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BlackBerry Z10 review:

Classy handset hampered by OS flaws

The good: RIM dug deep to give the slick-looking BlackBerry Z10 enough features to satisfy both consumers and professionals — like a good camera and a sharp user interface.

The bad: The Z10’s unintuitive gesture paradigm creates a learning curve, and a long list of OS inefficiencies and omissions sour the experience. The bare-bones maps app and a deficit of camera features are two examples.

The bottom line: Though it’s not quite enough to draw committed iPhone or Android owners, the BlackBerry Z10’s modern design and features give BlackBerry fans what they’ve hungered for.

 

On January 30, 2013, RIM (Research in Motion) announced that the company will officially be known as BlackBerry.

Members of the BlackBerry Faithful, meet your new phone. The BlackBerry Z10 has everything you’ve been waiting for: a sleek, modern, and professional touch-screen body with an up-to-date OS to match and 4G LTE support. You’ll revel in the virtual keyboard’s ease and in BlackBerry Messenger’s seamless voice chats. You’ll crow about the Z10’s Micro-HDMI port, and enjoy the 8-megapixel camera with its built-in editing tools.

In the most important ways, everything comes together: a lovely HD screen, a fast processor, a camera (with tricks!) that’s good enough to stand alongside the big boys.

Slip off the RIM-colored glasses, though, and you won’t be able to ignore the minor hardware and OS irritations that nevertheless pile up as you use the Z10 over time — like having to use an antiquated and unintuitive file system to create a new photo album, and a basic mapping app that can’t possibly stand up to Google’s best-in-show. For their part, BlackBerry detractors will plainly see a poor iPhone clone that offers little more than the usual features found in any present-day OS worth its salt.

BlackBerry Z10: A new hope (pictures)

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If you’re game to learn a few navigational gestures and your bigger-picture mentality lets you see beyond annoyances, you should feel justified buying the BlackBerry Z10. However, if you’re happy with your current platform, there’s no need to budge unless or until RIM patches up some OS holes.

The BlackBerry Z10 goes on sale January 31 in the U.K., February 5 in Canada ($149.99 on contract), and February 10 in the UAE. Expect U.S. carriers to sell the smartphone for about $199 on contract (about $599 unlocked) in March. Verizon was the first to officially announce that it will carry the white and black versions of the Z10 for $199 on contract. Verizon has the exclusive lock on the white version.

Editors’ note: This review is based on early impressions after a full week of use on the BlackBerry Z10 review unit that BlackBerry seeded to select press; rating is subject to change as we spend more time with the device and operating system.

Design and build
At first glance, the handsome BlackBerry Z10 looks suspiciously like Apple’s black iPhone 5: tall and narrow, with straight edges that meet at rounded corners, and a roughly 4-inch screen. Like the iPhone 5, the Z10 is adept at one-handed operation. That’s where the similarities end.

You see, the Z10 has no navigation buttons, either physical or capacitive. Instead, you’ll operate the Z10 through gestures (more on those later). The phone stands 5.1 inches tall, 2.6 inches wide, and 0.35 inch thick — only slightly deeper than the iPhone 5. Its 4.8-ounce weight feels right with the phone’s proportions, and the device has a much more comfortable grip than the iPhone, thanks to the slightly rounded edges on the back and a lightly textured, soft-touch finish.

BlackBerry Z10, iPhone 5The BlackBerry Z10 (left), resembles the iPhone 5, at least in shape.

Of the two phones, the iPhone undeniably has the more solid, premium, and precise build quality. Its seams are as narrow as possible, and its details are finely machined. For those who care about such things, the iPhone 5’s material quality trumps the Z10’s treated plastics and loose back panel that too easily pops out when I slide a nail anywhere along its perimeter.

Larger than the iPhone 5 overall, the Z10’s shape still fits neatly into pockets (I use my back pockets for trips around the office and the neighborhood). However, it feels uncomfortably flat when I wedge it between my shoulder and my ear. And yes, this is precisely why many people use a wireless headset.

BlackBerry Z10In between the BlackBerry Z10’s volume buttons is the voice control key.

On its face, the Z10’s 4.2-inch LCD display has a 1,280×768-pixel WXGA HD resolution (that’s 355 pixels per inch; the iPhone 5 has a 326ppi density.) You’ll see fine lettering, crisp edges, and deep colors. I did notice, though, that with both handsets set to maximum brightness, the iPhone 5 outshone the Z10, and an HD picture of a flower looked brighter, more detailed, and had more color variation on Apple’s device. On the whole, the differences between the two are minimal. The bezel surrounding the screen is frankly wider than today’s edge-to-edge fashion, but this doesn’t personally bother me.

Above the display are the array of sensors, the notification LED, and the 2-megapixel front-facing camera. The right spine houses Up and Down volume controls, with a button in the center that serves as a voice command trigger you can also use to pause music. If you simultaneously press both volume buttons, you’ll take a screenshot. If you’re in camera mode, pressing either one snaps a picture.

BlackBerry Z10Few smartphones can claim an HDMI port, but the Z10 is one of them.

On the Z10’s left edge are the Micro-HDMI port and Micro-USB port. The placement of the latter pretty much guarantees that the charging cord gets in my way. Up top, you’ll find the power/lock button and the 3.5 millimeter headset jack — you’ll hold down the start button for a 3-second countdown to turn off the phone. On the back are the camera lens with LED flash, and a BlackBerry icon that matches up with the NFC antenna on the opposite side of the back panel.

Also underneath that panel are the tall, narrow battery (I wonder if there was room for larger?) and a microSD card slot. The Z10 comes preloaded with a 8GB class 2 microSD card. That’s good, right? It would be if the card supported the camera’s option to capture 1080p HD video. As a result, you’ll shoot video in 720p HD if you don’t switch out the card to class 4 or higher.

BlackBerry 10 OS
Here’s what you need to know about the new BlackBerry 10 OS: it looks cool, it’s gesture-driven, and it’ll take you at least a few minutes to pick up. In some ways it’s quite advanced — I’m a fan of BlackBerry Balance and the virtual keyboard — and in other ways, you wonder what RIM’s been doing all these years.

BlackBerry 10 OSRIM’s new smartphone OS throws out buttons in favor of navigational gestures.

My full review of the BlackBerry 10 OS goes deep: into the layout, gestures, the Hub, maps, music, the keyboard, the browser…and that’s the beginning. For more on the OS, I highly recommend skipping on over to the BlackBerry 10 OS review. But don’t worry, I’ll still give you a flavor of what to expect right here on these pages.

Take a tour of BlackBerry 10 OS (pictures)

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Features and apps
When it comes to multiple accounts and a unified inbox, BlackBerry 10 delivers. You can sign into multiple e-mail accounts and social networks, and populate your address book and calendar from these cross-pollinated networks. I didn’t see contact duplicates, and my buddies’ addresses also appeared neatly sorted in the maps app, basically the only really nice surprise there.

You’ll find Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and all the good stuff when it comes to texting, chatting with other BlackBerry users, and sharing stuff to social networks. There’s a good music app, a basic maps app, and the mostly-good Documents To Go, which opens the door to reading, creating, and editing Word and Excel documents, and viewing PowerPoint and Adobe PDF files.

Twitter and Facebook for BlackBerry 10 OSTwitter and Facebook for BlackBerry 10 OS.

For your social networking apps, the BlackBerry serves up a healthy spoonful of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and LinkedIn. And yes, these are real apps, not just links to mobile Web sites masquerading as apps. You know what is, though? YouTube. I’m looking forward to a full-fledged app from them.

In addition to the social apps, you’ll find a notes program, an alarm clock with special bedtime mode (it shuts off alerts, but don’t hold your breath for lullabies). There’s Flixster, Box, and Dropbox, the awesome Angry Birds Star Wars, Slacker Radio, and in my review unit, quite a lot of Canadian news, sports, and transportation apps.

BlackBerry 10 OSYou’ll find downloadable programs, games, music, and shows in BlackBerry App World, and if you happen to listen to music while you browse, you can control it through a widget that pops up as a widget where you browse (left).

More content is close at hand in BlackBerry World, where you can browse by apps, games, music, videos, and TV shows. Rovio powers the shows, while longtime partner 7 Digital handles the music. Strangely, you can search for top paid apps, but there aren’t any filtering options specifically for free programs.

BlackBerry Balance and business use
Business and security-conscious users have long been RIM’s bread and butter. The BlackBerry Z10 serves this demographic well with BlackBerry Balance, which helps separate sensitive business apps from your personal ones, with the help of your corporate IT manager. There are privacy settings and RIM’s signature encrypted servers, plus parental controls — not to mention remote wiping with BlackBerry Protect.

With the Z10, RIM takes aim at both individual consumers looking for a smart new device and business professionals who could easily pass this phone to an IT administrator to get work-approved apps. The thing is, in today’s climate of bring-your-own-phone, many businesses can get by with little extra security and have abandoned fleets of devices. Having been out of the game for so long, it could be a hard sell.

Cameras and video
For a long time now, the BlackBerry camera has been a weak spot. No longer. The Z10 packs a respectable 8-megapixel shooter in the back and a 2-megapixel lens up front. Both record 720p HD video, and the larger of the two can also shoot 1080p HD video.

BlackBerry Z10 camera testThe Z10’s camera took some bright, zingy outdoor shots.
BlackBerry Z10 camera testHere’s the flower in full resolution, cropped but otherwise untouched.

The main camera comes with autofocus, 5x digital zoom, and options for burst mode and stabilization. Pressing either volume button can snap a shot. TimeShift mode takes an array of photos, and lets you revisit them along a timeline to pick the one you like best. There are scene modes (like action and night) and you can choose to take pictures in a 3:4 or 9:16 ratio. (For more on TimeShift, see the full BlackBerry 10 OS review.)

BlackBerry Z10 camera testWhatever he’s doing, CNET editor Jaymar Cabebe is most definitely not posing for the camera.

Although there’s autofocus, focusing elsewhere isn’t intuitive. Touching the screen anywhere triggers the shutter, so you’ll just have to know to drag the focal bracket around the screen.

BlackBerry Z10 camera testJaymar at full resolution. You can easily see a ton of noise.

Budding photographers will also notice scant options and controls. There’s no HDR, no ISO settings, no grid, no geotagging, no option to drop resolution, and — one of its worst offenses in my opinion — no way to silence the shutter’s loud clacking.

 

I’ve heard phone makers argue that most casual users don’t need features overkill, but I submit that it’s nice to have, especially if you’d like phone owners to leave the dSLR at home and use your phone as their camera instead.

BlackBerry Z10 camera testYou can make out the individual furs in this cute plushy, shot indoors.

Despite the thin toolset, image quality was pretty decent. Naturally, photos looked better outside than inside, where there was plenty of ambient light and where I could hold the image steady. Some pictures looked very noisy in full resolution, but other times, the Z10’s camera picked up more detail than some others; for instance, in one comparison photo I took with an HTC Droid DNA.

More detailed comparisons are on their way. Stay tuned for a thorough camera shootout between the Z10, the iPhone 5, and the Samsung Galaxy S3.

BlackBerry Z10 camera testEven at full resolution, the toy still retains a fair amount of visual information.

Let’s switch gears and talk about video. I was not disappointed. Video looked clear, and audio sounded good. Clips played back smoothly, without jerkiness, and I didn’t detect any graininess either.

Again, you’ll have few alternate settings options. Stabilization turns on by default, but you can turn it off. You can also shine the flash or not. If you want to limit the size of your video for MMS, you’ll just have to keep it short on your own.

BlackBerry Z10 camera testResized, the bold colors in this crossing sign pack punch.

I used the 2-megapixel front-facing camera mostly for video chats through BlackBerry Messenger, but if you wanted to use it for self-portraits, you’ll be happy to know it has 3x digital zoom and takes video. I’m not the biggest fan of photos taken with this camera, but the image quality is acceptable for what you get. I’d stick with it just for video chats, myself.

A note on your photo album: the way RIM throws together screenshots and camera images is a mess. (iOS does this too, by the way.) You may not notice this if you take the odd screenshot, but as a phone reviewer, the problem of differentiating them leaps out. You can create separate albums, but it isn’t at all clear how to do this from the Photos app. Instead, I got a bullet point instruction list from RIM’s friendly customer service explaining how to make folders in the file manager app (!). Because going through a file manager is exactly how people want to use their mobile phones to complete simple tasks.

BlackBerry Z10 camera testTaken in bright winter sunlight, the green paint pops, but notice that the edges of the chipped paint do, too.

RIM is pushing its StoryMaker apps, which combines video, photos, and music to make a mini, multimedia presentation. Cute, not as intuitive or extensive as I’d like, and, in my opinion, somewhat limited in appeal to the mostly younger set.

The real story are the very good built-in photo-editing tools that can crop, rotate, and straighten photos, reduce red-eye, and add any number of filters. Here’s where you adjust contrast and white balance, and attempt to cancel out noise. The app feels complete and intuitive, and in my opinion, it’s RIM’s biggest camera value-add.

BlackBerry 10 OSI love BlackBerry 10’s baked-in photo-editing tools.

I understand that the designers cut back on camera features to lead you to editing, but I think the two should go hand in hand. A little redundancy when it comes to photo perfection never hurt anyone.

The Z10 gives you 16GB flash storage for your multimedia, and 2GB RAM. The microSD card slot holds cards with capacities up to 32GB.

Call quality
I tested call quality on the BlackBerry Z10 in San Francisco on AT&T’s network. Audio was acceptable on my end, and, well, better on everyone else’s. I used the Z10 for multiple calls to land lines and cell phones throughout the U.S. One thing I consistently noticed was a persistent haze of white background noise on every call. Voices could also sound a tinge hollow and tinny. That’s not great, but if I disappeared into the conversation, I eventually forgot about it.

Because of the background buzz, voices didn’t seem ultracrisp, but there weren’t any distortions or interruptions, and I didn’t notice any hissing. I did, however, hear a lispy sibilance on those S’s, but without exception, I was able to have a long conversation.

On their end, my callers said audio sounds fairly clear and static-free. Once in a while a faint crackle reminded them I was on a cell phone, and I did sound a little flattened and muffled, they said. One listener heard distortion when my vocal volume peaked, and proclaimed the call quality not the best but very good; an A-.

BlackBerry Z10 call quality sample Listen now:

BlackBerry’s speakers have traditionally been strong, so I was looking forward to testing the Z10’s speakerphone at hip level. The first thing I had to do was raise the volume, and I noticed that that pesky white noise lingered still. Overall, speakerphone quality impressed me, making my callers’ voices sound concentrated, focused, and controlled. This is in contrast to other speakerphones where you can almost see the decibels spraying all over the place. Trust me, RIM’s effort is a good thing.

On his end, my primary test caller thought the speakerphone could use some work. My voice sounded blocked at high volumes, he said, which created distortion. In addition, I apparently sounded hollow and was a little hard to hear. Speakerphone quality was serviceable, he said, but not excellent. A solid B+.

Performance
A sign of the times, the Z10 supports 4G LTE, HSPA+, and global roaming without question. AT&T’s 4G LTE is nimble in San Francisco, and showed its zippy might on the Z10 most of the time. I must confess that during my testing period, my Z10 review unit frequently hung on sturdy Wi-Fi and over the data network. I’m willing to give RIM the benefit of the doubt on this one until I get a second device to compare it with — but it’s hard to tell from where the bugginess stems.

At peak speeds, though, the Z10 loaded sites quickly (like CNET’s mobile site in under 3 seconds.) Other parts of the OS seemed slower; it took more than a minute to boot up the Z10 from its off position to its lock screen. A lot of smartphones take as few as 30 seconds to go from zero to ready.

BlackBerry Z10
CNET mobile site load 2.2 seconds
CNET desktop site load 7.4 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 1 minute, 7 seconds
Camera boot time 2.2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 1.2 seconds (already focused, doesn’t include burst mode)

Qualcomm’s 1.5GHZ dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus processor (pause for breath) gives the Z10 its va-va-voom. This is one step below the company’s fastest dual-core processor, the S4 Pro, but it’s still pretty good, and I could play back videos and play games smoothly. My biggest lag problems had to do with my aforementioned aborted network connections.

The Z10 has a rated talk time of up to 10 hours over 3G, 12.7 days of standby time over 3G, up to 60 hours of audio playback, and up to 11 hours for video playback. That’s not bad for its 1,800mAh battery, and anecdotally, battery life lasted a day. Of course, anecdotally, battery demands were all over the place during testing, including spans of full brightness and an always-on screen, interspersed with mass Web browsing and addictive game-playing. (Word Hero. Download it.)

Suffice it to say that more measured battery testing will continue in the coming days.

Should you buy it?
There are two questions at hand. The first is: how well did RIM do with the Z10? The second is, should I buy it?

From where I sit, RIM did a good job with the Z10. For a company with a short, terrible track record with touch-screen devices (see the Storm and Storm 2, prior to the acceptable Torch 9850,) the Z10 looks good, has desirable specs, and gets the basics right.

But this time around, the Z10 represents more than just itself. With its first BlackBerry 10 device, RIM stands at a crossroads, bearing the weight of its unevenly-provisioned OS. On the one hand, BlackBerry 10 is a brand-spankin’-new mobile platform that can only grow and mature. On the other, RIM has had plenty of maturation time, drawing on a legacy of secure e-mail and messaging that predates the iPhone takeover. BlackBerry 10 wasn’t some rush job; RIM all but suspended production for years to work on the hardware and software to make the Z10. For a future that hinges on this first device, shouldn’t there be fewer missteps?

Buy the BlackBerry Z10 if you:
-Have been waiting for a new BlackBerry for a long time
-Prize personal and corporate security
-Like the idea of a wholly gesture-based OS
-Seek an iOS and Android alternative
-Love to give an underdog a chance

Skip it if you:
-Have no patience to learn a new UI
-Rely on walking or public transportation in maps
-Prize a wide breadth of apps to choose from
-Seek a strongly customizable OS
-Prefer buttons to gestures

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