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BlackBerry Z10 in-depth review: Good phone, truly great OS

February 6, 2013 06:00 AM ET

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins made a not-so-subtle dig at the iPhone when he told reporters at the January launch that the Z10 uses a removable 1800mAh battery and an industry-standard micro USB port, in contrast with the iPhone's non-removable battery and proprietary Lightning connector. (Apple doesn't reveal its non-removable battery's rating in its specs, while Samsung's Galaxy S III has a removable battery rated at 2100mAh.)

Another question, this time of storage flexibility: The iPhone 5 is sold in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB internal capacity versions, while the Z10 has 16GB storage and a microSD slot that can handle memory cards up to 32GB. Samsung also sells 16GB or 32GB versions for the Galaxy S III along with a microSD slot. I tend to favor the expansion slot approach partly because it just feels more open -- and because I know that I can continually add more SD cards for storing an infinite number of songs and videos if I want.

BlackBerry Z10
The BlackBerry Z10 (center), compared to the Samsung Galaxy SIII (left) and the iPhone 5 (right)

In summary, the Z10's hardware features show it to be very close or superior to leading smartphones on the market. But that means nothing without great software and a great OS, and BlackBerry seems to understand that.

BlackBerry 10 OS

BlackBerry 10 is built on QNX, a Unix-like operating system widely used in vehicle telematics and other embedded systems; BlackBerry (then Research in Motion) acquired the company of the same name that developed QNX in 2010.

QNX is known to perform message handling by automatically setting thread priority, which means a high-priority thread receives I/O service before a low-priority thread.

That capability is something other smartphone OSes hope to achieve, but BlackBerry 10 already excels at this priority threading capability, judging by the performance I witnessed.

Starting up and getting around

The BlackBerry 10 uses a full range of gestures to access its comprehensive range of features. But even before you start swiping, you have to power up the Z10, which, unfortunately, I found especially off-putting. Over several tries, it took me an incredible 71 seconds on average from the time I pushed the power button until a home screen of applications appeared.

That average boot time was easily more than twice as long as it takes me to power up and boot the Samsung Galaxy S III running Android Jelly Bean 4.1 or the iPhone 5 running iOS 6.1. Admittedly, many users will only power up once a day, or even less, so maybe this won't become a showstopper.

Experienced smartphone users will find the Z10 intuitive and easy to use, and training wizards will help first timers. For example, you swipe down from the top bezel to access application settings and swipe up from the bottom bezel to minimize an opened app.

When setting up a BlackBerry ID and password, I was tickled to find that I could see the characters I was typing into a password field (rather than a series of asterisks) by tapping a little eyeball icon. I constantly have to retype passwords to get them right, so this is a welcome mini-feature.

BB10 has a standby home screen that is pretty spare, with date, time, new message count and a camera icon in the lower right that you tap and hold until the camera launches. The home screen has the camera icon as well.

You wake up the smartphone from standby by swiping up from the bottom bezel to go to the home screen. On the bottom there are three virtual keys inside a black bar that show the phone, universal search and the camera icon; above that, a screen of application icons are arranged with four icons across and four down.

Touch the search icon to access the universal search functions; you can use typed messages or do a voice search (by pushing a button on the side of the phone). I was amazed at how well my voice commands worked right from the very start.

Just above those three keys containing universal search are a row of small dots that let you navigate through various app screens; according to BlackBerry, there is no limit to the number of screens. You just swipe left or right to go to the next screen. The new BlackBerry Hub is at the home screen to the far left and the Active Frames grid is second to the left.

Just about everybody at BlackBerry has been espousing the virtues of Hub for most of the past year, calling it "a central and distinguishing feature of BB10" in promotional materials, so I was eager to test it out.

A universal Hub

The Hub is a universal inbox with a central repository of all messages and notices, including email, text, BlackBerry Messenger notices, social media updates and updates from third-party apps.

Part of the power of the Hub is that you can instantly view it from within a task or app by swiping up and to the right to "peek" into the hub. That gesture reveals the universal inbox list to the left of the screen, which can be opened to take up the full screen. Or you can reverse the gesture and go back to the app. It worked reliably many times for me and I can see how it will be valuable for busy users who want to quickly return from the Hub to an active app.



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