When my turn came for going through immigration control as I landed in New York for the BlackBerry 10 launch, the immigration officer was openly suspicious when I told him I was there for a BlackBerry event. He wondered aloud whether BlackBerry was still around and unlike ever before on a US visit, checked details of the launch thoroughly.
An hour or so later, when I walked into a T-Mobile store to pick up a local SIM card, the helpful staff there strongly recommended against going in for a BlackBerry plan, saying it just wasn’t worth it and simply more expensive, and that BlackBerry was pretty much in the coffin with a final few nails left to be hammered in.
It was amidst this backdrop of overwhelming indifference in the USA that BlackBerry (formerly called Research in Motion) chose to launch the Z10, the first smartphone powered by the much-delayed BlackBerry 10 OS. Hundreds of journalists and analysts came to witness what BlackBerry executives claimed was history being made – either way, whether BlackBerry goes back to its glory days with BlackBerry 10 or finally flames out in case BlackBerry 10 is a market failure, history will be made. The Z10 is pivotal to BlackBerry’s future. We got our hands on a demo unit for a few short hours and here’s our initial impression of BlackBerry’s new flagship smartphone, the Z10, powered by BlackBerry 10.
Design and build
Very business-like in its appearance and not a radical departure from traditional BlackBerry design philosophy, the Z10 exudes elegance and seems well-built and solid. The look is very different from the creative flair of the trendy Nokia Lumia smartphones. From the side, it does look a bit like the iPhone 5 given the rounded edges. But the difference is clear when you take a look at the front. Compared to the iPhone 5’s glass front, the BlackBerry Z10 has the screen encased between two fairly thick bezel bands at the top and bottom. The removable back plate is a tactile delight, rubberised with a dimpled pattern that makes it great to hold and without much fear of a mishap thanks to a slip.
Slim enough to give the best of them a run for their money
With dimensions of 130 mm x 65.6 mm x 9 mm, and weighing in at a comfortable 135.4 g, the Z10 fits well into pockets, although am not very sure it will be a great match for the traditional upright BlackBerry holsters clipped on the belt thanks to the length.
There is a microUSB charging port and a microHDMI out port on the left, volume and media buttons on the right and a power button at the top of the Z10 with a 3.5 mm headphone jack giving it company. The buttons are brushed metal just like the thin speaker grille at the top of the screen and just under the top bezel. Interestingly, gone is the dedicated BBM button that BlackBerry was touting only recently.
The 4.2-inch, 4 point multi-touch IPS LCD display with a resolution of 1280 x 768 is a delight to the eyes. At 356 ppi, it beats the iPhone 5’s Retina Display on specs and is sharp and vivid.
Under the hood
The spec sheet provided by BlackBerry only says dual-core 1.5GHz processor, but earlier leaks suggested it’s a TI OMAP processor powering the Z10. The supporting act is played by 2GB of RAM and 16GB inbuilt flash memory that can be expanded by a hot swappable microSD card of up to 32GB. Even when I played with the Dev Alpha B unit with a beta version of the OS, I was impressed by the silky smooth, lag-free OS and in the few hours of use, not once did I experience any lag. There’s a vast difference compared to the traditional BlackBerry hourglass headache because of the legacy OS on older BlackBerry smartphones. We’ll need to wait for the final review, which involves regular use as a primary smartphone over a week or so, to give you a verdict on whether BlackBerry has finally gotten rid of its lag issues. And that should happen once we get a review unit when BlackBerry launches the Z10 in India sometime in February. My money is on an India launch towards the latter part of the month. With the Z10 debuting in the UAE by February 10, it should be a fairly popular item on incoming flights from Dubai, feeding the Indian grey market, till the India launch takes place.
Available in White and Black shades
The battery is a 1800 mAh unit and while BlackBerry claims up to 10 hours of talktime on 3G, up to 305 hours of standby time on 3G and up to 316 hours of standby time on 2G, audio playback of up to 60 hours and video playback of up to 11 hours, I’m going to wait for the final review and tech2.com’s rigorous battery tests before I make up my mind. Admittedly, I have an uneasy feeling that there might not be enough juice to last a busy day. Interestingly, the Q10, the BB10 smartphone with a QWERTY physical keyboard and a smaller screen, has a battery with more juice – 2100 mAh. I would have been thrilled to see a 2100 mAh power pack on the Z10, but let’s see what the final review will reveal.
If I could say it in a line—finally, we have a BlackBerry camera that could be considered in a shootout against other smartphones featuring good cameras. There’s an 8MP rear camera with auto focus, 5x digital zoom, 1080p HD video capture and an LED while the front shooter is a 2MP one with 3x digital zoom and 720p HD video capture. In the short time that I could play around with the Z10, I could only capture some images in low-light and I was fairly okay with the results when considering BlackBerry’s chequered past on the camera front. But I suspect it may not hold a candle to the camera on power shooters like the Nokia Lumia 920 flagship. But to be fair, all I got was low light situations and we’ll wait for a proper review unit and put it through tech2.com’s comprehensive camera tests to come to a conclusion.
Of course, the key highlight on the Z10 camera front is the unique Time Shift camera capability and you can read a detailed story by tech2.com on this feature here. I have a feeling this is the one feature that will excite the individual customer the most.
User interface and features
The user interface is completely different from other smartphone UIs—gesture based, designed for single handed use and without the need for a Home button and constant opening and closing of apps; BlackBerry 10 is a true multitasking OS designed for productivity. In our final review, we will consider whether the UI is truly revolutionary as BlackBerry claims or is merely different and comes with a learning curve that users don’t always appreciate.
And then there’s BBM Video, which brings video calling to BBM with screen sharing capability during a video chat and makes the Z10 the first smartphone to offer screen sharing capability on a video chat. This offers immense possibilities from a collaborative scenario as users can share screens of documents, pictures, Excel sheets and far more.
New designs for old features
Interestingly, while ease of email setup was the USP of BlackBerry devices, things may have changed slightly on the Z10 and BlackBerry 10. While personal email accounts were set up in a breeze, my work Microsoft Exchange account just wouldn't play ball—I tried Microsoft ActiveSync with a variety of combinations, but setup always failed. It reminded me of my frustrating experiences setting up Microsoft Exchange e-mail on Android smartphones. We'll give it a better shot during the detailed review later, but I hope this was just a random error and not a habit with BlackBerry 10.
A dearth of applications was why the PlayBook – BlackBerry’s tablet attempt – sank despite respectable hardware and a good OS powering it. BlackBerry seems to have learnt its lessons and has gone after developers like the actor playing the role of the “hero” goes after the nubile heroine in Bollywood movies despite multiple rejections. And just like Bollywood movies, developers seem to have finally come around and responded to BlackBerry’s wooing—the app catalogue featured 70,000+ apps at launch and is expected to cross 100,000 within a month. Even as BlackBerry executives repeatedly emphasised that no new mobile OS had so many apps on Day 1, app pricing will also play a key role.
The all new App Store loaded with 70,000 apps
I noticed that Angry Birds Space is available for $0.99 on BlackBerry World. Adele’s 21 album was priced at $10.99 while Unorthodox Jukebox by Bruno Mars was priced at $11.99. Some popular movies like the Dark Knight Rises and Ted were priced at $3.99 for rental and $19.99 for purchase. On the TV shows front, most individual episodes of popular shows were available for $1.99. We’ll have to wait for the final review to check prices in India (and even whether content such as music, movies and TV show episodes will be available on BlackBerry World for the Indian market). For more on the app scenario for BlackBerry 10, do read.
Yes, it’s decidedly impressive at first take. BlackBerry has delivered an innovative OS powering what seems to be a very good smartphone. With a mobile office solution expected later in the year, and a car solution and more expected in the not so distant future, BlackBerry 10 may indeed herald a new paradigm in mobile computing and not just mobile communication. But finally, when it comes down to the Z10 itself, handset pricing and availability-cum-price points of applications will determine market success.
The Hub is a one stop space for access to all notifications and alerts
As Nikhil Subramaniam says in his article on Z10 pricing, the announced UAE pricing is the closest indicator for the eventual price tag on Z10s to be shipped to India. In the UAE, a non carrier subsidised, unlocked Z10 will retail for AED 2,599, which is about Rs 37,707. Taking into account government levies and duties on import, the Z10 might end up being priced closer to Rs 40,000. At that price, the Z10 would be in the range of the Galaxy S3, HTC One X and One X+, and the Nokia Lumia 920.
Another factor is the new BlackBerry plans that carriers are supposedly working on, which at the low-end may do away with the fee paid to BlackBerry for the service unlike today. There may be various flavours of tiered data plans available, with corporate customers, who need security and encryption, paying the most to BlackBerry for the service. But all this will be revealed only at the India launch. Stay tuned to tech2.com for that.