BlackBerry Z10: Steep Learning Curve, Decent Payoff [Review]

This is the new BlackBerry. It is going to take some getting used to.

BlackBerry devices have a completely new operating system, a point the company emphasizes by calling it a “first-generation operating system.” Along with the name change from Research In Motion to BlackBerry, it looks like the company wants to put its painful recent history behind it and forge a new identity. 

BlackBerry released two new BlackBerry 10 smartphones this week. The Z10 is a 4.2-inch full-touch device, while the Q10 will have a 3.1-inch screen and a full physical QWERTY keyboard. 

We got our hands on the Z10 to put it through the paces. Below we examine the hardware, user experience, apps and more.

Hardware

The specs on the Z10 are good. Not spectacular, but nothing to quite be ashamed of. It boasts a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, 1280 x 768 resolution at 356 pixels per square inch (technically better than the iPhone 5’s Retina display), a 1800 mAh battery, a removable back and 2GB of RAM. It can be LTE capable, has 16GB of memory with a microSD slot and a microHDMI port. The Z10 has a 8-megapixel back camera and a 2-MP front camera, as well as the usual array of sensors including an accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, proximity and magnetometer. Yes, it even has NFC.

The Z10 is relatively thin at .35 inches and weighs a reasonable 4.84 ounces. It does not feel flimsy (in the way that many Samsung devices do) nor does it feel like a brick, like the Lumia 920. It is not compact, thin or light as the iPhone 5, but it holds up well enough to the other top of the line smartphones available. 

If you know your phones, you might comment that the closest comparative design to the Z10 is the Motorola Razr M. BlackBerry employed the same “edge-to-edge” concept with the Z10 as Motorola with the Razr M. The M is smaller, but otherwise they look remarkably similar. 

Left: Razr M Right: Z10 Left: Razr M Right: Z10

This is not the last time you will hear the Z10 compared to Android. In many ways, BlackBerry 10 is kind of like a brother to Android, once removed. Many operating principles are similar and BlackBerry 10 even runs apps that have been ported over from Android. 

At first blush, the camera is fairly standard. The controls are simple, the 1080p appears to work as advertised and boasts an interesting “Time Shift” that allows you to edit aspects of a photo from a couple of seconds before it was taken (say, if one person was smiling before you took the picture but were not when it the shutter was snapped). 

In a quick jaunt around the neighborhood, the Z10 camera performed well. Not stupendous but extremely serviceable. Here are a couple shots.

The front camera is better than most. With many front pictures, you expect a grainy shot unless the light is absolutely perfect. 

Gesture Interface & Home Screens

BlackBerry borrows concepts from Apple and the iPhone while at the same time giving old-time BlackBerry users fond reminders that it is still, indeed, a BlackBerry device. It looks like BlackBerry learned a lesson from Windows Phone to not stray too far from the app/row/icon design of Android and iOS. You can group apps into folders in the same way you can in iOS and the interface has multiple sliding home screens like Android.

One feature, a little jarring at first if you are coming from Android (or even Windows Phone), is that there really is no central home screen. Yes, there is a lock screen with message icons, but it is not the hub of your experience while using the Z10. When you turn the device on, you are in a screen that shows you what recent apps you had open. You can scroll between the apps or swipe left/right or down from the top to access various features. These tiles are kind of like Android-style widgets but you can only open the apps from the central screen, not interact with them the way you would with Android.  

This is where new users are going to get confused. BlackBerry says that the entire operating system is “gesture based.” Reviewers and commenters have harped on this fact while many people have said “that does not mean anything, iOS and Android are gesture-based too.”

Well, yes and no.

If you are coming from Android, you are used to a back button of some sort on the bottom of the device. Whether that is a firmware button or an actual hardware button depends on the manufacturer. You will also get a search button (it is Google’s OS, after all) and a home button that will center you back to the home screen. With the iPhone, you have the classic round home button that serves a variety of functions such as activating the device, backing out of an application and going back to your home screen.

None of these exist in BlackBerry 10. 

Wait, how do you navigate? By gestures of course. 

If you swipe left to right, you get to the BlackBerry Hub where all of your messages are kept. That includes social applications like Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/Foursquare, BlackBerry Messenger, email, text, voice mail/calls and any other notifications. You can activate any one of those applications from the Hub. 

If you swipe from right to left, you get to your apps/rows/icons. This is where you will feel most comfortable coming from the iPhone and where it allows you to group apps into folder categories. 

Swiping from the top down will bring you to the settings/connections space where you can connect to Wi-Fi, set the alarm, Bluetooth, rotation and notifications. 

Then there is swiping up from the bottom. You had better get used to this gesture because it is basically how you get around BlackBerry 10. Since there is no back or home button, if you want to back out of an app, you swipe up. If you want to get back to your “home screen” of recent apps, you swipe up. If you want to activate the device from a black screen, you swipe up (or press the top power button). This gesture is the equivalent of a home/power/back/quit button.

Operating System

Once you figure out how to get around, you can start exploring exactly what it means to use a BlackBerry 10. This is also where you remember that the Z10 is a BlackBerry… for good and bad.

There are several features ingrained into the operating system that you are going to become very familiar with. The first is Hub, the second is Flow. BlackBerry describes Flow as a, “seamless user experience which provides full control and flexibility in every moment and touch.” Basically, Flow is tied through Hub to always have your apps and connectivity working in the background of the app with which you are working. If you do not want to fully leave the app you are in, you can do a half-swipe to “Peek” at Hub. So, if you are in a browser, you swipe from the right and can get to Hub or another app that you were already in. It gives BlackBerry 10 a interconnected feeling where all of your apps are hiding just beyond the edge of your screen. Once you get used to it, Flow/Peek becomes very useful. 

Users will find a learning curve to typing on the Z10. The keyboard employs BlackBerry’s new semantic learning technology that predicts what word you are trying to use with each successive letter you type. It will display likely words about the potential next letter you are going to type. For instance, if you type “for” the word “fork” might hover above the K to spell fork. Instead of hitting the K, you swipe up on the word and it places it in your message. This can help with longer words to cut back how long it takes to type a message but the feature is unique enough that you have to spend significant time with it to master. 

Where you really get the old BlackBerry experience is in settings, preferences, account registration, email and messaging, security and privacy. Everything you either loved or hated about the back-end of BlackBerry OS devices is present in BlackBerry 10. One new tweak is BlackBerry Balance, which allows users to separate data and applications on the device. If you are using your BlackBerry Z10 or Q10 for both work and personal use, you can have your IT administrator enable balance and the BlackBerry certified Work apps. 

The App Ecosystem

Speaking of apps, BlackBerry 10 has plenty of them for a “first-generation” operating system. BB 10 has 70,000 or so to start and the company has pulled off every trick in the book to get them on the platform. BlackBerry hosted “port-o-thons” to get developers to wrap Android apps for BlackBerry, use a variety of Web apps with home screen short cuts (similar to early iOS) as default applications (such as for YouTube) and has apps built specifically for the platform.

BlackBerry announced 1,000 partner apps that either are currently in the BlackBerry World app store or will be shortly. If you were to pick up a Z10 today you might be disappointed that promised apps like Skype, Fruit Ninja and others among the 1,000 apps that are missing. BlackBerry promises they are coming soon. 

At the same time, we have heard little about some popular apps that many users count on for day-to-day operations. That includes Spotify, Netflix, Zite, Flipboard, RunKeeper or any hint of an app from Google like Maps, a dedicated Gmail app (Gmail does work through Hub), Talk or Music. If you have a specific app that you cannot live without, check BlackBerry World out before buying the device to make sure it's available. 

If many BlackBerry apps have an Android feel to them, well, it's because they are Android apps. Near 40% of BlackBerry apps were ported from Android including the good, bad and ugly of Google Play. Even the BlackBerry World app store has a vaguely Android-esque feel to it, including media offerings like music and video. 

For the time being, you are going to have a hard time finding a good dedicated music streaming service on BlackBerry 10. Rdio, Slacker, TuneIn, Songza and SoundHound are on their way, according to BlackBerry, but many are not yet present.

Steep Learning Curve, Decent Payoff

BlackBerry president Thorsten Heins announces the Z10 & Q10 in New York City BlackBerry president Thorsten Heins announces the Z10 & Q10 in New York City

Many consumers have grown content with the iPhone/Android duopoly in the smartphone market. They can buy a new phone and automatically know how to use it and take half an hour or so to set it up just how they want it. 

That is not the case with the Z10. 

It will take the better part of a couple of days to really be comfortable with how to use BlackBerry 10 and the gesture-based user experience of the Z10. Configuring Hub and messaging settings and sounds can be a touch confusing and requires several layers of swipes and settings to get it just right. Typing can be an interesting experience at first with the auto-suggestions in the keyboard. Like many other things with the Z10, it takes time to get used to.

Users will like the customization of the recent apps central screen and the iOS-like folders of the apps and icons. The hyper-connected will love Hub and Flow. The hardware is above average and the screen display is high quality. It is reasonably thin and holds well in one hand. 

If you are among the legion of desperate BlackBerry fans awaiting the new Z10, you are not likely to be disappointed. BlackBerry took some of the good qualities from both iOS and Android, gave them a distinct BlackBerry feel and packaged it into a zippy and attractive body.

Are you going to buy a BlackBerry Z10 when it becomes available? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.