Name: BlackBerry Z10
Type: BlackBerry 10 Smartphone
Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price as reviewed: Around £480 SIM-free, or free on two year contracts starting at £33 per month
The first touch-only handset in the new BlackBerry 10 range from the re-christened BlackBerry (formally known as RIM), The BlackBerry Z10 has the weight of a whole company resting on its shoulders. Can it keep pace with the iPhone and Android big boys, and put the BlackBerry brand at the top of the smartphone market once more? Read our review to find out!
Note: This review is based on our early impressions with the phone during our first few days of use with it. We will add to and update this review if we uncover fresh points of interest, and will be sure to let you know if anything dramatic changes our opinion of the Z10 in the coming days.
The BlackBerry Z10 is an attractive, if generic smartphone in terms of its hardware design. A black oblong measuring 130mm x 65.6mm x 9mm, it weighs a comfortable 137.5g in the hand, and has a rubberised, textured backplate on the rear to help you keep a better grip of the phone. A notable bezel sits around the edge the Z10’s 4.2-inch screen (running at 1280 x 768 resolution), with the edge bezel used to activate gesture controls that are central to the new BlackBerry 10 OS. At both the top and bottom of the phone are sizeable lips, finished in the same black plastic as the rest of the phone, with a speaker embedded in the top lip and a microphone in the bottom.
Rather than using a unibody design, BlackBerry have opted to make the backplate removable, snapping off and allowing you access to the microSIM tray, a microSD expansion slot for adding as much as 32GB of removable storage to the 16GB built-in, and access to the 1800mAh battery, which means you’ll be able to swap out battery packs should you be running low on power and have a spare to hand. On the back of the phone you’ll also find an 8MP/1080p camera with single LED flash, an embedded NFC pad and a metallic BlackBerry logo.The right hand edge of the reasonably slim phone holds a strip of three physical buttons made of metal, two being volume rockers which sit either side of a central smaller button used for playing and pausing music and activating voice controls when pressed down for a few seconds. The left hand edge houses a microUSB port for charging, which can also be used for hooking up to a PC or Mac to add your own media content through the BlackBerry Link software – a pain-free interface for side-loading personal pictures, movie or music libraries onto the Z10. There’s also a miniHDMI port alongside the microUSB port, allowing you to display your Z10 screen on a large HDTV. Sadly, no HDMI cable is included, so you’ll have to purchase one yourself (although BlackBerry do throw in a free pair of earphones and, quite generously, a nifty red case for the phone in the box).While there’s nothing on the bottom edge of the handset, the top edge is where you’ll find the metallic power key and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There’s also a front-facing 2MP camera up just above the screen.
Looking more closely at the 4.2-inch screen, its 356ppi is breathtakingly sharp, wiping the floor with the Google Nexus 4 (320ppi), the Samsung Galaxy S3 (306ppi) and even the Retina Display of the iPhone 5 (326ppi). It’s bright and vibrant, with rich colours. Thanks to high brightness levels, the screen remains clear to see even in sunny conditions.Underneath the hood is a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, backed by 2GB of RAM. On paper, this sounds quite under-powered for a top-end, premium device, but in reality serves the Z10 just fine. It appears that the new BlackBerry 10 operating system runs very efficiently – even with flashy fading screen transitions, the handset felt smooth to use and never showed any sign of lag.
As well as NFC connectivity for contactless payments and data sharing between compatible devices, the Z10 also has 4G LTE cellular technology onboard, meaning that if you pop an EE 4G SIM into the handset, you’ll benefit from speedy mobile download speeds to rival that of home broadband.
Our intensive testing period with the handset saw the 1800mAh battery hold up well. BlackBerry claim you’ll get 10 hours of talk time and 13 days standby time. We’d say these estimations are a little on the generous side, with our battery giving up the ghost by around 3pm after a 6am start. Keep in mind though that we’d hammered the phone all day with calls, Wi-Fi and 4G web-browsing, plenty of camera snaps and video playback, so more moderate use would likely see the battery hold out from dawn through to dusk.
Though a solidly built device, ticking all the 4G and NFC boxes a modern top-tier smartphone requires, the plastic finish feels a little as though RIM are cutting corners, especially when the device is placed next to the luscious design of an iPhone 5. £480 is an expensive SIM-free price, especially when stood up against the incredibly cheap Google Nexus 4, which shares similar specs and a similar finish at a far cheaper £279 asking price for the 16GB variant.
Interface and Apps
We’ve written a huge, 3700-word review on the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, which we conducted with the Z10 handset, and we urge you to check it out by clicking here if you want an in-depth look at the new mobile software on the Z10.
If you’ve not quite got the time for that, here’s a quick overview of what BlackBerry 10 is all about. The Z10 is a touchscreen only phone, a departure from RIM’s traditional physical keyboard phones, and the BB10 software it runs reflects this. Using a series of gestures with which to navigate the phone, BB10 lets you swipe from every edge of the display to trigger differing controls. You’ll close apps by dragging upwards, access options and settings by swiping downwards, and scroll through to the BlackBerry Hub notifications centre all without ever needing a physical button to press. If you’re already familiar with iPhone’s iOS or the Android operating system, it’s at first a little jarring making the transition. But all controls are intuitive enough to become second nature once you’ve played with them for a few hours.
As well as a standard app-grid view of applications, BB10 uses an Active Frame view, which pops your eight most recently used apps on the front screen. These small frames are, as their name suggests, active, and offer a glimpse at the information that’s constantly updating in the apps they represent. For instance, a recently opened calendar app, when making the jump to the shrunk-down Active View, may display the date of your next appointment, while the music player app would show currently playing album artwork. When combined with the “Peek” view, a swipe-up gesture control that lets you snatch a glance at incoming notifications without closing the app you’re currently using, BB10 offers powerful multi-tasking capabilities.70,000 apps are available to download through the BlackBerry World store, which pales in comparison to the number available to iOS and Android users, but is a solid start for a fledgling platform. Plenty of big name apps are already onboard, including Kindle and Guardian news, but some staples are missing too, including Spotify, Netflix, LoveFilm, and eBay to name but a few. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Foursquare apps come pre-installed, while Evernote functionality is baked into BB10’s own “Remember” note taking app. Worryingly, the apps don’t look to offer much more than their mobile-browser optimised versions seem to. Let’s hope that’s not a trend that BB10 developers fall into.
A speedy browser that supports tabs and is intuitively laid out is also onboard, with a great Reader feature that strips the chaff away from websites leaving you with just the text and relevant images. What’s less impressive is the Maps app onboard, which offers a barebones 2D view alongside turn-by-turn navigations, but no information on your surroundings beyond traffic information. Based on TomTom maps, at least they’re accurate, which is more than can be said for Apple’s Maps.
BlackBerry Hub, BBM and messaging
The BlackBerry Hub is one of our favourite features of the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, and by extension then, the Z10 handset. It’s a unified inbox that pools in messages from numerous sources all into one place, a giant aggregated spot where you’ll find any Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email, SMS and messages from BlackBerry’s own BBM service. Accessed by swiping to the virtual “far left” of the device, you can filter the hub to show messages from individual sources (showing, say, only unread messages from a work email account separated from Facebook messages), while all messages, no matter where they’ve been sourced from can be replied to directly from the hub without having to open up separate corresponding apps.
BBM, or BlackBerry Messaging, has been a standout feature in BlackBerry phones for an age, letting you send free instant messages to other BlackBerry users. BlackBerry recently introduced free voice messaging to the service, and with BB10 the company have added video calling. When in a BBM conversation with a contact, you’ll now also be able to start a video call as well as text or voice based messaging. The new BBM functions remain free, making it an inexpensive way to get in touch with pals providing you’ve got a Wi-Fi connection or data plan to cover the interactions. However, you’ll have to have pals with BB10 handsets to take advantage of video calling.
Similarly, BB10 now offers screen sharing, just as you’d find with a remote viewing application on a desktop PC or Mac. With it, you’re able to wirelessly share exactly what you’re doing on your phone fullscreen on another BB10 user’s handset. It looks set to be a great way to collaborate and share between Z10 devices, and providing your data connection is up to scratch, it works with only minimal stuttering.
Contacts and Calling
The BB10 software onboard the Z10 automatically fills your contacts book with the people it finds in the BlackBerry Hub. This is great a great way of quickly pulling together all your Facebook and Twitter pals, grabbing all their email and home address information, alongside a profile picture, numerous associated phone numbers and social networking feeds. You can of course manually select which sources are pooled into your contacts book too, as well as manually entering new contacts or transferring contacts from a previous smartphone device. It’s really nicely done and similar to what HTC have achieved with their Sense UI for Android, with individual contact cards displaying links to social networking profiles (though recent posts are hidden behind a separate tab), with the contacts system even suggesting you connect with a pal if you’re both signed up to the same social service but not yet friends on it. You can search through all your contacts, but keep an eye out for duplicates, as the software sometimes fails to unify contact information for the same person pooled from different sources.The dialler is a simple white-on-black keypad, making use of large buttons that are easy on the eye and comfortable to tap. Signalling levels remained consistently high, and the phone delivered clear voice to call recipients while providing us with comfortable volume levels from the speaker and clear calls in return.
Media Playback and Gaming Performance
While you can pop your own videos and music onto the device using the aforementioned BlackBerry Link application on a PC or Mac, the BlackBerry World store is where you’ll be able buy new tunes and films.
The music store is well populated and well priced, with albums priced between £5 and £8, and single tracks priced at £1. The film store is lacking many big releases though, such as Avengers Assemble and Amazing Spiderman, while the recent releases that are on offer, such as Prometheus, are far too expensive to buy at £15.99. While the built-in speaker is pleasantly clear and loud and ideal for watching movies with, the screen’s sizeable bezel detracts from the otherwise sumptuous nature of the screen. Those plastic lips at the top and bottom of the device do make for great handles in landscape orientation though, meaning your thumbs wont get in the way of whatever you’re viewing.
Playback of both music and video is great though. A well considered music app lets you browse cover art and individual tracks within albums easily, with the Active Frame view also showing what’s playing. Playing back video has a similarly intuitive library, separating TV shows and movies from your own personal clips recorded with the phone’s camera.
Gaming so far has been a little lacklustre bag. While Angry Birds Star Wars is available, the likes of Jetpack Joyride and Where’s My Water?, as well as more graphically intensive Gameloft titles such as N.O.V.A. 3 and Asphalt 7, are still missing from the store, set to land soon. We’ll let you know how they stack up once they go up for sale.
Still Camera and Video
The Z10 uses an 8MP rear camera sensor with single LED flash that’s also capable of shooting 1080p video, and up to 5x digital zoom, controlled by pinching the screen. Shutter speed is fast, and the entire screen can be tapped to capture an image rather than having to tap a specific software shutter button(alternatively you can use the volume rocker to capture a shot). You can also pick a focus spot by intuitively dragging it around the screen. Both video and still image quality, in a range of ambient lighting surroundings were great, picking up details effectively in low-light for still images, while shooting stable, clear video footage.
BB10 also does some other smart things with its camera application, such as Time Shift mode, BlackBerry’s take on a burst-shot mode on a digital camera. Snapping a selection of photographs milliseconds apart, Time Shift then presents these photos on a timeline that you can scrub through, picking out individual faces and letting you select the exact moment when everyone was looking their best. It’s a little difficult to explain in just words and pictures, so hit the official video from RIM above to see exactly what we mean.
Plenty of editing options are also available, ranging from simple Instagram like creative filters to more advanced brightness, white balance and cropping controls. In a neat touch, there’s a preview option that lets you check what an image will look like with any changes before you commit to applying them.
Images, videos and music can all be edited together in the Story Maker application. A smart, simple too, it adds transitions and credits to your curated mixture of pictures and clips, doing all the hard work for you before letting you share the results via email or social networks. It wont cut together Citizen Kane, but it’s an incredibly simple way of sharing multiple pieces of media with friends very quickly.
The BlackBerry Z10 is a good device, but, as the flagship handset for a brand new platform, is it as desirable as, say, an iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3? In a word, no. There’s nothing in particular that presents a massive problem with the Z10, but there isn’t anything particularly interesting to write home about either. The build is solid, and expandable storage, 4G and NFC features are often requested by consumers and popped in here, but the overall design isn’t very exciting, with the plastic materials used not befitting the £480 price tag. Likewise, the new operating system is smooth to use, has a great messaging system and offers an interesting new take on multitasking through its gesture controls, but lacks killer apps and suffers from some design inconsistencies that can make navigation at times confusing, as detailed in our extensive BB10 review.
The BB10 is worthy of applause in that its OS is ambitious and its feature list substantial. But it won’t “wow” anyone sporting a top end iPhone or Android device. And with so much resting on this smartphone’s shoulders, that should be cause for concern for BlackBerry.
By Gerald Lynch | January 31st, 2013