Do you smell that? It's the scent of fresh BlackBerry. After more than a year of waiting...and waiting...the first BlackBerry 10 phone is finally here. The Z10 is certainly a welcome departure from the clunky, touch-unfriendly handsets that caused BlackBerry--the company formerly known as RIM--to become the tech world's punchline. A slick Flow interface makes multitasking a breeze, and there's a killer touch keyboard that learns as you type. BBM gets an upgrade, too, with the ability to video chat and even share your screen mid-call.
On the other hand, just as with Windows Phone, BlackBerry is playing catch-up in the apps department. And then there's the hardware itself. So does the Z10 have what it take to revive the brand?
Editors' Note: We tested the AT&T version of the BlackBerry Z10, which is expected to be available in March. BlackBerry's suggested retail price for the phone is $199, but the pricing had not yet been finalized. As the software we tested is not yet final, we reserve the right to change the Z10's rating.
More than a few people said, "It looks like the iPhone," when they saw the Z10 for the first time. That's not a bad thing. This sturdy, black slab looks like a slightly larger iPhone 5 with similarly rounded corners, though it's not nearly as elegant. No diamond-cut edges or any aluminum here. We also like the dimpled, soft-touch feel of the back plate, which makes the handset easy to grip. Those looking for a little more flair should opt for the white version.
You won't find a home button -- or any buttons, for that matter -- underneath the 4.2-inch screen. It's all about gestures on this smartphone. The top side of the Z10 houses the headphone jack and power button, while a micro USB and micro HDMI port sit are on the left edge. A Pause/Voice Command button sits between the two volume buttons on the right.
Measuring 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.35 inches and weighing 4.9 ounces, the Z10 is one-hand friendly, but not as svelte or light as the Motorola Droid RAZR M (4.4 ounces; .32 inches thick). The iPhone 5 has a smaller 4-inch display but is a full ounce lighter.
Display and Audio
The Z10's 4.2-inch screen sports a fairly sharp resolution of 1280 x 768 pixels, that's exceptionally bright. This BlackBerry registered 514 lux on our light meter, which is above the category average (295 lux) and the Droid RAZR M (449), but below the iPhone 5 (525).
When viewing an HD trailer for "Iron Man 3," Pepper Potts' white dress popped, but we didn't see the same luster in Iron Man's helmet and suit as we did on the iPhone. More details got lost in shadows. At least the viewing angles are fairly wide.
The Z10's speaker fared better, delivering an impressive amount of volume and clarity when listening to The Lumineers' "Ho Hey." Every pluck of the guitar resonated. At the max setting, Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning" sounded fairly clean. Similarly, GPS directions and BBM video calls came through loud and clear.
While BlackBerry fanatics say they'll hold out for the Q10 and its physical keyboard, they should really give the Z10 a chance. In fact, this touchscreen keyboard beats the iPhone and every other smartphone layout we've tried.
The Z10's keyboard is designed to mimic a traditional BlackBerry, right down to the frets between the keys. We found the large capital letters easy to target, and the Z10 tracks how you strike individual keys to cut down on errors.
Our favorite feature of the BlackBerry 10 keyboard is its word prediction. As you type, words appear right above the keys where you would type the next letter. To accept a word, just swipe it up to the body of your email or whatever you're typing. You can decide whether prediction suggestions appear inside or above the entire layout. We preferred the latter.
Traditional auto-correction is on board, too; you'll see suggestions appear right on the space bar as you type, which you can accept by hitting the key. We also found it convenient that the keyboard automatically presents a number row above the letters when you're entering a password.
The Z10 keyboard has lots of other tricks up its sleeve. Need to delete a misspelled word? Just start swiping from right to left on the layout. You can even switch between three different languages on the fly if you add them in settings.
If you want to correct copy, tap the screen, and a big circle appears around the text with a cursor you can drag. Double tap to select text, then drag two anchor posts where you want them to go before tapping again to copy. However, the magnifying-glass graphic for the cursor didn't always go where we tapped, and the anchor posts for selecting text moved erratically at times.
Software and Interface
Designed to make multitaskers happy, the BlackBerry 10's interface rests on two key pillars: Flow and Peek. Flow refers to the overall user experience, which is designed to let you quickly look up key info without jumping in and out of multiple apps.
For example, when you tap on a meeting you can then look up the LinkedIn profile of the attendees right within the calendar entry or see your last several messages going back and forth on the subject. This approach not only saves time, but ensures that users are always in the know.
Peek refers to the ability to gesture up from the bottom of the screen and then to the right in one motion to see the BlackBerry Hub. The Hub aggregates everything from your email and text messages to Facebook messages and Twitter mentions. (That's why you won't find a dedicated email app.) You can also Peek at the Hub just by swiping from right to left while on the main home screen.
Unlocking the Z10 activates a nifty effect. As you swipe up, you'll see the lock screen start to fade and the home screen appear, as if you were clearing the fog off a window. The lock screen itself displays some useful info at a glance, such as how many messages are waiting in your multiple accounts. There's also a camera shortcut button.
The main homescreen displays up to eight recently opened apps. Swiping to the right reveals your app screens, where you can create folders by dragging and dropping apps on top of one another.
Three buttons remain present on each of the home screens: Phone, Search and Camera. And you can't change these options. At least the Search function is universal, though, which means you can start hunting for apps, contacts, calendar entries, messages and more just by typing.
When you're on any home screen, you can swipe down from the top to toggle several settings, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, the Alarm and the Notification/Silent Mode. You can also activate Rotation Lock and hit the settings button for more options. We'd like to see BlackBerry add Airplane Mode to this list of options; that button shouldn't be buried. Moreover, the company should make this settings menu accessible while you're using any app, not just the home screen.
Multitasking and Active Frames
Minimizing an app on the Z10 couldn't be easier. Just swipe up from the BlackBerry logo to the display. If you happen to be using an app in landscape mode, you need to swipe up from the bottom of the screen while holding the phone sideways. That makes sense, but BlackBerry should always let you minimize apps by swiping up from the logo, regardless of the app's orientation.
When you return to the home screen, you'll see the app you just minimized in the top left corner and a grid of other recent apps listed below it in a thumbnail view. Tapping the X on the thumbnails lets you quickly close an app.
These aren't all just shrunken shortcuts, though. Many apps take advantage of BlackBerry 10's Active Frames feature, which shows helpful information on the shrunken tile. For instance, the weather app displays the current conditions and temperature at a glance, while the Calendar frame shows your next meeting. Expect more goodies as developers plug into BB 10.
BlackBerry Hub and Email
The BlackBerry Hub is a one-stop shop for all of your most important notifications. It's easy to switch from a view of all incoming alerts and messages to BBM, Gmail, Facebook, LinkedIn or Calls. You can also scroll to the top of the hub to see upcoming appointments.
Note, however, that if you're looking at your Exchange email and then decide to surf the Web, you'll need to back out of the Exchange inbox when you come back to the Hub in order to see all of your alerts. You don't have to take that extra step with Android and iOS; on those platforms, you can see all of your alerts at any time via a single swipe down from the top of the screen.
The BlackBerry 10 email client supports multiple accounts, including Exchange ActiveSync, POP and IMAP. We had no problem adding our Exchange, Gmail and Yahoo accounts.
Our favorite features of the Hub is that it suggests additional contacts to include in outgoing emails based on the first person you enter in the To: field. So if you tend to send emails to the same groups of folks on a similar subject, BlackBerry 10 can save you time.
Other highlights include the ability to compose messages in rich text (which includes Bold, Ital, Bullets, etc.) and robust attachment-support. You can even easily attach files from your Dropbox account.
Voice Command and Voice Typing
The Z10 has a dedicated Voice Command button on the right that gives you many of Siri's abilities. You can do everything from send messages (text, BBM or email) to schedule an appointment or make a note. You can also update your Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn Status.
When it worked, Voice Command let us successfully change our Facebook status and schedule a lunch meeting. However, the feature had some trouble with certain names, such as Avram. It also mistook Z10 for "see 10."
BlackBerry 10 lets you voice type, but it needs to feed your utterances to a server before processing. So, it took several seconds for the Z10 to process the following: "I hope to be done with the copy today, but it might be as late as early Monday morning." When it did finish, the phone mistook "copy" for "country." Android Jelly Bean phones are faster because they offer offline voice typing, while iOS suffers from similar delays.
BBM, Video Chat and Screen Sharing
One of the true "Wow" moments when testing the Z10 came when we received a video call within BlackBerry Messenger. After we slid down on the screen to accept the call, we saw an icon that allowed us to share what was on our display with the other caller. This BB 10-exclusive feature can really come in handy for giving a quick presentation (as we did with Documents to Go).
Although you'll want to make sure there's nothing on your screen that you don't want others to see, we were impressed with how well screen sharing worked. There was only a brief period of blurriness when switching screens or opening an app. Just don't expect to share video via screen sharing, as we found out when another Z10 user tried to Rickroll us on YouTube. Thankfully, playback never started.
Otherwise, BBM is just as addictive and instantaneous as before, with multiple emoticons to choose from and the ability to attach files. Both video chats we conducted via the front 2-MP camera (one from 4G to Wi-Fi and the other with both users on AT&T's network) looked clear with synchronized audio. We'd say it's on a par with FaceTime.
Surfing the Web on the Z10 was a mixed bag. We like the Reader mode, which strips out the ads on pages so you can focus on the content, as well as the multitude of sharing options, from BBM and Facebook to Twitter, LinkedIn and the Remember app. Pressing the pages button in the bottom left corner lets you quickly access tabs and bookmarks.
Page load times over AT&T's 4G LTE network were just as swift as Wi-Fi, if not faster, but the browser got hung up on multiple occasions. The fuzzy, low-res videos on ESPN.com also frustrated us. The company told us it's a problem with how the site recognizes the BlackBerry 10 browser.
Tapping the menu button to the right of the address bar provides access to several options, including the Add to Home Screen, Add BookMark and Find on Page. If you tap Settings on this menu, you can turn on private browsing; Chrome for Android makes this easier.
The Z10 doesn't have quad-core power like some Android superphones. Instead, it packs a 1.5-GHz dual core processor with 2GB of RAM. You'll also find 16GB of storage, which you can augment with a microSD Card (up to 32GB).
Overall, the Z10 offered mixed performance. The phone was quick to switch between multiple applications, and we enjoyed swift performance when playing the "TurboFly HD" 3D racing game.
Click to EnlargeHowever, the Z10 was sluggish at times when responding to taps, opening applications and composing emails (the screen would dim briefly before launching a window). The phone was also slower than the iPhone 5 when changing screen orientations. We expect performance to improve as BlackBerry continues to fine tune the software.
If you need to restart or turn your BlackBerry Z10 off and then on, be prepared to wait. It took nearly 2 minutes (1:55) for the phone to fully reboot. Then you need to twiddle your thumbs as the Z10 prepares the BlackBerry Hub for another minute, during which time your emails and other messages are not accessible.
In addition, the back of the Z10 became warm during testing, especially after hitting the 4G LTE radio hard for a while. After streaming a YouTube video for 15 minutes, we measured a temperature of 95 degrees Farenheit, which is uncomfortable, but not disturbingly so.
BlackBerry knows that BlackBerry 10 will be a non-starter unless it has the apps smartphone shoppers are looking for. The renamed BlackBerry World is off to a decent start, offering 70,000 apps at launch. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Foursquare are all on board. Kindle, Evernote, The New York Times, MLB at Bat and The Weather Channel are also coming to BlackBerry World.
While the social apps worked similarly to their counterparts on other platforms, The Weather Channel seemed watered down, though. We didn't see a 36-hour forecast option, and we had to manually sync to get the latest weather.
The shopping experience is fairly straightforward, with the option for credit card, PayPal or carrier billing (if supported by your carrier). We just wish you could launch an app you downloaded right from BlackBerry World itself. You'll see a grayed-out Installed button after an app installs, forcing you to return to the main menu.
Although the game selection was positively sad during our testing period (think Pong), BlackBerry says EA Games is bringing 15 of its titles to BlackBerry World, including "Real Racing 3," "Plants vs. Zombies" and "Dead Space." Meanwhile, Gameloft promises 10-plus games, such as "N.O.V.A 3" and "Batman Dark Knight." Parents will appreciate "Angry Birds Star Wars," "Fruit Ninja" and "Where's My Perry," as well as "Sonic 4."
We enjoyed USA Today, which sports an intuitive layout that mimics some of the sideways swiping of the BlackBerry 10 interface. Flixster made it easy to look up movie times and watch trailers, while Docs to Go lets you view and edit Office documents.
The bundled Remember app is more than a task manager that syncs with Outlook. You can also use it to record audio notes, as well as to scrapbook Web articles, photos and other items. Plus, Remember syncs with Evernote.
The Slacker radio app proved disappointing because it forced us to drill down to find our favorite station (which should be right up front) and because we couldn't skip tracks unless we were in the app. We could adjust the volume, however. ESPN ScoreCenter was also lackluster. Clicking on a sport in the menu launched the browser, forcing us to leave the app. That doesn't happen on the iPhone.
So what's missing? At least for now, BlackBerry World doesn't have such top-tier apps as Spotify, Pandora, Instagram, TripIt, Yelp, Netflix, "Temple Run 2" and "Words with Friends." We'd also like to see Concur added for tracking expenses.
Developed in partnership with TCS (the guys behind VZNaviagtor) and with TomTom's map data, POI and traffic info, the Z10's bundled Maps app is functional, but barebones compared to Google Maps and Apple's Maps app. You won't find 3D satellite views or fancy fly-overs, nor does BlackBerry Maps include images or ratings of businesses that you search for. The app doesn't even work in landscape mode yet. The good news is that the spoken, turn-by-turn navigation worked well and included accurate directions and street names. Still, maps were slow to fill in as we panned around the screen.
Music, Video and Magazines
It's clear that BlackBerry is attempting to build out an ecosystem with BlackBerry World, which includes more than 22 million songs (thanks to 7Digital) as well as premium movies and TV shows (via Rovi). BlackBerry World makes it easy to discover content by displaying Top Albums, Movies and TV Episodes right underneath apps on its main page.
The content selection was fairly current as of press time, with such flicks as "Taken 2" and "The Dark Knight Rises" available to rent ($3.99) or buy (19.99). TV Shows include "Homeland," "The Walking Dead" and "The Carrie Diaries" for $1.99 per episode. We didn't see a season-pass option.
Our Z10 had a Newsstand app that promoted such magazines as Esquire and Cosmopolitan, but it wasn't fully operational during our testing.
Security and Parental Controls
BlackBerry Enterprise Server customers will be pleased to know that the Z10 features BlackBerry Balance, which lets users switch between work and personal profiles. The Work perimeter protects data with 256-bit AES encryption, and administrators can set up a storefront for corporate-approved apps. You can still access personal info in the Work profile, such as the Hub and your calendar.
BlackBerry 10's security extends to locating or wiping a lost smartphone via the BlackBerry Protect feature. Once enabled, you'll be able to track down the Z10 online at protect.blackberry.com, as well as have it display a message and play a loud sound. Should you decide to wipe your device remotely, you can also remove any data stored on the microSD card. In our testing the service found our phone traveling down the NJ Turnpike within just a few seconds.
The Z10 offers several parental control options. You can disable various core applications and functions, such as the Browser and Twitter, as well as the Camera and the ability to Purchase Content. However, while you can restrict apps and other content based on ratings, you can't drill down on an app basis or white-list specific apps, as you can with Kid's Corner for Windows Phone.
Camera and Camcorder
The Z10's requisite party trick is TimeShift, which will eliminate photos with unsightly blinking. After taking a shot with the back 8-MP camera, you can drag a nob back and forward in time, then select the face you want. As long as our subject didn't move too much, this feature worked well. If they do, be prepared for a head that looks dislocated from the shoulder.
BlackBerry says the speed of its camera was a big focus area for BlackBerry 10. Sure enough, the Z10's camera fired off shots quickly in our testing, and there's a Burst mode that captures multiple shots in succession.
You'll also find a camera shortcut button on the lock screen. Too bad you have to long-press the button and watch a circle progress bar fill up first. It took 3.6 seconds to launch into the camera app, versus 1.8 seconds for the iPhone 5.
A shot we took outdoors of a motorcycle exhibited good color accuracy, but it looked slightly fuzzy when we zoomed in on the Honda logo. A shot taken with the iPhone 5 of the same bike turned out clearer.
Indoors, the Z10 took darker and less detailed images than the iPhone 5. It also doesn't help that the Z10 doesn't have an HDR mode for compensating for shadows. The BlackBerry's flash performed well, however, illuminating subjects without blowing them out.
A 1080p video we recorded of a busy highway in New Jersey produced mixed results. Areas lit by the sun looked bright and clear, but we noticed pixelation in shadows.
We do give BlackBerry a lot of credit for having more fun with your photos and videos after you've captured them. The Pictures app lets you apply all sorts of Instagram-style effects and filters, and you can preview them just by sliding the effect onto the photo.
On the video front, there's Story Maker, which lets you easily combine video with music and various templates. Not only is the app intuitive, it made an otherwise dreary snowy Monday morning look interesting.
Call Quality and Battery Life
The Phone app on the Z10 lets you create a few shortcuts to your favorite people for quick dialing. While in the middle of a call, you can enter a quick note, or, if the person is on BBM, switch to a video call. Over AT&T's network, the call quality was mostly clear on our end of the line, and the other caller said we sounded fine. Speakerphone calls were sufficiently loud.
The Z10's battery life is on a par with competing smartphones, but as with the iPhone 5 you'll struggle to get through a full day if you're a heavy user. For example, after 3.5 hours of use -- making a few calls, checking messages, shooting some pictures and making two videos in Story Maker -- the battery meter was down to 65 percent.
We also ran the Peacekeeper Battery Test, which loops through a series of animations online. On this test, which constantly uses the 4G LTE Radio, the Z10 lasted 4 hours and 2 minutes. That's better than the Lumia 822 (3:54) and on a par with the HTC Windows Phone 8X on AT&T (4:04). The Galaxy S III got 4:04 on the same test, and the Droid RAZR M lasted 3:52.
NFC Support and Accessories
The BlackBerry Z10 features an NFC chip for sharing files with other BlackBerry 10 devices, as well as for supporting mobile payment services. We successfully transferred a URL and contact from a Droid RAZR M to the Z10 with a tap, but the BlackBerry wouldn't accept an image file because apparently it was too large.
BlackBerry will make several accessories available for the Z10, including a Bluetooth-powered BlackBerry Mini Stereo Speaker ($99) and a Battery Charger Bundle ($49) that can charge your phone and a spare battery at the same time.
With the BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry 10, BlackBerry has created a platform that should not only keep many faithful from jumping ship but also win some back. In fact, there are some features here that all sorts of smartphone buyers will appreciate, especially the superior keyboard and BlackBerry Hub for seeing your emails, BBM and social alerts in one place. And while it's not totally unique, we appreciate the camera's TimeShift function.
The Z10's screen is on the dim side, and the camera doesn't shine in low light, but we can overlook those drawbacks. Is there anything here that will win over iPhone and Android fans? Those focused on being more productive have some reasons to look BlackBerry's way, but we don't see anyone making that jump--at least until the new BlackBerry World is a lot more fleshed out. Assuming BlackBerry speeds up the performance and gets its app act together, the Z10 should find plenty of takers.