense of pride in ownership. As I said, there are similarities here with when the first iPhone was introduced.

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