After months of delays, the company formerly known as RIM has bestowed its new flagship phone upon the world. Running the all-new BlackBerry 10 operating system, this 4.2-inch smart phone has the hardware -- and the price tag -- to match high-flyers such as the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3.
Should I buy the BlackBerry Z10?
The BlackBerry Z10 is a poor choice for most smart phone buyers, as it offers few extra features over rival high-end smart phones, but is just as expensive. The Z10 isn't a bad phone by any stretch of the imagination -- it offers a pleasant design, an interesting interface and great built-in photo and video editing. At this price, however, it's simply not good value.
The new BlackBerry 10 certainly has some interesting ideas, and software treats such as a refreshed BBM are certainly tempting. But this fresh-from-the-oven operating system is too rough around the edges -- too full of unusual quirks -- to recommend over Android or iOS, both of which have been polished to a brilliant sheen over the last few years.
The app selection is weak compared to that of other operating systems. This may change if BlackBerry 10 becomes more popular, but for now your pennies are better directed towards other platforms, which have a wealth of great apps, and better app discovery. The built-in maps app offered by the Z10 meanwhile is terrible, and does much to undo the good work of BlackBerry 10's great virtual keyboard, or business-centric Balance features.
In short, BlackBerry deserves praise for experimenting with a new kind of interface and bringing something different and new to the smart phone world. When it comes to actually spending your money however, the Z10 is good, but not good enough.
There's a lot to like about the authoritative look of the Z10, though there's no denying it borrows heavily from the iPhone 5's design. Once you wrap your digits around this smart phone, though, it feels very different from Apple's mobile, as it's made from plastic and has a soft, rubbery finish layered over its rear.
While the software will take some getting used to (more on that below), there's nothing unconventional about the design of this phone. A blocky black rectangle, you get a lock button on the top and volume keys on the side, and that's about it.
Between the volume buttons is a key that triggers the phone's voice control, though I suspect most owners would get more use out of a dedicated camera key that fired up the phone's photo-taking app.
On the plus side, the Z10 feels very light at 137.5g, and it's only 9mm thin. The iPhone 5 is thinner by about 1mm, but you'd be hard pressed to notice much difference -- this is a portable, neatly packaged mobile, and the best design job I've seen from BlackBerry in years. Beneath the rear cover you'll find access to a microSD card slot, which happily you don't need to remove the battery to use.
On the left side there's a micro-HDMI port, and a micro-USB port for charging. This placement doesn't seem ideal, as it makes holding the phone while it's charging uncomfortable.
There's an alert light on top of the Z10's display, though one irritation here is that the light pulsates with a glowing orange light when the phone is switched off and charging. As you're most likely to be charging a switched-off phone right next to your bed, this seems like an odd decision -- I had to turn the phone over onto its face so that the alert light didn't keep me awake.
The screen makes a good first impression. It measures 4.2 inches on the diagonal, packing in 768x1,280 pixels, which is an entirely respectable number. Consequently, everything on this display looks extremely sharp, so your photos or high-res videos will look satisfyingly crisp.
Elsewhere the display ticks all the boxes -- bright, colourful and close enough to the top of the glass front to lend this smart phone a luxurious feel.
That's good news, though I've seen displays on rival mobiles that were equally impressive. The Galaxy S3, Nexus 4 and iPhone 5 all offer similarly sparkling panels that leave little to be desired.
A minor criticism of the Z10 would be that much of its operating system seems quite dark -- unsurprising considering BlackBerry's signature black branding. The result is that reflections come into play frequently, so you'll spend a fair amount of time staring up the inside of your nose.
These days, if you're throwing down hundreds of pounds for a smart phone, you'd expect tip-top software. Is the new BlackBerry 10 operating system a worthy alternative to iOS and Android? Let's take a look.
While unlocking the phone is simple enough (just swipe up on the screen), there's a steep learning curve when you first start swiping around BlackBerry 10 as there's no home button, and no clear homescreen that gives a 'default' view. Instead you weave fluidly through apps and screens, with less of the 'jump to homescreen, open app, repeat' process you'll be used to if you've used a high-end smart phone before.
It's a brave idea, and of course the only reason we expect homescreens and home buttons these days is because they're standard on Apple, Android and Windows Phone mobiles. That doesn't change the fact that BB10 takes a little getting used to, however.
The centre of BlackBerry 10 is a screen that shows your most recently opened apps, tiled in a two-by-two grid on screen. You can close apps by tapping a small 'x' in the corner of each tile, and tapping one jumps you back into that app. If you swipe up you see one more screen of recent apps, making eight in total.
Oddly, that's your limit. If you open a ninth app while you have eight already open, the last-used app gets knocked off the bottom of your list, and if you open that app again by finding it in your long list of installed apps, it will open afresh, forgetting what you were last doing.
In other words, it seems that you can only have eight apps multi-tasking at the same time, a seemingly arbitrary limit. This includes the browser -- if you open more than seven apps after your last Web browsing session, the browser app will refresh, losing tabs you had open.
You may not have more than eight apps on the go very often, but chances are you'll eventually find an app closes that you'd rather have remained as it was when you last had it open.
The complete list of apps on the phone can be found by scrolling to the right, where apps are ordered in a 4x4 grid, much like Android's app list.
One serious irritation is that when you tap an app, instead of simply starting it, the phone scrolls back to the multi-tasking page, placing the new app at the top of the list before opening it. This isn't a particularly slick motion, often looking a bit juddery, and when you just want an app to open it feels like a grind having to watch the Z10 detour via the multi-tasking page every time.
That's a minor gripe, but if you buy this phone, over the months these little gripes will start to annoy you every time you use your phone. It would be simple enough for BlackBerry to eliminate the homescreen detour with a software update, but this is just one of the many clues spotted throughout BlackBerry 10 that shows it's not as polished as rival operating systems.
To get to a different app, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, which brings you back to the multi-tasking page. Some apps that run in landscape mode (games or video apps for instance) require you to swipe from the left of the phone to exit, as from the Z10's point of view this has become the 'bottom' of the screen.
The browser on BlackBerry 10 is good and feels very fast, while zooming in on a Web page is slick and easy (though performance on less high-end BlackBerry phones may vary). I couldn't find the upper limit on the number of tabs you can have open, stopping my exploration when I hit 30 tabs.
BlackBerry 10's on-screen keyboard is ace, with large, well-spaced buttons that help cut down on mistakes. Autocorrect is in full effect, and managed to remedy many of my typos, as well as adding apostrophes where I'd carelessly missed them out.
The keyboard makes a guess at what your next word is going to be, placing complete words over the letter they start with. For instance, if you type 'hello' and press space, you'll see 'again' over the 'a' key, 'from' over the 'f' key and 'mate' over the 'm' key. Swiping upwards on the starting letter enters the complete word in the text box.
It's a smart system, though in practical terms I found that in the time it took me to see whether the next word I wanted was lined up and ready for me, I could have just typed it out myself. If you're not so speedy with your text input or struggle with touchscreens, I can see how BlackBerry 10's predictive powers could be more useful.
Swiping across to the left will bring up the much-vaunted BlackBerry Hub, which amalgamates all your communication feeds (Twitter, Facebook, texts, BBM, email etc) into one app. To get to this section of the operating system while you're in an app, you have to swipe up from the bottom as if you were trying to get back to the multi-tasking screen, and then drag your finger across to the right.
The default Hub view shows you all of those networks squished together in one chronological stream, while swiping another page to the left lets you see your networks listed individually, so you can tease out just your Twitter notifications, or just Facebook, or just texts.
Social networks aren't fully featured in this view -- you can't see your friends' Facebook posts, for example -- only notifications and messages relevant to you. The same goes for Twitter, which shows you mentions and direct messages, but not other peoples' tweets. You can post to social networks via the Hub though, and include photos.
The Hub is fractionally easier than opening different email, text or social apps, but there are some irritations that mean it's less than ideal.
For one thing, it doesn't look particularly nice, rendering your stream of social missives as an unattractive wall of text. Tapping on individual messages shows them in a plain white box on a grey background that leaves much to the imagination in aesthetic terms.
It's in stark contrast to lovely visual touches elsewhere in BlackBerry 10, like the transparent effect on the lock screen as you swipe to unlock, as if dispelling fog with your finger, or the way rows of apps fade in from the side of the screen as you swipe, giving the impression of sorting through a deck of cards.
There's also no way to mark messages as read, which is frustrating as there's every chance you've spied those Facebook notifications or Twitter mentions on your PC. Unless you want to read them again, they'll start to add up, making your Hub look very untidy, and making it harder to see what's actually new.
BlackBerry has made much of the ability to 'peek' into your inbox while using another app by sliding across to the Hub with your finger to quickly check on your messages without having to fire up a whole different app. I'm not convinced this feature is really that useful, though.
One issue is that if you leave the Hub on a certain view -- a recent email you received, for example, then when you sneakily slide across to the Hub, you'll see the screen you left it on. If you want the privilege of checking exactly what your new message says, you'll need to make sure you leave the BlackBerry Hub on its default 'Hub' tab, which shows you all your messages in a row.
More of a problem is that if you do slide across to the Hub, when you swipe back to the right, BlackBerry 10 will have forgotten which app you had open, and returns you to the multi-tasking screen, meaning you haven't really saved much time.
BlackBerry has given its instant messaging service a serious lick of paint. Chat remains as useful as ever, providing a cash-free way of sending messages to your pals, complete with several screens of cheerful emoticons.
If you're near someone who wants to add you to their contacts, you can call up a QR code on screen that your friend waves their phone's camera in front of, and upon registering adds you to their contact list.
This feature isn't new to BBM, but when tested I found it worked really well on this new smart phone.
Video calling is also on board -- I found this to be slick, with a good-quality video feed and decent sound. I was calling over a 4G connection (using an EE SIM), so you may find your connection is less impressive if you're calling over 3G.
Using the video-calling technology is a brilliant new app called Screen Share, which outputs your smart phone's display onto the screen of the person you're chatting with, or vice versa.
BlackBerry probably wants you to use this for boring work purposes -- showing a colleague how to change a setting or navigate to a web page, for example -- but I suspect there's more fun to be had here, as you could watch someone else playing a game or streaming a video, straight from your own device. There's a definite drop in resolution though, and one on-screen icon that lets you know you're sharing screens is particularly poorly placed, as it stops you from pressing any on-screen buttons that are behind it.
These niggles aside, BBM is my favourite aspect of BlackBerry 10. Already popular with kids and business-folk alike, I suspect these new features will be well received by existing BlackBerry-folk. If you're using an iPhone or Android smart phone then almost all of these features are available to you via various apps, but in BBM, BlackBerry offers a near-comprehensive instant-messaging package.
Apple's disastrous iOS 6 Maps app made it clear that any operating system worth its salt needs a decent maps application. But BlackBerry 10's offering is so light on features, it's impossible to recommend over rivals.
There's no satellite view, for example, or the ability to put your phone into compass mode to orientate yourself on the map. The maps themselves are sluggish to load, and sometimes didn't load at all, requiring me to force-close and re-open the app. The maps themselves aren't very attractive and can't even be rotated on-screen.
You get driving directions, and the app can display traffic, but it doesn't do walking directions or public transport, which is especially disappointing. The app didn't even do a good job of finding my location, pinning our Z10 down to somewhere between the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge -- a huge swathe of London.
The only way to get a comprehensive mapping service on the Z10 is to use Google Maps' mobile site, which obviously isn't ideal. Frankly this dodgy app is reason enough to opt for a rival smart phone over the Z10, so here's hoping BlackBerry gives this application a major overhaul, and soon.
App selection, prices and discovery
BlackBerry knows that a new operating system will need to compete with rivals in terms of the apps it has available, as nobody wants to settle for a smart phone that doesn't play host to the latest, greatest applications.
Unfortunately, while BlackBerry has clearly tried hard to fill its BlackBerry World store with decent apps, there simply isn't much on offer, and what BlackBerry does have is too expensive.
Major apps like Skype, WhatsApp and Kindle are all in place, as are key social apps like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but you'll notice that other major apps are absent. There's no Instagram, no Netflix or Lovefilm and no Spotify, for example, while if you're a subscriber to other online services or magazines, don't expect there to be a BlackBerry 10-ready app just yet.
There's a smattering of games available, including Angry Birds Star Wars, which is free to download. Paid-for games are more expensive however, most costing between 75p and £2.50, which is more than you'd usually pay on iOS or Android. World of Goo, which was released in 2008, costs a whopping £5.
That's far too expensive, and other non-game paid apps are similarly overpriced, again usually costing between £1.50 and £2.50. I did see one app that cost over £36. Many of the apps are junk, too, like the not-so-classy-sounding 'BigGirl', below.
Another problem is wonky app discovery. There are a tonne of apps to be found here, but hardly any you'd want to download, and BlackBerry hasn't done much to sort the wheat from the chaff. You can see lists of trending apps and top-rated games, but these lists feel a little thin.
BlackBerry has also tangled its app store up in unnecessary categorisation. If you tap 'categories', for example, you're presented with 'Applications', Games' and 'Music'. Press 'Applications' and you get a list of app categories. Choosing 'Health and Fitness' brings up a list of 'Fitness', 'Health & Diet', 'Healthcare Services' and 'Medical Guides'. The divisions feel random -- how is fitness different from health & diet?
In the finance category you have subcategories as dense as 'Accounting', 'Expense Tracking', 'Financial Services', 'Personal Banking' and 'Stocks & Investment', while the Music and Audio category is sub-divided into 'MP3 & Media Players', 'Music Creation' and 'Music Services'.
It feels like BlackBerry has misunderstood the way people find apps. Rather than thinking, "I need a healthcare services app" and going to find one, I think most smart phone owners simply browse the app store, cherry-picking apps that look like fun, are promoted or seem interesting. Thanks to some baffling category management, however, cruising BlackBerry 10's library of apps feels like a slog. I spotted some mis-categorisation of apps, too -- a wallpaper app in the photography section, for example.
Some apps that look like they're ready to go are actually simple Web links in disguise. The pre-installed YouTube app, for instance, merely opens the browser and directs it to YouTube's mobile site. In the BlackBerry World app store I saw iPlayer advertised, but upon installing and opening it, I found it also just opens iPlayer in the browser.
That's a bit cheeky of BlackBerry, and iPlayer doesn't work particularly well in the BlackBerry 10 browser either -- as you can see in this screenshot, when video is playing, the playback controls appear just slightly off the bottom.
This probably isn't BlackBerry's fault, but I suspect the BBC won't be hurrying to optimise their systems for visitors using BlackBerry 10 devices.
That's really the issue here. As a currently minor operating system, developers won't rush to make apps for BlackBerry 10, and you won't find many websites are built with this new OS in mind. This is a problem that has plagued Microsoft's Windows Phone, and is very unlikely to vanish from BlackBerry 10 in the near future.
Like Windows Phone, BlackBerry 10 is caught in an uncomfortable catch-22, in which it needs more apps to be popular, but won't get more apps until it becomes more popular. That's the price BlackBerry pays for revealing its new operating system so late, as rivals have had years to build a following of loyal customers and developers.
BlackBerry earned its stripes flogging phones to businesses, and as such there are some features in BlackBerry 10 that will make IT managers squeal with delight.
BlackBerry Balance is one such bit of software. Conjured from the top of the screen, it lets you swap the Z10 from 'personal' to 'work' profiles. Switching to 'work' separates potentially sensitive business applications, and lets you wall off specific email accounts or documents too.
BlackBerry Protect meanwhile is a feature that lets you remotely wipe the phone -- peace of mind for any corporate bods who issue BlackBerry 10 mobiles to their employees. Unfortunately I wasn't able to test these features during my time with the Z10, but for an overview, I'd refer you to our business-minded sister site ZDNet.
Performance and battery life
The Z10 feels every bit as slick as rival smart phones like the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S3. There's very little lag as you move through menus, and most apps feel quick to load.
Inside the Z10 is a dual-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz, and backed up by 2GB of RAM. That's not as powerful on paper as the quad-core chips inside the Galaxy S3 or Nexus 4, but as you're swooping through menus you won't notice any difference.
Many games I tried ran very smoothly, although one game I found in the 'trending' section of BlackBerry World (Cave Run 10) was so juddery it was impossible to play. As such, I think the Z10 will be fast enough to handle almost every normal productivity or video-themed app, but could meet its match with particularly demanding games.
There's built-in video editing, giving you the ability to trim down footage shot using the Z10's camera. I found editing a roughly 40-second 1080p video was a tad stuttery, which suggests the process was putting some strain on this smart phone's processor.
You get 16GB of on-board storage, which is a reasonable amount, made better by the fact that you can beef it up by inserting a microSD card. Up to 64GB cards are supported, so you've got plenty of potential room for your movies, photos and apps.
One thing I did notice is that the Z10 quickly gets warm when you're using it. I never noticed the phone getting uncomfortably hot, but if you start downloading apps or streaming video, expect the temperature to rise.
The Z10's battery life is unspectacular, in line with other high-end smart phones. Based on my experiences I expect this smart phone will last a day (unless you're downloading a tonne of video or playing lots of games), but I expect it'll need charging every night -- you'd likely need to be very conservative to squeeze two days of use from this mobile.
The Z10 has an 8-megapixel camera, which takes decent, if not mind-blowing photos. I was impressed with this snapper's handling of colours, rendering outdoor shots of flowers and bright objects with plenty of kick.
Indoors shots are a little less precise. This photo of a pool table was taken in the afternoon in front of a large window, in ever-so-slightly dim conditions, and is already looking a little dark.
Detail wasn't terribly high in my test shots however, and while photos like the one below are certainly passable snaps (wookit his widdle face), zooming in finds that edges aren't very sharp, while finer details look a little blurry.
The Z10 struggles in low light, however. Even in slightly dim conditions, I noticed speckles of noise creeping into my shots, and photos taken in a dark room looked very ropey.
This is remedied in part by an impressive flash, which as you can see in the photos below, does a good job of illuminating shots of people without turning them into terrifying glowing ghosts.
I was satisfied with the quality of the Z10's video recording, which can happen in either 1080p or 720p. The clip below looks okay, though as you can see, the camera struggles to properly expose both my surroundings and the brighter London sky.
It also had autofocus trouble every now and again, leaving my footage occasionally looking blurry, but it was crisp enough for the most part.
Once you shoot a video, you can watch it back in the camera app, but without playback controls. If you want to skip through the clip you've just shot, you need to open the dedicated videos app and watch it there. You can trim your videos down and crop them, as well as adjusting colour and contrast. That's a great feature, but as mentioned above, the process isn't the smoothest.
The camera's 'best face' setting takes lots of shots in rapid succession, and if it detects a face in the photo, it lets you cycle through those various moments until you find the moment where people are smiling, then imposes those specific faces on the final image.
It works well, though it's not perfect for quick snaps, as you need to manually choose those 'best faces' after you've taken the photo, and it takes a moment or two. It's worth setting up for group pictures, but if you're just trying to capture the moment on a night out, it might be too much bother. It's a pleasant feature though, and there's a separate burst mode which will be handy for taking photos of pets or sporting moments.
The camera software is fast for the most part, but handling the manual focus takes some getting used to. You can drag your finger across the screen to change the point of focus, then you tap the screen itself to take the photo.
I found myself accidentally taking photos when I meant to tinker with the point of focus. If you're struggling, you can use both volume keys as physical shutter buttons which may make things a bit easier, but the Android and iOS 'tap-to-focus, then press an on-screen button to take a photo' system is easier to get your head around.
BlackBerry has built an impressive number of editing tools into its camera app, meaning you don't need to download extra apps to tighten up your shots, or add an Instagram-esque filter.
Editing is simple, and I particularly like the ability to drag a filter slider across your photo, which makes it easy to check whether the effect you're adding is an improvement or not.
To sum up, this camera is good, but didn't produce noticeably better snaps than its rivals. The iPhone 5 has a particularly good camera, so shutterbugs may consider that a worthy alternative. The built-in editing software for photos and videos is a definite plus, however, and starts to make up for the relative paucity of camera apps in the BlackBerry World store.
4G in the UK
The Z10 is compatible with 4G in the UK, both on current 4G network EE and future 4G networks that are incoming from the likes of Vodafone and O2. The Z10 I tested had a 4G SIM-card, and the extra speed boost does make a difference.
This next-generation speed boost makes browsing and app downloading noticeably nippier, but at the moment it's a lot more expensive than a standard 3G contract, and national coverage is patchy. As such, I wouldn't say it's a necessity.
At one point during testing, the phone's data stopped working, despite continuing to display a healthy number of bars, and the 4G symbol. Turning flight mode on and off fixed this issue, though it's not clear whether this was a BlackBerry 10 bug, or a network error.
The BlackBerry Z10 is, by my reckoning, a workmanlike smart phone that will handle most of your on-the-go browsing and social needs, with a few perks in place for business folk. It's just as expensive as high-flying rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S3 or iPhone 5 though, and without the refined operating system and wealth of apps those other mobiles bring to the table, this is a hard phone to recommend.
I'd advise looking at the dirt-cheap but astonishingly good Google Nexus 4 as a powerful, app-laden alternative to the Z10, or -- if you're desperate to try BlackBerry's new operating system -- holding out for a cheaper model, which is bound to be arriving later this year.