This review is based on an early seeding unit that was given to select media outlets. Subsequent to the device’s release in the Indian market, the phone has received an OS update that resolves some of the issues highlighted in this review. And by making available MapmyIndia’s map suite for free, Blackberry has addressed the lack of a native maps application with India maps, too. The current update made available to Indian users is OS v10.0.10.82, while internationally the update available is v10.0.10.85.
Some of us have been in a long term relationship with BlackBerry, which began at a time when e-mail became more critical than ever for work, but that love affair has almost tripped over the seven year itch. While most of us might have preferred the BlackBerry for its e-mail prowess and well-designed physical keyboard, in the past few years, quite a large number has been wavering towards Android because of the apps and the possibility of a screen that enables better web browsing.
So here it is, our experience with the Z10. For the past week and more, we’ve used it as our primary smartphone and here’s the story—the smiles and frowns, the good and the bad. We’ve written this article keeping in mind that in this team, we constitute those with primary BB usage and those with plenty of exposure to the other operating systems.
The size, weight and tactile feel of the BlackBerry Z10 is a win for BlackBerry’s designers and in an era where every smartphone vendor seems to be going towards bigger and bigger screens in an attempt to provide differentiation, the Z10 is perfect for single-handed use. But if you do notice a similarity to the iPhone 5, you wouldn’t be wrong. Those who’ve seen and used the BlackBerry PlayBook would know where the design cues really come from – the well-rounded edges, the rubberised back (with a dimpled pattern on the Z10, which makes it a delight to hold) and the brushed metal buttons. The only difference is that on the PlayBook, the edges were slightly raised, but here it’s one smooth screen.
Minimalistic design works great here
From a practical Indian perspective, especially in our crowded public transport systems, single-handed use is such a convenience.
So far, none of us testing the device managed to let it slip from our fingers, which is quite a testament to the grip and overall design form. The pimpled and slightly rubberised rear panel surface will ensure that it stays firmly in your grasp and also keep it from sliding off quite a few slippery surfaces. The glass is tough, too. While the specs don’t mention it being Gorilla Glass, we used it without a scratch guard and found no evidence of scars to date. Smudges are an entirely different matter, though, but microfibre cloth, easily available in most places, will do the trick.
With dimensions of 130 x 65.6 x 9 mm and weighing in at a comfortable 135 g, the Z10 fits well into pockets – even the tight ones. The holster, of course, will make it a lot more comfortable.
There is a microUSB charging port and a micro HDMI-out port on the left, volume and media buttons on the right and a power button at the top of the Z10 with a 3.5 mm headphone jack giving it company. The buttons are brushed metal just like the thin speaker grille at the top of the screen and just under the top bezel. There’s almost zero play with the buttons, strengthening our resolve about the fine construction gone into this handset. Interestingly, gone is the dedicated BBM button that BlackBerry was touting only recently. Having said that, minimalism is the design theme here and it’s important to note that with the Z10, BlackBerry has gone from having the most buttons on a smartphone to the least. It’s all in the gestures now.
Volume keys double up as a camera shutter release
There’s an 8MP HD shooter with an LED at the back along with a 2MP HD camera up front. An LED indicator is at the top of the front display and is a welcome addition to notifications and a familiar BlackBerry touch. Unfortunately, there’s no setting or app yet that will allow you to customise the colour of the notification LED for specific apps.
The rear panel makes for excellent grip
The display on the Z10 is very impressive. An IPS LCD panel ensures brilliant experience with incredible sharpness on the 4.2-inch display with a resolution of 1280 x 768. At 356 ppi, it beats the iPhone 5’s Retina Display and Nokia’s latest flagship, the Lumia 920. The rear panel is removable, which is very welcome in this age of unibody devices. And it’s easy to remove thanks to access from a bottom port. The NFC antenna is on the backside of the rear panel and once the door is removed, you’ll find an 1800 mAh battery and a microSIM slot with a hot swappable 64GB supported microSD card slot. This means that with the 16GB of on-board memory coupled with a 64GB memory card, you’re looking at 80GB of available storage.
Features and performance
Flow UI with BlackBerry Hub
Those of us who are used to BlackBerry’s legacy OS where one frequently experienced the frustrating hourglass, BlackBerry 10 is in a class by itself. Powered by a 1.5Ghz dual core processor of the Qualcomm Snapdragon Krait variety and 2GB of RAM, you’re assured speedy usage pretty much all the time. It’s a completely fresh experience. No more of the old, inefficient open app, close app, click on home button business. The BlackBerry Flow user interface is almost completely different from other smartphone UIs—gesture-based and designed for single-handed use.
The menus system of BB10
In a line, BlackBerry 10 is a true multitasking OS designed for productivity. A simple swipe upwards from the bottom bezel gives you a “Peek” from any application. Peek allows you to see why the front LED light is blinking without closing the application. If it’s important enough (say, a work e-mail), then you swipe right into the Hub. You can define what goes into the BlackBerry Hub, and it’s important to note that this is all about communication. So, the Twitter feed is your direct messages feed and not your timeline,and the Facebook option has notifications and direct messages. Everything from BBM to text messages to e-mail to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoogleTalk, Foursquare, calls, voicemail and more are all in the Hub.
While the Hub is arguably one of the best iterations of a communications centre in any smartphone OS, there are a few things we didn’t find overly comfortable about it. For instance, if you were reading an email and exited to the homepage and tapped the SMS Text app, you’re redirected back to the Hub and the email you were just in. You’ll have to Swipe once more to the right or use the Back option to see the message menu or a new message that came in. In a perfect world, the Hub’s main display section would be a system that was always available from anywhere at anytime. BlackBerry seems to believe this is nitpicking – the easier way is to simply swipe left, since you’re already in the Hub, and access text messages. It’s faster too. Yet, we believe that an app should work as advertised. Whether it’s easier or more intuitive to do it another way should be the user’s choice, right? But, we believe BlackBerry has a fix coming for this soon.
The Hub.. innovative yes.. but could use a few tweaks
Then you can swipe right to come to the live application grid where up to eight applications can be open at any time. While eight might seem just right, we discovered that when you go beyond that, it’s possible that apps you might have been using before would be shut down to make room. This could close running apps that you were currently using. Do keep in mind though, while this might not be perfect, it does allocate the best resources for battery power. This is something BlackBerry needs to address, perhaps by providing a warning dialogue and allowing users to choose which app should close once the ninth app is clicked on.
Swipe even further right and you come to the application deck, which also features some snazzy deck transitions as you move between screens. It is rather similar to iOS and also has “long press” options to remove or move apps around and a “drag on top” option to create folders. Swipe down from the top bezel and the settings menu will drop down. Very much like the settings on the PlayBook, regular BlackBerry users will notice that the granularity that was available earlier is missing. For instance, earlier I could set a notification for every e-mail box, which provided me audible differentiation for work e-mail, but that’s missing here. Another issue for BlackBerry to address.
The all-new keyboard
BlackBerry’s all-new keyboard is going to give any and all takers a serious run for their money. For some of us, switching from BB’s rocksteady physical QWERTY keyboards to virtual options might have been an issue, but this onscreen design simply put, is brilliant! Though the upcoming Q10 might be just what a few are looking for and then some.
A revolutionary new on screen keyboard
Right from the initial impression where you see the familiar BlackBerry frets between each row of keys (this time in an on-screen avatar), you’re greeted with a sense of familiarity. Suggested words float on those frets above the next letter in the word. To insert the word, all you do is swipe up from the key. Being a two-handed typist, though, I usually ignored the suggested words (there are options where you can remove the flicking keywords and put them in three columns above the keyboard, or turn off predictions altogether). But if you are a single-handed typist, then these suggestions, which are eerily precise in a good way, can be a Godsend to help increase typing speeds. You can type in three languages at once and the keyboard doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to auto-correct.
And the incredible learning of the keyboard in the matter of a day or so (and things only keep improving with time) ensured that words auto corrected superbly. But if you need to, you can still program word substitutions, which is quite helpful. For instance, “Rg” for “Regards” and so much more. Definitely a big sell for BlackBerry’s new avatar.
On the whole, there is a learning curve here. It’ll take you a few hours to get used to it, but once you've familiarised yourself, you find the
other systems painful.
Call quality and media
Let’s start off with call quality. The Z10 doesn’t quite cut it in overall call quality. From one device to the other, audio was constantly muffled and seemingly subdued. There was, however, a slight difference when one was connected to any other device. Although not as good as most others out there, it was just about adequate. The preloaded ringtones for messages are ridiculously low and not at all easy to hear. Thankfully, the vibration system packs quite a punch to compensate.
The music player desperately needs some audio adjustment controls
With regards to the music player, we’re clearly looking at what should have been an upgrade; however, for some reason, BlackBerry just didn’t seem to find it overly important to push the boundaries of development in its sound engine. Quite disappointing, to say the least. Tone quality, while it proved to be quite decent, was still not up to par from what we’ve been used to with previous devices. The options we once had to tweak audio output with settings like Bass Boost and built-in EQ presents for customisation of sound are absent. It’s native audio all the way with no options for alterations. Presumably, the company simply assumed that one of the better third party options like PowerAmp would be ported to the device, so it would be ok. Sadly, there’s been no such luck this far. Again we ask, what happened to the plethora of major apps we were supposed to see at the launch?
The player could also have easily allowed for folder viewing, which would make things so much easier than trying to create playlists on the device; it’s not necessary, but would have been preferred. So controls are somewhat limited. The library feature lists songs in the following categories – Artists, Albums and Genres. A list of all songs might have added a little more value here as well.
Video support for some popular formats, not all
Now on to the video player; retaining the ability to play back some of the popular formats in full HD (does not support MKV, MOV and WMV), the video player, coupled with the brilliant display and high ppi, looks great. It was indeed a pleasure for viewing. Now, here’s what we didn’t like – firstly, the gallery has a Recently Played and Recently Added section, which most of the time made one look redundant. All videos listed under the “Recently played” section have a resume option (play from where you stopped), which is definitely a good thing. The problem is that the system only shows you thumbnails, so if you’re watching a TV show that doesn’t have the episode numbers clearly indicated, you had better remember the thumbnails. For those files with lengthy names and episode numbers listed at the end, you’ll have to make your way to the File Gallery, go to the respective folder and then choose the option to list the videos out in a “List” form. If you still can’t see the numbers, switch to landscape. That should help, but it’s a lot of work.
Story Maker is a very cool app that lets you combine videos and photos, add some very neat effects etc. and create a compilation video. You can add a background score, edit the file to add more images or videos, give the video a stylised format and more. It’s easy to use and fun to play with. Photos and videos taken with the handset can be edited on the fly. There are plenty of tweaks, filters, adjustment settings etc. to give you some truly innovative media moments.
Quite a few games coming up on BlackBerry World but we want more
For quite a while, other than Angry Birds: Star Wars and Beach Buggy Blitz, the BlackBerry store was devoid of any seriously popular heavy graphics games. N.O.V.A. 3 and Asphalt 7: Heat finally made to the store recently, priced at Rs 350 and Rs 100 respectively. We tested Asphalt on this device and ran it against the Galaxy Nexus to match gameplay and graphics. Unfortunately, the Z10 had issues with the app and in many instances, although graphics looked really good, gameplay was buggy. The game ran without an issue on the Nexus with no jerky movements or framing scenarios as witnessed on the Z10. However, as it seems, this was a generic problem faced by quite a few Z10 users.
BlackBerry browsers were never its strong point and with smaller screens, perhaps BlackBerry didn’t see much use of focusing on the browser anyway. But all that has changed on BlackBerry10. First up, the navigation bar is at the bottom, which is actually so much easier to access. Then there’s Flash and to sum it all up, this webkit browser is by far the fastest we’ve experienced so far, across the bar. You can check out our tests here. Enough said. One wish, though, would be to have settings like Wi-Fi, etc. available in the Browser settings itself, which is currently not available.
Definitively one of the fastest mobile browsers out there
There’s also a very useful Reader mode that strips the webpage of everything other than text and few pictures and is very useful for reading without being distracted; it also makes reading RSS feeds an easy action.
Other connectivity options include dual-band 3G, Wi-Fi with DLNA support directly from the players, Bluetooth with A2DP and, of course, NFC.
Connectivity options are quite a few
BBM Video and Screenshare
BBM Video, which expands BBM Voice that was launched in December, brings video calling to BBM with screen sharing capability during a video chat and makes the Z10 the first smartphone to offer screen sharing capability on this medium. This works just fine on 3G as well, though we’d watch the data bill quite carefully if we’re doing this often. However, it is a BlackBerry USP and it works without a hitch.
The all new BBM
Screenshare offers immense possibilities from a collaborative scenario as users can share screens of documents, pictures, Excel sheets, show their wives a bag and get instant feedback on it rather than picking it up and getting screamed at later. If only BBM was cross-platform! But unfortunately, that doesn’t look like going to happen anytime soon.
Enterprise use has always been a strong point of BlackBerry. Unfortunately, it can be scary for a user to know that the system admin can see everything on your smartphone (eg, photos, videos etc.). BlackBerry’s solution is BlackBerry Balance, which is the most elegant separation of work and personal spaces in a smartphone. It’s a simply swipe down option, but you’ll only get to use this if your organisation runs BES.
You get two completely separated spaces (right down to the OS layer). One for work (with a separate wallpaper, too, if you like), with work approved apps, and another for personal use. Everything is separated and even if you get a work calendar notification when you’re in the personal space, you won’t be able to see details of the meeting; just basic information that doesn’t compromise work security gets displayed. You cannot copy content from one area to another—so no one can copy text from a work email and post it to Facebook in the personal area. What also makes this highly comfortable is that your office admin will have no access to your SD card, which allows you to keep work and play separate.
And finally, say goodbye to BlackBerry plans. On the Z10, any data plan works, so you no longer need separate BIS plans.
BlackBerry World & Apps
BlackBerry World is improved and app discovery is much easier; however, there’s a lot to be desired in terms of the UI of this space. BlackBerry had also announced 70,000 apps to be available at the time of launch and the number is closer to 100,000 at the time of writing this. However, while big names like WhatsApp, Google Maps and Skype have announced native apps, they were not available at the time of writing this review, and it might be a few weeks before they show up. That’s not what we bargained for.
BlackBerry World is in dire need of refurbishing, news apps and better rates
The app saga seems primed for the US launch, which will happen in March. And though apps like Instagram haven’t announced a native app, it has stated that an Android port is coming. And frankly, when done well, Android ports work very well on BlackBerry 10. While BlackBerry advertises that you can port an Android app in 20 minutes flat, I wouldn’t use some of the apps ported in 20 minutes—we saw a few and many had issues with navigation; however, those done well are great to use. Gtalk has a native app that integrates with Hub, but it is wrought with bugs. It needs to be downloaded and reinstalled consistently to function properly. It also lets you log into only a single account at a time. Some more Android ports close to our hearts are Network18’s own Firstpost.com and Moneycontrol.com Markets on Mobile App. (Disclosure: Network18 owns tech2.com too).
With regards to app updates, most of the time we never got notifications for these updates unless we accessed the BlackBerry World store. While in the store, we simply saw a highlight on the MyWorld section without any indictaion on which app required the update. We would then have to go back to the Hub, check the notification that came later and then access the apps from there. This was quite inconvenient.
Music is also now available for purchase in the store, with songs starting from Rs. 30 a piece and albums ranging from Rs. 160 to Rs. 250.
Another major drawback is the fact that for India, the Z10 is still devoid of maps for the country. This is an issue that has plagued BlackBerry users since day one. The older devices at least have Google Maps, but BB10 is yet to get this option natively, if it’s even a possibility. Will we see BlackBerry maps for India? Your guess is as good as ours.
Update: – hanks to the introduction of MapmyIndia's app in the app store that's completely free, users will now have access to navigation functionality on the Z10. It's an important acknowledgement on BlackBerry's part to make provisions for this. The app is available with all licences paid for BlackBerry.
Email and social networking
Setting email or SN accounts is an easy task; however, since there's no separate app, you're forced to use the HUB as to access mails. This isn't really an issue, but what we did notice is that there was a definte lag in terms of mail syncs. Mails opened on the handset would still show up unread on the PC or other devices even after periodically refreshing the account. These were google accounts for work and personal use, and both had the same problem. Those using Active Sync will not have this problem, though. When we tried it the other way round, mails opened on the PC also showed up unread on the device untill you refreshed the feed. Some of us had the same issue with Facebook posts.
Now, while the Blackberry 10 OS is great, it’s not perfect. There are glitches that we discovered. Some of our content from previous BlackBerry devices, in one case a BlackBerry 9900, didn’t appear despite multiple tries at restoring. And once even with a newer version of BlackBerry Link, the new desktop device manager. It was quite disappointing when saved notes didn’t show up in the new Remember app, which is otherwise brilliant with the added support for Evernote integration. We had to export all memos to Evernote and then sync it with the Remember app.
Another issue we came across was that you’re not allowed to create multiple alarms in the extremely awesome looking clock app that also offers a timer, world time and stopwatch. The digital version of the clock is quite tame in comparison. On the lock screen, a swipe down will let you put the phone into a Bedside mode, which turns off all notifications. This comes in quite handy, unless you’re a workaholic.
A few extras
Some of the other little touches we liked were the swiping down gesture to take a call, the 3D compass, which is a classy piece of design work, and Smart Tags (a QR code and NFC reader) that lets you create tags for various options.
As with older BlackBerry smartphones, Docs To Go comes gratis on BlackBerry 10 and is handy for viewing and editing Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents. Print To Go is a bit of a misnomer; you can’t print to a printer, but you can send a file from your desktop to your Z10 using this app. BlackBerry Newstand is available for purchasing magazines, although none of the Indian titles made it to the list while we were working on the review. What I found missing was the very useful BlackBerry Travel app, though there is word that it is coming in a few days.
Calendar & contacts
The calendar is designed well and there are small touches like larger numerals on dates when you have many things going on in your calendar. And when you have a meeting, it will give you context in terms of information about attendees, such as photos and more taken from social networks, and e-mails related to that particular meeting.
Contacts is all about the erstwhile Gist application that BlackBerry acquired. BB10 pulls in contacts from social connections – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Foursquare and more. However, you’re going to have to spend quite a bit of time linking them all together. The more popular you are, i.e., the more contacts you have, the long this task will take. LinkedIn gets priority on photos since most folks don’t put their child’s cute picture as their display image on LinkedIn, but you have the option of selecting the caller's image from all the networks tied into the account or by adding your own. The contacts app is a great way to get information on people in one place without going through multiple social apps or networks.
Well designed calendar app
Now here’s the glitch – unlike other OSes, you can’t seamlessly send a text message to a recently called contact or unknown number from the Phone app. If it’s an existing contact, you’ll have to long press the name and go to the contacts profile in the Contacts app and send a message from there or select the “i” icon. This is the same for unknown numbers. If you’re still in the Phone app, the Contacts section on the bottom right of the recent calls list doesn’t provide access to messaging, unless you long press and access the contact’s profile again. This is, in fact, a completely separate space. It’s worse from the Hub where you can only make a call to numbers stored there (stored or unknown numbers). If it’s a stored contact, you can go to their profile and send a message from there. This is a rather annoying round about fashion to get simple things done.
The Z10 is loaded with an 8MP camera that features 1080P video recording along with a feature that we talked about before – TimeShift. In a nutshell, TimeShift, like Nokia’s SmartShoot lens available on the Lumia 920, captures multiple images in a burst, selects the faces in the picture for you and allows you to choose the best profile shot of each person in the picture with a simple zoom and toggle option. This way, you can be somewhat assured no one’s blinking or looking away and you get that perfect group shot you wanted. After making sure that the faces are all in best possible profile as you want, you can also adjust the surroundings a bit and let the camera stitch the pieces together. It’s not as sophisticated as the Lumia’s, but does a pretty decent job all the same.
Settings are quite limited – there are a few Scene modes, including one for Action. There’s also Burst Mode and Image Stabilization, but not much else. Touch focus is quite handy and the use of volume button as a shutter release is possible as well.
Image quality is decent in daylight well lit conditions
The Z10’s camera is capable of rendering quite a high level of Depth of Field. Thanks to Touch Focus, you can easily move the focus point to whatever object you want on the screen and snap. Take a look at some of these close-ups to get the right idea.
Touch Focus is great in Macro
In outdoor conditions with sufficient light, the camera performs adequately.
In low light conditions, at parties, social events etc., with a lot of artificial lighting, images don’t prove to be all that great. There’s a heavy dose of grain and artifact. Although photos look quite good on the smaller display, it’s in native resolution on your PC where you’ll notice the pastel effects of the photos.
Low Light images, including in door shots in low lighting are not too good
Night shots also weren’t as good as we hoped. You’ll either have to keep the handset stationary for images or make sure you take a deep breadth, like Sniper, so you don’t move. Either ways, we were not impressed.
Video recording, on the other hand, was defiantly a step up. Colours were quite well-retained and motions were fluid during high action moments in 720p or 1080p.
Having had the unique opportunity to test more than one device simultaneously, we were able to test the battery quite thoroughly. On one device, we ran our standard video loop test that drained the battery completely at 8 hours and 30 minutes (in Airplane Mode). That’s not bad at all, but not overly exciting either. We ran our tech2 loop test post where the device successfully completed 2 full loops that consisted of 1 each of hour video, audio, talk time and media streaming. It also managed to go into a third loop and ran video for about 25 minutes before shutting down (with 3G or Wi-Fi running in the background). That gave us an aggregated total of 8.5 hours of rigorous use. The 1800 mAh battery coupled with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processing prowess and power management also turned out to be an asset. The Z10 was able to give us a full work day's usage with plenty left over (about 15 hours of nominal use) on a single charge putting it quite ahead of it's predecessors.
NFC antenna placed on the rear of the back panel
That being said, one of the devices we had available with us didn’t seem to perform all too well in a more real-time environment of daily use. With close to an hour of video, a few minutes of audio, a few photos and 3G running, we were barely able to get more than 5 hours of use. This could be an anomaly, so please let us know if you do have any issues with battery.
The bottom line and price in India
For a company that has so often struggled to get the attention of buyers more inclined to shop for other smartphones, the BlackBerry Z10 definitely breaks a lot of ice and new ground. The Z10’s blend of solid construction, good looks and a genuine UI breakthrough will definitely resonate with those who are looking for a smartphone with productivity in mind.
The Z10 gets a welcome infusion of new hardware, too. But if there's one thing that BlackBerry has done emphatically well this time around, then it is to take the discussion firmly away from specs and benchmarks. The Z10 plays to its strength of having a highly integrated OS and hardware development cycle. And its fluid and silky smooth UI is such a pleasure to use that the gestures and butter smooth swipes can get very addictive after a while.
As elegant as they come
However, there are two issues that BlackBerry needs to work on very aggressively from here on. First, it needs to quickly get the app world up to speed – it’s still nowhere near as well fleshed out as the rival markets. And second, it must continuously spin the OS refinement wheel by ironing out bugs (and there are many!) with a rapid set of updates and patches. It'll be really unfortunate if this BlackBerry release will be more widely remembered for what it didn't offer than for what it did get right.
But at a price tag of Rs. 43,490, the Z10 and/or BB10 still has quite a few wrinkles that need ironing out. It’s a rather high price to pay for a device that is in requirement of further refinement and development. At this price, it’s going to be competing with devices that are quite high up on the ladder in terms of specs and app offerings with better performance in some aspects. At the end of the day, even if the Z10 has navigated BlackBerry once again into the mainstream smartphone space, keeping it here will be a very tough task.
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Oct 27, 2016