I've used the BlackBerry Z10 as my primary smartphone for well over a month now, and if there's one thing I can emphatically say about the device, it's that it has changed the way I use smartphones. And perhaps therein lies the clue why I think it is smarter than other smartphones.
Let's get one thing out of the way though—I don't think the BlackBerry Z10 has bragging rights on specs and benchmarks. It's no slouch on hardware specs and compares better on paper with the reigning emperor of smartphones, the iPhone 5. But I make that point because if you’re the type who makes a choice based on the fact that the Z10 has a dual-core processor versus another smartphone that brags about a quad-core powering it, all the best with your wrong choice.
As this excellent piece that busts myths about quad-core processors points out, your smartphone's internal performance boils down to more than the number of cores. “Instead, it depends on a delicate balance involving everything from your base chip and batteries to your operating system, and even on the people who code your favourite apps.”
That “delicate balance” is what BlackBerry has gotten right with the Z10.
So, how has the BlackBerry Z10 changed my smartphone usage? Here's how:
Magic in those keys
I've used touchscreen smartphones, but I've always hated them in the one area where I use my smartphone the most—communication using the typed word. That includes e-mail, mobile IM, social network updates and, for me as a writer, even typing pieces on the go. While others on flights contort themselves as they type on laptops, I type on my BlackBerry's QWERTY keyboard. No touchscreen came close—and I've used Swype. If you are a slow typist, then touchscreen keyboards are not bad, but at the speed at which I type with both thumbs, I'd end up with gibberish if I used a touchscreen and prose if I used a QWERTY keyboard BlackBerry. Since they pay me to write prose (though I'm sure some spec-and-benchmark-hugging fanboys will see this as gibberish), it's clear why I chose my BlackBerry over the touchscreens. Which also meant that I was really looking forward to the upcoming BlackBerry Q10, since it reportedly has a better keyboard than its predecessor, the Bold 9900.
So, I'm sure Urpo Karjalainen, Regional Managing Director-Asia Pacific for BlackBerry, would now forgive me for sniggering when he told a bunch of journalists at BlackBerry Jam Asia late last year that asking him whether he personally preferred the BlackBerry 10 touchscreen keyboard or the QWERTY keyboard on the Bold 9900 was like asking him if he loved his wife or his daughter more. Till then, BlackBerry executives were pretty clear where their personal preferences lay—the QWERTY keyboard. I thought Mr Karjalainen was giving us this spiel because by then it seemed clear that the first BlackBerry 10 would be a touchscreen.
After a month of use, I have a clearer answer than Mr Karjalainen on my personal preference. I prefer the touchscreen keyboard on the BlackBerry Z10 and I don't think I'm ever using a physical QWERTY keyboard smartphone again. Because, I can type what seems like gibberish and as I keep typing, the gibberish turns into prose exactly as I intended. And frankly, since I use both thumbs to type, I don't even use the cool word suggestion feature, but just the auto-correct. And the cool delete feature that deletes words as I swipe back anywhere on the keyboard, and the simple swipe down for numbers and symbols when I just need one number or symbol character, is also very thoughtful and saves time.
As an added advantage of switching to a touchscreen, I can now browse on a much larger screen and my eyes thank me every day for the reduction in eye strain. Plus, the Z10 has the fastest browser out there and comes with Flash capability.
The smartest of the lot
BlackBerry has been clear that the Z10 is focused on improving productivity and the Hub has played a huge rule in improving my productivity by helping me save time on my communication. Rather than open app, close app, open app, close app for various things I want to do (e.g., go between my work e-mail and personal e-mail and LinkedIn), the Hub has changed the way I do things because everything is here in one place and seamlessly accessible—and social apps are baked in. So, with a single finger I can swipe from work e-mail to personal e-mail and accept a LinkedIn invite and check my Twitter DMs. On top of this, the Hub also keeps track of my multiple calendars and meetings. I can also get information on other attendees and contextual e-mails related to the meeting. So, soon enough, seconds saved in each of these little tasks turn into valuable minutes and hours. The lag-free, silky smooth operation makes for a winner too. With the Hub APIs scheduled to be released later this year, many more apps will be able to make use of the Hub and its productivity advantages.
BlackBerry Flow and Peek help a lot in this aspect too as they make multitasking far easier than in my previous experience. The ability to move between app to app seamlessly without having to close any app and the ability to peek at Hub notifications – for instance, while watching a video, you can peek at notifications with the video still playing at the side – really makes for better productivity.
More power to you
I'm not the betting type, but I'm willing to bet that the one thing users hate most about smartphones is battery life. I see many Android users at work constantly charging their smartphones whenever they are at their desks—it's become a habit. But an annoyingly frustrating one. The Bold 9900 I used was pretty similar, but the Z10 has completely turned things on its head. Despite being on 3G networks 24×7 and a lot of roaming for work, I now get around 15 hours of use, which has completely changed some things. I no longer carry a car charger when I'm travelling outside Mumbai, especially in places like Delhi NCR when I'm on the road between meetings stretching from Greater Noida to Gurgaon. Which reminds me, I need to stop carrying a phone charger in my backpack too—might be a few grams of weight, but my back will definitely thank me.
Apps, apps, apps
If you're going to compare BlackBerry World to App World and Google Play in terms of sheer number of applications, then there's no point of even inviting BlackBerry to the race. But before you throw at me numbers like 700,000 apps in Google Play versus the 100,000 or so with BlackBerry 10, consider this: Did you know that only about 1,000 applications have at least 50,000 users in the United States, arguably the most mature app market? Or that most people really use around 10-15 apps regularly, even if they've downloaded a 100 or more on to their smartphone? BlackBerry has a tough road to climb on the apps front, but by all estimates, the company is doing very well on that arduous climb till date. It has focused on getting the top apps from Android and iOS to BlackBerry 10 and in the past week or so, as the US launch nears, I'm seeing many familiar friends from Google Play on BlackBerry World. I just downloaded Air Control and Asphalt 7 yesterday. And the big names (Skype, WhatsApp, Kindle, Instagram etc) are also providing clearer updates on availability. And because it's so easy to port Android apps to BlackBerry 10, I'm seeing the “Whip” app etc., which are just for fun, on BlackBerry World too. And I won’t even get into malware masquerading as apps on app stores without proper oversight, like Google Play.
But having said all this, and while BlackBerry 10 is the definitely the only OS that has had so many apps at launch, it must be remembered that it will take BlackBerry years even if BlackBerry 10 is a success, to match iOS and Android in app numbers, and more importantly, an ecosystem such as Apple's with multiple devices for different use cases but which work together quite seamlessly. The others are mature ecosystems, and customers cannot be expected to be sympathetic just because BlackBerry 10 is a new ecosystem. BlackBerry has to work very, very hard on apps and I believe this is the biggest challenge that BlackBerry needs to beat.
Clicks, beats and glitches
So, is it all roses and sugar? No way! I have experienced a few glitches in my Z10 use, but none that makes me want to give up the Z10 for anything else. The advantages far outweigh the glitches and nothing is a deal-breaker, and I'm a tough customer because as I've pointed earlier, my smartphone is not a plaything, but something I depend on for work.
And in this past month, I've often realised that what I initially saw as a glitch just required me to adapt to BlackBerry's new Flow paradigm. Yes, this is a superior user interface and is far more intuitive and helps make me more productive, but old habits die hard. And for those who want to be petty and make a mountain of a molehill and focus only on the few UI glitches, the fact is that updates will take care of them soon enough. And everyone knows that unlike Android's severely fragmented ecosystem where official updates from device manufacturers are more often promiseware than software, BlackBerry does regular updates.
Ditto with the camera and audio capabilities. I know some have complained about the lack of granular settings in audio, which was available in earlier BlackBerry smartphones too, but for me, I hardly used those granular settings and I think it works great as it is. BlackBerry took this route because user surveys told them most users wanted simplicity and not increased granularity. For those with evolved needs, apps will take care of them soon enough. I count professional musicians as my friends and my wife is a music teacher, and they all think it sounds great too. The Z10 meets my needs—and my needs aren't as basic as you might think. The camera isn't the best too, but it meets my needs since I use a DSLR for places where I intend to capture memories. Having said that, it's no slouch and a new OS update that we Indians are yet to lay our hands on has supposedly made it even better. And the Time Shift mode is cool fun, though I don't see myself using that too often.
Balancing work and play
And I'm yet to actually use Balance, as my organisation is yet to upgrade our BES server. The OS-level separation and the fact that I will never have to worry about an IT administrator looking at my personal stuff just because he has access to my smartphone, is a dream for users like me concerned about privacy and IT Managers worried about the security of valuable data. There's nothing that comes close to it if you intend to balance work and play perfectly. No wonder the German government has gone ahead and ordered 40,000 Z10s. As we all know, the Germans are fanatical about efficiency and security—and there’s Europe’s razor sharp focus on privacy—and the Z10 clearly fits right in. Just like it does for my needs.