Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - With all that is riding on today's global launch of BlackBerry 10, the folks at BlackBerry (formerly Research In Motion) couldn't afford to mess up. The BlackBerry Z10 - the first device to run the company's new operating system - not only had to make a stellar first impression, but it had to be markedly superior compared to the rival smartphones that put Canada's premier tech company in such a precarious market position. Either way would it be too late?
The buying public will ultimately supply the answer. My own verdict after testing the Z10 for nearly a week is that it's very much good enough to keep RIM in the game, but is still not very likely to help the company supplant the iPhone 5 or the Android-based Samsung Galaxy S III, or help the company recapture its past glory.
I do like the Z10 and BlackBerry 10, however, even with some flaws. The phone feels like the modern day BlackBerry that seems to have eluded RIM, especially as far sexier handsets emerged from Apple, Samsung and others. It's got a fresh touch keyboard that gets smarter as you go along and an inviting user interface built around touch gestures. Video chat is built into the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service. You come to appreciate BlackBerry Hub, a centralized repository for email, text, social updates and more. It even has a decent supply of apps for a newly-minted mobile operating system.
The new phone is a sturdily built black handset with a rubberized back that is comfortable to grip. A 4.2-inch LCD high-resolution display is generally easy on the eyes but loses a side-by-side comparison against the Retina display on the iPhone 5. A video from ESPN.com that perfectly reproduced on the iPhone was squished down and fuzzier on the BlackBerry. It has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of flash memory, and a microSD card slot hidden beneath the removable back lid for upping the memory by up to 32GB.
The Z10 is expected to fetch $199 with a two-year contract. My test device tapped into AT&T's LTE network, but not all carrier details were in place at the time of this review. In the U.S. phones are expected to become available from most carriers in March.
BlackBerrys have always provided the kind of security likely to cheer the people who police tech policy at your company. So it goes here. And I would expect the handset to mostly appeal to the legions of BlackBerry fans that, judging by the pre-launch interest, are still out there, despite declining market numbers. At least those devotees who are willing to transition to an all-multi-touch environment, and ditch the kind of physical keyboard which has been a longtime BlackBerry strength.
RIM put a lot of thought into its touchscreen keyboard. Like keyboards on other mobile phones, it tries to predict what you're going to type next. For example, if you often hit the letter "B" when you meant instead to hit the spacebar, the keyboard will learn to fix that mistake in short order, RIM says. The keyboard also serves up "predicted words" based on whatever you type. These words appear in tiny type over the next letter it anticipates you may strike. When I typed the word "emerging" in a text message, the keyboard correctly guessed the next word I wanted to type was "markets," even before I struck the "m." If you see the word you had in mind, you literally flick it up and it lands in place. The predicted words are awfully tiny though- I had to put on glasses to view them or at least make sure I was right on top of the screen.
Meanwhile, RIM has built in a number of handy keyboard tricks and shortcuts. You can delete an entire word, for instance, by rapidly swiping the delete key to the left.
Of course, some diehards will want to wait for the BlackBerry Q10, a BlackBerry 10 device with a physical keyboard, that is expected to become available in April. RIM has not yet supplied review units.
Those gravitating to the Z10 must also master a new series of gestures that RIM calls "peek" and "flow." I got the hang of these pretty quickly and came to like them. In the absence of a physical home button, for example, you swipe up from the bottom of the bezel to wake up a sleeping phone. You can swipe left and right to see icons for all your apps, and to see which apps are running at any one time - the handset is a whiz at multitasking. To quickly peek at the BlackBerry Hub from any screen, you swipe up and then to the right.
Inside BlackBerry Hub you can view your email accounts, made and missed calls, texts, Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger messages, Facebook notifications, scheduled meetings and more. You can also view accounts individually. A blinking notification LED at the upper right corner of the device clues you in that there's something new in there to check out.
The BlackBerry 10 browser is smooth and fast. And it supports Adobe Flash though Flash is not turned on by default, and is a standard on mobile phones that is losing way to HTML5.
Still, I encountered deficiencies. The battery pooped out in the middle of a recent afternoon, way sooner than I would have wanted. RIM says the battery life will improve with full carrier support. The good news is that the battery is removable, so you can always carry around a spare.
Meanwhile, not all of the apps I tried behaved properly leading up to the launch, which RIM warned me about. RIM says there'll be about 70,000 apps in the BlackBerry App World at launch, a very respectable number for a completely reinvented operating system but a sum that still pales next to the iPhone or Android. RIM says it will have all the third party apps that most people want. A roster on my device includes Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Box, Angry Birds Star Wars, Flixster, Slacker Radio and yes, USA TODAY. Befitting RIM's roots, an app for Hockey Night In Canada was also on board. Skype and Rdio are said to be coming soon. Two of my other favorites on other devices, Spotify and Pandora, are among the missing apps at launch-though a BlackBerry 10 app called Apollo can deliver your customized Pandora stations.
RIM also says it will have a robust catalog of movies and TV shows (through Rovi) and more than 22 million songs from major and independent labels (and supplied through 7Digital). Alas, the very first TV show that I searched for,Downton Abbey, was not available in the store when I checked. You also can't preview TV shows you might consider downloading from the device though you can preview movies.
RIM very much has its bread and butter business customers in its sights. As with earlier BlackBerrys it comes preinstalled with the Documents To Go app that lets you create, view and edit Microsoft Word, and Excel files, view and edit PowerPoint files, and view Adobe PDF files. Documents To Go is from DataViz, a company now owed by RIM.
Enterprise customers can exploit a feature called BlackBerry Balance in which the technical administrators in your company can arrange to segregate your personal data from your work data.
You can find and remotely lock a missing or stolen phone through the free BlackBerry Protect service.
And you can now initiate a voice and video chat through the BlackBerry Messenger business messaging service. With a decent Internet connection, the video quality of the chats I exchanged with a RIM executive was excellent. Even better, one of the participants in a video chat can share his or her screen with the other, a boon for coworkers who are collaborating on a project or a tech support person who is trying to demonstrate how something is done. Incidentally, I was able to add BBM contacts by tapping my phone against another BlackBerry 10 device, all accomplished through NFC (Near Field Communication) technology.
But BlackBerry 10 isn't all work and no play. The Z10 has an 8-megapixel rear facing camera and a 2-megapixel front facing camera. The rear shooter can capture 1080p high definition video.
I had fun putting together a polished little movie of my son's birthday party using a BlackBerry app called Story Maker. You choose the videos and/or still pictures to include in the project, add a soundtrack and titles, and apply one of a half-dozen "themes" (vintage, black and white, etc.).
RIM is also reaching out to consumers with a clever if not always practical camera feature called TimeShift, which in theory ensures that each person in a group shot will pose properly. When you press the screen to shoot, the camera actually captures multiple images over a second or so. After shooting, you'll notice a box around a subject's face. Tap the face and a circle with a knob surrounds the face. As you drag the knob you can watch the facial expressions change, and tap the screen when the image of that mug is how you'd want it. The idea is to find a pose in which each person is smiling and has his eyes open.
Unfortunately, TimeShift doesn't do anything to improve focus, and taking the time to TimeShift means you can't quickly fire off more pictures. Another camera quibble: Unlike with some rival phones, you cannot capture a still image at the same time you are shooting video.
I didn't spend a lot of time testing BlackBerry Maps but the app's turn-by-turn directions didn't steer me wrong on my way to an appointment.
The Z10 also lets you incorporate voice commands to send texts, emails, BBM messages, call somebody, search the Web, schedule an appointment or make a note. But you won't mistake the voice commands on the BlackBerry for Siri on the iPhone (and that is meant as a compliment to Apple).
RIM has produced an excellent cellphone based on what appears to be a solid foundation. I just don't know if it will be enough to turn things around.
The bottom line
Pro. Excellent touch keyboard and user interface. BlackBerry Hub. Video chat and screen sharing in BBM. TimeShift camera feature. Removable battery.
Con. Battery life could be better. Fewer apps.