After years of delay, the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 operating system is finally on its way to a carrier near you -- but is it worth buying? BlackBerry is giving consumers plenty of time to think it over: the first smartphones to sport the new OS, the Z10 and Q10, won't go on sale until March and April, respectively.
I've spent the last two weeks playing with the Z10 and there are some definite pros and cons. Here's what you need to consider before shelling out $199 to buy one:
- Solid Operating System -- For most consumers, the big question with the new BlackBerry has been the operating system -- would it be on a par with Android and iOS? The good news is that BlackBerry 10 is actually a very solid operating system -- it's really fast and fluid, supported by a 1.2GHz processor and 2GB of RAM on the Z10. The most unique feature about BB10 is that it's entirely gesture-based, which is a bit weird, and took our reviewers about a week to get used to.
- Typing -- The typing experience has long been a key selling point of BlackBerry and the new phones keep this tradition alive. The Z10 has one of the best keyboards I've ever seen on a touchscreen phone -- it beats the iPhone and various Android models handily. The keyboard uses a smart predictive typing feature and a heat map to learn and adjust to how each person types -- to avoid 'fat finger' mistakes. I found the keyboard's accuracy improved the more I used it.
- Hardware -- The handset is a plastic composite, so nothing fancy, but overall it's a quality build and what you'd expect from HTC. One downside is it doesn't have a Gorilla Glass screen.
- Battery Life -- I'm a power user when it comes to my smartphone, and the Z10's battery kept up with me all day. The battery lasted surprisingly well during a full day of emailing, surfing the web, texting, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
- Email -- BlackBerry's email prowess is still there in the new Z10: emails came in incredibly fast, often faster than on my computer. Push email is gone, however, but overall I found the email client worked incredibly well.
- Browser --The new BlackBerry sports a modern browser -- thank goodness -- and still offers support for Adobe Flash, which iOS and Android no longer do. It surfs the web really fast, lets you open multiple tabs and generally has what you'd expect in a modern browser.
- Call Quality -- The Z10's call quality was excellent, no complaints there. Reception is good, clarity of voices is good, overall it does its most basic feature well. It also comes with visual voicemail built-in, which is a nice touch.
- Full Carrier Blitz -- Thankfully, BB10 will eventually be on all four major U.S. carriers -- AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. AT&T and Verizon are scheduled to launch first, with the other carriers coming later on.
- Time Shift -- The Z10 camera has an interesting feature called Time Shift: it takes multiple pictures with one click, and lets the user choose which facial image they want -- thereby eliminating the risk of closed eyes, awkward expressions, etc.
- Price -- One drawback for BB10 is the price. The Z10 will retail for $199 on a two-year contract for both Verizon and AT&T. That means it's priced the same as an iPhone 5 and twice that of a Samsung Galaxy S3 or iPhone 4S -- not to mention a slew of even cheaper, and very capable, Androids. Those of us at TechnoBuffalo were really hoping BlackBerry would go lower -- $99 or below. Admittedly, that was idealistic of us, but it would have given the new BlackBerries a better chance to gain market share fast -- and after which they could have gradually built up the price point with different 'premium' handset models.
- Gesture Support -- I hesitated before placing the phone's unique gesture-interface in the 'con' category, because there are some intriguing features about it. But at the end of the day, it's a strange way to use a phone and one that might turn-off a lot of consumers who are used to the intuitiveness of iOS and Android. Gesture support is a different way of managing tabs and apps -- instead of pressing a 'home' button, the user has to swipe the finger up and out to return from an active application to the home page; swipe down to bring up additional options in an app; swipe left to access notifications like BlackBerry Messenger and email; etc. There may be some who find this a non-issue, but for the majority of users it might prove a bit disorienting.
- App Store -- BlackBerry World, the new name for the app store, is the most robust offering BlackBerry has ever had -- but, unfortunately, it's not going to be enough for the discerning buyer. With 70,000 apps, it only has 1/10th the offerings of Apple and Android, and about 60 percent of these are repackaged Android apps. It also left out a number of popular apps -- Instagram is one example. However, you can sideload Android apps onto the device, so there are ways around this.
- Maps -- "Lousy," "atrocious," "fail" -- those are a few of the words that came to mind as I tested BlackBerry Maps on the Z10 review unit. Let me put it this way: it makes Apple Maps look brilliant. It has a hard time finding points of interest nearby, has an ugly design and isn't user-friendly. The good news here is you can sideload Google Maps and use that instead.
- Voice Control -- The Z10 has voice control, but it's not very good. It has trouble with accurate dictation and is limited to a few basic functions like appointment setting, web searches and sending texts. Both Google Search and Apple's Siri are far more accurate and integrate voice search more fully into the phone's capabilities.
- Camera - The Z10's camera leaves something wanting. The pictures are unimpressive, but it does come with the clever Time Shift feature noted above.
Overall, the BlackBerry 10 is a strong step forward and a significant evolution over previous BlackBerry operating systems. For those die-hard BlackBerry fans out there, the new Z10 and Q10 handsets could be a worthwhile buy. But for the average consumer who's now used to very capable iOS and Android based devices, the magic isn't there yet. The Z10 handles core functions well -- like calling, email, typing and battery life -- but beyond that it struggles. Between the smaller app store, weak features and higher price, it might make more sense to wait for the next OS upgrade or a reduction in the retail price.
Follow Jonathan Rettinger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@TechnoBuffalo