With the last South African app developer punt of BlackBerry 10 complete, the BlackBerry (née RIM) head for South and Southern Africa, Alexandra Zagury, takes to the stage once more and ushers us into the next room.
A delicious spread of food, stands showcasing locally developed BB10 apps, and an even more delicious spread of BlackBerry Z10s are waiting there for us.
Eager to get my grubby paws on one to see if it lives up to the promises BlackBerry has made over the years, I jostle for a place at one of the demo booths.
The massive anti-theft contraption makes handling the Z10 more than a little unpleasant, but fortunately BlackBerry has thought of that: promotion staff are roaming around the venue with devices.
With an unfettered device finally in-hand, let’s see what this baby can do.
MyBroadband Tip: Go through the BlackBerry 10 tutorial
Two thoughts came up the whole time while using the device:
- This is refreshingly different.
- This isn’t a device anyone can just pick up and use.
Unless you’ve gone through the tutorial, or have someone show you how to use BlackBerry 10’s gesture-based navigation system, you probably won’t know how to use some of the BlackBerry Z10’s most powerful features.
That’s not to say that navigation on BlackBerry 10 is poor. In fact, the swipe gestures are fantastic – they’re just undiscoverable.
For instance, swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen takes you “home”. Here you are presented with a list of your 8 most recently used apps.
Now if you swipe down you’ll see a tray with buttons for system settings. Inside an app this same downward swipe gesture would open the app’s settings tray.
“Peek”, the gesture at least as important as the “Home” gesture on BlackBerry 10, is a swipe up from the bottom edge and to the right.
Though undiscoverable, once you’ve learnt the basic gestures of BlackBerry 10, navigating around the device becomes intuitive.
As far as the hardware user interface is concerned, BlackBerry has kept the Z10 very simple.
With no need for hardware buttons on the front face of the device, it is all screen with a few standard buttons along the edges of the device.
The power/wake button is on the top edge of the device, in the middle. To the left of it you’ll find the headphone jack.
The right edge is home to the volume rocker and mute/pause button, while the left edge holds the micro USB and micro HDMI ports.
As has been remarked upon in the reviews that appeared online shortly after the Z10’s announcement, BlackBerry has kept the industrial design of the device simple and conservative.
The shape mimics that of the iPhone 4 and newer, while the back has a soft texture similar to that seen on earlier BlackBerry devices.
This combination makes the device great to hold and look at.
What BlackBerry users want
A hands-on of BlackBerry’s new devices wouldn’t be complete without dealing with the elephant in the room.
Staunch BlackBerry keyboard lovers around the world are asking: “Sure, but how much does the software keyboard suck?”
The answer to that is complicated, partly because it’s difficult for a touch screen smartphone user to answer.
In short: the BlackBerry 10 touch screen keyboard is good, and includes some interesting gesture control that sets it apart from other keyboards.
In particular: it combines the predictive capability of SwiftKey (a third-party Android keyboard), with gestures. Based on what you’ve typed before it predicts which words you’re likely to type next.
By default, these predictions appear above the next letter of the word on the keyboard rather than in a bar above it. You can then type these words by swiping up on the letter. Words can be deleted by swiping from right to left on the keyboard.
The BB10 software keyboard takes some getting used to however, and in the hands-on time we had it didn’t feel quite as responsive as the iPhone or Windows Phone keyboards.
In terms of responsiveness, the keyboard is probably on par with Android, so it’s not bad at all.
Reminder: BlackBerry 10 is a new platform
There were some points of concern identified for further investigation in a full review during the hands-on.
The biggest is the browser. While it does support Flash and renders even complex sites well, there was a lot of latency when zooming and panning.
While it was particularly slow on pages with Flash embedded in them, the latency was evident on very simple sites without any Flash, such as Reddit.
When zooming in, for instance, text and images are blurry for a second or so before the browser sharpens them.
The browser also doesn’t appear to have the ability to automatically wrap text when zooming in. This feature is typically accessible on other smartphones by double-tapping the on-screen text that you want to view.
BlackBerry makes up for this with its “Reader mode”, however. When selecting this option on a page, the browser re-renders it so that it’s far easier to read on the BlackBerry Z10’s 4.2-inch screen.
The second big concern was the way BlackBerry Hub and the “Peek” gesture worked.
For instance, there is no indication of what notifications you’ve received until you start the peek gesture. On top of that ,“peek” doesn’t automatically show the Hub’s “unified inbox” view.
Instead Hub remembers the state you last left it in, whether in BBM, in your inbox, or in your Twitter mentions. Unless you go back to the root Hub menu, the next time you “Peek” you’ll see whatever you were last looking at.
This seems to defeat the purpose of the peek gesture, and it will be interesting to see how this design decision impacts long-term usability.
This appeared to be for writing messages to contacts, but when accessed from Twitter and Facebook, the “Send” button was greyed out.
You can still send tweets and Facebook status updates from the hub without this feature, as there are “Tweet” and “Status” buttons for that, so the “Compose” button’s presence is a bit of a mystery.
No-one at last night’s big launch event seemed to know why the “Send” button was greyed out, though the issue is expected to be fixed either in the release build or a future update.
Niggles aside, the BlackBerry Z10 makes a great first impression. BlackBerry 10 is slick and smooth, and has the potential to put the company back on the global smartphone map.
In South Africa, however, there is an incredibly important question that remains unanswered: what will the new BlackBerry data packages look like exactly, and how much will they cost?
Here, where BlackBerry has continued to do well while it haemorrhaged market share in most other markets, its value proposition is what saved it.
Without it, a big question mark continues to hang over BlackBerry and whether its new Z10 will attract the high-end users they said it targets.