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.

1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3

Another new multimedia feature that's worth noting in BlackBerry 10 is Story Maker. Story Maker lets you create multimedia video montages using images, video and music stored on your device. You just pick the media you want to include, arrange it the way want and then choose from a handful of Instagram-like filter and effects. You can save your Story Maker clips in HD 720p or 1080p resolutions. (Check out the video clip below for a look at one of my Story Maker clips.)

The BlackBerry 10 browser is a huge improvement over past versions of BlackBerry's Web-surfing software. It's speedy, easy to use and it has all of the common features you expect in a modern mobile browser. It is particularly adept at handling HTML 5 websites, and it supports Adobe Flash.

The BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) app also got a significant upgrade in BlackBerry 10. You can now use BBM in BlackBerry 10 for video calls, in addition to voice and text chats, over Wi-Fi and 4G cellular networks. I only used the BBM video chat feature briefly, but in my experience it was intuitive and the quality was decent over LTE. BBM in BlackBerry 10 also lets you share your device's screen with video-chat participants, so you could initiate a video chat with a colleague to show them a presentation or chat with a long-distance loved one while showing them pictures of your recent travels. IT folks could also use this feature to help resolve problems with users' devices; employees could share their screens and then follow IT's instructions to identify and solve handheld issues. (Note: BlackBerry 10 is required for video chats; you cannot chat with users of older BlackBerrys.)

The BlackBerry World app store finally feels like a legitimate mobile-software and media shop. You can buy apps, games, music, TV shows and music, using a number of payment options including PayPal, credit card and carrier billing, where available. The TV/movie catalogue is powered by Rovi, and I was pleased to find a decent selection of new releases, older movies and TV shows. The music selection is similarly solid. BlackBerry implemented a new set of Parental Controls in BlackBerry World to give parents control over what content their kids consume. And a new Newsstand app, which is not a part of BlackBerry World, lets you download magazines and other reading materials.

BlackBerry Balance screen shot
BlackBerry Balance screen shot

From an enterprise perspective, BlackBerry 10 should be very appealing to businesses. It can easily connect to Microsoft Exchange using ActiveSync, with no BlackBerry Enterprise Server or Enterprise Service required. But using the new BES 10 gives organizations tons of unique security and management features, including access to BlackBerry Balance, which creates a secure workspace on BlackBerry 10 devices that can be managed by IT without affecting personal data. BlackBerry Balance also has an enterprise-specific version of the BlackBerry World store. (Read more about BES 10 and BlackBerry Balance.)

Finally, I appreciate the full-feature Docs to Go document-creation and editing software that ships with BlackBerry 10 - though I wish the Word app supported Track Changes. I like how you can set a custom message to appear on your device's lock screen and access the camera when your phone is locked. The new BlackBerry Link software makes it easy to manage multimedia, files and other data, backup your phone and switch BlackBerry devices, though I only used the Windows version; the Mac software wasn't ready when I got my review device, but BlackBerry says it will be soon.

BlackBerry 10 lock screen with owner information
BlackBerry 10 lock screen with owner information

I know, I know, that's a whole lot to like. But there are a few things that drive me nuts about the Z10, too. One area in particular could make all of this good stuff irrelevant in the long run. So let's move on to the not-so-great things about the BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry 10.

BlackBerry Z10 Negatives

Z10 GPS/LBS Gripes, Camera Complaints and More

I had a lot of issues with the Z10's location services and/or GPS even when I had full LTE coverage and I was outside. The problems I experienced could be software-related, because some apps seem to be able to use my location more effectively than others, but I'm not sure. Regardless, it was frustrating to get errors every other or every third time I tried to use an app or service that utilizes GPS or LBS.

Foursquare for BlackBerry 10 LBS error message
Foursquare for BlackBerry 10 LBS error message

The new BlackBerry Z10 has an eight MP rear camera and a two MP front-facing camera. In my experience, the rear-facing camera performs well outside in natural lighting but leaves something to be desired inside and in dimly-lit environments. It also seems to have issues with close-up shots in dim-to-moderately lit environments.

The Z10 has some cool, built-in image editing features that let you adjust brightness and white balance, and add filters and frames. But the device only has three shooting modes (normal, stabilization and burst) and four "scene" modes (auto; action; whiteboard; night; and beach and snow) compared to the dozens of shooting and scene modes you can use on the Galaxy SIII and other high-end smartphones.

The Z10's processor is dual core, and it runs at 1.5GHz. A number of comparable high-end smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy SIII and Note II have quad-core processors, so part of me feels like the Z10's hardware isn't equal to these devices in terms of processing power. But I didn't see any real performance issues with the dual-core processor in the Z10, so the device may simply not need a more beefy, quad-core chip.

I also would have liked to see a few different storage capacities. The Z10 is currently only available in 16GB. I assume BlackBerry made this decision to minimize production costs, but you can never have too much storage, and as is, the Z10 maxes out at 48GB, unless you carry multiple memory cards to swap them out.

BlackBerry did away with the green cellular-coverage indicator LED in BlackBerry 10, and even though I'm probably one of only a dozen people in the world who actually used that feature, I miss it, and I wish the option was still there in the new OS. The Z10's LED indicator still blinks red when you have new notifications and orange when the battery is low, but it no longer blinks green or blue when Bluetooth devices are attached - at least not without some sort of third-party app.

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

The charging and HDMI-out ports are on the device's right side, and I'm partial to devices with the ports on the bottom because it can be awkward to hold the Z10 or talk on the phone while it's charging because of this port placement, especially if you're a south paw.

Finally, I don't like the name of this new device. The letter "Z" is pronounced "zed" in parts of Canada, Britain and elsewhere, and being a Canadian company, BlackBerry decided to go with this pronunciation. But the company's most challenging geographic area, and the area with the most potential, is the United States, where the letter is pronounced "zee."

I'm hoping its U.S. advertising campaign uses the American pronunciation, but if not, the name could be a turn off for some people. (I know I'm not the only one who thinks of the creepy deviant in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction when I hear the name "Zed," which conjures up violent images and probably isn't what the compnay is going for.) This is obviously a minor complaint, but the name rubs me the wrong way. (UPDATE: Shortly after this review was posted, BlackBerry announced that it will use the U.S. pronounciation of the letter "Z" in this market and the device will NOT be referred to as the "zed 10" in the United States.)

Few Big-Name Apps for BlackBerry 10, Buggy Software and More

Back in August when BlackBerry gave me an exclusive hands-on with the first two BlackBerry 10 devices, I wrote about how I was impressed with the hardware, but that the success of BlackBerry 10 would ultimately depend on applications and the app ecosystem. BlackBerry knows this to be true, and it put a ton of effort into courting developers during the past year or so, holding BlackBerry "Jam Sessions" and application "portathons" around the world and even offering software makers monetary incentives for creating BlackBerry 10 apps.

BlackBerry Z10 smartphone   top and bottom
BlackBerry Z10 smartphone top and bottom (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

Despite all of this, the current BlackBerry 10 application situation is disappointing. I'm frustrated with the overall selection of apps in BlackBerry World today. I'm disappointed in the quality of apps. And I'm disappointed because I was honestly expecting more.

To be fair, there are a lot of BlackBerry 10 apps and games available in BlackBerry World. Some of them seem cool, too. They're just not the apps I want or need, and I don't play games, at least not of the video variety.

When I got my Z10 review unit last week, BlackBerry told me that the selection in BlackBerry World won't be representative of what will be available on launch day. The company says it has a number of development partners who want to wait until the platform is officially launched before making their app announcements. And it also told me that some of the apps it pre-installed on my device are still being worked on and will be updated before the official Z10 launch. (Specifically, it said Twitter and Facebook would be improved upon.) I took that into account, but I can only review what was given to me, and what I see is lacking.

I have a few handfuls of Android applications that I use regularly. When I say "regularly," I mean every day or at least every few days. The apps I use most often: Twitter; Foursquare; Instagram; Google+; Untappd; Facebook; Google Maps; Google Music; Amazon MP3; Amazon Kindle; Netflix; Dropbox; Kik Messenger; Spotify; Fitbit; Dunkin' Donuts payment app; and NBA Game Time.

Of those apps, only Twitter, Foursquare, Untappd, and Facebook are available for BlackBerry 10. A third-party Dropbox client is also available, and it gets the job done, but the official Android and iOS apps offer much better experiences. Counting the Dropbox app, that's 5 out of 17, or less than 30 percent of the Android apps I use regularly.

RIM's BlackBerry Z10 smartphone with BlackBerry 10 software
RIM's BlackBerry Z10 smartphone with BlackBerry 10 software (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

BlackBerry World may be packed with apps right now, but much of what I see is junk. And very few of the "big name" apps from notable app makers are available. (Again, that could change after launch.) Just yesterday, when I traveled from Boston to New York for a BlackBerry 10 launch event, I had to repeatedly pull out my Galaxy SIII because the Z10 doesn't have the apps I use to find public transit information, my digital train ticket and my hotel reservation information.

What's worse, some of the native BlackBerry 10 apps are buggy, as well. The native calendar application crashes every single time I try to add an appointment without first specifying whether I want to add it to my work or personal calendar. If I search for a business using the browser search bar, I get error messages when I try to click on the phone number in the browser to place a call, and I have to type the phone number in manually. And I've had issues opening email attachments, even basic Word documents.

The BlackBerry 10 OS frozen up completely on me a few times during the past week, too, and I have to pull my battery to reset it. This is particularly disappointing given the amount of time the company spent developing BlackBerry 10.

One thing BlackBerry really did well in past versions of its BlackBerry OS was notifications. You could set custom vibrations and tones for the majority of your apps and services, and you still can in BlackBerry 10, but the available options have been slimmed down. For example, you can no longer assign multiple vibrations or longer or shorter vibrations as alerts - there is only one vibration setting in BlackBerry 10. And there are significantly fewer tones and sounds in BlackBerry 10.

Fixed phone and camera icons appear on the BlackBerry 10 Active Frame tab and on all of your home panels, but you cannot swap out the phone or camera for other commonly-used apps. And you can only add 16 applications to a single home-screen folder, which also isn't ideal.

BlackBerry would have been wise to offer some sort of cloud-music locker service like Google's Play Music or Amazon's MP3 cloud service. I'm not used to having to store my music on my device, and I'm using more storage space than I'd like on the Z10 because I don't have access to any cloud-based music service.

BlackBerry Z10 smartphone with PlayBook tablet
BlackBerry Z10 smartphone with PlayBook tablet (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

It would have also been nice to see some level of BlackBerry PlayBook integration. The BlackBerry 7 OS has an app that can be used to control the PlayBook remotely, but BlackBerry 10 does not. (UPDATE: Shortly after the official BlackBerry 10 launch, the BlackBerry Bridge application showed up in BlackBerry World. BlackBerry Bridge lets you control a PlayBook tablet using a BlackBerry 10 smartphone, among other things.)

Finally, the BlackBerry 10 reboot time is much longer than I expected it to be. It takes about 70 seconds for the Z10 to start up. My Samsung Galaxy SIII starts in about 35 seconds and the HTC Windows Phone 8X takes about 50 seconds to start.

Now, on to my BlackBerry Z10 review conclusion.

BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry 10 Review Conclusion

The BlackBerry Z10 hardware is good-looking, well-built and functional. The display is top of the line, and it's big but not too large at 4.2 inches. It has a removable battery and expandable memory. The camera isn't the best I've used on a smartphone, but it should do the trick for casual mobile photographers.

BlackBerry Bold 9900 and BlackBerry Z10 smartphones
BlackBerry Bold 9900 and BlackBerry Z10 smartphones (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)
1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3
The CIO Fall digital issue is here! Learn how CIO100 award-winning organizations are reimagining products and services for a new era of customer and employee engagement.