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Review: BlackBerry Z10
Prasad Naik
May 03, 2013
First Published: 18:41 IST(3/5/2013)
Last Updated: 16:49 IST(4/5/2013)

The Z10 is the first phone from BlackBerry running on the new BlackBerry 10 platform. The company, heretofore known as RIM, is putting all its might behind the new platform and the devices. And it has to. The brand is fast slipping away in terms of market share and more importantly, mind share and they cannot afford to make any mistakes. You can say this is a do or die situation for them. But is the Z10 ready to take on such a responsibility? And can the new platform be able to take the brand back to its heydays? Let's find out.


Design

When it comes to design, BlackBerry phones have always had sense of simplicity and sophistication to them. The devices aren't flashy in any way but still manage to look attractive in their own understated manner. The Z10 is no different. It's a charmingly handsome phone and easily one if the best looking devices on the market.

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The front of the Z10 are capped by the two plastic strips at the top and bottom, sandwiching the glass section in the middle. There are absolutely no buttons on the front because the OS doesn't need any (more on that later). Above the display sits the earpiece, the front facing camera, the light sensor and proximity sensor and a rather bright notification LED.

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The sides of the Z10 feature a sturdy plastic surface that almost feels like its made out of metal. You'll find the volume control keys on the right, the microUSB and micro HDMI port on the left, the power button and the 3.5mm headphone jack on top and the loudspeaker below. The loudspeaker slot is cleverly placed and also works as a notch to remove the battery cover.

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The entire rear surface of the Z10 is the removable battery cover, something that has become a rarity these days. The cover has a wonderful soft touch finish that feels great and also provides good grip. Near the top we find the camera lens with the LED flash. Underneath the cover sits the slim battery with the microSD and micro SIM slots.

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The build quality of the Z10 was fantastic. The phone feels amazingly solid in hand, especially the sides which feel particularly indestructible. The Z10 is made entirely from plastic but it doesn’t feel cheap at all, unlike most of Samsung’s phones. In fact it feels extremely well built and has a pleasant feel in hand.

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The ergonomics of the device are also quite good. Because the Z10 only has a 4.2-inch display, the proportions of the phone are quite manageable, which makes it using singlehandedly a breeze. The flat sides also makes gripping the phone easy. All the controls are within easy reach as well. One small note about the volume control keys is that they are perhaps bit too easy to press and would have benefitted from a slightly stiffer mechanism.

Overall, the BlackBerry Z10 looks and feels great and is currently one of the best devices out on the market in terms of industrial design.

Display

The BlackBerry Z10 has a 4.2-inch, 1280 x 768 resolution LCD. The display on the phone is one of the finest I’ve seen and looks absolutely amazing. It’s nice and bright, even under sunlight and the colors, contrast and viewing angles are all top notch. At times, it does feel a bit small, especially compared to some of its rivals from the Android camp, but for someone like an iPhone user this would definitely feel like an upgrade. Overall, top marks for the display.

Hardware and Software

The BlackBerry Z10 runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 SoC, with a dual-core 1.5GHz Krait CPU and Adreno 225 GPU. In terms of memory, the phone has a healthy 2GB of RAM, with 16GB storage space and microSD card slot.

The software on the Z10 is a major departure from previous BlackBerry phones. The new BlackBerry 10 operating system is built on the QNX platform, just like the PlayBook OS and shares little with the previous version of the smartphone OS.

A completely new OS means a new UI and that's what you get with BB10. First of all, you'll notice that the phone does not have any hardware control buttons for navigating within the UI, nor are there any immediately visible on the screen. To go to the homescreen, BB10 makes you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, at which point the current app minimizes and turns into a tile on the homescreen.

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The tile initially shows a preview of the last screen before being minimized but some apps then turn to show a special compact version of the UI for quick glance from the tile image. For example, the weather app tile will change to show the current temperature, the music player tile shifts to showing the album art of the currently playing track, the image gallery tile shifts to showing you thumbnails of the images in your gallery, etc.

The minimized apps becomes tiles and appear in a grid of four on the first homescreen. To switch between apps, you have to minimize the current by swiping up and then switching to another app from the homescreen tile. This way you go from an app to homescreen to another app instead of directly from one app to another.

If you swipe left from the multitasking screen, you'll find all the installed apps on the phone. The icons are arranged in a grid just like on iOS and wiggle wiggle the same way when you press and hold to delete them.

Go all the way left on the homescreen and you come across the BB10 Hub. The Hub is the centre for all your notifications. It shows you all the accounts you have configured on the device and then pulls notifications for all of them. This includes your emails, SMS, Facebook notifications, Twitter mentions and DMs as well as your missed calls. Once swipe shows you all the notifications and you can swipe again to reveal the list of accounts below to change from all notifications to only see those for a particular account.

Unfortunately, unlike the notification centers on Android and iOS, there is no quick way to see the Hub on BB10. You have to drag your finger up, at which point you'll see the current app minimizing and the icons on the left showing you how many unread emails, tweets or Facebook messages you have. Then, without leaving your thumb, you have to slide it right, at which point the Hub slides in from the left. After that, if you swipe left, you aren't taken back to the app but to the homescreen and from there you have to manually go back to the app you were in, which is now minimized.

This and a few other niggles means the Hub isn't quite as good as the Android notification system, which remains the benchmark among smartphones and even the iOS notification center fares better here. Still, it does quite a lot of things well and is definitely light years ahead over the nonexistent centralized notification center in Windows Phone 8.

BlackBerry phones have traditionally been known for their messaging prowess. They still make some of the best phones with physical keyboards on the market. Their previous attempt to make a full touch keyboard on the Storm was met with criticism due to the weird way it was implemented (the entire touchscreen was a button that had to be pressed down). Thankfully, on the BB10, BlackBerry has implemented a more traditional touch keyboard, but with a bit of twist.

On the surface it looks like any other touch keyboard but the twist comes in the form of word completion method. As you type, the phone guesses the words you are typing and places the suggestions directly above the character it thinks you are going to press next to enter that particular word. Then, instead of pressing that key, you just swipe upwards and that word is entered. This saves some time as you don’t have to move your thumb up to select an option from a list as on most keyboards.

In terms of typing, this is by far one of the best touch keyboards I’ve used. Even without using the fancy prediction system I was able to blast through words very quickly and the auto-correct worked very well in most cases. This is one area where you’d expect BlackBerry to deliver and the company does not disappoint. The keyboard really is a pleasure to type on.

The built-in applications in BB10 are also quite good, which means out of the box you get a pretty good user experience. The browser, for example, worked pretty well. It was fast and the pages looked as you’d expect. It even had support for Adobe Flash, should you need it. One neat feature in the browser is that while scrolling, no matter how you scroll, it would always stop at the beginning of a line or a paragraph and never somewhere awkwardly in the middle, which made reading very easy.

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The other apps also worked well, except for the maps application, which stuck out like a sore thumb. This has to be by far the worst maps application I’ve ever used. The reason is simple: the maps were blank. Other than for the US and some major European countries, several countries had blank areas. India, for example, was just an outline with absolutely no data within. The cities were marked with outdated names. Mumbai, for example, was labelled ‘Bombay’, a name not used officially in years. It was just a sea of gray area with not a single feature. The application is absolutely, positively useless in India. Apparently, the data is being provided by Bing Maps, which although not great, works significantly better on Windows Phone. Why it’s so bad on BB10 is beyond me.

Speaking of third party applications, I was actually pleasantly surprised with what I saw on the BlackBerry World. Just as I’d seen on the PlayBook, there are a surprising number of games for BB10. And I’m not just talking about any game here, but popular titles such as Angry Birds, Asphalt 7, NOVA 3, Jetpack Joyride, Riptide GP, Super Hexagon, etc. It took Windows Phone ages to get some of these games and it still doesn’t have most of them and BB10 has them within a couple of months after launch.

Application-wise as well things weren’t too bad. There are quite a few Indian applications as well, such as the Gaana app, which is quite surprising and shows that people are taking the platform seriously, perhaps a lot more seriously than they took Windows Phone. You have all your basic apps such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, etc., on the store which means other than some very demanding users most people should be fairly satisfied with what the BlackBerry World has to offer. And if the momentum continues they might see even more great apps shortly.

It has to be mentioned that BB10 also supports Android apps. There are some Android apps on BlackBerry World but they aren’t in a separate category and are merged with native apps. This is a bad decision as these apps aren’t quite in the same league as native apps. BlackBerry tried to make Android apps work within the BB10 UI environment, and in some cases succeeds but in most cases the experience is a bit jarring and inconsistent. The Android apps also perform poorly and not as smooth as native apps. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell these apps apart before installing them.

BlackBerry World also has music, which was a pleasant surprise. Currently, only Apple and Nokia are offering music in India, with the former having started recently. Google is yet to introduce its Play Music service in India. As such, BlackBerry does have a bit of an advantage here. Unfortunately, they squander it by pricing the tracks significantly higher than others, almost twice as much in every case. The library is also nowhere near as vast as on the iTunes. Which means even though it is nice to have this option to purchase music on your BB10 phone, you’d still want to get it from elsewhere.

Overall, I was generally pleased with BB10. It feels light years ahead of previous versions of the OS and on par with most of what the competition is offering. There are some things it does better, others it does worse. You’d ideally want it to be ahead of the competition if at all BlackBerry wants to stay in the game but being able to deliver a competitive product is no small feat and for that the company has to be commended.

Performance

The performance on the Z10 was a bit of a mixed bag. In majority of the cases the UI is quite smooth despite the modest specifications. However, occasionally the UI can get really jerky. The best place to see this is in the Settings app, which is unbelievably sluggish for no apparent reason. I’ve seen 3D games run smoothly on the phone but something as basic as the Settings app brings the phone to its knees. This odd sluggishness sometimes creeps elsewhere in the UI and happens often enough to be annoying. Hopefully, this is an issue that can be fixed with a software update.

The multimedia performance on the phone was quite satisfactory. Both the music player and the video player impressed with good codec support. I was able to play my FLAC files on the phone without needing any additional software, which is always a good thing. The speaker is quite loud and sounds great, which is great when you want to share a song with someone. The video player also played pretty much every file I threw at it.

The general network and call quality on the Z10 was quite satisfactory. The Bluetooth and Wi-Fi worked well but the GPS was surprisingly slow to get a lock-on.

Camera

The BlackBerry Z10 has an 8 megapixel rear camera with auto-focus and LED flash. For whatever reason I wasn’t expecting the camera performance on the Z10 to be great (may have something to do with the rather lackluster cameras on preview BlackBerry devices) but I was pleasantly surprised with the results. Photos taken in daylight turned out quite well, with a good amount of detail and pleasant colors. Even indoor images were quite decent. The dynamic range wasn’t great (it usually isn’t on phone cameras) but other than that there wasn’t a whole lot to complain about.

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Battery Life

One of the complaints I had with the Z10 was the battery life. On 3G, the phone refused to provide more than 4-5 hours of usage on a single charge. Compared to most Android phones, the Z10 has a relatively small 1,800mAh battery, which could be the problem here. With all your accounts added and data being constantly pulled in, the battery just doesn’t seem to have enough juice to last long enough.

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Verdict

The BlackBerry Z10 is a fine smartphone and one of the best I’ve used so far this year. This to me was a bit of a surprise as I’ve never been a fan of BlackBerry devices so far. But thanks to an amazing new hardware design, brilliant display and a completely reworked software, the Z10 managed to impress me despite its flaws.

But here’s the problem: the phone currently costs Rs. 42,490 in India. That’s just absurd and completely unreasonable amount of money to ask for the phone. As much as I like it, I don’t think it is worth that price at all. And this is if you don’t even consider the competition. You could be buying an HTC One or a Galaxy S4 for that money, both of which are significantly better smartphones overall, or pay a bit more and get the iPhone 5, which is also a lot better.

Unfortunately for BlackBerry, even though they have built a good phone, it is not good enough to be recommended over devices from other platforms, certainly not at the current price. In fact, I would have a hard time recommending this phone even over the year old Galaxy S III or the One X, and those phones cost way less in comparison.

What BlackBerry needs to do now is seriously reconsider its pricing for the Z10 in India otherwise it is going to have a hard time convincing buyers to pick this over the competing devices, which are currently flying off the shelves.

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