REVIEW: The New BlackBerry Phone

BlackBerry Z10

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

BlackBerry lost its way over the years. You can’t argue against that.Even after the launch of the iPhone, the company buried its head in the sand and refused to admit the future of smartphones was in gorgeous touchscreen hardware with friendly, innovative interfaces. 

Consumers started ditching their BlackBerrys for the iPhone and Android phones. First-time smartphone buyers ignored the BlackBerry. The company’s dominant smartphone market share dwindled. The stock tanked.

And now, six years after the iPhone was introduced to the world, it seems BlackBerry has finally learned its lesson caught up with the competition with its newest smartphone, the BlackBerry Z10.

I’ve been using the Z10 since BlackBerry’s big launch event last week. I think it’s a great phone with a clever new operating system. But BlackBerry has its work cut out for it in several key areas.

Click here for photos of the BlackBerry Z10 >

What Is It?
Unlike every BlackBerry before it, the Z10 does not have a physical keyboard. Instead, BlackBerry chose to go touchscreen-only, just like all the other phones that consumers have been choosing over regular BlackBerrys for the last few years. 

The Z10 is slightly taller and thicker than the iPhone 5, with a 4.2-inch display and a removable rubbery back cover that lets you swap out the battery. It won’t be available in the U.S. until mid-March and will cost $150-$200, depending on the carrier.

But the most important part of the Z10 is the new operating system called BlackBerry 10. Despite BlackBerry’s troubles, the company decided to build its own mobile OS for smartphones and tablets instead of using one like Google’s Android or Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 that are readily available for manufacturers to use. 

BB10 is really good.

The New BlackBerry 10
It took a while, but BlackBerry finally came up with a mobile operating system that can match iOS on the iPhone and Android. 

At first glance, BB10 looks a lot like iOS with its static grid of app icons. That’s nothing special for a home screen, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen before from countless other iPhone wannabes. 

But there’s more to BB10 than just a bunch of boring apps on your screen. BlackBerry cleverly designed the OS so everything can be controlled with gestures. They’re not the confusing, difficult-to-learn gestures like you see in Windows 8; BB10’s controls feel completely natural.

Yes, there’s a slight learning curve, but it won’t take you very long to get the hang of BB10’s gestures.

It’s best to think of BB10 in layers. Swiping from left to right reveals the BlackBerry Hub, a notifications centre that stores updates from your email inbox, Facebook, Twitter, texts, etc., beneath your home screen. You don’t even have to look at the whole thing, just a half-swipe is enough to peek at your incoming notifications. The Hub also lets you respond to emails, texts, etc. without having to open a separate app.

BlackBerry Z10The BlackBerry Hub in BB10.

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

Swiping from the bottom up closes an app, replacing the need to tap a home button. Your app is then stored in a separate window ahead of the normal app grid so you can quickly open it up again. It’s the best mobile multitasking experience I’ve used so far, and reminds me just how much work Apple still needs to do with iOS in that respect.

In short, BB10’s navigation is brilliant. It’s a powerful, customisable operating system that doesn’t feel as daunting and intimidating as Android can at times. It’s the perfect balance of ease of use and versatility.

It’s just solid.

Using The Z10
BlackBerry has always prided itself on having the best smartphone keyboard, so the challenge was to bring that same experience to the Z10’s touchscreen. It works. 

The BB10 on-screen keyboard is the best I’ve ever used. The keys are easy to spot thanks to the white letters on a black background, which is reminiscent of the old-school BlackBerry keyboard style. But the best part is how good the keyboard is at predicting what you’ll type next. As you type, word suggestions appear over letters on the keyboard. You can then “flick” the word into the text field instead of typing it out all the way. 

Even better, the keyboard software analyses the full sentence you’re typing and predicts a handful of words you’re likely to type next. It saves a ton of time, and it’s much easier to use and more accurate than the autocorrect on iPhone and Android.
Testing the Z10 was also my first extended use of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). The experience is largely the same as before, but BBM now has a feature that lets you video chat and share your screen with another BB10 user through the Web. BBM works a lot like your buddy list in Google Talk or AIM, letting you set a status and see when you’re friends are online. It’s much more robust and useful than the often glitchy iMessage on Apple devices.

The Z10’s camera is just as bad as everyone says. The software is pretty neat, letting you swap out your subject’s face with one from a better shot, but the image sensor is horrible in low light settings. It’s nowhere near as good as the camera on the iPhone 5 or Nokia Lumia 920.

The screen is measures in at 4.2 inches, slightly larger than the one on the iPhone 5, but with greater pixel density. Images and videos are incredibly sharp. My only complaint is that BlackBerry didn’t consider making the display a bit larger like the gorgeous one on Samsung’s Galaxy S III.

Finally, battery life was decent. You’ll have no problem getting through a full day with moderate use. Luckily, the Z10’s back cover snaps off you so can swap out a fully charged battery if you need to.

The App Problem
Ok, enough gushing. 

As I wrote after spending a few days with the Z10, BlackBerry’s app selection is horrible. The company boasts that there are more than 70,000 apps in its store, but that number doesn’t matter. What matters is finding the apps you want. BB10 still can’t deliver that. 

Yes, more apps will surely arrive on BB10, but for now it’s still missing a lot of big-name apps like Yelp, Evernote, Instagram, and several others. The apps that are in BlackBerry’s app store are mostly just knockoffs and junk.
[image url="" link="lightbox" caption="One of the knockoff apps for BB10." source="" alt="BlackBerry Z10" align="left" size="xlarge" nocrop="true" clear="true"]
[credit provider="Steve Kovach, Business Insider"]

It’s also a concerning sign that big developers like Facebook and Dropbox didn’t think BB10 was worth their time. BlackBerry ended up making those apps itself instead.

So that’s the biggest problem with the Z10. If you care about apps and services, you’re not going to get the best ones right away, assuming you get them at all. And when a developer makes the next hot app, such as Vine or Mailbox, you won’t be among the first to try it.

That should be a turn off for just about everyone.

Now for a reality check.

The Z10 is a great phone. BlackBerry 10 is a great operating system. Unfortunately for BlackBerry, it kept us waiting too long for a viable alternative to iPhone and Android (U.S. users will have to wait at least another month), so it’s tough to imagine anyone but brand loyalists getting on board. There’s next to no incentive for anyone currently using an iPhone or Android phone to make the switch to BlackBerry, and it’s not appealing for a first-time smartphone buyer to choose the Z10 due to its lack of high quality apps.

If you’re already a BlackBerry user, you’ll love the Z10. Everyone else will be taking a step backwards by missing out on the great app and content ecosystems found in iOS and Android.

Click here for photos of the BlackBerry Z10 >

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