BlackBerry Z10 Initial Impressions

Last week my work colleague went out and purchased BlackBerry’s new Z10 smartphone to replace his aging BlackBerry Bold 9780. So fortunately I managed to get my hands on the device and get a thorough sense of what was new in the BlackBerry ecosystem. I’ve never been much of a fan of BlackBerry’s devices for anything other than business but the Z10 certainly breaks the mould that BlackBerry have been using for years.

So let’s get started with our overview of this new device.

My impressions: Unboxing and initial Setup

The unboxing of the device was fairly similar to unboxing any other smartphone these days. The box was fairly small, the phone was on top of everything else when sliding open the box, the battery was separate from the phone and it came bundled with it’s USB cable, wall charger, a pair of earphones and the device manual and warranty documentation. The phone also came with it’s own grey pouch. It’s texture is somewhat that of suede, but it’s mixed with something else that makes it feel almost borderline unpleasant. As with BlackBerry’s previous pouches, it also has the magnets in it that interact with corresponding magnets / proximity sensors within the device itself. Always a nice touch.

The setup seemed fairly simple, insert your battery, turn it on with the button on the top, wait for it to boot, the setup wizard guides you through the initial setup of the device including adding a WiFi network and adding an existing BlackBerry account (or creating a new one). The setup wizard was fairly similar to that of Android and iOS. A handy thing to point out is that if you’ve already synchronised your stuff with a Blackberry account, it’s all imported for you near instantaneously.

My Impressions: Overall Design and Ergonomics

It’s incredibly slick at 9mm thick and it’s a huge step up from BlackBerry’s aging traditional QWERTY design. Upon first seeing the device it definitely has a similar appearance to that of the iPhone 5. (A generic black rectangle with all four corners the same size) though there are some differences. For one the Z10 is made of plastic as opposed to the aluminium finish of the iPhone 5. This makes the Z10 much lighter, all smartphone makers seem to think that making lighter smartphones is a good thing. I like a heavy device! But moreover, the Z10 has a rubberised texture on the back which feels fantastic in the hand and allows for a more robust grip of the phone. The glass on the front of the device only covers the LCD unlike a lot of smartphones these days which are sporting the full-glass look. Less fingerprints, yay! On the front of the Z10 you’ll find no physical buttons whatsoever but we’ll get onto why in a minute. You’ll also find an LED alert light at the top of the display. On the top you’ll find the headphone port (standard 3.5mm), the lock / power button conveniently placed in the middle and a pinhole microphone. On the bottom there’s pretty much nothing. On the left side of the phone you’ll find a Micro-USB port for charging and a Micro HDMI port. The port placement for the charger isn’t ideal as it will make grasping the device uncomfortable when it is plugged in. On the right side of the device there is a volume rocker switch with a voice control button on the center which is a nice touch but you’d probably make more use of a dedicated camera button in it’s place. Underneath the back cover you’ll find the microSD card slot, expandable storage is always a plus on a smartphone.

My Impressions: The Display

The pixel density of the display is outstanding and I’d say for the most part it’s on par with the likes of the vibrant display of the Samsung Galaxy S III and the retina display of the iPhone 5. The display measures 4.2″ diagonally and has a resolution of 768 x 1280 pixels. As with all of the smartphones these days it’s glossy so be prepared to have to wipe away those finger prints and avoid very brightly lit areas. Overall though bright, great contrast, great viewing angles, a respectable aspect ratio, vibrant and very densely packed pixels. Everything I like to see on a display.

My Impressions: The Speaker(s)

The audio sounds clean, even when pushed to full volume whilst playing something quite bassy. The speaker(s) seem to be able to somewhat replicate low bass tones but not in an enjoyable way. As with most small computers and smartphones the speakers are “tinny” for the most part.

My Impressions: Overall usage

The OS is very different from what you may be used to if you’ve had a previous BlackBerry device. Or any other device for that matter! BB10 is very reminiscent of the OS that featured on the BlackBerry Playbook but has been reconfigured and updated to accomodate the smaller screen. A major downside of the OS is that there are quite a few apps available but not many GOOD apps. And developers have yet to release a lot of apps that are now commonplace on Android and iOS. An unusual feature is Android emulation which allows you to effectively run Android in a virtual capacity on the device. The problem with this concept is simple. IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE first of all. This was supposed to be a new hope for BlackBerry but it just goes to show how much RIM must be worried about the success of this device if they’re having to emulate another OS due to lack of properly implemented features and good native apps on BB10. The other issue is that the Android version that was initially included for emulation was a very early version and it has only just recently been announced that Android 4.1 will be able to be emulated. This still isn’t the absolute latest version of Android. Get it together BlackBerry, your new OS works, don’t rely on your neighbour’s stuff. Another issue with the emulation is that the apps will run like they’re being emulated (not well).

As for general use the interface is relatively clean and consistent, the BlackBerry logo on the screen bezel doubles up as an unlocking tool. Swipe up from the logo to unlock the phone (not the lock button oddly enough). Swipe up and to the right to access your messages and so on and so forth. The OS relies heavily on multitouch gestures which is a nicer and more fluid way of navigating on your smartphone. The multitasking system is interesting but lacks in the implementation side of things. It’s cool because you can see live previews of everything that you have open but the issue being that you can only have open 8 apps at any given time. So for example say you open 8 apps and Twitter was the first one to be opened. When you open Facebook, the Twitter app is killed off. Weird. You’ll also find a grid in which your apps sit much like in Android and iOS. They have bulky glass frames around them to make the layout look more unique. Unique yes. But necessary no. Many would prefer a slightly cleaner appearance. Native app performance is on par and perhaps even better than on Android and iOS. Angry Birds performs just as fluidly on this device.

The messaging and communication center of the device is seemingly a joy, you can integrate all of your social networks, your SMS, your BBM and your Email. All in one central location. But if you like these things to be a little more separate then perhaps look elsewhere. Typing out messages is made a little more interesting by a new kind of predictive text whereby you type your message and suggestions will pop up above your fingertips and all you have to do is simply swipe up to add that suggestion to replace whatever word you’ve typed or insert the suggestion where you were starting to type the word. Clever and well thought out indeed. Also to mention the on screen keyboard is the same style as the keyboards on the older physical QWERTY keyboards on previous BlackBerry devices. A good way to start weaning die hard physical QWERTY users off of their favourite input method.

The camera is excellent, it copes well with bright or dark conditions and offers it’s party piece called time shift. It’s essentially burst mode like on Android but it’s more intuitive. The browser is extremely fast especially with HTML 5 content. A little race between Safari on an iPhone 4 and the browser on the z10 trying to load and play the same YouTube video proved the sheer speed of this device. This performance is owed to the Snapdragon S4 Plus 1.5GHz dual core beast of a mobile processor. The device also happens to have 2GB of memory, though this seems more than what’s needed for smooth operation of this device. After all you can only run 8 apps simultaneously!

The storage options of this device are fairly simple. It ships with 16GB of onboard space but you can also add an additional 64GB of space by installing a 64GB microSDXC.

The battery life of the device doesn’t seem all too impressive compared with other smartphones. This is unfortunate considering BlackBerry’s history of impressive standby time. But I suppose corners must be cut for that slim profile, the beast of a processor and that large LCD display.

My Conclusion

There are many many more features and pros and cons I could go through but you’re probably getting tired of reading this now so I’ll leave you with my final verdict.

Overall the device is sound. It works well. It’s a great start for BlackBerry’s new OS. But the value just isn’t there yet. A similarly priced or even a device costing less running Android or iOS would likely give you more value for money and above all else a refined well-developed good experience. Because remember the golden rule… It’s not the features, it’s the implementation and there are areas where this principle wasn’t applied to the device, for example it’s good that the multitasking system is unique in it’s own right but is it really more intuitive? Easier to use? Cohesive across the board? I’ll let you decide. Of course whatever is good for me isn’t necessarily good for you but before forking out a wad of cash on the z10 I urge you to perhaps also check out what BlackBerry’s competition is doing also to find something which truly works for you. From a business standpoint I’m really not qualified to comment on whether or not this device or OS will save BlackBerry / RIM from their decline and I’ll let you be the judge of that. I would hope BlackBerry will be along for much longer and continue on their new quest of end-user happiness. I have been thoroughly impressed with what BlackBerry have to offer and I remain hopeful for their future in the smartphone industry.