BlackBerry Z10: the MyBroadband review

The beginning of this story is well known. BlackBerry have been doing badly in the global smartphone market, haemorrhaging market-share in the consumer space as well as losing big corporate and government contracts.

BlackBerry 10 has been a long time coming, and it promises to stall what would otherwise be a charge into oblivion. Can the BlackBerry Z10 deliver? Can it do enough to convince current customers to not abandon ship? Can it do enough to win the hearts and minds of consumers to ensure BlackBerry’s survival in a war for which they have been ill prepared?

BlackBerry Z10 – Design and build quality

The Z10 is a relatively strong departure from what we’ve come to expect a BlackBerry to be. It’s a full touch-screen device with no buttons on the front, leaving ample room for the 4.2-inch touch screen with the front-facing camera, multi-colour LED, and earpiece above it, and BlackBerry logo below.

There is quite a bit of room above and below the screen, making the 130mm-tall Z10 not much shorter than some of it’s larger-screened competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (135.5mm), Galaxy S3 ( 136.6mm), and HTC One X (134.4mm). The Z10 also weighs slightly more than  all of the aforementioned at 137.5g.

Along the right at the top are the volume buttons, with a button between them to start/stop music playback on a short press and activate Voice Control on a long press.

On the left side are the microHDMI and microUSB ports. While I do prefer having the microUSB port on the bottom, it’s not a train smash to have it elsewhere, and it at least keeps consistency with previous BlackBerry phones.

On top is the power/wake button smack in the middle, with the 3.5mm jack to the left of it, while the bottom is bare. The power/wake button is a little tricky to find in the dark as it doesn’t protrude much, but it does have a rather satisfying click to it. Luckily, you don’t need it that much once the phone is on, because swiping up from the bottom will wake the screen, and if you have one of the BlackBerry covers, you won’t need to press the button to send the phone to sleep either.

The back is a soft-touch, dimpled, rubbery plastic, which reminds me a little of Nexus 7. Also like Nexus 7, the back cover of the Z10 had me idly running my fingers over it when using the phone. The cover is removable, allowing you access to the battery, microSIM slot, and microSD slot. In the middle is a stylish BlackBerry logo, while the camera sits in the top left with the flash to the right of it.

Overall, it’s a rather stylish design. It’s fairly nondescript though, and we’re almost entirely certain that if you covered up the BlackBerry logo on the front, regular Joe wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s a phone made by BlackBerry let alone pick it out from a lineup – which is both a blessing and a curse.

BlackBerry Z10 specifications
BlackBerry Z10 specifications – click to enlarge

BlackBerry Z10 – Internals and performance

Inside the Z10 is a decent 1.5GHz dual-core CPU, with a healthy 2GB of RAM. A teardown relvealed that it’s a Qualcomm MSM8960 SoC, with an Adreno 225 GPU.

Of course, you also get your usual communications options: WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, HSPA+ (up to 21Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up), as well as NFC. We played around a little with the NFC on the Z10 and a Galaxy Nexus and found that sharing things like contacts and web pages worked exactly as expected.

We found performance on the Z10 to be snappy. Switching between apps and launching new ones was fast and fluid, gaming was stutter-free, and in general we were impressed with the Z10.

BlackBerry Z10 – Screen and responsiveness

The Z10, as mentioned before, is a full touch phone. It features a 4.2-inch, 1280 x 768, capacitive touch display – a modern display for a modern smartphone.

While its sharpness and clarity can’t be faulted, we did find the Z10’s screen to be lacking in terms of brightness. We also found its whites tended to have a yellow tinge to them. You might not notice it in isolation, but when compared to other devices it was unmistakable.

Regardless, the screen remained legible in the harsh midday sun, and we also found text to be wonderfully smooth.

The Z10 responded well to our various pokes and prods, racing through screens and their associated animations, bringing up apps quickly, and switching between various apps with ease.

General navigation was mostly smooth, though there were times that we had to repeat certain gestures as they seemed to be rejected for unknown reasons.

BlackBerry Z10 side
BlackBerry Z10

BlackBerry Z10 – Sound and call quality

Call quality was good with no complaints to be had by either side, even when I was in a particularly rowdy office.

Unfortunately, the external speaker sounded thin and awfully tinny. It’s best avoided for anything except notification sounds. The bundled earphones were similarly underwhelming, lacking beloved bass and ending up with an overall dull sound to them.

BlackBerry Z10 – Cameras

The Z10 has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, which we found be a very capable shooter, taking clear, good quality photos at a maximum resolution of 3264 x 2448.

In fact, we’d say that the camera on the Z10 is right up there with the top dogs in terms of quality under good circumstances.

Under less light, things did obviously start to get grainy. To add to that, the flash seemed to overcompensate, leaving you with the choice between dark and grainy or overexposed (and less grainy).

The front-facing 2-megapixel camera is capable of 720p video, and is more than good enough for video calls at this point. We wouldn’t recommend it for much else, as it does tend to produce a high amount of noise in photos.

BlackBery 10 camera example
BlackBerry 10 camera example

BlackBerry Z10 – Battery life

The Z10’s battery was disappointing, mainly because of how inconsistent it was.

On some days it would power through constant usage, easily making it through until late in the evening. On other days, we would listen to an hour of audio, and it would be dead before lunch time.

In general though, the Z10 gave us about a day’s usage, which isn’t bad, but it’s not great either.

BlackBerry Z10 – Software

The Z10, as its name suggests, comes with BlackBerry’s new operating system, BlackBerry 10. As with the OS found on the BlackBerry Playbook, BlackBerry 10 is based on QNX.

Off the bat, there are two important gestures that you need to learn – starting at the bottom bezel and swiping up will bring you back to the home screen, while swiping up and to the right will take you into the BlackBerry Hub. When the screen is off, swiping up will also wake and unlock it.

It sounds simple enough, but it does take a little getting used to as there are no visual cues making it immediately obvious (beyond the initial tutorial when first setting up the phone).

Beyond that the only other gesture you need to remember is that a swipe from the top brings down an application-specific menu, which is different to the menu often found on the bottom right of the action bar, as that one depends on the specific screen within an app.

A last mention goes to a shortcut gesture for Back. When you’re in an app and a Back button is displayed in the bottom left (on the Action Bar), it is often possible for you to swipe left-to-right instead of reaching down and tapping the button.

We say “often” because it wasn’t always possible, even within some of BlackBerry’s own apps.

BlackBerry Z10 landscape
BlackBerry Z10 landscape

BlackBerry Z10 – Blackberry Hub

The BlackBerry Hub is the place in BlackBerry 10 where notifications congregate. E-mails, chats, text messages, social networks – all of these notifications can be found in the centralised BlackBerry Hub, and notifications can be filtered on a per-app basis or viewed as a great big list.

An irritating thing about the Hub is that it remembers where you were previously, which means that when you go in to view a new notification, you most likely have to go back a few times before you can actually see it. What should actually be happening, is that the centralised Hub should be the default view when coming back in.

BlackBerry Z10 – Browser

Having a good browser on a smartphone is an essential piece of the final puzzle. iOS has Safari and quite a few other viable alternatives; Android has Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and a plethora of other Webkit-based alternatives; and Microsoft have done a decent job so far with Internet Explorer on Windows Phone.

The browser on the Z10 is, to be frank, okay but not quite there yet. There were times where we found it to be slow, both in page loading and in panning/zooming around a page.

We managed to lock it up a few times too, where it would display a white or black screen for 5 or 10 seconds (or sometimes longer) while it finished whatever it was loading.

BlackBery 10 interface
BlackBery 10 interface

BlackBerry Z10 – Keyboard

Up until now, if someone said the name BlackBerry, you’d think of a smartphone with an excellent hardware keyboard. The Z10 chucks that keyboard, which means that BlackBerry had to do some work to make sure that they still have one of the best (if not the best) keyboards on a touchscreen smartphone.

To make a long story short: the keyboard on the Z10 delivers.

The soft keyboard on the Z10 is fast, responsive, and extremely easy to type on. Auto-correct learns as you go along, and you may notice that words appear above some letters as you type. That’s part of the keyboard prediction, and one of those words can be selected by swiping up a short distance on that letter. I initially thought that the feature would obscure things, but found that that wasn’t the case at all, and that the feature was actually quite useful.

BlackBerry Z10 – Mail, Contacts, and Calendar

Out the box, the Z10 supports GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, IMAP, POP, CalDAV, and CardDAV, for all your mail, calendar, and contacts syncing needs.

I’m a Google-user, so I hooked it up via the GMail option. While mail and contacts started syncing across (contacts synced both ways, in case you were wondering), we had some trouble with the calendar which seemed to be related to 2-factor authentication. Events that were already in the calendar didn’t sync across, but newly created events did. There was one day where a daily recurring event did sync across, but it only triggered for that one day.

Accounts that didn’t have 2-factor authentication enabled worked fine, but only the default Google calendar for that account was available, and we couldn’t create events for that calendar on the Z10 and have it sync across.

BlackBery 10 interface
BlackBery 10 interface

BlackBerry Z10 – Sharing

Something I haven’t seen mentioned is that it appears as though BlackBerry 10 has borrowed Android’s Intent/Sharing framework in the form of their own Invocation framework. This allows you to share things between applications, like a URL from the browser to your favourite social network client.

More importantly, it allows developers to plug their application into that system, making it possible for them to easily communicate with other apps and vice versa. It’s been a powerful feature for Android and a feature that no other mobile OS I’ve come across has implemented (though Microsoft did do something like it in Windows 8, but not Windows Phone 8).

BlackBerry Z10 – Maps

The Z10 has a default maps application, which is basically a custom version of Bing maps. For some reason, the first few times I launched the app, it placed me in Pretoria Avenue in Randburg even though I was in Centurion at the time. The location it was pointing at, in fact, was where I received and set up my BlackBerry Playbook in 2012 – the Z10 itself has (to my knowledge) never been there. I’m not entirely sure how concerned I should be.

The Maps application itself is relatively simplistic when compared to something like Google Maps on iOS or Android, but searching for local businesses yielded good results and navigation worked as expected (though having a landscape option would have been nice).

BlackBery 10 interface
BlackBery 10 interface

BlackBerry Z10 – 3rd Party apps

3rd Party applications is where BlackBerry faces its biggest hurdle. BlackBerry 10 launched with a claimed 70,000 apps on the store, which may pale in comparison to the titanic numbers for iOS and Android, but its still nothing to scoff at. That is, if you assume that its mostly good applications, which it’s not.

We have no doubt that there are many great applications in BlackBerry’s store, and BlackBerry have certainly done their part with their own applications, but the fact is that you have to wade through a mire of mediocre options to get to them.

At the time of writing, apps such as Whatsapp, Amazon Kindle, Audible, and Simfy have yet to make their appearance. Lastpass, my favoured password manager, is available, but its a port of the Android version, which brings us to the next big problem.

To help bolster their app numbers, BlackBerry have made a way for Android app developers to (relatively) easily port their applications to BlackBerry 10. The ported apps perform poorly and their interfaces and interaction mechanisms are completely disconnected from how BlackBerry 10 usually handles things, causing confusion and frustration. I don’t think this is a path that BlackBerry should continue pursuing. It doesn’t leads to a great platform or ecosystem; this is a path that leads to a disconnected disaster, and one that BlackBerry should rather abandon.

BlackBery 10 interface
BlackBery 10 interface

BlackBerry Z10 – Conclusion

Here at the close, we’re left with the following: a well designed (though somewhat bland) smartphone with a good (though not outstanding) full touchscreen. Respectable internals providing fluid performance, and a camera that can hold its own against the top smartphone cameras on a good day. deserve a mention.

Unfortunately, the packaged sound options aren’t great – though using your own head gear removes that problem. The battery life is rather average and inconsistent.

On the software front, the core BlackBerry 10 Operating System is good – great even – and the bundled applications show that a great experience is well within an app developer’s grasp. Unfortunately, the 3rd-party app options are severely lacking at this point, though there are some big names set to make their apps available sooner rather than later. Hopefully, those will be good native experiences rather than bad ports of existing apps.

The Z10 is a good (re)start for BlackBerry in the smartphone arena, but there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that they build a strong and competitive platform.

* Reviewers note: This review is based on the software that the BlackBerry Z10 launched with and not the updated version of BlackBerry 10 that was recently released.

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BlackBerry Z10: the MyBroadband review