BlackBerry OS 10
The smartphone's fresh new OS reminds us strongly of the PlayBook, which in turn reminds of us of webOS. The icons have that signature BlackBerry styling as do menu fonts, but the swipe gestures are pure PlayBook (with a nod to webOS gestures and card metaphor). BlackBerry OS 10 and the PlayBook OS have a lot in common, with a foundation in the very robust and secure QNX operating system. The good news is that the phone is fast and fluid and extremely stable. It doesn't slow down after a day or two and require a reboot as Android sometimes does. We had the web browser quit once in the middle of a page load, but that didn't take down the OS and it only happened once in 10 days of use.
Flow, or gestures are the heart of navigation, and they're optimized for one-handed use. Swipe up to minimize an application and it will then become an "Active Pane" that runs at 1/4 screen size. Some apps will update in Active Pane mode, and it's hard to guess which ones, and you can have up to 8 apps running in this multi-tasking mode. Start a ninth app and the OS will start closing other running apps (or you can tap the little x at the top right corner of an Active Pane to close that app yourself).
Your home screen is a three part experience: a multi-screen palette of icons much as you see on the iPhone and Android, the Active Pane multi-tasking area where you can swipe up and down to view all open apps and the BlackBerry Hub that serves as your one-stop location for text messages, emails, social network status updates, reminders and app update notices. You'll swipe from side to side to access these three main areas. When in an app that has menu options, you'll either see three stacked dots on the bottom right edge of the screen or you can swipe down to see any available options. This isn't consistent from app to app, unfortunately.
We found the keyboard easy to use and text prediction was quick and rational. You can accept a suggested word with a swipe up, which isn't the quickest way to do things in terms of usability, but BlackBerry is clearly in love with swipe gestures. Overall, this is one of the best on-screen keyboards on the market.
The smartphone market is a ruthlessly competitive place, and I must say that BlackBerry was smart to wait until their new OS was super-stable, fast and feature complete. Remember not so long ago Apple and Android came out missing basic features like third party app support (iOS), cut and paste (iOS, Android and Windows Phone) and multi-tasking (iOS and Windows Phone). Fast forward a few years and it isn't even worthwhile to release an OS missing those staples. All the basics are here with BlackBerry OS 10, and we applaud them, even if they don't have a "killer feature" that competing operating systems lack.
BlackBerry Hub and Email
I love BlackBerry Hub, I confess. One place to look at and interact with all the things important: what a godsend! From email to texts to software update notices and tweets; it's all there. Twitter messages are threaded, which is wonderful if you have a lot of twitter conversations with strangers as I do. You can reply to social network messages, emails and texts directly from Hub, and in fact there's no dedicated email application. Yes, the phone has email with support for MS Exchange, Exchange Activesync, POP, IMAP (including IMAP idle for a push-like experience), but there's no icon for an email app, let alone the separate email icons BlackBerry 7 provided for each email account.
BlackBerry was synonymous with world class email for years, and now it's one of the platform's less stellar features. I confess, a unified email inbox just doesn't work for me as a business user: I need to jump on my important work emails first, and worry about my personal accounts only when I have time. I don't really want them mixing, and I'm not thrilled at having to tap on the Hub's caret to filter my email account view. Since I'm not a BES 10 user, I can't rely on BlackBerry's nifty BlackBerry Balance feature to separate personal and business emails. That's me, maybe you'll love it. I don't like the unfied iOS inbox either. Folder management has been a bit buggy for me (sometimes emails in folders don't appear) and mass message management shouldn't involve hunting (tap and hold on a message until a side menu appears, then you can choose the "Select More" function- it's the last option).
Gmail is handled as IMAP idle automatically since Google stopped offering Exchange Activesync for free accounts on Feb. 1, 2013. If you pay Google $5/month, you can have your EAS back. The first time I set up my Gmail account, it took about 10 minutes for new messages to come to the Z10, while they arrived instantly on my Samsung Galaxy Note II, Nokia Lumia 920 and iPhone 5 running the Gmail app. IMAP idle should be quicker than that... so I deleted my Gmail accounts and created them again. Second time it worked fine and emails arrived within 15 seconds of my other phones. Quirky. On a positive note, HTML emails look lovely and Exchange works like a charm. You can use the phone with BES 10 (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) but not BIS.
Software Selection: Just Starting Out
As ever with a new smartphone OS, app selection is slim. Surprisingly, game selection is a strong point in the fledgling BlackBerry World that now also offers video purchase and rentals in partnership with Rovi and a music store. Apps like Netflix are MIA but WhatsApp, Flixster and Adobe Reader are there. The phone ships with a good starter set of apps including Docs to Go for your MS Office needs (view, edit and create MS Word and Excel and view/edit PowerPoint), a pretty calculator designed by The Astonishing Tribe, PIM apps, BBM, Adobe Reader, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Box and DropBox as well as a file manager. There's a YouTube app (actually a shortcut to the mobile YouTube site), weather, a clock with alarms, mediocre voice command and a very good HTML5 web browser with Adobe Flash support and a Reader mode that works more reliably than the iPhone's. BlackBerry Maps offers basic 2D maps with no POIs and 3D driving directions with spoken navigation. BlackBerry Hub brings text messaging, reminders, email and BBM together along with social networking updates. BlackBerry says there are currently 100,000 apps in BlackBerry World, but this is quantity over quality. Many name brand popular apps from iOS and Android aren't here, but there are a lot of junk apps. Too many. We'd love to see BlackBerry raise the bar for apps because these low quality apps don't make a good impression.
As a consolation, it's supposed to be fairly easy for developers to port their Android apps over to BlackBerry 10, so we should see app selection continue to grow quickly. These non-native apps tend to run a bit slower, but for lightweight apps, it's hardly a problem. Creative geeks can grab Android apk app files and self-sign them and send them to their BlackBerry Z10 over USB. If you understand what I just said, this might be for you. If not, it's probably too techy or tedious.
Call Quality and Data
The BlackBerry Z10 is an excellent voice phone with near landline clarity and fullness for incoming and outgoing voice. Volume is average for incoming voice and louder than average for outgoing voice. The speakerphone is very effective (we like it better for speakerphone than multimedia), and it's loud enough for big box stores.
Data speeds on AT&T's LTE network with both the AT&T version and the unlocked model are very good. There's still no good speed test app in BlackBerry World, but subjectively websites loaded quickly and app downloads were speedy. Reception is very good and the phone doesn't suffer death grip reception drops when you wrap your hand around it.
Display and Multimedia
The BlackBerry Z10 has a superb 4.2" 1280 x 768 IPS touch screen with 356ppi pixel density and it's one of the better looking on the market. It's right up there with the iPhone 5 and HTC One X for viewing angles, sharpness and colors. It's also bright enough to be easily viewable in sunlight. Top and bottom bands protect the glass since this isn't Gorilla Glass. Text is very sharp and videos look great, though color saturation isn't quite as high as the iPhone 5 or Nokia Lumia 920. The BlackBerry Z10 supports a fairly wide variety of video formats including MOV, MPEG4, WMV, Xvid and AVI. Throw your movies on a microSD card and the built-in video player will find them and play them. The bottom-firing speaker isn't all that loud but it is clear and doesn't distort. Audio through headphones and stereo Bluetooth is quite good.
I miss a few things from BlackBerry 7, including scheduled on-off times and better control over display brightness. The ambient light sensor never sleeps: there's no way to disable it. That means if you set the phone to max brightness (and you'll probably end up doing just that), you won't get max brightness. Instead you'll get a relatively brighter setting that's still dimmed if the phone is indoors under so-so lighting. Scheduled on-off is gone, but there is an easy to access quiet mode for bedtime that you'll see on the lock screen (swipe down to activate it from the lock screen). This brings up the beloved BlackBerry bedside clock with quick access to alarms, which will work in bedside mode.
The BlackBerry Z10 has a removable 1800 mAh Lithium Ion battery. That's not a huge capacity battery by today's smartphone standards, but it's sufficient to power the phone through a day of moderate use. When the phone first launched in Canada and a few other markets a month ago, battery complaints were common, but BlackBerry has released an OS update with 60 battery tweaks and the AT&T Z10 is running that updated OS. Battery life has been perfectly reasonable for a modern smartphone, though the BlackBerry Z10 doesn't trounce the competition--it merely keeps up. The phone charges fairly quickly: it took 2.4 hours to charge the battery from 10% to 100% and just an hour to charge it from 40% to 100%. If you're a moderate user, you'll charge the Z10 daily, and if you're a light user you'll charge it every other day. If you're a heavy user, you'll need to top up by late afternoon or buy a spare battery.
On paper, The Z10 has a solid set of cameras: there's a 2MP camera on the front and an 8MP camera with LED flash, backside illuminated sensor and a fast f/2.2, five element lens on the rear. The problem is there isn't much you can do with the front camera since video chat options are currently very limited (there's no Skype and no Gtalk video chat yet) and the rear camera is hobbled by a simplistic camera UI with few controls. Yes, the iPhone has few camera settings and controls, but Apple has a way of making users forgive them because photos and videos come out looking great without having to fiddle endlessly with settings. With the BlackBerry Z10 camera, I often feel that its very good hardware fails to meet the iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3 and Nokia Lumia 920 challenge because the software isn't as good as it could be and I'm not allowed to tweak settings to help it.
With good, even lighting, photos are sharp and colorful. With stark outdoor sunlight or poor indoor lighting, things fall apart and the BSI isn't doing all that it could to improve dark shots. There's no HDR here to compensate for high contrast shots and video stabilization is OK but not nearly as good as on the Nokia Lumia 920. That said, with proper lighting, the BlackBerry Z10 captures sharp and colorful shots and fairly smooth 1080p video.
The BlackBerry Z10 is an excellent first step, and we're impressed with BlackBerry OS 10's speed, stability and breadth of features. It feels like a mature OS relative to other smartphone operating systems at first launch. The Z10 itself is an attractive piece of hardware and it feels great in the hand. For those who want a phone first and something that's small enough to operate one-handed, it has strong appeal. But those of you who had Samsung's big screen Android phones on your want list might find the BlackBerry Z10's screen too small. Call quality is excellent, LTE data speeds are very good and the core selection of pre-installed apps takes care of all the basics, from Office to multimedia to social networking and cloud file management. But there's no killer feature that sets the BlackBerry Z10 ahead of the competition, and we wonder how easily the company can win Android and iPhone users over. BlackBerry veterans will likely love the Z10 or the upcoming Q10 for you hardware keyboard lovers.
Price: $199 with contract, $549 without contract extension
Websites: www.blackberry.com, wireless.att.com
BlackBerry Q10 Review
The iPhone 5, BlackBerry Z10 and Nokia Lumia 920.
The BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Q10