BlackBerry has been all over the news recently, and not usually for the right reasons. The once-dominant smartphone manufacturer has seen its stock sink in recent years as it struggled with the competition from Apple and Android.
The company's certainly not going down without a fight, though. After a rebrand from RIM to BlackBerry, two new handsets have appeared running the new BlackBerry 10 OS: the keyboard-equipped BlackBerry Q10 and this, the touchscreen-only Z10.
Initial impressions of the Z10 aren’t brilliant, as it's a fairly uninspiring black rectangle with rounded corners; the Z10 was all too often described as a "poor man's iPhone 5" during our time with the handset.
The non-slip rubber back is a winner
However, it feels like it would survive plenty of abuse. There's no flex at all in the body, and the rubber rear means you're unlikely to drop it. It feels reassuringly heavy, but 136g isn’t out of the ordinary for a modern smartphone.
OUT WITH THE OLD
The new BlackBerry 10 OS is the big selling point for this phone, and it's a huge step forward from previous touchscreen BlackBerrys. You can banish memories of the horrendous BlackBerry Storm, as the Z10 feels like a slick and modern smartphone.
Navigating BlackBerry 10 is all about swiping from left to right. The OS is arranged in a series of panels, for messaging, open apps and your main app tray.
When you make the 'home' gesture, which involves swiping up from the bottom of the display, you go to a screen of currently-open programs, each represented by a thumbnail. When you switch between apps, the previously-used program stays open in a frozen state, which makes it very quick to open it again. This means that once you've been using your phone for a while, you rarely need to go back to the app tray to find and open an app again, as if you've used it before it will still be running.
The homescreen shows your currently-running apps as a series of cards, Palm OS-style
BlackBerry 10 also has a standard app tray containing several screens of icons, which you can rearrange by long-pressing and dragging apps to where you want them.
So far the OS feels like a mix of Android and the defunct Palm OS. However, this is a BlackBerry, so messaging is never far away. Swipe left from the home screen and you'll find the BlackBerry Hub. This is a well-designed interface for all your messaging, from your email accounts through text messaging through voicemail. The accounts are displayed in a list, complete with a number denoting the number of unread messages in each and an asterisk for any new email.
The messaging hub is a great way to keep track of multiple accounts
The asterisk is a particularly neat touch; while many smartphones just show you the number of unread messages, which may include a number you have just chosen to ignore, BlackBerry OS 10 lets you know if your collection of 685 unread messages contains a new one. The BlackBerry Hub also has an aggregated inbox, which brings all your messages into one place, together with any upcoming appointments if you swipe down from the top of the screen.
The excellent messaging centre is complemented by the Z10's impressive keyboard. The accurate and responsive touchscreen makes it easy to hit the right key, and there's no discernible lag between pressing a key and the phone responding. It's one of the best keyboards we've used, but this isn’t the Z10's only trick; the phone guesses what word you're currently typing and displays it above the next key it thinks you’re going to hit, and you just have to swipe up on the key to choose that word. We found we only used this feature for longer words, but it should save some time when you get used it.
The keyboard is responsive and accurate, with a useful prediction facility
Other productivity apps are as you'd expect. The phone can view Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, and you can create Word and Excel documents from scratch. We had no problems setting up the phone to synchronise contacts, calendar and email with Hotmail, Gmail and our corporate Exchange server, and the calendar is clear with useful week and agenda views.
The Z10 has a 1,280x768-pixel screen, which is unusual compared to the 1,280x720-pixel displays we're used to seeing among Android smartphones. This resolution means the screen is slightly squarer than 720p displays, but we found it fine for viewing desktop web pages without having to zoom in.
The screen is also seriously bright, and we had no problems reading it outdoors, even at medium brightness. The screen's high brightness didn’t seem to impact its performance in our video playback benchmark, though, where the phone managed a huge 13h 59m. However, we weren't so impressed with the phone's battery in everyday use. With the Z10 set up to sync with three email accounts and with Wi-Fi on, it barely lasted a day in normal use. Most Android phones need charging every day, but if you need the Z10 to last into an evening out you'll need to give it a top-up along the way.
It's not all about work and web browsing, though. The BlackBerry Z10 has built-in music and video playback apps, and you can use the Story Maker app to stitch together videos and photos, overlay effects and music and make a short film. It’s an impressive camera, with very well-judged exposure and accurate colours, but not quite as much detail as in the Samsung Galaxy S3's
pictures. The S3 remains our benchmark smartphone camera.
We didn't like having to use BlackBerry Link to copy music to the phone
However, we struggled to make the Z10 into an effective media player. The music and video playback apps are fine, but unlike with Android and Windows Phone 8 (but not 7) you can’t just drag and drop music and video files onto the phone's storage in Windows. Instead, you have to install BlackBerry Link on your PC, and use that to copy across music. At first the application refused to copy any music files across, but after an uninstall, a failed reinstall, a restart and another reinstall, we got it to work. It's almost as fiddly as iTunes, and we wish manufacturers would just get rid of desktop synchronisation applications entirely.
We like BlackBerry 10 OS but, as with any new mobile operating system, whether you'll get on with it depends to a large extent if there are any particular apps you can’t do without. There's a BBC iPlayer app, but this just links straight to the mobile BBC iPlayer site. In fairness, video playback through the site does work perfectly, with none of the fiddling about installing media packs as you have to do on Android.
The iPlayer app just links to the BBC iPlayer Mobile website, but this at least works perfectly
BlackBerry 10 OS also has a good free TrainTimes app and an excellent free Tube map, but there's nothing to compare to the excellent travel apps available on iOS and Android, or which Nokia provides for free with its Lumia handsets. We paid 75p for A+ London, which miserably failed to plan a journey to anywhere.
We're impressed with BlackBerry 10 OS. It's not yet quite as smooth and slick as its competitors, but has some clever ideas and excels for messaging. There's also better app support than we were expecting, but whether people continue to support the platform remains to be seen.
The Z10 is also a fine handset to show off the new operating system; it's not pretty, but its bright display and excellent build quality make it a pleasure to use. The main problem is the handset's price. A Samsung Galaxy S3 is cheaper on contract, and is a faster, more desirable phone overall, even if it can’t match the BlackBerry for messaging. If you're a true mobile email warrior, though, the BlackBerry Z10 could be for you.