Canadian tech company Research in Motion has renamed itself after its main product: BlackBerry. This was one of the surprises at the launch of the Z10 and symbolized a new start for the manufacturer. Two products were announced – the Q10, with the physical QWERTY keyboard BlackBerry traditionalists love, comes later in the spring – while the Z10 went on sale in one country, the UK, the next day.
One of BlackBerry’s big problems was that it was hit by the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) culture – whereby employers allowed staff to eschew the company-issued BlackBerry in favor of working on their own smartphone or tablet. This saved bosses money, but had IT directors pulling their hair out as they scrambled to support everybody’s choice of Android, iPhone and more. This new phone is BlackBerry’s attempt to win back all those people who deserted them for cuter handsets, simpler software and lots more apps. But will it be enough?
BlackBerry Z10: Design
The Z10 is a handsome phone. There are some similarities to the Apple iPhone 5: flat front and back, curved corners, but this is bigger in every direction. The display isn’t much bigger than the iPhone’s (it’s 4.2 inches rather than 4) but it has an aspect ratio that makes it look less narrow.It looks stylish and business-like, though it feels a little less premium than the glass and metal combination of the iPhone 5. Still attractive, mind, and it feels good in the hand.
BlackBerry Z10: Build
BlackBerry has long insisted its power users need to have removable batteries so they can swap them over if they need to rather than risk a second without emails. So unlike the iPhone 5, the Z10 has a back that comes off. This means the build isn’t as high-end as Apple’s, though there’s no creak as you flex the phone.
BlackBerry Z10: Display
The 4.2-inch display is impressive. The pixel per inch count is higher than most rivals at 356ppi. The iPhone manages 324ppi. Some newer phones, notably the Sony Xperia Z offer higher resolution still, at 441ppi. Even so, the Z10’s count is more than enough to look great. It has detail, crispness and looks particularly good on photos and video. The iPhone’s screen, and some AMOLED displays, offer punchier colour saturation and this is quieter, though still very attractive.
BlackBerry Z10: Operating system
This is the debut of BlackBerry 10. Since the last OS was BlackBerry 7, this is obviously meant to imply it’s a major advance. And it is. BlackBerry realised a few years ago that its quirky system was coming to the end of the road. The browser was famously iffy, the touch-operation was bolted on rather than organic and the maps were infuriating. So it bought a software company and started over. BB10, as we’ll call it, is strikingly different from the app-centric OS of Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. It is more like Windows Phone with its dynamic live tiles. But BB10 is all-new and unique. As such, there’s definitely a learning curve here. Maybe there was with the iPhone and we just can’t remember that far back.
Key to BB10 is the Hub, a kind of unified inbox where you’ll find multiple email accounts, Facebook, BBM, text messages and Twitter. Each account is easy to add and the Hub is very useful. It’s a blindingly obvious idea that all your notifications should be in one place instead of in your Twitter client, email client and so on. Not that BB10 was the first with this, but it’s very well done.
Not least thanks to Peek, which is a banana-curved gesture to let you see what’s in the Hub, whatever you’re doing on the phone. So if you’re watching a video and you hear the ping of an email arriving, you swipe up and round to the right to see what’s in the Hub. Want to read it? You can. But if you want to go back to the video – which thanks to BlackBerry’s skill with multitasking is still playing in the background – you just swipe back again.
In fact, gesture is more a part of this system than any other because there’s no home button. On other phones that would mean you’d wake the screen by pressing the power button on the top edge of the phone, say. Here, the display is always ready to respond to your touch. Swipe your finger up the screen and the phone wakes. It feels more intimate and satisfying than on other phones.
There is room for improvement, though. For instance, when you are reading an email, to get to the next one in the list you can’t swipe to it, as you can in BlackBerry 7. Instead, you must go back to the list and pick the next one you want to read. It’s not ideal.
BlackBerry Z10: Features
Although the Z10 and its operating system are designed to appeal to those business users who deserted for other handsets, there are consumer features on board here, too. Best of all is the camera. BlackBerry had always lagged behind with its snappers, so you’d have expected a 5-megapixel camera here at the most. But no, this is 8 megapixels, with flash.
The key feature is called TimeShift. The camera takes a bunch of shots in a short time. You then choose which one you like best. But the clever thing is you can pick different bits from each shot, so if one person’s blinking in the first pic and someone else is frowning in the second, you can pick the smiling, non-blinking faces as appropriate. This isn’t unique but again it’s extremely well done and feels like a little bit of magic.
Also magical is the virtual keyboard. When you’re typing it guesses not only what word you’re in the middle of, but what you want next. It’s similar to the keyboard that British software company SwiftKey employs and it is spookily accurate. As you’re typing it suggests a series of words. See the one you want, flick upwards and it appears in your text, email or whatever.
Apps were always a weak spot for BlackBerry. There weren’t enough of them and they were overpriced. Already there are 70,000 apps for BB10 – surely a record for a new system – and though they’re not as cheap as on iOS, they’re reasonable. Those 70,000 include lots of key apps like Skype and Angry Birds but not – yet – British Airways or National Rail. More needed, then, but this is a good start.
BlackBerry Z10: Performance
With the exception of the web browser, BlackBerry has always had strong performance capabilities. Here, the phone is fast and responsive whatever you’re doing and now the browser is massively improved, so that it’s a pleasure to use.
BlackBerry Z10: Verdict
This is a great debut for the new BlackBerry system. The phone is handsome and powerful, with great performance and a size that fits the hand well. The OS is key to the experience and it’s different from any rivals. So much so, there’s a learning curve to come to terms with it. Once you’ve got it, though, it makes perfect sense – and it’s much less idiosyncratic than previous BlackBerry software.
There are areas where it can improve, including the need for more apps. Whether it will be enough to tempt back all those users who were lured away by being allowed to opt for their own phone for work, time will tell. Innovations like the camera are very eye-catching, and TimeShift is fun to use and should mean an end to photos of people with their eyes shut. Overall, this is a great beginning for the new BlackBerry.