The Z10 is for many RIM's (or should we say BlackBerry's) last chance to show us what it's made of – or risk being put to pasture forever. Running the shiny new, feature-laden BlackBerry 10 OS, the flagship handset will be hoping to stand shoulder to shoulder with Android and Apple heavyweights with an HD screen, BBM smarts and revamped BlackBerry World. So has the Z10 got what it takes? It's finally time to find out.
design and build
At first glance, the BlackBerry Z10 could be a slightly taller, slightly wider iPhone 5 – that is until you spot the BlackBerry logo adorning the front and textured rubber back cover, which makes it easier to grip than the Galaxy S3. Although it might feel a little flimsy when taken off, the back cover snaps into place easily enough, making the entire handset feel like a solid single-piece unit.
The handset itself is very well built and on par with the creak-free build quality of HTCs, Nokias and iPhones, with a reassuring weight in the hand. It will certainly handle the bumps and scrapes of a working life. And while the new BlackBerry handset is a bit chunky in the bezel department, the fact that BlackBerry 10 is so big on gesture control (more on that later) means that those small areas to rest your thumbs without fretting about opening or closing apps are quite welcome.
We're not ecstatic about the exposed micro USB and HDMI ports down the left hand side, as it doesn't look particularly elegant, but since flaps over ports can be fiddly we're not going to moan too much. On top are the power button and headphone jack, with the volume (and voice search, play/pause) buttons on the right.
One bonus is that the BlackBerry Z10 continues the RIM tradition of microSD slots and removable batteries – two features which are becoming rarer and rarer in the Android world – with the Nexus 4 a prime example of a smartphone that offers neither.
The BlackBerry Z10's 4.2in 1280x768 LCD display packs an Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3-beating 356ppi. The result is a very sharp screen with excellent viewing angles. Colours aren't as saturated as those of the Samsung Galaxy S3's AMOLED display, but that means they're a little more natural.
Side by side comparisons with the iPhone 5 show that Apple's screen has a small edge over the BlackBerry Z10, with slightly more vibrant colours, but the Z10 makes up for it by serving up just a little more detail, helped by those extra pixels. Right now this is the sharpest screen around, although we suspect that record may not last long with the Sony Xperia Z's scorching 1080p display due to arrive imminently.
Overall the Z10 packs a formidable screen, and one that's perfectly proportioned for even the tiniest-handed of users to navigate comfortably with one thumb. It's a shame then, that like the BlackBerry PlayBook, we craved a few more notches of brightness as even at the highest setting the Z10 can appear dim next to its rivals.
Disappointingly, there's no physical button to launch the camera, although you can launch it from the lock screen. Once fired up it takes photos snappily enough, with a simple tap on any part of the screen, plus you can use the volume buttoms if you prefer to get a little more physical.
The main 8MP camera takes photos with a good level of detail, particularly close-up, and offers up even brighter colours than those taken with the Samsung Galaxy S3 – though these aren't always the most accurate. As expected, low-light shots result in plenty of noise and while the Z10's Night mode does help, the S3's Low Light mode gives better results. 1080p video is largely clear and smooth but can be a little soft and prone to a touch of motion blur.
The Z10's camera isn't as feature rich as some Android cams so don't expect to be altering ISO and exposure settings – there's a burst mode and a handful of scenes to choose from but not much else. The BlackBerry Z10's imaging party trick is TimeShift, which lets you mix and match everyone's faces in a group shot for the best possible picture. Altering people's faces individually and stitching them all together is impressive – we reckon it'll genuinely come in useful for those one-chance shots.
Despite having a 1.5Ghz dual-core processor (which in this day and age could be considered slow), we happily whizzed around BlackBerry 10 without too many stutters and crashes. Games and multi-tasking were handled with ease, no doubt helped by the 2GB of RAM on offer.
Our time with the Z10 hasn't been freeze-free though with Angry Birds and streaming video occasionally causing problems. And a word of warning, the Z10 takes its time to boot up – between 45 seconds and a minute to get to the homescreen before 'preparing BlackBerry Hub'.
With a 4.2in HD screen to power, gone are the days of the never-ending BlackBerry battery. Chances are with BlackBerry Hub updates coming in and any kind of Bluetooth activity or video playing, the Z10 won't last you the day which is what we've found during our time with the handset.
We're told standby time on 3G is 300 hours+ and video playback should reach 11 hours but in our intensive test (streaming video over Wi-Fi on full brightness), the Z10 lasted around the five hour mark. We'll update our review with a total battery life very soon.
UPDATE: We've now tested the BlackBerry Z10's battery life fully and on a video rundown with Wi-Fi and email sync on and the display at 50% brightness, the Z10 lasts an impressive 9 hours 20 minutes, a similar result to the Galaxy S3. Like we said though, in the real world, it's not a great battery performance.
BlackBerry 10 OS
The greatest hardware in the world is only as good as the software that powers it, which is why the new BlackBerry 10 OS is just as important as the Z10 itself, if not more so. BlackBerry wants a shot at regaining its former glory, which is why its latest OS was built completely from scratch.
So what's different? On first impressions, BB 10 has some nice UI touches like 'breathing' rearrangeable icons, Dropbox and File Manager integration, plus a night mode for the alarm clock that dims the screen and turns off notifications.
BlackBerry 10 gestures, multitasking and BlackBerry Hub
BlackBerry has also decided that it hates buttons. Not just physical ones, but on-screen ones too. Like the PlayBook before it, gestures are used to navigate the OS, and once you get the hang of it, you won't want to go back.
Unlock the Z10 simply by sliding up from the bottom of the display to reveal a homescreen of recently used apps, without having to hit the power button on the top. This is quite useful for checking the weather or your calendar if those apps are open, as they behave similarly to Windows Phone 8's Live Tiles, displaying information in real time. Just slide up, take a peek and let go.
These live apps (or active frames as BlackBerry calls them) on the home screen are BB 10's answer to multi-tasking. Swiping up from the bottom of the Z10 at any time will throw you back to the homescreen where you can close or switch between any open apps. It's more intuitive than hitting the (at times) unpredictable back button in Android, and faster than hitting the physical button of the iPhone 5. It would be near-perfect if there was an option to rearrange these active frames, but for now they're automatically placed in order of use.
BlackBerry 10 also makes it easy to flick to the BlackBerry Hub (all your texts, emails, social network messages in one place) at any time. Flick up and drag to the right to access the Hub no matter what you're doing.
Swiping down from the top of the screen brings up an Android-style settings menu as well as some in-app menus. iPhone and Android users will be a little shocked at the lack of a permanent status bar but BlackBerry 10 is that minimalist. If you want to check your signal or battery, a slight flick up is all that's required, before releasing to go back into a fullscreen app.
BBM, BlackBerry World and apps
BBM is arguably one of RIM's greatest successes, and it returns in BlackBerry 10 with a new video call feature. You can even share your screen in real time – which will be great for business types who want to share important presentations and websites during calls.
Speaking of business, BlackBerry 10 comes with BlackBerry Balance, a feature which essentially separates your phone into two profiles‚ Personal and Work, separating your personal and business contacts, photos and documents. It sounds like the ideal way to switch off at the weekends, and it would be, if it weren't for the fact you have to be a BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 customer to use it. It's a shame as it could be one of BlackBerry 10's stand out features, allowing people to switch off from their work emails and relax – let's see this roll out to everyone in a future update please, BlackBerry.
On the apps front, RIM is quoting that 70,000 apps are available in BlackBerry World. Although there are some popular downloads like Angry Birds Star Wars, World of Goo and WhatsApp to be found, it's impossible to ignore the fact that BlackBerry 10 is still a long way off from hitting the amount of quality high profile apps found on the App Store and Google Play. It's a problem Windows Phone 8 users will be familiar with, but with RIM offering plenty of incentives to developers to port over apps, we hope the selection will improve over time. For now Google Maps and YouTube are sorely missed.
The Maps application was custom developed for BlackBerry 10 by TeleCommunication Systems, with traffic data supplied by TomTom. Compared to Google's excellent Maps service, BlackBerry Maps is extremely bare and stripped of features. Although it supports turn-by-turn navigation, we couldn't get the navigation arrow to accurately face our correct orientation. You also can't choose walking or public transport routes and there's no satellite or Street View equivalents to be found.
The Maps application is also the only example of consistent stuttering and lag that we found during our time with the BlackBerry Z10, with chunks of the map taking longer to load than others and a few problems connecting to the server. Overall, we think BlackBerry would be better off going the Google route, or at least work on getting a fully fledged Google Maps app into BlackBerry World stat.
The BlackBerry 10 keyboard is one of the best touchscreen keyboards we've ever used. Its fretted style might be a tribute to RIM's legendary physical QWERTY keyboards of old, but it's got a tonne of fancy tricks up its sleeve.
Its scarily accurate word prediction is fuelled by scanning your existing messages to better understand your typing and language habits. Want to flitter between three different languages? Though it struggled with our bad French, the Z10's keyboard has the tech to automatically detect what language you're trying to type in and predict words accordingly, without having to faff around with settings.
Also as you type, predicted words appear dotted around the keyboard. Simply flick the word you want upwards and carry on typing. It's fast and it's clever, just be careful to touch the word exactly and not the nearest letter.
To top it all off, the BlackBerry 10 keyboard adjusts the sweet spot for each key, depending on how you type. If you keep hitting 't' instead of 'r' for example, the keyboard sweet spot invisibly adjusts accordingly, tailoring itself to your typing style. The only thing missing is haptic feedback.
The BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry 10 OS have been designed to claw back BB's position on the smartphone heap, not to mention silence the naysayers once and for all. The Z10 itself is a solid handset with enough power and pixels to be a respectable flagship, if not quite No.1 in a straight fight with its smartphone rivals. Does it match the features and opportunities for tinkering of Android? No. Does it match the quality and quantity of apps available for the iPhone? No.
But BlackBerry 10's innovative features – from its superb keyboard to the fantastic TimeShift – have got us excited. There's plenty to like and that means the Z10 has plenty of potential. If BlackBerry has enough cash and influence to truly build an iOS-rivalling ecosystem – wince, we hate that word – with all the essential apps, games and movies we demand, then BlackBerry will certainly deserve another chance.
Review by Esat Dedezade and Sophie Charara