BlackBerry Z10 smartphone: Bloggers, tech sites praise hardware, mixed on software

Early testers don't see Android, iPhone users making leap to BlackBerry 10 in big numbers

BlackBerry Z10

Credit: BlackBerry

BlackBerry Z10 smartphone

Tech blogs and news sites have been reporting on their weeklong experience with the just-announced BlackBerry Z10 smartphone, from BlackBerry, the company formerly known as Research in Motion. Here's a summary of some of their analysis and conclusions.

Many of the reviewers sounded almost surprised at the quality of phone's hardware and software. The new "gesture" user interface and its navigation conventions seemed to intrigue most reviewers, despite the fact of needing some time to learn and practice gestures and conventions. But their conclusions about whether the UI was a plus or a minus were more divided. Most seemed to think battery life was barely adequate.

[ FIRST LOOK: BlackBerry 10 smartphones ]

The number of native BlackBerry 10 apps is far,  more limited than the 70,000 currently being touted by BlackBerry: The latter number includes thousands of BlackBerry PlayBook tablets apps, some of them running unchanged on the smaller-screened Z10, and Android apps that run in a software emulator on the phone. BlackBerry has said that "1,000 of the top app partners will be making their applications available" for the Z10. But via email, through a PR staffer, the company wouldn't say which or even how many of those 1,000 partners had apps approved for the online catalog; or when the others would be available.

CIO.com's BlackBerry ace, Al Sacco, spent a week with the Z10 and praised the well-designed gesture UI, the underlying OS, and the overall industrial design of the new phone.

The BlackBerry 10 UI creates a unique experience. "It's very easy to check messages and notifications using the [BlackBerry] Hub [a central inbox that consolidates all notifications and messages, including social media] and I love that I can check any new notification without having to open up the inbox and leave the app or pages I'm using," Sacco writes. "Overall, I'm a big fan of the new UI and navigation features."

The Z10 is a "huge step in the right direction for the company," he writes.

But of the 17 apps he regularly and repeatedly uses on his Samsung Galaxy S III, only five (less than 30%) are present in the BlackBerry's online store, BlackBerry World: Twitter, Foursquare, Untappd, Facebook and a third-party Dropbox client. Missing are apps such as Instagram, Google+, Google Maps, Amazon Kindle, Netflix and Spotify.

"I've asked myself repeatedly since I received the BlackBerry Z10: Could I ditch my Android phone completely and use only the Z10?" Sacco writes. "The answer is no. Not yet at least. And that says an awful lot."

The Verge's Joshua Topolsky had a similar assessment of the phone's hardware, writing that it has a "safe, refined look; classy but understated. ... The Z10 is a fine, handsome phone."

The all-important display is equally "handsome," he writes. "I found its color reproduction, clarity, and touch response to be among the best I've used. That said, the screen's backlight seemed noticeably darker than many devices I compared it to ..." The phone's overall performance was "generally snappy and responsive."

His assessment of the BlackBerry 10 UI is more mixed. He says the basic set of concepts and gestures "would be difficult to discover without a tutorial [one of which BlackBerry forces the phone's user to go through], yet seem obvious once you've mastered them. That is to say the OS is not especially intuitive, but it works well and makes sense despite that fact."

But he concluded that the implementation of the UI creates a "feeling of unpredictability." A user can't control "which apps remain open or where they're located, you also don't have a consistent sense of where to find certain pieces of information." The unified inbox of BlackBerry Hub "is a great idea, but having to deal with both your actual inbox and your notifications on the same level creates complications that I think could be mitigated," although he says the Hub concept "actually ... works quite well."

"After a couple of days with the device, I found my frustration was significantly reduced, and I was actually enjoying some of the workflows of the device. In particular, I think BlackBerry's concept of the upward swipe to take you home works as it should -- I didn't find myself wishing for a home button," Topolsky writes.

Battery life was "deeply disappointing." Sometimes the Z10 "could not make it through an entire workday without requiring a recharge or battery swap."

Though BlackBerry says there are 70,000 apps available, Topolsky writes, "Unfortunately, while testing the device I felt like it was really something like 69,000 really mediocre (or just plain bad) applications." The catalog also includes some number of Android apps, which run on the phone via a software emulator for Android 2.3. Topolsky says you can't know from the catalog whether the app you're downloading is Android or BlackBerry 10 ... until you run it. "The Android apps I tested while using the Z10 performed abysmally on the phone," he writes. "Sluggish, ugly, and disconnected from the core OS."

His conclusion: "The Z10 is a good smartphone," he writes. "Frankly, it's a better smartphone than I expected from RIM at this stage in the game. ... The problem with the Z10 is that it doesn't necessarily do anything better than any of its competition."

Writing for CNET, Jessica Dolcourt concluded that existing BlackBerry fans will be happy finally to get a real smartphone but the Z10 won't "draw committed iPhone or Android owners."

In a separate review of the BlackBerry 10 operating system, Dolcourt writes that it "looks terrific, and comes with many of the world-class features you'd demand from a modern OS" and "adds a few of its own signature tools for security and business users." But it is "riddled with perplexing omissions and behavioral inefficiencies that wear on you over time."

"There's no single, overarching failure I can point to, but rather, a growing list of missing features and aggravating issues that take their toll in the aggregate; not a single fatal blow, but a thousand paper cuts," she writes. "These represent the little details that can make or break an experience, and they're the kinds of things that RIM should have ironed out in all these years of development."

One example she cites as evidence: "any time you tap to open an app, the operating system first scoots you to the Active Frames window before launching. [Active Frames is RIM's term for active apps reduced to a large thumbnail, four to a page, eight in total.] This extraneous step complicates what should be a smooth, logical action -- seriously, what could be easier than opening an app? I don't really care what happens on the back end, but seeing every app open from the multitasking window is just jerky and unnecessary."

She also says that "heavy browser use is where the inconsistencies bubble up, many of them having to do with rendering issues. Some mobile Web pages didn't render correctly, and it routinely took a very long time for Wikipedia pictures and Google Maps images to load in search results" though "I suspect that I have an issue with my particular testing phone ..."

Like many other reviewers, she faulted the limited Maps app for not having "3D view, satellite view, and walking or transit directions" or a compass.

TechCrunch's Darrell Etherington was impressed by the new phone. "With the Z10, BlackBerry has created a smartphone that's worthy of being mentioned in the same conversation as the latest Android devices and the iPhone," he writes. "That alone is an accomplishment for a company that has seemed on the verge of extinction for quite a while now.

"But a lot of what they've provided with this flagship device is [about] narrowing, or at best, eliminating the feature and hardware gap between it and the two mobile platforms that have legions of users already, including a number who have already migrated away from BlackBerry devices," he writes. He doesn't expect legions of iOS and Android users to convert to BB10.

The "hardware feels fresh, and also manages to come across as noticeably distinct from Android OEM devices or the iPhone," he writes. "As for the actual look and feel, the Z10 definitely impresses overall."

He found the gesture-oriented UI a snap. "Gesture controls took me virtually no time to get used to, and in fact, I found that going back to Android and iOS devices after extended use, I was trying to use the same gestures to do things like unlock devices," he writes. "The so-called 'Peek,' which lets you swipe and hold to view notifications and then quickly dismiss them, was likewise something that quickly became second nature."

He found a number of annoyances in the UI navigation, such as "swiping up to return from the notification hub [BlackBerry Hub] brings you to the active apps screen [with its four, thumbnailed Active Frames], meaning you always have to swipe left one more time to get to apps [meaning the traditional grid arrangement of downloaded apps]. This is made somewhat better by the fact that you can tap a line of dots [actually tiny icons] at the bottom to access specific pages of apps directly, as well as Hub and your active apps screen, something which you can't do on stock Android or iOS."

BlackBerry Hub is "definitely useful, but is it more useful than Notification Center or Android's pull down notification area? That's debatable," Etherington writes. "It's more of an actual destination within your phone, something you can live in and work from, but that [characteristic] can actually be counter-intuitive at times, like when you're looking at a Twitter mention, and the back button takes you to Hub, not the Twitter home stream. But it also comes in handy, like when it provides contextual info on meetings, including information on attendees."

Lack of apps, and in some cases lack of quality, creates an "app gap [that] can't be denied by even the most steadfast BlackBerry supporter," he writes. He was not happy with battery life. "In real-world use, I found it hard to get through a standard day without the Z10 running dry," he writes. "[T]here's no way to monitor battery performance beyond a basic visual icon, and no detailed battery info in system settings." The phone heats up to a point significantly warmer than his iPhone 5 or Nexus 4.

An exhaustive review at the BlackBerry fan site CrackBerry, by Kevin Michaluk, is enthusiastic about almost everything. "Thinner and lighter [in smartphone design] doesn't always translate into better -- at the end of the day it's about how it feels and I think BlackBerry's team nailed both the look and feel of the Z10," Michaluk writes.

BB10 and its UI is a "fresh" experience, he writes. "I wouldn't call the BlackBerry 10 UI complicated, but there's definitely more of a learning curve associated with picking up the BlackBerry Z10 phone compared to the iPhone, for example, but it's well worth learning. After a day or two on the BlackBerry Z10, if you go back and try and pick up an older BlackBerry, an iPhone, or anything else for that matter, the experience just seems antiquated."

A comparison of pictures snapped with the Z10 and four other popular phones revealed the BlackBerry's camera at best matching and more often lagging the others. But, Michaluk concludes, "the BlackBerry Z10 will do a decent job meeting the photographic needs of most everyday users."

On battery life: "under normal use it looks like it should *hopefully* / maybe be able to get through the day, especially if you're around WiFi or in areas with strong coverage." Of course, "power CrackBerry users will always keep a spare [Z10] battery handy," he writes. The spare battery is $33 and the battery charger, which can charge the phone and the spare battery at the same time), is another $48.

There's an extensive treatment of BlackBerry Hub. "It's much more than a unified inbox," Michaluk writes. "If you're a heavy communicator, you're going to find yourself living in the Hub. It can bring in all your emails and notifications to one spot where you can interact with them."

The level of detail here lets Michaluk explore some of the "odd" behaviors that other reviewers found confusing or irritating and that he himself is "still getting used to." One example: "When you leave the Hub, it stays where you left it," he writes. "Sometimes this is great. Sometimes it's really annoying, as when you come back to the Hub you have to backtrack." Another example: "When you leave the Hub, you default back to Active Frames. When you're in an app and gesture into the Hub, then leave the Hub, you go back to the Active Frames view rather than the app you were in."

"With the BlackBerry Z10, I can finally start walking around with just one device in my pocket without feeling like I'm missing out," he concludes. "BlackBerry 10 retains the best features of the BlackBerry of old, plays catch up in the OS and apps department to the competition, and with features like Hub and Flow actually push the smartphone experience further."

BGR's Jonathan Geller is much less enthusiastic, concluding that the phone's drawbacks show a fundamental strategic mistake by RIM to pin its comeback hopes to a high-end smartphone rather than a low- or mid-range handset targeted to overseas markets.

"BlackBerry 10 is a great upgrade for BlackBerry users, but it's not unique or polished enough at this point to grab existing high-end smartphone users," Geller declares. "Not in the U.S. or in several other top-tier markets."

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