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The Z10 is a nicely designed handset with a superb touchscreen and good specifications that include LTE and NFC support. The new BlackBerry 10 OS offers a decent user experience once you get used to it, although we'd like to see a physical home button.
BlackBerry Balance will appeal to corporate customers
App store is missing some key software
No support for Google calendar or contacts
Research In Motion (RIM) is no more, long live BlackBerry. The company that played a key part in the rise of the smartphone is looking to a new operating system and new branding to rescue it from the doldrums in which it has lately been languishing.
BlackBerry has bet the farm on the new QNX-based BlackBerry 10 OS and launched two handsets to spearhead its renaissance. The keyboard-equipped Q10 has yet to hit the market, but the touchscreen-only Z10 is available to buy in the UK now — from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3UK and Carphone Warehouse, among others.
The UK saw the first retail availability of the Z10 on 31 January, with BlackBerry's home territory Canada following on 5 February and the US having to wait until March.
Design The BlackBerry Z10 is a minimalist handset. Its 4.2-inch, high-resolution (1,280-by-760-pixel/355ppi) screen extends to the full width of the chassis, and has very small top and bottom frames. There are no front buttons, and only a couple elsewhere: the on/off switch sits in the middle of the top edge, and there's a volume rocker with a central mute button on the right-hand side (pressing and holding the mute key also initiates voice control). As far as connectors are concerned, the headset slot is on the top, while the left-hand side carries a Micro-USB port and a Micro-HDMI port.
The Z10 measures 65.6mm wide by 130mm deep by 9mm thick and weighs 137.5g (that's 2.58in. x 5.11in. x 0.35in. and 4.85 ounces if you prefer). That makes it noticeably bigger and heavier than the 4in. iPhone 5, whose vital statistics are 58.6mm wide by 123.8mm deep by 7.6mm thick and 112g (2.31in. x 4.87in. x 0.3in. and 3.95 ounces). Like the iPhone, the Z10 is available in both black and white — the latter being the more stylish livery, in our opinion.
The thin and flimsy textured backplate lifts to reveal MicroSD and Micro-SIM slots, and the removable 1,800mAh battery (which is rated for up to 10 hours talk time and 13 days on standby).
The plastic build is generally a little disappointing — more metal would have helped the aesthetics and made for a tougher handset. Still, it feels relatively comfortable in the hand, and slips neatly into a pocket.
Features The BlackBerry Z10 is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz processor supported by 2GB of RAM. That's a generous memory complement, and a feature that no doubt contributes to the phone's very smooth performance. There is 16GB of internal storage, with extra capacity available via the MicroSD card slot.
The Z10 is the first BlackBerry handset to support LTE connectivity (bands 3, 7, 8 and 20 in our review unit; other SKUs have different configurations). Tri-band HSPA+ and quad-band GPRS/EDGE are also supported. We ran our Z10 on EE's 4G (LTE) network in the UK, which uses the 1800MHz band 3.
Bluetooth (4.0 LE), Wi-Fi (dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n) and GPS are all present, along with NFC. The usual array of sensors are also included: accelerometer, compass, proximity, gyroscope and ambient light sensor.
There are two cameras: a front-facing 2-megapixel fixed-focus unit with image and video stabilisation, capable of 720p HD video; and an 8-megapixel autofocus camera capable of 1080p full-HD video. The main camera also has a flash unit, image stabilisation, a backside illuminated sensor (for enhanced low light performance), a dedicated ISP and 64MB frame buffer, and supports a clever multi-shot feature called Time Shift (of which more later).
A notable absentee from the spec sheet is an FM radio. These are by no means ubiquitous, but many handsets do offer them and we'd prefer to see one in this flagship smartphone.
BlackBerry 10 OS The most significant thing about the BlackBerry Z10 is that it runs the new BlackBerry 10 OS, an entirely new operating system that BlackBerry hopes will revive its fortunes. The BlackBerry 10 user experience is built around three concepts — Hub, Peek and Flow — and is designed for one-handed use.
The Hub is an all-in-one inbox containing email, SMS, BBM, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, calendar notifications and more. Peek is the system for getting a quick look at the Hub: from any app, you can sweep the screen to take a Peek at the Hub, and then select any specific communications stream or simply examine a whole timeline. Tap and hold on a particular communication and a sidebar pops in from the right of the screen, with message options like reply, forward, flag or file.
The third concept is Flow. This is the name for the system used to navigate the whole operating system. Essentially you can get around using one thumb, with sweeps and swipes — including some that need to start or end above the top and bottom of the screen's glass.
Horizontal sweeps take you from the Hub to an open apps screen that you can scroll vertically, and then to the app tray with multiple screens of app icons on offer. Inevitably the gestures take some getting used to, but the system is surprisingly efficient and relatively intuitive. Our only real complaint is the lack of a physical 'home' button to take you to the open apps screen or the Hub. All that sweeping does become a little tedious.
Although this system is presented as — and indeed is — an entirely new way of working, it has BlackBerry heritage. The old scroll wheel allowed you to work through emails one-handed, and that's exactly the idea here — albeit extended to access multiple communication types as well as apps, and moved from a physical control on the side of the device to the touchscreen. It's precisely in keeping with the BlackBerry ethos — and incidentally, as it's thumb-based, we anticipate the resurrection of BlackBerry Thumb.
The Z10's on-screen keyboard recalls the design of BlackBerry's familiar physical keyboards (which will live on in the forthcoming Q10 handset): wide silver strips separate rows of keys and the individual key tabs themselves mimic the old physical keys.
That's not what impresses us most though. There are two very clever things going on here. The first is invisible: BlackBerry has built a second keyboard beneath the one you can see. This learns where you hit the keys, and helps to improve accuracy over time. On my current Android handset I tend to tap the space bar a little to the right, and often hit the adjacent full stop by mistake. Presumably the BlackBerry Z10 will learn to compensate for this after a while.
The second clever thing is very visible: as you type, the Z10 guesses the word you're after, and offers suggestions above the next key you would hit. Sweeping up from that key over the suggested word selects it. I found this difficult to get used to at first, but after four days of using the Z10 it has become second nature. I don't use it when typing words of less than six letters, but it's a real time saver for longer words.
There are other neat touches. The camera's Time Shift feature shoots a number of photos in quick succession, and then lets you edit different sections (peoples' faces, for example) to get the best composite picture. This is complemented by a video-creation app called Story Maker. Elsewhere, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) has been enhanced to include video calling and screen sharing, and there's a useful new app called BlackBerry Remember — a multi-featured note taker that can sync with Evernote.
BlackBerry 10 is not backwards compatible, so the company has had to start again with its app store, BlackBerry World. It has put a lot of effort into this, with much touted 'port-a-thons' to help developers support the new OS. The result is around 70,000 apps at launch, with plenty of big names mentioned at the global launch event.
However, a mention at launch is not the same as actually being in the app store. Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin are all supported by BB 10 apps, but Skype — billed as 'committed' to BlackBerry — was not represented in BlackBerry World when we checked. Nor was the Kindle app, among others. If you're thinking of switching to BlackBerry, it would be a good idea to check BlackBerry World for your favourite apps first.
BlackBerry Balance BlackBerry Balance, which is supported on the new OS, made a slow start but is seen by BlackBerry as a key feature for both business users and consumers. Businesses can configure a locked-down 'Work' area of the handset — via BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) 10 — that users can't fiddle with, and which can be remotely wiped. Meanwhile, a completely separate 'Personal' area of the handset lets you do all the things you'd expect on an unfettered consumer device.
This is a very neat feature that should allow people to carry just one handset where previously they'd have required separate phones for work and personal use.
There are some significant drawbacks with the Z10/BB10 combo though. For example, although the Z10 can handle multiple email accounts, you can only set up one Twitter account and one Facebook account in the native app. If (like me) you need to monitor more than one of either account, then you'll need to use a third-party app — which won't give you the Hub integration. At the time of writing there was no Twitter app available that allows you to log into more than one account at a time. Moreover, the Hub only displays Twitter interactions and not the full Twitter timeline. As a way of keeping an eye on Twitter, then, the Z10 is not an ideal platform.
More importantly, perhaps, for BlackBerry's goal of retaining its consumer fanbase, while Gmail is supported, there's no facility to import Google contacts or calendar data.
Conclusion The BlackBerry Z10 is a nicely designed, minimalist handset with a superb touchscreen and good technical specifications that include LTE and NFC support. The new BlackBerry 10 operating system delivers a satisfying user experience once you get used to it, although in our opinion it would benefit from a physical home button.
There are some important niggles. I need to monitor four different Twitter accounts, but could only set up one on the device. Also, Google calendar and contacts can't be imported — something that needs to be fixed quickly if the Z10 is to capture consumer mindshare.
Early reports suggest that the BlackBerry Z10 is selling well, although no official figures are available yet. In the long run, however, the company's chances of maintaining market share are likely to depend on how businesses respond to the new BlackBerry 10 OS ecosystem.