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

BlackBerry's new smartphone has a superior display and navigation, making it a device worth checking out.

The BlackBerry Z10 4.2-in. touchscreen smartphone brings the company's product line up to date with other competing smartphones, offering decent hardware and a stellar new operating system: BlackBerry 10. Whether it catches the breeze and flies in a crowded market depends largely on how well BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion) markets it, prices it and supports it -- including with plenty of apps.

BlackBerry Z10

BlackBerry announced the Z10 on January 30; it is due to go on sale in the U.S. in mid-March via the four major carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and Sprint.

BlackBerry and the carriers are going to have to work hard to market the Z10, especially considering BlackBerry's paltry 5% market share, putting it well behind Android and iOS. To begin with, the company must dramatically increase its 70,000 applications in the BlackBerry World app store; this is just a fraction of what is offered by Apple's App Store (about 800,000) and Google Play (over 700,000).

Based on my testing of the Z10 over several days, the new smartphone could begin to help BlackBerry reverse its declining share. It is a great smartphone with a fantastic browser and impressive screen resolution that, taken together, address major flaws in previous BlackBerry touchscreen phones.

It does come with some notable problems -- like its uninspired handset styling, lack of bountiful applications and a deadly slow boot time -- but the Z10 nonetheless deserves the attention of smartphone buyers.

Not quite the style

I'll start with that styling problem, which is a big one for me, at least. The simple truth is that the black Z10 just looks like an ugly slab of plastic with a glass cover; it's virtually unchanged from the Dev Alpha version released last fall. There's a grip texture on the rear cover, which is nice enough, but nothing special.

The front, with its curved corners, looks similar to recent iPhones, except that where the iPhone runs glass to all four edges, the Z10 runs glass to the side edges but leaves a quarter-inch-wide band of flat black plastic on both the top and bottom. Where the iPhone display has a black bezel on all four sides, the Z10 has a wider bezel on the left and right sides. There are no control buttons on the front face and the power button is on the top edge.

The Z10 will come in white as well as black; to my eyes, the white version looked slightly snazzier.

BlackBerry Z10 v. iPhone 5 v. Galaxy S III

The new Z10 begs comparisons to two of the latest hot devices: Apple's iPhone 5 and Samsung's popular Android phone, the Galaxy S III. On paper, all three share similar hardware specs. But the real power of the Z10 will be in the new BlackBerry 10 OS, the phone's interface and its related software, which are vastly superior to previous BlackBerry generations.

The other new smartphone: BlackBerry Q10

BlackBerry's new operating system will also run on the BlackBerry Q10, a somewhat smaller smartphone with the traditional physical QWERTY keyboard that is expected to go on sale in the U.S. in April.

BlackBerry Q10

At BlackBerry's press conference for the new devices, I got some hands-on time with the Q10 and found the QWERTY keyboard easy to use, which should delight some current BlackBerry fans. The only disadvantage: The physical keyboard cuts down the screen real estate to a 3.1-in. display, almost too small for how many people are using phones today.

At 4.8 oz., the Z10 is a tad heavier than the iPhone 5 (3.9 oz.) and the Samsung Galaxy S III (4.7 oz.).

In size, the Z10 fits in between the other two smartphones at 5.1 x 2.6 x .35 in. The Samsung Galaxy S III is the biggest (except for thickness) at 5.4 x 2.8 x .3 in. while the iPhone 5 is the smallest at 4.9 x 2.3 x .3 in. This makes sense, since the Z10's 4.2-in. display also comes between the Galaxy S II's 4.8-in. display and the iPhone 5's 4.0-in. display.

The three phones all have screen resolutions that are very close to each other -- the Z10's LCD display is rated at 1280 x 768 pixels (LCD) while the iPhone 5's Retina display is 1336 x 640 and the Galaxy S III's Super AMOLED display is 1280 x 720.

The Z10 seemed to me to offer up crisper images than the other two. Maybe that is because the Z10 tops the other two at 356 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 306 ppi for the Galaxy S III and 326 ppi for the iPhone 5.

There are other similarities among the three devices. For example, all three have an 8-megapixel rear camera; however, the Z10 boasts a 2-megapixel front-facing camera , while the iPhone 5's camera is rated at 1.2 megapixels and the Galaxy S III's at 1.9 megapixels. All three have fast processors, with both the Z10 and Galaxy S III running the 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. The iPhone 5 runs the Apple A6 processor. All three support LTE and up to 802.11n Wi-Fi.

The Z10 offers NFC for file sharing and mobile payments, something the Galaxy S III also includes (but not the iPhone 5). BlackBerry didn't talk about NFC features at the launch of the Z10 beyond a mere mention, possibly because NFC has already been available in BlackBerry 7 smartphones.

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.

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.

From within the Hub, you can drag down within the message window to reveal events and meetings for the rest of the day or the following day. (It's a process called BlackBerry Flow.) Tapping on an event in the message window will open the calendar instantly, and from there you can tap to view contacts associated with the event and past email or other communications you've had with them. It worked like a charm for me.

Active Frames

BlackBerry 10 takes advantage of the multitasking abilities in QNX especially well with a new feature called Active Frames.

It works this way: If you have launched an app in BB10, it will run in the full screen, but if you want to switch to another app, you swipe up from the bottom bezel to minimize the active app. That app remains active and functions in about one-quarter of its size, with four Active Frames fitting on a home screen. The most recently accessed app is shuffled to the top left of the four-frame grid.

When I say the frame remains active, I mean it continues to display current information as determined by the app's developer. For example, a weather app can continue to display the current temperature, or a news site could update its headlines. You can have eight apps running concurrently at one time over two panels. You can also shut down an app by tapping an X at the bottom right of its frame.

The Active Frames concept reminded me of the live tiles concept used in the Windows Phone 8 OS. BB10 doesn't let you resize the Active Frames or arrange them in different locations on a screen as Windows Phone 8 does.

Matt Hamblen explains how BlackBerry 10's Active Frames feature lets you swipe from one app to another.

Touchscreen keyboard

If you are a confirmed QWERTY keyboard user, BlackBerry 10 may get you to switch to a virtual keyboard. The onscreen keys actually feel wider than other virtual keys on the market. There's a pronounced fret that divides each row from the next to add more room.

On top of the improved virtual keyboard, there is predictive text software that learns what and how a person types. For example, when I was typing "dec" in a sentence, the software displayed "decision" on the fret above a row of letters for finishing a sentence that read, "I was making a decision." I was able to flick the word "decision" into the email message text area with a gesture of my finger.

There are many predictive text programs in smartphones on the market, but BB10 seems to at least be keeping up, if not moving ahead of them.

Voice and voice commands

You can also dictate what you want to compose by using Voice Control, which is quickly turned on by touching and holding a microphone icon on the period key on the virtual keyboard, or by pressing and holding the physical Play/Pause button on the side of the smartphone.

Every time that I dictated a phrase into the Z10, it was recorded perfectly into text. I have never been able to say that about any other smartphone, including the iPhone 5, which is advertised for its capabilities with the Siri voice assistant but almost never works perfectly for me.

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