BlackBerry Z10 Australian Review: Old Dog, Mostly New Tricks

BlackBerry Z10 Australian Review: Old Dog, Mostly New Tricks

BlackBerry is back and it’s making no secret that its latest smartphone contender is a big deal for the future of the brand. So is the Z10 a life-jacket that will just keep BlackBerry afloat, or a jetpack that will propel it to the coveted number-three spot?

What Is It?

The Z10 is the great BlackBerry hope, and it sports a 4.2-inch, 1280×768 screen with 356 pixels per inch, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, 16GB of internal storage space, support for microSD expansion, an 1800mAh battery and the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 operating system. There are a bunch of new bells and whistles in BlackBerry 10, which include more apps, more content, a better way to organise work and social life so you don’t have to carry two phones and the same super-secure communication and email platforms we came to love from BlackBerry all those years ago.

The BlackBerry Z10 goes on sale today at Optus and shortly at Telstra, both with 4G capabilities.

What’s Good?

BlackBerry really has built something special here that is unlike any of its previous models. Old BlackBerrys feel like they belong stuffed into twee briefcases lined with important business papers, or stuffed into some horrible proprietary car kit in a 1990’s company sedan. That’s not the Z10.

The combination of aluminium, rubber and glass makes the Z10 feel sleek and professional. The design is discrete, like your best business suit, yet cool enough to take out for the weekends. The bezel on the Z10 is clever, because it stays sexy when you’re not using it, yet gives way to activated corners when you are.

Much like the BlackBerry Playbook — which was mostly rubbish — the Z10 has gestures embedded into that bezel: Swipe up and you’ll unlock the phone. Up and to the right and you’ll land in the new BlackBerry Hub which organises all of your messages and social networks in the one place. Swipe down and you’ll find a whole lot of quick access buttons for your settings, while sliding right will drop you into your app drawer.

Unlocking the handset is as simple as swiping up from the bottom of the Z10 over the shiny “BlackBerry” logo. Like a waterfall in reverse, the screen unlocks to reveal the unicorn-like BlackBerry 10 operating system: something I genuinely thought we’d never see before the company went bust.

The whole UI centres around the BlackBerry Hub: a type of notification centre that keeps all of your messages, emails, BlackBerry Messages (BBM), Tweets, Facebook notifications and calendar alerts all in the one place.

Getting to the Hub is as simple as swiping up and left from the bottom of the handset, and wherever you are in the device, it will slide it out of the way for a moment so you can get a detailed look at what’s going on in your digital life. It’s probably the best feature of the handset, and it puts the notification centres of iOS and Android handsets to shame. Note to all of you manufacturers out there: yes, you can do better on your notification centres.

There’s no real home screen on BlackBerry 10. It’s just an infinitely scrolling list of apps you previously had open so that you can scroll back to them when you need to. BlackBerry calls it “true multitasking”, but to be honest it just feels like a more grown-up version of HP’s old webOS operating system. That’s a good thing, because it’s a fresh and interesting way to use a phone that actually works. Getting around the device and generally using it from day to day is wonderfully simple. It just has a way of fitting into your life.

The camera has Timeshift functionality that lets you get a great shot of someone even if they had their eyes closed or were pulling a stupid face, which is great, and it performs admirably in well-lit situations. Not so much anywhere else, however. Colours are a little dull on the screen compared to other devices, which may affect how you view your photos.

And of course, the Z10 has all the features we’ve come to expect from BlackBerry that have kept it going during the hard times: super-secure email, BBM integration (which now supports video and screen sharing), and BlackBerry Balance which puts a firewall between your corporate life and your personal life on the device so bring-your-own-device is a cinch.

4G is also a welcome addition.

What’s Bad?

I’ll be honest, I’m coming at this review with a very BlackBerry-free slate. I have always been an Android/iOS/Windows Phone user in the past. BlackBerry — or RIM as it was known back then — was never for me. It felt clunky and sluggish next to the devices I had access to, so I never bothered.

I don’t begrudge people who owned Blackberrys, they all seem to enjoy them so good for him. Having spoken to a few of them who have actually played with the Z10 and its operating system tell me that it’s actually a step backwards for power users who want to get stuff done quickly.

Lifehacker‘s Angus Kidman, for example, was telling me the other day that the Z10 actually removes some handy selection functionality from the email app in BlackBerry 10, making it a more laborious and time consuming process to actually mark, move and generally deal with emails en masse. If email is one of your cornerstones, maybe don’t deal yourself a one-two punch to the groin by hamstringing existing users and making your core functionality worse.

The battery life is nothing short of atrocious on the Z10. At the best of times, I got nine hours of standby time. The phone was pulling coverage from the network and keeping one or two apps in standby, and I got nine hours at best. That’s pretty shocking when you think that the people most likely to use a BlackBerry will have between an eight and 12-hour workdays and rely on their phone for everything.

The Z10 also feels a little sluggish at times, especially when you have more than a few apps open at once. Multi-tasking takes a little longer than it should and the screen animations don’t flow as well as you might expect them to.

BlackBerry prides itself on great keyboards, and the Z10 has a new way of predicting what your about to say to make one-handed typing even faster for the power-users out there. The way that it can jump in and out of different languages while learning what you type most is pretty goddamn impressive, but actually learning how to use it to speed up your typing is tough. It’s predicated on the idea that you type a few letters, the handset predicts what you’re about to type, then you make a swipe upwards, essentially “throwing” the word onto the screen. Great idea, shame it misses the swipe gesture so often. That means a keystroke you didn’t mean to execute, slowing you down. Stick to physical keyboards in future, I say.

BlackBerry 10, much like Windows Phone 8, is still missing a few killer apps, but it has enough to placate business users. I’m not about to call that a win, however.

Should You Buy It?

The BlackBerry Z10 is a great phone stuck in the wrong year. In 2011 and 2012, the Z10 would be a solid contender against its main rivals Android, iPhone and Windows Phone. It has specs that could stare down the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S III, but in 2013, it feels outdated and irrelevant before it has even been pulled out of the box. We’re living in a brave new octa-core, Ultrapixel world now, and the BlackBerry Z10 feels like a throwback to the old days.

It probably isn’t even the Z10’s fault: BlackBerry probably designed the Z10 for an June 2012 announcement followed by an October 2012 release, but delays in the BlackBerry 10 operating system put it way behind. As a result, the device feels old hat, and that’s a shame.

If this device had been in our hot little hands in October last year, I would have told you to go and buy one, but sadly, it’s March 2013, and it’s not the best you can get anymore.

It’s not all bad, though. If you’re a disillusioned BlackBerry fan looking for light at the end of the tunnel, the Z10 is exactly what you need. It’s the phone that will make you believe in BlackBerry again, but it won’t be enough to lure back those who defected to iOS and Android.

If BlackBerry doesn’t have a follow-up album to the Z10 quickly, it’s going to find itself slipping back into irrelevance and on the phone with various banks faster than you can say “BBM”.