BlackBerry Z10: The empire strikes back
BlackBerry, formerly known as Research In Motion, has clearly paid very close attention to how other smartphone makers have thrived over the past few years as it floundered. It has spent two long years preparing for this bet-the-farm moment — and is so desperate for the new traction that could come from a fresh start that it pre-announced a phone it cannot sell in the United States until March.
First, the good news: In look and feel this is a mature smartphone. It is both businesslike and fun to use and easy to imagine as the choice for road warriors and consumers alike. It is sleek and light; it fills the hand properly and can convincingly be operated with one hand most of the time. At 4.2 inches the screen is larger than the iPhone 5 but smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S III. Resolution is greater than on both: 1,280 x 768, matching HTC’s Windows 8X and One X.
It sports 2GB vs. the 1 GB of RAM of its major competitors, and a fairly-standard 1.5 GHz dual-core processor. The difference shows: the Z10 is unhaltingly fast when launching and switching between apps and doing just about everything else.
But while BlackBerry has learned from the success of others and from its own mistakes — this is not the company’s first multi-touch phone — the Z10 has two major shortcomings, one hardware and one software.
The hardware problem has been well documented: battery life is bad. But my experience was decidedly mixed. On one day, with no use whatsoever, my review unit died in fewer than 12 hours (connected to 4G, not a hotspot). During an average hour or so commute of steady use another day — also using 4G — considerably more than 50% of the juice was consumed. Other days of average use, almost entirely in WiFi hotspots, I only had to top-off the charge from time to time, which is typical for all smartphones.
On the upside, the battery can be swapped out on the Z10 (unlike the iPhone). I can imagine road warriors carrying a couple of spares of this wafer-thin $33 battery. It’s not a bad compromise considering that cases which also provide back-up battery power generally cost about $80, and add weight and design compromises.
The Z10’s more serious flaw is in BlackBerry’s new approach to desktop management, message wrangling and notifications. It took Apple years to get it nearly right (and the iPhone still isn’t perfect). But this is an area where BlackBerry curiously chose not to adopt some pretty obvious best practices. It’s a big swing and a miss.
BlackBerry’s conceit is to rely on a “Hub” where all messages reside — phone calls, Twitter interactions, email, texts, Facebook messages, etc. On paper this isn’t a bad idea. It can be argued that a message is a message whether it arrives via a data network, a social network or in a person-to-person phone call. It’s how the iPhone and Android handles it, each its own way.
The problem is that the Hub is hidden. It can be as many as three gestures away*. When you are in app you must close that app to access the Hub. If you are deep inside “Settings” you have to back out screen by screen before you can even close that app out. If you (for example) left a draft reply to some message in the Hub and went away, you even have to clear that before reaching the Hub again. On competing platforms the notification screen is always available, one swipe away.
It gets worse. Unlike the iPhone and Android devices there is no passive indicator to preview the content or source of a message. On the iPhone, for instance, a banner pops up showing you it’s an email, or a CNN alert or a Tweet. The Z10 it makes a noise and flashes a light telling you you have a message — but it doesn’t give you a clue what it might be. Sounds are somewhat configurable, so you can know when you get an email, but without a hint about what the email’s about you still have to drop everything and check the Hub. This only creates the worst-case scenario. Most of us get a steady stream of messages. It’s no service to be alerted when you get a message, unless you also have enough information to decide to ignore it or drill down. I found myself navigating to the Hub like Pavlov’s Dog and finding, as is the case with most messages, that the latest was of a very low priority. It quickly became useless.
The miscalculation on workflow extends even to the basic arrangement of apps. There is no “tray” to deposit those you use most, available on any of the expandable number of app screens. And the main screen is completely wasted as an archive to the last eight apps you’ve opened. In other words, this prime real estate is used neither for dynamic communications updates nor the apps to which you want easiest access. It’s reserved for where you’ve been, not where you’re going, and that is hard to overlook.
I’m a fairly heavy Siri user, primarily for dictation rather than semantic search or as a personal assistant. The Z10’s voice feature is usable, but very crude and not very intuitive. If you tell it “note to self” it stops taking dictation and asks what you want to do next when you’ve paused, making it impractical as a real dictation tool. It should be smart enough to open “notepad,” and allow you to dictate as much as you want.
For information, the voice UI was a complete failure. In a silent room, inches away from the mic, I asked the simplest question as Superstorm Nemo approached: “What is the weather like?” The Z10 could not comprehend the last word, which it interpreted as “white” or “for” in eight attempts. Siri got it right away and responded: “Some bad weather coming up through Wednesday… down to 7 degrees and snowing,” and displayed a seven-day forecast graphic.
In another important area, the Z10 shines: the onsceen keyboard is first-rate. It devotes more space to the keys rather than the space around them, which makes fat-finger typing much more forgiving. It shows numbers by default — you don’t have to toggle between alpha-numeric states. And it employs a novel predictive algorithm which reveals possible words over various keys as you type even one letter. If you see the word you intend to type after a couple of letters you can then “flick” the word up to the page.
BlackBerry says it also learns your writing patterns, altering suggested words as it “remembers” combinations you’ve already used. Efficacy is difficult to assess except over a long time, though my Z10 seemed spookily self-aware on one occasion: It suggested the very-obscure word “Chappaqua” from “cha” the first time I typed it. Was that a location-informed choice because I happened to be in Chappaqua at the time?
“Suggested words” isn’t unique to Blackberry — though the implementation is lovely. In practice it’s difficult to imagine this being a big boon to the power typist, and it doesn’t seem nearly as efficient as gesture typing, an option on some Android devices. In situations where speed isn’t of the essence but hitting as few keys as possible is — outside in the cold, using only one’s hand — this can come in quite handy.
I have a handful of smaller complaints:
- It takes three clicks to delete an email, including a ridiculous confirmation;
- The browser is not recognized as a mobile browser, so you are served up full-sized web pages
- Tethering is possible only under Bluetooth, not WiFi — but when you turn on tethering it doesn’t automatically turn on Bluetooth, or even tell you it’s off;
- When you download a new app, it can’t be launched right from the download page. You have to find it on an app screen.
- No provision for creating a favorites list of most called contacts
- It’s NFC-enabled, but there’s no e-wallet yet
But these aren’t deal breakers, and, again, can be addressed in future software updates.
This is a tough call for me: Under the right circumstances I could add a Z10 to my go bag. The form factor and performance and keyboard are all winners. The desktop UI and power consumption are not. There are still lots of apps I depend on that aren’t in Blackberry World, and all must be re-configured for this new OS. Most of this is software related (even energy usage could be somewhat addressed in the operating system) and since there is still more than a month before US sales begin, there’s time to refine the OS. Apps will follow only if this new new platform shows signs of life.
As a means of getting the BlackBerry back on track, the Z10 may be too little too late. That would be a shame: the company, which sparked the mobile revolution, is finally onto something again.
*Correction: The original article mentioned that the Hub was “as many as four swipes away”