BlackBerry fans - the wait is over. RIM (or BlackBerry as the company is officially called) has unveiled the first two smartphones to run BlackBerry 10, or BB10, a brand new OS released to claw back market share from Android and iOS.
The BlackBerry Q10 offers a QWERTY keyboard, while the BlackBerry Z10 a touchscreen offering, which is launching (for once) in the UK first. But has BlackBerry done enough to take on the Apple iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3 and create a viable fourth operating system? Let's find out.
BlackBerry Z10: Design
It’s fair to say that BlackBerry has played safe with the design of the BlackBerry Z10. It’s very understated, with matt accents and a textured back complete with BlackBerry logo. Build quality is excellent, the hard plastic should easily withstand knocks and jolts and it certainly feels sturdier than the Samsung Galaxy S3.
However you don’t look at the Z10 and think ‘wow’ (which was our first reaction on seeing the Nokia Lumia 920), nor does it exude the elegance of the iPhone 5, to which it bears a passing resemblance. BlackBerry has introduced a white version if you want something a bit more adventurous and developers have even been given a red one.
Located on the top there’s a 3.5mm jack, power button and noise-cancelling microphone, the volume rocker is on the right, with HDMI Mini and microUSB ports on the left.
On the back there’s an 8-megapixel camera with Back Side illuminated sensor to help capture clear photos in dim light. There’s a front facing 2-megapixel camera, which can be used for video calls over BBM - one of the many new features of BlackBerry 10.
Internal storage is 16GB of which 11.3GB is usable, although a microSD slot enables expansion. Connectivity options impress with NFC for contactless payments, WiFi Direct, HDMI, DLNA and 4G on board. Unlike the iPhone 5, the BlackBerry Z10 is compatible with multiple 4G bands, so will work on forthcoming 4G networks when they launch later in 2013, check out the video below to view a comparison between 3G and 4G performance.
BlackBerry Z10: Screen
The BlackBerry Z10 has a 4.2-inch screen with a 1280x768 resolution. BlackBerry hasn’t divulged much about the panel’s specifications, with the exception that it uses LCD technology. The pixels per inch (ppi) rating is 356, higher than the iPhone 5 (326ppi), Nokia Lumia 920 (332 ppi) and Samsung Galaxy S3 (306 ppi) and consequently text is is sharp.
However whites aren’t particularly pure, especially next to the iPhone 5 and neither is contrast as good. We are being uber-critical here - judged on its own merit the screen is good, with natural, rather than punchy colours and great off-angle viewing.
BlackBerry Z10: Operating system
Navigate BlackBerry 10 using BlackBerry Flow. Instead of opening and closing programs, and tapping buttons you progress between apps and messages using movements.
There’s no static homescreen, select an app or program from the menu, when you've finished swipe up and it will be minimised to a tile on a new homescreen (right), where it will run in the background. The touch commands adapt intelligently - so even if an app runs horizontally, you still swipe up to close.
A quick swipe up within any app lets you view message alerts (below right), you can then Peek into BlackBerry Hub (middle) or return to your program with a single movement. The process is designed to let you quickly view important messages without disrupting your workflow, but unfortunately it takes you to the last place you were in the Hub, instead of the new message, requiring counter intuitive tapping of the on-screen back key.
We’re sure this will be fixed in a firmware upgrade, but it’s certainly not as intuitive swiping down to viewing notifications like iOS or Android.
Update: We've since learnt that if you're in a message, but want to peek into the hub, holding down the back button brings up the Compact Sidebar, with indicators of new messages. This is far quicker than pressing Back and Back again to return to the Hub.
BB10 doesn’t offer the customisation of Android either, so the overall experience never feels as personal.
BB10 is a new operating system, which means it isn’t compatible with apps that worked with the older BlackBerry OS system. RIM has spent the last year travelling around the world with its BlackBerry JAM World Tour, giving out its Dev Alpha A prototype to encourage developers to create for the new OS.
The result is, at launch there are over 70,000 apps available, accessible via BlackBerry World including Angry Birds Space, Flixster and The Guardian, each optimised for the OS. There is a lot of rubbish apps there too and some crucial ones missing, although Skype and Amazon have been promised.
BlackBerry Z10: Keyboard
Well built and intuitive physical keyboards were a highlight of older BlackBerry devices, but the company never managed to master the full touchscreen keyboard, so to stake its claim as creating the best messaging phones, BB10 needed to include a good keyboard.
The keyboard in BlackBerry 10 uses technology from SwiftKey - creator of our favourite Android keyboardapp SwiftKey 3 and we're pleased to report it's the best native keyboard we've seen on a smartphone.
Letters are split over four rows separated by what look like guitar frets, under sits a second invisible layer that adapts over time to suit your typing style, so depending on the angle you strike the keys.
As you type suggestions appear above corresponding letters, which you accept by flicking up and a space is entered automatically, delete a word by swiping one finger across the keyboard.
Typing feels very natural within a short period and over time the keyboard learns the words you use regularly and where you use them and makes predictions accordingly.
If you are multilingual the phone will detect and swap between three different pre-determined languages as you type.
BlackBerry Z10: Performance
Inside the BlackBerry Z10 there’s a dual-core 1.5GHz processor with 2GB RAM. In general use it feels fairly quick, when you’re moving between applications. Like it’s tablet-based relative the BlackBerry Playbook, the Z10 supports multitasking - and here it’s proper multitasking - minimise and app and it will continue running in the background, run several apps simultaneously and the chassis does quickly become hot.
Boot times don't impress, it’s a good 30 seconds slower than the Apple iPhone 5 and Nokia Lumia 800 and we had a few issues with the camera app crashing - both hopefully early software bugs.
BlackBerry Z10: Camera
The BlackBerry Z10 has an 8-megapixel rear facing camera, which is fine for general snaps, but just isn’t in the same league as the Nokia Lumia 920 or Apple iPhone 5.
Features are limited, choose between Auto, Action, Whiteboard, Night and Beach or Snow scene modes and Normal, Stabilisation and Burst. There’s no way of adjusting the exposure, or picture size, just aspect ratio. We hope in the future there will be a wider range of photographic apps available from BlackBerry World to help.
The most interesting feature is Time Shift Camera Technology, which captures a series of frames simultaneously. Using the dial you can ‘rewind time’ to view the frames and choose the best frame to create the perfect photo. It’s particularly good for people photographs, where the subject may blink or look away.
BlackBerry Z10: Verdict
The BlackBerry Z10 is a great step forward for BlackBerry. It’s innovative to use and truly different to rivals. It’s a great messaging device, thanks to BlackBerry Hub and its keyboard, although as a first-generation OS there quirks, but hopefully issues can be rectified with software upgrades.
If you’ve already invested in an OS like iOS and Android, there’s probably not enough here to make you swap, but if you’re in the market for a great communication device, the Z10 is worth a look and with BB10, there’s finally a fourth operating system.
Updated Feb 14th 2013: with information about viewing the Compact Sidebar