Playing around with the BlackBerry Z10 – Research In Motion Ltd.'s newest, most attractive and least ancient-feeling smartphone – is a bit like watching a very well-executed version of one of those Las Vegas celebrity impersonator shows. The guy playing Elvis has got the hair and the hip-swing down to a fine art; Faux Michael Jackson is moonwalking with all the ease and grace of the real one; the app masquerading as Instagram feels just like Instagram.
In building the Z10, RIM's executives made one of the smartest decisions in the company's history: they spent years finding out what users loved about other smartphones, and then built their own facsimiles. The result is a phone that at once feels like a true BlackBerry and a collection of the competition's home runs. If you were expecting the latest BlackBerry – the one on which the company has pinned all its hopes of survival – to be revolutionary, you're going to be disappointed. But the smartphone industry hasn't been truly revolutionary since the first iPhone came out in 2007. Today, in an industry where every manufacturer's idea of grand improvement is cramming a few more pixels into the screen or throwing in a voice-activated butler that nobody ends up using, the Z10 is exactly how a smartphone should be made.
The Z10, goes on sale in Canada on February 6th for about $150 on a three-year contract. The phone's many... let's call them inspirations... are visible from the moment you set eyes on the full-touchscreen device. In short, it looks exactly the same as roughly half the touchscreen phones out there, in that it is a plain rectangular slab whose front face is dominated by a glass panel. In other words, it looks like an iPhone.
With a 4.2-inch screen and a 1280-by-768 resolution, the Z10 has a slightly bigger and higher-resolution display than the latest iPhone. But Apple's phone seems more crisp and bright, even when the brightness on the Z10 is cranked all the way up. Still, for virtually anything visual you plan to do with the device – primarily, watching movies – the Z10 screen is more than adequate. (The dual-core 1.5-gigahertz processor is in line with most high-end smartphones these days. Coupled with 2 gigabytes of RAM, the Z10 showed very few signs of slowdown when we ran multiple apps on it).
There are no physical buttons on the front or back of the BlackBerry, although the front bezel, stamped with the BlackBerry name, functions as a vital part of the swipe-gesture system by which you do most things on this phone (more on this later).
The Z10 comes armed with an 8-megapixel camera around the back and a 2-megapixel camera up front. Along the sides, you'll find the volume controls on the right and a USB and HDMI port on the left. (As an aside, you will probably jam the wrong cable into the ports with some frequency, since they look alike and are right next to each other). The physical power button resides on the top edge of the phone.
The textured back cover feels like a plastic-rubber hybrid and comes off as a little cheap when you rip it out. But beyond dumping a battery and a SIM card inside, you won't have to remove the back cover all that often.
In short, nobody's going to buy the Z10 because of its distinctive hardware design. Where the new BlackBerry shines is on the software side. For years, as the much-hyped BlackBerry 10 platform suffered delay after delay, RIM market research sleuths were focus-grouping as many smartphone owners as they could. Then they went back to the shop, and used that feedback as a blueprint.
You like Evernote? Here's a thing called BlackBerry Reminder that feels a lot like Evernote, and even syncs with the note-keeping software. You like Instagram filters? Here are a bunch of photo filters that were definitely not inspired by Instagram. You like Apple's voice-command assistant Siri? Wait, nobody likes Siri. Anyway, here's a mostly useless voice-command assistant. You like the way icons are arranged on an iPhone and, when you want to move or delete one, you just tap and hold until the icons start shaking? Guess how you perform the exact same task on the Z10.
If this sounds like flagrant copying, that's because it probably is – and that isn't a bad strategy. The reason Google's Android operating system is so popular (and the reason Apple has been on the intellectual property lawsuit warpath as of late) is because it mimics what people already love about smartphones. People love things for a reason.
In fact, there's no clearer signs of a complete corporate turnaround in Waterloo than RIM's acceptance of this philosophy. The old RIM, the one that invented smartphones, would have looked at something like Angry Birds and thought, "This is frivolous garbage. They use our phones in the CIA."
The new RIM? The new RIM went out and lobbied for a version of Angry Birds on the Z10 like it was manna from heaven.
After including all the other phones' greatest hits on its own device, RIM then added a few features all its own, building on the kind of stuff BlackBerrys are already famous for doing right. Chief among these features is the BlackBerry Hub, a page where all your notifications reside in one place. Whatever app you're using, or wherever you are in the phone, when you want to check all your notifications at once, you simply swipe up from the bottom of the phone. The Hub then peeks out at you. If you need to check the messages, you flick to the side and do so. If not, you let go and the Hub disappears, all as the app you were previously in keeps humming along.
The Z10 uses a lot of the swipe features from the PlayBook tablet. If you want to bring up the Settings page, Wi-Fi and other vital info, you swipe from the top of the phone down. When the phone's asleep, you wake it up by swiping up from the bottom and watching as the sleep screen evaporates in a way that's actually kind of gorgeous. Think about that for a second: RIM building an otherwise useless design feature purely because it looks pretty. This is a different company.
The other place where swiping becomes integral is when typing. The Z10's virtual keyboard is, on the surface, pretty much the same as most other keyboards. Except it comes packed with a ton of features that are going to be very frustrating at first, but will eventually make your life easier (I think).
The first is predictive text. A lot of phones try to guess what you're typing, but RIM goes a step further by trying to guess what you'll be typing next. In theory, this means you'll eventually be able to sit back and have your clairvoyant superphone see what you're thinking.
In reality, this is how my first typing experience on the Z10 went:
"Typing on this thing is pret"
Oh, there's the word "pretty" hovering over one of the keys. That's exactly the word I'm looking for. Now to just swipe up and save myself a couple of clicks...
"Typing on this thing is pree"
Umm, oops, guess I just hit the key instead of swiping up. Let's try one more time.
"Typing on this thing is peet"
No. That doesn't make any sense. OK, really, really swiping up this time. Here we go.
"Typing on this thing is pregnant"
Oh, come on.
This is going to happen to you a lot until you sync your gestures with the phone's tactile temperament. But once you get the hang of it, life does become easier. The phone is creepily good at predicting what you're going to type next, especially if you're hammering out a generic response or boilerplate text message. In fact, when writing certain throwaway messages, I basically gave up on whatever I was trying to say in the first place and just let the phone paraphrase for me.
Should you flick the wrong word and quickly find yourself typing out what reads like the LSD-fuelled ramblings of a beat poet, the Z10 makes it pretty easy to start over. Swiping from right to left across the keyboard deletes entire words at a time. Swiping from bottom to top (assuming you don't hit some random key by accident) brings up the number and symbol keypads. What's more, the predictive text function can handle three languages at once. That last feature is something RIM added for the hypothetical BlackBerry Power User they always talk about – you know, the borderless business pro who's constantly rushing to and from airport terminals and juggling a dozen meetings at once and feeling a vague sense of guilt about missing an offspring's bassoon recital. Still, if you type in multiple languages, this is a handy feature to have.
If you ignore all the swiping stuff and just hammer away at the keys, you will spew out gibberish. That's because the keys themselves are just a little too difficult to hit properly with your (or at least my) fat thumbs. When hit, the keys will light up, although I'm not sure how much that helps, given that your finger is, more often than not, covering the key when it lights up.
Fortunately, the Z10 will nonetheless turn your gibberish into real words – and usually the correct words you were trying to type. The autocorrect feature on this thing is better than any I've seen elsewhere, and can even split words apart when you forget to hit the spacebar. Over time, the phone also learns your most common mistakes. So if you're constantly hitting R when you meant to hit T, the T will eventually do a little virtual shimmy to the left.
In general, typing on any touchscreen sucks. But if you put in the effort of learning the Z10's particular brand of Swipe-Fu, it ends up offering the best typing experience you'll get on almost any flat glass pane.
If you're a physical keyboard addict, though, just wait a few more months and pick up the Q10, which is the real-keyboard kin of the Z10. I only played around with the Q10 for a few minutes, but the extra-wide keyboard on that phone is just excellent.
In addition to the headline features, there are a few small and not-so-small things the Z10 gets surprisingly right (and, in some cases, wrong). The camera comes with a "timeline" feature that lets you take a photo over a short burst of time and then scroll along the timeline to find the one moment when your subject wasn't blinking or looking stupid.
Having failed (so far) to convince Instagram or Google Maps to come to the BlackBerry, RIM has also built what turned out to be very functional photo filters and a weirdly good maps app (certainly better than that mess Apple built).
Then there are the little bugs and annoyances. How do you mark everything read in the Hub? Is this a very easy command that I couldn't figure out, or does it not exist? Why did the picture app refuse to open and instead give me a thoroughly unhelpful error message? Why does the multitasking seem to come to a stop at eight apps, at which point older opened apps kind of disappear into the ether? On that note, important thing to keep in mind: If you hit the little X at the bottom of a program icon to close it, it will immediately go away – like, for good. If you have a word document open, for example, and you close it, you won't get a prompt to save your work, or anything like that, it's just gone. So beware.
One last lament: Why, dear God, does recharging the battery via a computer's USB port seem to take longer than the expected lifespan of the universe? (In fairness, on the battery front, the Z10, when fully charged, absolutely kills the iPhone and most high-end Android competitors. It's not as stellar as the old, bomb-proof BlackBerrys of years past, but then again, you weren't posting a dozen pictures a minute to Twitter on your old BlackBerry.)
Web browsing on the new BlackBerry, thankfully, is no longer a hair-greying experience. RIM will boast about all the esoteric speed and processing benchmarks the Z10 browser aces, but in reality, nobody is running those benchmarks in real life. Instead, the browsers handles just about any mobile site competently, including video sites. It is also no longer terrified of secure web sites.
On the social side, the Z10 performs admirably. Virtually every built-in app has one-touch sharing to Facebook, Twitter, BBM, or whatever outpost your hipster friends are using these days to let you know they have an opinion about Lena Dunham. The Twitter and Facebook apps look and feel almost exactly the same as the ones on the iPhone.
As for all other apps, well, they're not as terrible as they used to be on BlackBerrys, which is to say they're only kind of terrible. RIM has gone to Herculean lengths just to convince app developers not to give up on the BlackBerry platform. Their efforts mean you'll have access to about 70,000 apps – or about a tenth of what's available for Apple and Android phones – when the Z10 launches. RIM is quick to point out that this is more than any other phone had when it first launched, which would be great if the Z10 was going on sale in 2007.
Many of the big names are here: Angry Birds, Skype, the New York Times and the Globe and Mail (I have to mention that one). Twitter and Facebook apps come pre-loaded. There's also an impressive selection of current albums, movies and TV shows for sale in the app marketplace. Selection will differ greatly depending on where in the world you live. As always, the U.S. gets the most offerings, although the Canadian store isn't bad.
BlackBerry World itself still isn't the best-designed app store on Earth. As far as I can tell, there's no way to see what the top free apps are. And, as was the case with the PlayBook, it doesn't take much searching before you find evidence that a lot of developers just sort of phoned their apps in. That organization manager app whose icon is a smiling green Google robot? Yeah, that was probably ported over from Android in a bit of a hurry.
But app store shenanigans aside, the Z10 is just a solid phone. For years, as Apple and Google were running laps around the track, RIM was still trying to tie its shoelaces. That is no longer the case. The Z10 probably isn't going to convince too many hardcore iPhone and Android users to switch, but it is at least a comparable device. And if RIM's plan is to push past the Microsoft Windows Phone ecosystem for the smartphone industry's bronze medal, this is a stellar start.
Keep in mind that building a great phone has never been enough to save a phone company (See: Palm Pre). Even as RIM was unveiling the critically acclaimed Z10 this week, its stock was tanking – not because the phone is terrible, but likely because RIM won't be able to sell it in the U.S. for more than a month, wiping out a chunk of potential earnings from its next quarterly results.
RIM's salvation isn't dependent on the Z10, it's dependent on overall sales – how many people buy BlackBerry 10 phones, and in turn, whether that convinces developers not to give up on the BlackBerry brand.
But by building a phone packed with the industry's greatest hits – and probably the best device it has built since the original, genre-creating BlackBerrys – RIM has at least bought itself some time, and relevance.