First Impressions - BlackBerry Z10

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First Impressions - BlackBerry Z10
After our first full day with BlackBerry's new flagship device, we're ready to give our first impressions!
So after all the excitement of yesterday’s BlackBerry 10 launch, we’ve had some time to settle down with the Z10, the first BB10 device, and get to grips with its ins and outs. Rather than bringing you a review after just a day with the handset, however, we’re instead going to offer up our early impressions. Given the fact that this is a completely new mobile experience it’s going to take more than a few hours to really learn its intricacies, so our full and final review will be coming on Monday…

The Look

At this point you’ve all no doubt seen the photos of the Z10. It’s a slick device sporting a 4.2” LCD touch screen which, while offering a lower resolution than some other high end phones of 768 x 1280, still delivers an incredibly sharp 356ppi viewing experience. The phone’s finish is extremely slick, opting for a back-to-basics design that leaves the bells and whistles to other manufacturers.

The front of the handset is dominated by the screen, although it doesn’t take up quite as much of the real estate as you might have expected, while the device’s front-facing 2MP camera sitting just above the display. At the top and bottom of the screen are thin plastic strips which add to the overall aesthetic in a subtle manner. Along the sides runs a single continuous bounding plastic piece that sports a volume rocker on the right hand side with a play/pause button for your media which doubles as a voice control access button. The left hand side offers a mini-HDMI port and USB access for charging and file management, and the top features the unit’s power/lock button, a headphone jack and a hard reset button.

The rear of the Z10 is perhaps its most interesting side, aesthetically speaking. It features a beautifully textured removable back adorned with the iconic BlackBerry logo, an 8MP camera with a maximum resolution of 3264 x 2448 pixels and an LED flash. While none of this probably sounds all that impressive on paper, when it all comes together it’s actually a surprisingly pleasant handset.


The Feel

Despite tipping the scales at 137.5g, heavier than both the Samsung Galaxy S III (133g) and Apple’s iPhone 5 (112g), the Z10 feels anything but hefty. Clearly BlackBerry have done a wonderful job of balancing the handset’s weight distribution, because the first time we held it when loaded with the battery, we were convinced it was lighter than anything else in its class. Of course, a few grams here and there doesn’t affect much in this day and age, but we thought it was a curious tidbit of information you might like to know.

In terms of build quality, this is very much a premium device. Feeling more robust than the S III thanks to its slightly tighter and less tapered form factor, the Z10 is more akin to the iPhone 5 in its design. Looking at first glance like a typical round-edged smartphone, there are subtleties to the design that make it stand out a little from the rest of the crowd, like the slightly angled top and bottom segments of the front chassis – which combine to make it all feel pleasantly expensive.

The touch screen is extremely responsive, while also looking great, whether you’re browsing the web, sending emails or playing a game, and the volume rocker and power/lock button are perfectly integrated into the casing so nothing feels weak or flimsy which is great to see. BlackBerry has obviously put a lot of time and effort into making sure the Z10 continued its tradition of delivering well-built, robust devices, while still offering enough new about it to intrigue lapsed customers and newcomers alike.

It might not be the most unique device initially, but once you’ve got it in your hands you can really tell the difference in build quality between this and the majority of other phones on the market – but, as we all know, that doesn’t guarantee any success; there are more important aspects to a high-end phone than just how expensive it feels in your hand…


The Specs

While there had definitely been plenty of leaks about the look and name of the device, things were a lot quieter when it came to concrete information about the specs of the device but, now that it’s in the wilderness, things have become a lot clearer. As we mentioned earlier, the Z10’s screen is a 4.2” LED multi-touch display with a resolution of 768 x 1280 pixels. Its Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon chipset features a dual-core 1.5GHz CPU and Adreno 225 GPU. It comes with 16GB of internal storage, expandable through microSD to 64GB (although we were informed yesterday that it’s completely future-proofed, so it’ll take any size when larger cards are more readily available), and 2GB of RAM, making it pretty much comparable with anything else in its space – although it definitely gets bonus points over the iPhone for its expandable memory, something Apple has, so far, been utterly reluctant to add to its devices.

The Z10 features two cameras, front and rear facing (2MP and 8MP respectively), and HDMI output for displaying media on a monitor/HDTV. On the network front it supports GSM 850/900/1800/1900, HSDPA 850/900/1900/2100 – STL 100-1, HSDPA 850/900/2100 – STL 100-2 and LTE 800/900/1800/2600 – STL 100-2. Those of you wondering whether your SIM will be compatible or not will need to ensure that you have a Micro SIM handy, although given the fact that most smartphones use these now, that shouldn’t prove to be too much of an issue (and even if your card isn’t compatible, your service provider will gladly furnish you with a replacement if necessary).

The Camera

Much has been made about the functionality of the Z10’s camera, and we must say that we’re quite impressed with it if we’re being honest. While the 8MP specs might not sound all that impressive when compared to some of the more camera-focused handsets, the results are fantastic. But where it really excels is on the software front, thanks to the incredibly nifty TimeShift that allows users to snap multiple images at once and then, through some very clever technical wizardry and facial recognition algorithms, select which captured frame is best for each face in the shot. In plain terms, it ensures that you’ll never have a photograph ruined by someone blinking at just the wrong time ever again – simply move that person’s face back or forward through the frames until you have a shot you’re happy with.

For obvious reasons TimeShift needs to be selected in advance and you only get one shot at making the necessary adjustments – once you hit save the additional frame information will be discarded, so you can’t retrospectively go back and edit images from your holidays six months ago. Nevertheless it’s a genuinely innovative feature that we can see getting huge use once the Z10 gets into the hands of the public.


The Operating System

Okay, so this is the big one – the one area that BlackBerry absolutely could not screw up if it wanted to have so much as a fighting chance of survival. With so much expectation placed upon BB10, it’s arguably the single most important thing the company has had to deliver on for years and, you know what, we think they might just have nailed it.

Since we’ve only had the phone for a day, we’re still getting to grips with the ins and outs of the OS, but the more we play with the handset the clearer it becomes that some serious work has gone into the overall system infrastructure. Coming from a predominantly Android and iOS background, as we do, our initial time with the OS was more than a little jarring. Sure it looks similar to the aforementioned operating systems in screenshots, and it behaves much in the same way as you would expect any mobile OS to behave, but this is a whole new experience, and with that comes a learning curve.

The bulk of the initial awkwardness comes by virtue of all the different gestures you’re going to have to learn. With iOS and Android we’ve been conditioned to use phones in a certain way, but with BB10 a lot of that goes out the window, and it can be frustrating at first.

For example, once you turn the phone on for the first time and have waded through the various introductory screens (as well as a reasonably in-depth tutorial on the various gestures, which we rather intelligently decided to ignore), you’ll find yourself on a familiar looking dashboard with a 4x4 grid of application icons free for you to choose from – but this initial sense of comfort is quashed somewhat by the fact that what you’re seeing is the absolute most basic part of the BB10 experience.

In order to access the BlackBerry Hub, which is arguably the most impressive feature of the new OS, a somewhat counter-intuitive swipe from the BlackBerry logo upwards and then right is needed. Remember that gesture, because it’s arguably the single most important part of BB10! Once you’ve gotten into the Hub, you’re able to see all your recent communications, be they email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, BBM, notifications or calls from a single location, all perfectly integrated with each other in a seamless infrastructure that makes staying on top of your world a piece of cake.

You have a choice between an overall view that combines each of your inboxes (or just some of them, depending on how you’ve customized things), which is known simply as Hub, or you can view each of your inboxes individually. The real beauty of BlackBerry Hub is that you no longer need to open and close apps, email clients, text clients or web browsers to get the information you need – it’s all right in front of you in one place, and for most people that’s going to prove invaluable.

The way everything is tied together into one cohesive section of your handset is incredibly smart, and it underpins the philosophy behind BlackBerry Flow, where everything should be easy to find and easy to manage from one location without interrupting your workflow at any time, whether you’re using the device for business or pleasure.


Setting up each of your accounts is straightforward, although if you’re not familiar with setting up email clients you might find this a little tricky through no fault of BlackBerry’s. If you’re exclusively using one of the major free email providers, then you should have no problems as it’s just a case of entering your username and password (although if you’re using Google’s excellent 2-Step Verification system, you’ll have to run through the usual procedure to generate a platform specific once-off password for your security).

Once you’re up and running, it’s a piece of cake to keep in the loop with all your communications. The up and right swipe gesture we mentioned earlier will serve as your portal to the BlackBerry Hub and no matter what you’re doing when you see that red notification light blink, you’ll be able to peek at the Hub to see if it’s an important mail or just more annoying spam, without committing to minimizing the app you were running at the time.

BlackBerry Hub is only part of the overhauled BB experience, though, there’s a huge amount more here to be explored, including the likes of Remember, which allows you to tag communications, websites or files for safe storage in a personal folder later on. For those who use their phones for both business and personal use, this is an absolute godsend and it’s guaranteed to make your life a hell of a lot easier. Like Hub, it’s a piece of cake to use, and it’ll very quickly become an essential part of your day to day life.

One feature that we, unfortunately, don’t have access to on our phone (since it’s not set up as an enterprise device) is the new BlackBerry Balance feature. This side of BB10 allows a complete split between work and personal use, with apps, layout and communications for each running independently for each other. From what we’ve seen, once your phone is set up for Balance it’s simply a case of swiping down from the top bezel and selecting the profile you wish to use, keeping your personal life private and way from your company IT admin’s eyes, and your work information safe and secure on a password protected profile so nobody can access it without your permission.

At this stage it’s unlikely you’ve not heard about the way BB10 handles the typing experience, and with good reason; because it’s absolutely brilliant! When we made the switch to Android it took us a while to find a keyboard we really felt comfortable with, finally settling on the excellent SlideIT Keyboard, but there were no such issues here. BlackBerry has always been about a comfortable typing experience and they’ve really outdone themselves with BB10.

Between the perfectly spaced keys, separated with a virtual representation of the familiar fretting found on the company’s QWERTY devices, the ingenious predictive text implementation (when typing it’ll suggest words above certain letters, based on what you’re typing, and selecting those words just require you to swipe upwards) and the ability to seamlessly switch between up to three languages’ dictionaries on the fly without any user input, we’re yet to come across anything that comes close to the BB10 typing experience. Despite the fact that the likes of Samsung and Huawei are now focussing on the “bigger is better” mantra, producing devices that need two hands to be used properly, BlackBerry have instead opted for a solution that enables complete control using just one thumb, and it makes a mockery of the competition with just how well it has been implemented.

There’s a huge amount more there too, but we simply haven’t had the time to get hands on with most of it. That’ll all come with our full review next week, but as things stand we’re pretty impressed with BB10, and we’re looking forward to discovering what other goodies are waiting for us.


Performance

Given the specs and the fact that the Z10, as the first BlackBerry 10 device, simply had to get it right on the performance front, it’s no surprise that it’s an absolute joy to use. It’s responsive, runs incredibly smoothly and suffers with no major issues that we’ve found so far. The battery life, which we’ve not REALLY been able to put through rigorous testing, seems to be reasonable. For example, after running the battery down to zero and giving it a full charge this morning, and in the five hours since we’ve unplugged the device we’ve used 40% of the battery, however the phone has been in almost constant use over LTE, downloading apps and playing around with games, apps and functionality – which is actually pretty good in the grander scale of things.

Connectivity speeds are similarly strong, with our TELUS SIM card getting us speeds of 38.4MBPS down and 24.6MBPS upload according to SpeedTest.net, while call quality is crystal clear when we tested on both TELUS and Koodo. We’ll check it out on more networks before we get the final review up though, just to make sure everything is tickety boo.

We are a touch concerned, however, however with the time the Z10 takes to power up and shut down. While the latter taking 37 seconds isn’t as big an issue, the 71 seconds the power up process takes certainly isn’t ideal. We’re sure it’s something that can be addressed with a future software update, but that’s not really a good start. Fortunately that’s the only real performance issue we’ve noticed so far, so it’s all looking good!


Apps

So, with everything going as well as it has so far with the BB10 experience, there was always going to be something holding it back from a flawless start, and that thing is BlackBerry World. With the announcement that there would be some 70,000 apps available at launch, we were expecting to have a bit more choice. We appreciate that it’s still early days, but the way the store is structured, through various menus and sub-menus, leaves a lot to be desired. The search function seems to be a little bit flaky at the moment too, but that’ll no doubt come with time. If things are still the same in a month, it’ll be time to start worrying.

In terms of the apps that are available at the moment, there’s pretty much something there for everyone. Even if your favourite Android or iOS apps aren’t in BlackBerry World yet (and they probably will be very soon), there’s usually an alternative. Skype, for example, is on the way but isn’t quite there yet, but with the new BBM you’ll be able to place video calls, as well as sharing your screen, with your friends (assuming they’re BBM users too). All the usual social networking apps are present and accounted for including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Foursquare, but the popular texting application What’s App hasn’t surfaced just yet. Given its popularity though, we’re sure it won’t take too long to appear.

On the productivity side of things you’ve got the likes of Dropbox, Box, Docs To Go and Adobe Reader already installed on the device, but there are plenty of other applications available already to keep you going.

Overall, while BlackBerry World is definitely passable, it needs some serious work to compete with Google Play and the App Store, and that’s without even talking about the quality of the apps available. Like it or not, phones now live or die on their app functionality, and despite the good will that BB10 will undoubtedly gain thanks to its forward-thinking nature and complete reworking of the way mobile operating systems work, but without the right level of app support, and a much cleaner BlackBerry World (although the addition of movies, TV shows and music is certainly welcome), it’s difficult to see BlackBerry making up the huge ground it needs to on the consumer front.


The Early Verdict

Despite the faux pas with BlackBerry World and the app situation, the BlackBerry Z10 is simply wonderful. It’s managed to take the best of functionality from existing mobile operating systems and merge it with a brand new way of thinking, putting user functionality and communications integration at the forefront of the experience. Everything runs smoothly and painlessly (once you’ve adjusted to the new swiping gestures), and the typing experience is head and shoulder above everything else on the market.

We’re still not completely at ease within the BB10 environment yet, given how different it is for certain things, but we’re gradually getting there. Over the weekend we’ll be putting it through some more real world paces, as well as taxing the hell out of that battery to see just how well it really stands up compared to everything else out there.

So, based on our first 24 hours with the BlackBerry Z10 how do we feel BlackBerry have done? That’s a tough question, to be honest. While it’s relatively easy to take a look at a new Android or iOS handset and compare it to what has come before, it’s quite different with an all new OS. Obvious care and attention has gone into making everything as smooth and seamless as possible, and the likes of BlackBerry Hub and BlackBerry Remember are genuinely brilliant tools, but for the user who wants to go beyond what comes pre-loaded on the handset, the BlackBerry World store is potentially a real problem for the company. Unless it sees real improvement in the next few weeks, we can see a lot of people backing off from a prospective purchase and waiting until things have bedded in a little more and, as much as we do think those people will be missing out on a brilliant mobile experience, it’s difficult to argue with their logic.

Technically BB10 and the Z10 are fantastic, but it’s the things happening in the background that’ll really determine whether BlackBerry can make a push to reclaim its crown at the top of the pile.


First Impressions - BlackBerry Z10 on ClickOnline.com


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jamielumsden@clickonline.com
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