Ever since smartphones came along, all we’ve been hearing about is Android and iOS. Sure, there are other players around, such as Windows Phone and BlackBerry, but we mostly don’t think of them as viable options.
For me, BlackBerry always seemed like a dying, irrelevant OS, until our best mobile OS poll results revealed that 53 per cent of voters preferred BlackBerry, and this got me thinking. Can a tech blogger really afford to know nothing about an entire mobile OS?
We’ve looked at numerous Android devices, every available iPhone, and even some Windows Phone devices such as the Nokia Lumia 920 and Lumia 1020. Isn’t it BlackBerry’s turn? I’ve taken the BlackBerry Z10 for a spin and returned with some thoughts. Want a spin too? Keep reading to find out how you can win this $300 device for free!
Despite everything said above, BlackBerry is still an underdog. While it may have more success in some countries, such as the US, even that is dwindling fast. But do BlackBerry phones really have nothing to offer?
The BlackBerry Z10 is a 4.2-inch device, and comes with 768 x 1280 pixel resolution screen and 355 dpi. For this reason, I will compare it to the smaller phones available.
The Z10 is no runt when it comes to specs. While its chipset is only a dual-core Snapdragon S4, it comes with 2 gigabytes of RAM, 16 gigabytes of internal storage, and microSD slot capable of supporting 64 gigabytes. It has an 8 megapixel main camera and can shoot 1080p HD videos. One unique thing about the Z10 is that it comes with a micro-HDMI port. Together with its native ability to view and edit Microsoft Office documents, this can prove quite useful. Unlike most modern smartphones, the Z10 also has a user-replaceable battery — a feature that’s become almost exclusive to Samsung.
So how does it fare next to similar-sized phones?
If dealing with looks, the BlackBerry Z10 looks a lot like the HTC One, or more specifically, the HTC One mini. However, the One mini’s dual-core Snapdragon 400 processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM, 4 megapixel main camera and lack of microSD slot make it quite a bit weaker than the Z10. While they do have the same battery and similar camera sensor, the One mini is still not a real contender, at least in terms of specifications.
Another phone that looks somewhat similar is the iPhone, especially if you squint. While it’s hard to compare chipsets with Apple, both iPhone 5c and 5s offer only 1 gigabyte of RAM, and both offer a similar 8 megapixel camera. The iPhone 5s, however, does have a larger camera sensor than the Z10. Both iPhones have smaller batteries, which are, of course, not user replaceable, and while they don’t have microSD slots, you can get an iPhone with 64 gigabytes of internal storage. If you’re willing to pay for one, that is.
Other options in the same size include the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini. With a dual-core Snapdragon 800, 1.5GB of RAM, an 8MP camera and a 64GB microSD slot, the S4 mini is definitely a contender. It also has a slightly bigger battery, which is user replaceable.
The last one in this group is the Sony Z1 compact (needs link to review here), and this is where the Z10 loses fair and square. The Z1 compact comes with a quad-core Snapdragon 800 chipset, 2GB of RAM, a 20.7MP camera with a larger sensor than the Z10’s, and a microSD slot. It’s also waterproof, which is an added bonus, and has a significantly larger battery.
But what about prices? The BlackBerry Z10 can be found on Amazon for less than $300. That’s quite a bargain for a phone with its specs. The cheapest one of the bunch other than the Z10 is the Samsung Galaxy S4, and at $350 on Amazon, it’s still a bit more expensive. The rest of the phones mentioned above will cost you anything from $400 for the HTC One mini, all the way to $550 for the iPhone 5c, and that’s without venturing into the more expensive Z1 compact and iPhone 5s.
Getting To Know The Z10
Like most smartphones in the world, the Z10 comes with its own wall charger, a micro-USB cable, and a pair of pretty decent earbuds. The earbuds are the one-size kind, so you won’t find different sized plastic caps for them in the box. They do, however, come with a plastic clip.
The Z10 itself is a good-looking phone, and it knows it. The removable plastic back is pleasantly textured, and features the BlackBerry logo. It’s both beautiful and feels nice in your hand. The texture feels much better than the smooth and slippery surface of, say, most Samsung phones, that also have a removable back.
The camera is positioned on the very top left of the phone, which means you’re never going to cover it with your fingers by mistake. Many smartphones makers have recently moved the camera to all sorts of weird positions, which can be a pain to avoid if you’re not paying attention.
On the display side, you’re not going to find the resident Corning Gorilla Glass, but rather a more plasticy material called Touch on Lens. I’m not sure how scratch-proof this type of screen is, but a screen protector is good to have no matter the material. The screen does seem to collect dust and fingerprints more than most smartphones I’ve used, and the small groove between the display and plastic side makes for a fabulous, impossible-to-clean dust trap.
I’m not sure if BlackBerry wanted to be unique, or if they simply wanted both ports side by side, but the Z10’s charging port is located on the lower left side of the device. A rare location, and a pretty confusing one when you’re just getting used to the phone. The second port you can see next to it is the aforementioned micro-HDMI port, which means you don’t need to carry your laptop around when giving presentations.
On the other side, you’ll find the volume buttons, and another hardware button in the middle. This is the voice-control button. Yes, BlackBerry has a dedicated hardware button for this, and a long press on it will launch the voice-control app even when the screen is off.
The Z10’s strong speaker resides on the front of the device — again, safely away from stray fingers that might block it — and provides impressive sound that makes watching videos and listening to music a nice experience. Next to it, you’ll find the the Z10’s 2 megapixel front-facing camera and a 7-color LED.
The Z10’s power button also received a pretty unconventional spot: the top middle. Not a great spot for such a frequently used button, although luckily, you don’t need to use it every time you want to turn your screen on.
The Z10’s display doesn’t look like much at first glance, but it’s actually really good. HD videos look great, colors pop, and games – as far as I could find good ones – are also pretty gorgeous.
Things get a bit iffy when it comes to the battery, though. To start, the Z10 simply won’t turn on unless it’s charged for at least twenty minutes. The battery comes completely flat out of the box, so don’t expect to start playing with it right away. When I bought this device, I had to stand around and wait in the store to make sure it actually turns on. After waiting around for twenty minutes I finally gave up and persuaded them to let me take it home. It still required some charging after that before it agreed to turn on. When it finally does turn on, the Z10’s loading sequence is a long one, sometimes taking almost a full minute.
At 1800 mAh, the battery is not a very long-lasting one. Compared to what I’m used to from such phones as the Nexus 4 (read our review) and Nexus 5 (which we also reviewed), the Z10’s battery drains rather quickly. It will last for a whole day on average use, but it starts complaining about low battery when it reaches 20 per cent, and it’s quite a crybaby about it.
Weak or not, the battery is user replaceable, which is a refreshing change from most smartphones in the market at the moment. After removing the back plastic cover, you’ll also find the microSD slot and the SIM slot. That’s right, no annoying SIM drawer you have to use special tools to open. Definitely a relief.
Making a respectable phone specs-wise is one thing, but at the end of the day, what most people worry about is the OS. And BlackBerry 10 is an OS most users have never experienced. Therefore, it’s scary. In reality, however, BlackBerry 10 is an innovative and easy-to-use operating system that both Android and iOS users will easily get along with. It’s not glitch free, but then again, it hasn’t been around for as long as the others.
When taking a first look at BlackBerry 10, there are several new elements to get to know. The phone will take you through a short tutorial when you first activate it, showing you how to access the BlackBerry Hub on the right, and how to swipe up in any app to exit and transfer it to the recently used apps screen.
The BlackBerry Hub is where all your communications are stored. It’s where you’ll find your calls, text messages, WhatsApp messages, BBM messages, emails, and social network alerts. The Z10 comes with native apps for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and FourSquare, and setting up your email with any provider is a breeze. Once everything is set up, all your communications are just one swipe away. You can view them all together, or view each platform on its own.
With BlackBerry Hub, there’s no real need for a traditional notification center. However, you can still access some useful options by swiping down with your finger on the homescreen. From here you can easily turn on your flashlight, lock screen rotation, set your notifications, and more.
BlackBerry Search is another feature worth knowing well. Unlike Apple’s Spotlight search or Android’s Google Now, this search feature covers everything. The search button is always there when viewing your homescreens (along with the phone and camera buttons), and when you start typing your query, results will start popping up from your apps, emails, contacts, calendar, and pretty much everything else. It also offers to extend your search to the Internet, social networks, BlackBerry World (BlackBerry’s app market), and more.
The native keyboard is also unique. To start, it’s really easy to use. From the first moment you start typing, you’ll notice there’s something different about it. It’s hard to put my finger on what that quality is, but it just feels good to type on. It also offers a unique text-completion algorithm.
While you type, suggestions will start popping up above certain keyboard keys. Once you see the word you’re looking for (usually above the next key you were going to tap), slide up your finger on the key to complete the word. Suggestions sometimes appear on the space bar too, so when you hit the space bar, the keyboard may autocorrect your word into something else. The whole experience takes a bit of getting used to, but in some respects, it’s a definite improvement over similar systems.
Remember the voice-control hardware button? This activates a useful Siri-like voice-control system. The system’s voice recognition is good, and you can ask it to do anything from calling and texting someone to conducting a search for you, setting an alarm or a reminder, composing a note, navigating to a location, and more. The system is interactive, which means it can ask you questions and you can usually reply with more voice commands. I only wish the whole thing worked a little bit faster.
The Z10’s camera is alright, though not outstanding, and the camera app it comes with is pretty basic. There are 4 shooting modes to choose from and 5 different scenes, and you can also shoot in three different aspect ratios, and control the flash. That’s about it. More advanced options like exposure, white balance or even panorama are nowhere in sight. There’s also no clear way to focus the image anywhere but on the middle of the display, and tapping the screen anywhere always take a picture. This means you need to rely on auto-focus entirely, and it’s always set to focus on what’s straight ahead.
The Z10 does come with some neat photo-editing tools, accessible right from the photo gallery. Here you can apply some effects, adjust the photo’s colors and sharpness, crop it to various sizes and add some frames.
There are many more things to explore in BlackBerry 10, but everything is pretty straightforward. If you expect to find a whole new world when you pick up a BlackBerry device, you’re in for a surprise. It’s different, but it’s very intuitive, and you’ll recognize many of its basic aspects from existing operating systems.
As mentioned above, the system is not glitch-free. I did have random problems with Wi-Fi and some weird app crashes. The BlackBerry World app market refused to load from time to time, and it took me 8 tries to confirm a simple app such as WhatsApp. After everything was finally set up, though, things became smoother.
Another weak point is, as expected, the lack of apps. While the situation is not as bad as Windows Phone, some big players such as Instagram are still missing in action. This is no longer a huge problem, though, since you can easily install any Android app on BlackBerry 10.
Installing Android Apps
My colleague Christian has already covered the process of installing Android apps on BlackBerry 10, but if you’re still worried about it, don’t be. This really couldn’t be easier. There are several ways to do this. Either point your browser to an APK source you trust such as apktrain.com, or install a third-party market such as 1mobile or the Amazon App Store. Once you choose a source, search for the app you want to install, and download it. It’s then a matter of opening and installing the app. It’s almost as streamlined as installing a native app.
Android apps run well in BlackBerry OS, although you may notice some choppiness or lags at times. It’s also impossible to fully multi-task with Android apps on BlackBerry, meaning an app won’t keep doing its work (for example, playing music) if it’s not in the foreground. It will remain running, however, and easy to access via the recently used apps screen.
Living With The BlackBerry Z10
I was pleasantly surprised with the BlackBerry Z10. Having recently between switched phones several times for review purposes, I wasn’t expecting a smooth transition. Turns out that, at least for me, BlackBerry is a much easier OS to get used to than, say, Windows Phone, and the familiar visuals go a long way to helping you adjust to the new environment.
The Z10 itself might not be as powerful as my usual Nexus 5, but it’s no weakling. Aside from some weird glitches here and there, the Z10 is a responsive and fun-to-use device. I got used to the BlackBerry Hub in about 5 seconds, and I’m going to miss it when I return to my Nexus 5.
As for BlackBerry 10, this operating system sure surprised me. I found a cool new feature every time I looked, including a built-in SMS responder right in the incoming call screen and gorgeous clock, timer and compass apps.
It also comes with the built-in ability to view and edit Microsoft Office documents which surpasses even what I’ve seen on Windows Phone.
The operating system doesn’t feel as baked as Android or iOS, but it’s definitely getting there. And the Z10, with its respectable abilities and specs, is a true bargain at its price, and an actual contender for many of today’s smartphones. The only thing stopping BlackBerry now is users’ fear, and as I found out, this fear is not really justified. In fact, now that I have to go back to Android, part of me feels a bit sorry. Just a bit.
Should You Buy The BlackBerry Z10?
If you’re a heavy user and need many productivity tools that are not available for BlackBerry, relying on Android side-loading might not be the best option for you. If, however, you’re the average user who only uses Facebook, email and a browser most days, the BlackBerry Z10 is a really good option.
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