BlackBerry Z10 Review: Hands On with the First BlackBerry 10 Smartphone

The first BlackBerry 10 smartphone, the BlackBerry Z10, packs some unique features and functionality, including an industry-best virtual keyboard. But while the Z10 is a huge step in the right direction for BlackBerry, according to CIO.com's Al Sacco, it alone won't save the struggling company. This BlackBerry Z10 review explains why.

Today BlackBerry officially announced its first BlackBerry 10 smartphones, the Z10 and Q10, at a series of elaborate press events across the globe. Like many BlackBerry users and smartphone enthusiasts, I have been waiting for BlackBerry 10 for a long time. The fate of BlackBerry depends on the success, or lack thereof, of the BlackBerry 10 platform. If both BlackBerry 10 and the two new handsets fail to wow potential users, it could be the final nail in the coffin for the company.

BlackBerry Z10 Smartphone
BlackBerry Z10 Smartphone (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

I was fortunate enough to get a BlackBerry Z10 last week, and the device barely left my hands since I got it - except, of course, when I was sleeping, and even then it was only a foot or two away. I put the BlackBerry Z10 through all the paces and I found a lot to like, even love. But BlackBerry's new smartphone is not perfect, and one area in particular has me disappointed.

The question everyone wants answered: Can BlackBerry 10 save BlackBerry and get these new devices into the hands of the iOS-or-Android-toting masses? The following review breaks down everything you need to know about the first BlackBerry 10 smartphone, the Z10, and answers that question.

The all-touch BlackBerry Z10 will be available first in the United Kingdom starting January 31 on a number of carriers. And the Z10 will be released in Canada on February 5. Unfortunately, the device will not be available in the United States until March, though BlackBerry did say all four major U.S. carriers will carry the Z10. Pricing information will vary based on carrier and country. (BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins also said the Q10, which has a physical QWERTY keyboard, is expected in April.)

First up, the good stuff about the BlackBerry Z10 and the BlackBerry 10 software.

(Note: This is an in-depth review that goes into great detail. If you don't care so much about the specifics, use the navigation bar at the top of each page to jump to the information you're most interested in or to jump right to the review's conclusion.)

BlackBerry Z10 Positives

BlackBerry Z10 Hardware Is Slick and Built to Last

When I first saw leaked images of the BlackBerry Z10, I was not particularly impressed with its hardware design. But I admit that my first impressions were off base; The Z10 hardware is quite elegant looking, and both well-made and functional.

BlackBerry Z10 smartphone   front and rear
BlackBerry Z10 smartphone front and rear (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

It has a beautiful, crisp 4.2-inch LCD display with a 1280 x 768 resolution at 356 DPI. In comparison, Apple's iPhone 5 has a smaller, 4-inch display with 1136 x 640 resolution at 326 PPI. And Samsung's Galaxy SIII's display is larger at 4.8 inches, but it has a slightly lower, 1280 x 720 resolution. Higher screen resolution doesn't necessarily mean a better overall visual experience, but to my eye the BlackBerry Z10's display is on par with or better-looking than the competition.

The BlackBerry Z10 looks a lot like the iPhone 5. It is similarly long and narrow with rounded-off corners. And it is flat and boxy, unlike the Galaxy SIII and other high-end devices that have notably-curved or contoured rear sides. At 9mm thick, the BlackBerry Z10 is a bit thicker than the 7.6mm iPhone 5. The Z10 is also slightly heavier than the iPhone 5 and Galaxy SIII, but its thickness and weight don't make it feel clunky.

The BlackBerry Z10 is also built to last. It has a thick-plastic bezel that encircles the device and covers its top, bottom and corners, so the glass display doesn't actually reach its edges. This adds a bit of bulk to the device, and you get less screen size than if the display took up the entire front surface, as is the case with Samsung's Galaxy SIII and Galaxy Note II. But those devices are more susceptible to screen breakage, and if they fall and land on a corner their screens could easily break. (Trust me, I know.)

The Z10's bezel helps to protect the corners and sides of the display. And the screen itself is seated in another layer of thin plastic, so the glass doesn't extend all the way to its sides. The Z10's battery door is covered in tiny plastic dots, which gives it some texture and style and also makes the cover "sticky" so it doesn't slide too much when placed on a desk or other surface. The battery cover is easy to remove and replace, and it fits sturdily without any slippage or related "creaking."

The device has a removable 1800-mAh battery, something I definitely appreciate. I travel frequently, and I've yet to find a device with a battery that lasts a full day of travel with heavy use. So handsets with fixed batteries just don't cut it for me.

The Z10 comes with 16GB of built-in Flash storage, but it also supports microSD media cards up to 64GB, for a total possible capacity of 80GB. You can remove and replace the memory card without powering down the handset. The BlackBerry Z10 has 2GB of RAM and a dual-core, 1.5GHz processor. I've been using the Z10 for more than a week now, and I've seen little or no notable lag. I purposely tried to open as many apps as possible - the Z10 can run 8 apps at a time - to see if I they affected device performance, but the Z10 stood up to the tests and performed well.

BlackBerry Z10   with battery cover removed
BlackBerry Z10 with battery cover removed (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

The device has standard headset- and micro-USB-ports, which means you don't need any sort of proprietary headphones or charging cords. The same cannot be said for all of the popular devices on the market. (I'm looking at you, Apple.) The Z10 also has a standard mini-HDMI port, which makes it easy to connect your device to an HDTV or monitor to watch videos, listen to HD-quality audio, share a presentation or show anything else on your device's display. (The Z10 does not come with a mini-HDMI to HMDI cord, though.)

The Z10's speaker is loud and provides relatively clear audio, so it works well for speakerphone calls. Call quality was average or better in my experience using AT&T's network in and around Boston. The Z10's cellular radio didn't drop a single call, and at one point I placed a six-hour test call to evaluate battery life.

On the subject of battery, the manufacturer says the device should get up to 10 hours of talk time on 3G. I placed my test call in an area with full LTE coverage and full HSPA+ coverage, and my device showed the 4G icon during my call. I only got 6 and half hours of talk time before my Z10 powered down. As for normal, daily use - frequently checking email, using apps and placing the occasional call - on LTE and Wi-Fi where available, I got more than 16 hours of battery life, which is more than I get from my Galaxy SIII.

The device I reviewed is an AT&T BlackBerry Z10, and it runs on the carrier's LTE network, making it the first LTE BlackBerry smartphone. And as is standard for high-end smartphones today, the Z10 has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It also has NFC, and it comes with a Smart Tags app that lets you customize your own NFC tags to launch web pages or frequently-used apps or services.

The volume-up and volume down keys for the Z10 are on one side, with a mute key between them. The keys can be used to adjust call volume, media volume and to mute calls. You can hold the volume-up and volume-down keys while listening to music to skip through tracks. And holding down both keys simultaneously for a couple of seconds captures a screen shot. A single button atop the device puts it to sleep, restarts and powers it down, depending on how long you hold the key and what on-screen options you choose.

Now, on to what I liked about the brand-spankin' new BlackBerry 10 software....

BlackBerry 10 Software Is Innovative and Efficient

The BlackBerry 10 software is composed of three main UI components: Application home screens, which show all of the applications on your device, and any folders you create to organize them; an Active Frames screen, which shows open apps in dynamic windows that change and update with new information; and the "BlackBerry Hub," a central inbox where you find all of your various messages and notifications. BlackBerry calls the process of navigating through these components "BlackBerry Flow."

Peeking at the BlackBerry 10 BlackBerry Hub
Peeking at the BlackBerry 10 BlackBerry Hub

The heart and soul of BlackBerry 10 is the BlackBerry Hub and it's a standout feature. You can easily access the BlackBerry Hub when you're using a specific application or while you're navigating home screens by sliding your thumb up from the bottom of the display and then to the right, to pull the active page to the side and "peek" at your Hub. If you want to open a message or notification you just continue your thumb's leftward motion until the Hub takes up your entire display and click on the message or notification of your choice. If there are no pressing messages, you can slide your thumb back to the right and return to whatever you were doing.

BlackBerry Hub also lets you filter messages and notifications so you see only the items you want. For example, when you're in the Hub you can pick Email to see only email messages, or you could choose Facebook to see only messages and notifications from Facebook Friends. Developers can build applications that integrate with the Hub, and the more Hub-compatible apps you use the richer the information you find there.

The application home screens are similar to what you find in iOS or Android, and you can customize your screen to include as many panes as you want. Each panel fits 16 apps or folders, with four icons in four rows. To create a folder, you just hold your finger on an app for a few seconds and then drag it on top of another app icon.

BlackBerry 10, the BlackBerry Hub and BlackBerry Flow are truly unique. As such, they take some getting used to, but after a week with the Z10, I find myself flying around the device. It's very easy to check messages and notifications using the Hub, 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. Overall, I'm a big fan of the new UI and navigation features.

My single favorite feature in BlackBerry 10, and on the Z10, is the virtual keyboard. It's the best touch-screen, virtual keyboard I have ever used, hands down. When it comes to accuracy, ease of use and predictive-text features, it puts the stock Android and iOS keyboards to shame.

BlackBerry 10 virtual keyboard on the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone
BlackBerry 10 virtual keyboard on the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone

The on-screen keys are large, and the keyboard's rows are separated by virtual "frets," which add some space and provide more touchable area per key. The keyboard literally "learns" your typing behavior and adjusts accordingly. For example, if you have large hands and you constantly hit the "P" key when you're trying to tap the letter "O," the keyboard learns your pattern and adjusts itself. You can even type in different languages in certain applications without changing any input settings, and the keyboard predicts words in both languages.

The BlackBerry 10 keyboard's predictive-text features are what truly set it apart from other touch-screen keypads. When you start typing, the software predicts what it thinks you'll type next. But unlike other keyboards, the predicted words appear directly above the next letter in the word you're typing. To finish the word you just slide your finger upward from above the letter you're on. And the software inserts a space after the word you slide up, so it also eliminates another step.

The Z10 virtual keypad also it takes predictive text a step further. In the past week, I've send a lot emails to BlackBerry staffers asking questions about the Z10, and I closed many of these messages with a standard: "Thanks very much for your assistance." (Thanks again, Ruth!) Now, when I start typing "Thanks," on my Z10, it not only predicts that word, but "very" automatically appears above the "V" key. And if I slide my finger up to type "very," the word "much" appears above the "M" key and so on.

BlackBerry 10 still supports some of the keyboard shortcuts BlackBerry users know and love, but not as many as I'd hoped. BlackBerry tells me it plans to add more keyboard shortcuts to BlackBerry 10 in the future. I've been using two smartphones, a BlackBerry and an Android device, for a long time. I've enjoyed the application selection, better UI and performance of Android, but I couldn't part with the BlackBerry physical QWERTY keyboard. Yeah, I'm that guy who says he can never use a virtual keyboard. Or I was. The BlackBerry 10 virtual keyboard changed that, though I admit I'm still very interested in the BlackBerry Q10, which runs BlackBerry 10 and has a physical keyboard.

An awesome new camera feature in BlackBerry 10 is the TimeShift camera setting, which helps you capture better pictures of groups of people - particularly children, who may have trouble sitting still. TimeShift takes a rapid series of images and lets you isolate the faces of the subjects in your photos. You can then tap the faces in the picture and "fast forward" or "rewind" them to find the best facial expressions.

BlackBerry 10 Story Maker edit screen
BlackBerry 10 Story Maker edit screen
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