Feb. 1, 2013 at 3:09 PM ET
We've referred to BlackBerry 10, the latest operating system released by Research in Motion (now known as BlackBerry), as the company's last hope. It's do or die, make or break, claim a hefty serving of the smartphone market or settle for a few crumbs. But setting aside all that pressure and drama, let's focus on what's important now: Will you actually want to buy a smartphone running BlackBerry 10?
Yes, no — and maybe so.
The first device to run BlackBerry 10 is the Z10, an all-touch smartphone. Yes, you did read that right: The physical keyboard, a defining BlackBerry feature, is gone. Sure, it'll reappear with the Q10 — the more traditional-looking of the first two BlackBerry 10 devices — but that isn't expected to be available until April or so. For now, we can merely judge BlackBerry based on one device ... one that's a dramatic departure from the company's modus operandi.
Physically speaking, the Z10 is a beautiful device. It doesn't have some sort of flashy or daring design. Instead it's simple and unadorned, like a classy little black dress that'll seldom look out of place or out of style. Whenever I'd hand the Z10 to someone for the first time, he or she would remark that it feels a great deal like an iPhone. Take that however you will, but I see it as a good thing.
As far as the device's guts go, there's nothing that'll grab your attention too much. It has a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB or memory (expandable up to 64GB, thanks to a microSD slot), an 8MP camera on the back, and a 2MP camera in the front. Oh, and there's a removable battery. (As someone who has gone a long time without having to deal with annoying BlackBerry freeze-ups, I'd forgotten how important it is to have a battery that can be yanked out, if only to force a restart. And yes, the Z10 has frozen up a couple of times during my review period.)
It's not the hardware that's the main attraction when it comes to the Z10 though. As I've said, this is the first BlackBerry 10 device. And the operating system is the deal-maker — or deal-breaker.
Since the physical keyboard is absent, I found myself quite focused on its touch-screen replacement. It left me impressed. It definitely takes some adjustment to start using the keyboard's suggestions — every tap brings up hovering words, and you flick a word up to select it — yet it's amazingly easy to write entire sentences without ever actually tapping out a single full word.
Not every touch interface was as pleasant as the keyboard. The navigational gestures baked into BlackBerry 10 were a source of frustration. If you don't start them at the very edge of the screen, the Z10 simply ignores your attempts to jump back home.
Since the BlackBerry is known for creating email monsters — gadgets that can handle any amount of correspondences thrown at them — I was fairly excited about the new BlackBerry Hub. This is intended to function as a unified inbox of sorts, where all email, BlackBerry messages, SMS messages, Twitter notifications, Facebook notifications, and the like can live.
Unfortunately, as you can see in the video up top, the Hub gets overwhelming as soon as the emails and notifications start flooding in and causes more headaches than it relieves. Additionally, there's an odd quirk that sends you back to the last viewed message instead of the Hub overview whenever you toggle between other apps and the Hub. This is incredibly annoying since you then have to hit the back button to get where you want to go.
The Z10's 8-megapixel camera delivers poor image quality compared to the leading Samsung and Apple contenders, while the camera app is gimmicky at best. While some might be excited about TimeShift mode, which rapidly captures several photos and allows you to choose a subject's best face, the novelty quickly wears off and leaves one craving for the more intuitive (and higher quality) camera systems of Android and iOS. Besides, that feature is far from unique, found increasingly on other phones and cameras.
While BlackBerry devices are typically workhorses, any competitive smartphone also has to be able to serve as a primary media player. So how is the music and video playback on the Z10? Short answer: Acceptable. Long answer: You can live with it, but if you're an iPod/iPhone/iTunes addict, you'll definitely flinch at the limited content management and access of the Music Player and Video Player apps.
The rest of the BlackBerry 10 experience is fairly smooth. The device is snappy and responsive — pesky gestures aside — and, unlike the BlackBerry operating systems of the distant past, doesn't feel bloated.
Of course, one could write the lack of bloat off as being related to the limited app selection. BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins called attention to the fact that there are over 70,000 apps available for the operating system, and indeed we found Cut the Rope, Facebook, Twitter, and other favorites — BlackBerry also secured Skype, Rovio, Amazon, and other popular app makers as partners — however, we're still waiting for Netflix, Google Maps, Instagram, and Hulu, among other obvious absentees.
Overall, the BlackBerry Z10 is a solid device. If you're an existing BlackBerry user who happens to be willing to patiently adjust to an on-screen keyboard, that brand dedication may finally pay off. But if you, like me, have come to rely on iPhone or Android, chances are that you'll constantly find yourself looking for features (or apps) that are missing from BlackBerry 10.
BlackBerry certainly did re-design, re-invent and re-imagine itself — as it takes pains to tell you on its website — but the cliché of "too little, too late" definitely rings true at this point.
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