Editors' note: this review is based on early impressions after a full week of use on the BlackBerry Z10 review unit that BlackBerry seeded to select press; the rating is subject to change as we spend more time with the device and operating system.
Members of the BlackBerry faithful, meet your new phone. The BlackBerry Z10 has everything you've been waiting for: a sleek, modern, and professional touchscreen body, with an up-to-date OS to match and 4G LTE support. You'll revel in the virtual keyboard's ease and in BlackBerry Messenger's seamless voice chats. You'll crow about the Z10's micro-HDMI port and enjoy the 8-megapixel camera with its built-in editing tools.
In the most important ways, everything comes together: a lovely HD screen, a fast processor, and a camera (with tricks!) that's good enough to stand alongside the big boys.
Slip off the RIM-coloured glasses, though, and you won't be able to ignore the minor hardware and OS irritations that nevertheless pile up as you use the Z10 over time — like having to use an antiquated and unintuitive file system to create a new photo album, or a basic mapping app that can't possibly stand up to Google's best-in-show. For their part, BlackBerry detractors will plainly see a poor iPhone clone that offers little more than the usual features found in any present-day OS worth its salt.
If you're game to learn a few navigational gestures, and your bigger-picture mentality lets you see beyond annoyances, you should feel justified buying the BlackBerry Z10. However, if you're happy with your current platform, there's no need to budge, unless or until RIM patches up some OS holes.
Design and build
At first glance, the handsome BlackBerry Z10 looks suspiciously like Apple's black iPhone 5: tall and narrow, with straight edges that meet at rounded corners, and a roughly 4-inch screen. Like the iPhone 5, the Z10 is adept at one-handed operation. That's where the similarities end.
You see, the Z10 has no navigation buttons, either physical or capacitive. Instead, you'll operate the Z10 through gestures (more on those later). The phone stands 130mm tall, 65.6mm wide and 9mm thick — only slightly deeper than the iPhone 5. Its 136g weight feels right with the phone's proportions, and the device has a much more comfortable grip than the iPhone, thanks to the slightly rounded edges on the back and a lightly textured, soft-touch finish.
Of the two phones, the iPhone undeniably has the more solid, premium and precise build quality. Its seams are as narrow as possible, and its details are finely machined. For those who care about such things, the iPhone 5's material quality also trumps the Z10's treated plastics and loose back panel that easily pops out when I slide a nail anywhere along its perimeter.
Larger than the iPhone 5 overall, the Z10's shape still fits neatly into pockets. However, it feels uncomfortably flat when I wedge it between a shoulder and the ear. And yes, this is precisely why many people use a wireless headset.
The BlackBerry Z10 (left) resembles the iPhone 5, at least in shape.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
On its face, the Z10's 4.2-inch LCD display has a 1280x768-pixel WXGA HD resolution (that's 355 pixels per inch; the iPhone 5 has a 326ppi density). You'll see fine lettering, crisp edges and deep colours. I did notice, though, that with both handsets set to maximum brightness, the iPhone 5 outshone the Z10, and an HD picture of a flower looked brighter, more detailed and had more colour variation on Apple's device. On the whole, the differences between the two are minimal. The bezel surrounding the screen is frankly wider than today's edge-to-edge fashion, but this doesn't personally bother me.
Above the display are the array of sensors, the notification LED and the 2-megapixel front-facing camera. The right spine houses Up and Down volume controls, with a button in the center that serves as a voice command trigger you can also use to pause music. If you simultaneously press both volume buttons, you'll take a screenshot. If you're in camera mode, pressing either one snaps a picture.
On the Z10's left edge are the micro-HDMI and micro-USB ports. The placement of the latter pretty much guarantees that the charging cord gets in my way. Up top, you'll find the power/lock button and the 3.5mm headset jack — you'll hold down the start button for a three-second countdown to turn off the phone. On the back are the camera lens with LED flash, and a BlackBerry icon that matches up with the NFC antenna on the opposite side of the back panel.
Also underneath that panel is the tall, narrow battery (I wonder if there was room for larger?) and a microSD card slot. The Z10 comes preloaded with an 8GB, class 2 microSD card. That's good, right? It would be if the card supported the camera's option to capture 1080p HD video. As a result, you'll shoot video in 720p HD if you don't switch out the card to class 4 or higher.
BlackBerry 10 OS
Here's what you need to know about the new BlackBerry 10 OS: it looks cool, it's gesture-driven and it'll take you at least a few minutes to pick up. In some ways, it's quite advanced — we're fans of BlackBerry Balance and the virtual keyboard — and in other ways, you wonder what RIM's been doing all these years.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Features and apps
When it comes to multiple accounts and a unified inbox, BlackBerry 10 delivers. You can sign into multiple email accounts and social networks, and populate your address book and calendar from these cross-pollinated networks. I didn't see contact duplicates, and my buddies' addresses also appeared neatly sorted in the maps app, basically the only really nice surprise there.
You'll find Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and all the good stuff when it comes to texting, chatting with other BlackBerry users and sharing stuff to social networks. There's a good music app, a basic maps app and the mostly-good Documents To Go, which opens the door to reading, creating, and editing Word and Excel documents, and viewing PowerPoint and Adobe PDF files.
For your social networking apps, the BlackBerry serves up a healthy spoonful of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn. And yes, these are real apps, not just links to mobile websites masquerading as apps. You know what is, though? YouTube. I'm looking forward to a full-fledged app from them.
In addition to the social apps, you'll find a notes program, an alarm clock with special bedtime mode (it shuts off alerts, but don't hold your breath for lullabies). There's Flixster, Box and Dropbox, the awesome Angry Birds Star Wars, Slacker Radio and, in my review unit, quite a lot of Canadian news, sports and transportation apps.
More content is close at hand in BlackBerry World, where you can browse by apps, games, music, videos and TV shows. Rovio powers the shows, while long-time partner 7 Digital handles the music. Strangely, you can search for top paid apps, but there aren't any filtering options specifically for free programs.
BlackBerry Balance and business use
Business and security-conscious users have long been RIM's bread and butter. The BlackBerry Z10 serves this demographic well with BlackBerry Balance, which helps separate sensitive business apps from your personal ones with the help of your corporate IT manager. There are privacy settings and RIM's signature encrypted servers, plus parental controls — not to mention remote wiping with BlackBerry Protect.
With the Z10, RIM takes aim at both individual consumers looking for a smart, new device, and business professionals who could easily pass this phone to an IT administrator to get work-approved apps. The thing is, in today's climate of bring-your-own-phone, many businesses can get by with little extra security and have abandoned fleets of devices. Having been out of the game for so long, it could be a hard sell.
Cameras and video
For a long time now, the BlackBerry camera has been a weak spot. No longer. The Z10 packs a respectable 8-megapixel shooter in the back and a 2-megapixel lens up front. Both record 720p HD video, and the larger of the two can also shoot 1080p HD video.
The main camera comes with autofocus, 5x digital zoom, and options for burst mode and stabilisation. Pressing either volume button can snap a shot. TimeShift mode takes an array of photos and lets you revisit them along a timeline to pick the one you like best. There are scene modes (like action and night), and you can choose to take pictures in a 3:4 or 9:16 ratio.
Although there's autofocus, focusing elsewhere isn't intuitive. Touching the screen anywhere triggers the shutter, so you'll just have to know to drag the focal bracket around the screen.
Budding photographers will also notice scant options and controls. There's no HDR, no ISO settings, no grid, no geotagging, no option to drop resolution and — one of its worst offenses in my opinion — no way to silence the shutter's loud clacking.
Despite the thin toolset, image quality was pretty decent. Naturally, photos looked better outside than inside, where there was plenty of ambient light and where I could hold the image steady. Some pictures looked very noisy in full resolution, but other times, the Z10's camera picked up more detail than some others.
More detailed comparisons are on their way. Stay tuned for a thorough camera shootout between the Z10, the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3.
Let's switch gears and talk about video. We were not disappointed. Video looked clear and audio sounded good. Clips played back smoothly, without jerkiness, and we didn't detect any graininess either.
Again, you'll have few alternate settings options. Stabilisation turns on by default, but you can turn it off. You can also shine the flash or not. If you want to limit the size of your video for MMS, you'll just have to keep it short on your own.
We used the 2-megapixel front-facing camera mostly for video chats through BlackBerry Messenger, but if you wanted to use it for self-portraits, you'll be happy to know it has 3x digital zoom and takes video. We're not the biggest fan of photos taken with this camera, but the image quality is acceptable for what you get — stick with it just for video chats.
A note on your photo album: the way RIM throws together screenshots and camera images is a mess. (iOS does this too, by the way.) You may not notice this if you take the odd screenshot, but as a phone reviewer, the problem of differentiating them leaps out. You can create separate albums, but it isn't at all clear how to do this from the Photos app. Instead, we got a bullet point instruction list from RIM's friendly customer service explaining how to make folders in the file manager app. Because going through a file manager is exactly how people want to use their mobile phones to complete simple tasks.
RIM is pushing its StoryMaker apps, which combines video, photos and music to make a mini, multimedia presentation. Cute, not as intuitive or extensive as we'd like and, in my opinion, somewhat limited in appeal to the mostly younger set.
The real story is the very good built-in photo-editing tools that can crop, rotate and straighten photos, reduce red-eye and add any number of filters. Here's where you adjust contrast and white balance, and attempt to cancel out noise. The app feels complete and intuitive, and in my opinion, it's RIM's biggest camera value-add.
The Z10 gives you 16GB flash storage for your multimedia and 2GB RAM. The microSD card slot holds cards with capacities up to 32GB.
Qualcomm's 1.5GHZ dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus processor (pause for breath) gives the Z10 its va-va-voom. This is one step below the company's fastest dual-core processor, the S4 Pro, but it's still pretty good, and we could play back videos and play games smoothly.
The Z10 has a rated talk time of up to 10 hours over 3G, 12.7 days of standby time over 3G, up to 60 hours of audio playback and up to 11 hours for video playback. That's not bad for its 1800mAh battery, and anecdotally, battery life lasted a day. Of course, anecdotally, battery demands were all over the place during testing, including spans of full brightness and an always-on screen, interspersed with mass web browsing and addictive game-playing. (Word Hero. Download it.)
Should you buy it?
There are two questions at hand. The first is: how well did RIM do with the Z10? The second is, should I buy it?
From where we sit, RIM did a good job with the Z10. For a company with a short, terrible track record with touchscreen devices (see the Storm and Storm 2, prior to the acceptable Torch 9850,) the Z10 looks good, has desirable specs and gets the basics right.
But this time around, the Z10 represents more than just itself. With its first BlackBerry 10 device, RIM stands at a crossroads, bearing the weight of its unevenly-provisioned OS. On the one hand, BlackBerry 10 is a brand spankin' new mobile platform that can only grow and mature. On the other, RIM has had plenty of maturation time, drawing on a legacy of secure email and messaging that predates the iPhone takeover. BlackBerry 10 wasn't some rush job; RIM all but suspended production for years to work on the hardware and software to make the Z10. For a future that hinges on this first device, shouldn't there be fewer missteps?
Buy the Z10 if you:
Have been waiting for a new BlackBerry for a long time
Prize personal and corporate security
Like the idea of a wholly gesture-based OS
Are seeking an iOS and Android alternative
Love to give an underdog a chance
Skip it if you:
Have no patience to learn a new UI
Rely on walking or public transportation in maps
Prize a wide breadth of apps to choose from
Seek a strongly customisable OS
Prefer buttons to gestures
Updated on 26 March at 1.15pm: Added information about Australian pricing.