Blackberry z10 first impressions

I've have used the new Blackberry z10 for a day. So far, so good.

Hardware

This Blackberry has no keyboard. It's not the first RIM have released this way but it's the first one I've used without the familiar feel of Blackberry keys under my fingers. Personally I think the reason I stuck with using Blackberry's so long was because of the keyboard, and it's likely why many people still have one. But market share says otherwise, so it's understandable why RIM would go with a standard "tablet" phone. What hasn't changed from previous Blackberry devices is the quality and feel. This feels like a high quality, well made handset. The screen is vibrant, comparable to most other high end phones currently sold. Visibility in full sunlight was very good, better than any other phone I've used recently. Dimensionally, think iPhone 5 and you're very much in the right ballpark. Apart from the Blackberry logo on the back, I think most people would mistake this phone for an Apple device. I have to think that's intentional, but I guess time will tell if it was a good idea or not. The device feels good in the hand, with a textured rubber back providing excellent grip and a solid feel.

Operating System

You have to expect that Blackberry will do things differently, so I'm always careful not to complain that a new device doesn't work like some other device I know and am familiar with. The key issue is discover-ability. Can I pick up this handset, turn it on, and start using it?

Yes. But...

This phone breaks some conventions while inventing new ones. That's okay, but it's almost inevitable that most new users will be looking for a home button. It doesn't exist. At all. It took me about half an hour of swiping and poking until I got the hang of it. The key action to get familiar with is swiping up from the Blackberry logo at the bottom of the home screen to unlock the device. There is a power button at the top edge of the device but this simply turns the screen on or off. The only reason you'd need to use it to turn on the screen is to access the 'night mode'.

That leads to the next discovery. The device uses an "Edge UI" style like the Microsoft Surface. You swipe into the screen from the edge of the screen to move through the screens. From what I can see so far the operating system seems to have four main context screens, plus night mode and quick settings. 

Blackberry z10 home screen

1. Home Screen. The device is in a locked state, showing notifications of messages waiting and providing access to the night mode. You unlock the device by swiping up from the Blackberry logo at the bottom of the screen. If required you will be prompted to unlock the device with a PIN number for access to "work" functions. Blackberry make a feature of the fact this device can ""balance" your work and personal activities. It's nice on one hand I can access certain functions without needing to unlock the phone, but it seems to classify all messaging as "work" in the hub screen.

Blackberry z10 hub screen

2. Hub screen. Swipe in from the left and you get to the hub screen which puts all your messaging in one place, either as a combined inbox of all message and social media, or allowing you to read per service. it is a very good feature. Blackberry have taken something I try to do in other devices I use and delivered a significantly improved experience. It's so good, I know I'm going to miss it when I leave this device, and I may in fact use this device a little longer than planned because of it. Blackberry's roots are messaging, so it shouldn't be a surprise they can deliver such a good messaging experience. 

Blackberry z10 apps screen

3. Apps screen. Swipe in from the right and you move to the apps screen. Seen one, seen 'em all. There's nothing different or distinguishing here. It's exactly what you'd expect and similar to every other smartphone, and in fairness, previous Blackberry's. What was nice is that some useful apps like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin are pre-loaded. Blackberry World (the app store) allows you to install further applications but it's slim pickings compared to iTunes or Google Play. Installing apps doesn't seem to require a device reboot now, which is a significant improvement on previous Blackberry's, and a big reason I never updated my apps on my Curve.

Blackberry z10 switch screen

4. Switch screen. Once you open an app, or settings screen. It opens a task manager screen between the messaging hub and the apps screen. When the app you are using is in context, without a home or back button, it's very confusing as to how you move out of the screen you're in and back to another screen. You swipe up from the bottom of the screen and the app will 'float' into the switch screen. Move left to get to the messaging hub, move right to get to the apps screen. Each running application shown on the switch screen is identified by name and can be closed by pressing the little X at the bottom right of the app. It displays 4 apps per screen in a vertical configuration, meaning you swipe up from the bottom to move to the next screen in the switcher. To change back to a currently running app, just press on it and it will move back to full screen context. It's a very nicely implemented task manager. Significantly better than other platforms in my opinion.

5. Night mode. Mobile devices stay with most people 24 hours a day and many people now use them as alarm clocks. Blackberry has addressed this with a special night mode screen. Accessed by swiping down from the top of the home screen (there's a small icon of a bed with a moon at the top) it turns notifications off and changes the display to a clock, thoughtfully displayed on a dimmed screen with night friendly deep red display that wont light up your ceiling or require you to turn the phone face down. The alarm mode is easy to configure and when set, displays a small indicator against the alarm time. There weren't a lot of alarm tones to choose from on the device I have, I'm not sure if that changes in the public release version, but they were fit for purpose, so it's not a drama.

6. Quick settings. When in one of the main context screens, swiping down from the top will bring up quick settings, such as wifi on or off, etc. When in an app, it will give access to app settings.

Settings and setup

Setting up mobile devices is second nature to me now. The good news is that the z10 did not slow me down much. Going into the setting screen makes it easy to find where to set up accounts. Although we have a Blackberry server, I configured it to use Exchange ActiveSync, since I know those settings for our corporate network off by heart. It worked fine. Setting up Gmail, Hotmail, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Foursquare was all done in minutes and the services all started integrating with the messaging and notifications. It was a good experience.

Blackberry lay out their settings slightly differently to Android and iOS (and Windows Phone) so not everything is where you expect it to be first time, but it's not hard to find if you explore. Unchanged from previous Blackberry's though is the volume and complexity of some settings. It's nice to have the granular control sometimes, but I think some users will steer clear of the detail.

Final comments

This is a nice handset and delivers a quality experience, which sits well with the blackberry brand. It's a good phone. Reception seems good to above average. The speaker is at the upper end of expectations for a phone, putting out nice volume, with only a bit of distortion on complex sound at higher volumes. At a pinch this phone could be used as a speaker phone for a group of people in a meeting room.

The quality of messaging on this phone is outstanding. Android has a combined inbox view for email but this phone has a combined view for all messaging. It's a boon for busy folks with information coming at them from email, phone, social.

BBM is clearly the preferred platform for IM messaging but I don't have many friends on that platform now, so it was nice to see Google Talk is another option, but I didn't see others like Kik, Whatsapp or Skype. 

If there was one niggle, it actually has nothing to do with the handset. The device came with a black rubber case. It's fine but it obscures the screen edges just enough to make the swipe in from the edge difficult, so I removed it. It was an odd oversight for a device that seems to have been well considered.

Is this the device that saves Blackberry? I doubt it, but that's because I don't know if there is a device that *can* save Blackberry. The question is whether the market will decide in their favour. I hope so. I have very fond feelings towards Blackberry, as I do Nokia, and I hope they have a great success with this handset. Based on quality and usability of device, they deserve to. I am fairly certain it will gain a strong following from those who adopt it for its strengths.

If you're interested in getting one of these, you can order it from Telstra here.