The past couple of months have seen a dizzying array of “hero” smartphones hit the Australian marketplace. They’re all around the same kinds of price points outright or on contract, so which one should you pick? This week: Blackberry’s most significant launch in recent years: The Blackberry Z10.
If you missed it, last week’s entry was the generally excellent Sony Xperia Z.
I’d like to think of myself as the analytical sort — some unkind folk have used the word “cynical” more than once — but it’s fair to say that of the crop of premium smartphones to emerge in 2013, Blackberry’s Z10 grabbed my attention the most. Blackberry — or RIM, as it used to be known — has been on the rocks in recent years, but the Z10 looked — at least on the 30 second surface — as thought it could be a new beginning for the company best known for the speed of its communications.
On the plus side
I really can’t fault the Z10’s hardware to speak of. This is a solidly built phone with a pleasant, if somewhat simple design idea. In keeping with Blackberry’s appeal to enterprise users, it’s got more of a business feel to it than most competing smartphone options. If I wanted to get picky — and I suppose I do — I’d point out that, like Samsung’s Galaxy range, the use of a plastic back cover feels a little cheap and flimsy. Then again, that adds microSD and removable battery options, so bonus points there.
The big promise of the Z10 lies not so much in the hardware, though, but in the software, and specifically Blackberry 10, the operating system that Blackberry built from the ground up, dumping the existing Blackberry code for a QNX-based alternative. A bold move, but one that Blackberry assures its users is focused on productivity and multi-tasking. Ask Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins what the weather’s like outside, and he won’t be able to answer without throwing the phrase “mobile computing” in there somewhere.
As mentioned, I was keen to see if the Z10 could cut it, so I spent a month testing it over at Hydrapinion in order to dive deeply into its operating environment. There’s a distinct learning curve to the Z10’s button-free environment, whether it’s the semi-predictive keyboard or the use of specific gestures for app access and working around the all-important Blackberry Hub that forms the heart of Blackberry 10. Where the OS excels is in simple information display, especially around the Hub. If you’re an information junkie with limited time resources, the Z10 will fulfil your needs nicely.
On the minus side
There are downsides, however. The App ecosystem for a start. Now, in some ways that feels a little unfair, because BB10 is a new platform, and there’s always going to be less software for a new platform than an established one. At the same time, though, anyone buying a Z10 right now is getting the App experience of the Z10 right now. I can only assess what’s there, not what “might be there”, in other words. The Z10 covers the bases well — and even integrates services like Evernote and Twitter right into the Hub, albeit with sometimes spotty results — but in comparison to the platforms available on other premium devices, it’s definitely running in fourth place.
Then there’s the camera. When the Z10 was first announced, Timeshift sounded excellent; a few frames taken consecutively so that you never need have closed eyes in a photo again. Indeed, it does what it says on the tin — but again, compared to the functions available around this in, say, the HTC One, it doesn’t stack up that well. It also doesn’t help that for a premium smartphone in 2013, the Z10’s camera performance is only really ordinary.
I mentioned the learning curve earlier, and while it’s something you can overcome, the one factor that never left me — and in some ways this is something that you might not spot if you didn’t review smartphones for a living — was that Blackberry expects its gestures to be performed in a somewhat leisurely manner. Flick too fast, and the wrong thing may happen — or nothing at all. From the power user’s perspective, that almost feels like sluggishness.
In reinventing itself from RIM to Blackberry, RIM’s also dropped — at least at the consumer end — the ability to have a Blackberry service on your phone. Why does that matter? Previously, Blackberry devices had the ability to get your email and messages at fantastic speeds, thanks to optimisation done at RIM’s servers. What this meant was that messages sent to you would be processed by them, stripped of anything that made them chunky and then zapped out to your Blackberry device in seconds. The practical upshot? Whenever I’ve reviewed a Blackberry device in the past, it would always buzz with an incoming message way before any of my other systems knew there was incoming communication happening. That optimisation also meant that Blackberry could hold off on 3G for a lot longer than its competitors, because it didn’t entirely need it. The Z10 is 4G LTE capable, which can be quick in the right circumstances, but there’s no email service. My Z10 sits there, and it does get the mail, but only in its own time, and often after I’ve seen it appear on other devices.
In contract terms, you can score a Z10 through Optus starting at $48 per month with 200MB of data and $200 “worth” of calls and SMS. Telstra’s entry level plan is $67 per month with 1GB of data, unlimited SMS and $600 “worth” of calls. The Z10 sells through Harvey Norman at $648 (at the time of writing) outright, with direct importers Kogan and Mobicity selling an imported model outright for $559 and $659 respectively.
I can very much see a niche for Blackberry to occupy in the business world; there’s little about the Z10 that feels particularly “playful” in one sense, and the company’s pitch at it events is nearly always towards that business crowd. Die-hard Blackberry fans — my brother is amongst them — may cling to the brand, but the experience is markedly different, especially when it comes to the nippy communications that RIM used to offer; now that depends on the quality of carrier signal available to the device. In the broader consumer space, however, it’s a harder sell. I spent a month using the Z10 as my day to day phone, and while it worked well enough, I switched out to an Android handset at the end of the month for greater overall app flexibility