BlackBerry's latest flagship smartphone, the Z10, won't hit Australian shelves until March, but we were given some hands-on time with a pre-release unit. Here's our first impressions.
BlackBerry smartphones have largely been defined by physical, QWERTY keyboards, bar a few exceptionally poor efforts known as the Storm and Storm 2. The company does have a device with a physical keyboard on the way (the Q10), but the new era is all about a full touchscreen.
My first impression of the Z10 is that it looks somewhat similar to an iPhone 5. It's thicker, larger and wider than Apple's device but the form factor has a few striking similarities. The round edges and similar bezel size are comparable to the iPhone 5, as is the edging that sits around the case of the device. However, the Z10 is heavier, so you're likely to be impressed with its feel if you consider the iPhone 5 too light, which some users do.
The Z10 will be available in both black and white models. Unlike most previous BlackBerry products, the overall look and feel of the phone is rather neutral. It's not too boring as it doesn't look like a pure business device, but at the same time it has a somewhat classy feel without going over the top. All in all, there's only so much you can do with a slab of plastic and metal and I feel BlackBerry has done a commendable job with the design.
The BlackBerry Z10 may look similar to the iPhone 5 but it clearly has some distinctive touches of its own. Some, like the removable battery cover on the rear, are features we immediately liked. The battery is removable and therefore replaceable, and the Z10 has a microSD card slot in addition to its 16GB of internal memory. Both are benefits to the end user.
The soft-feeling plastic on the back of the Z10 may not exhibit the same premium feel as metal, but its far more practical. The phone is very easy to grip, comfortable to hold and the surface means it shouldn't easily slip out of your hands. We also like the front-mounted power/lock button, which isn't in a natural position but doesn't seem to pose too many ergonomic issues. The mute button sandwiched between the volume rocker on the right side is another nice touch.
I'm less impressed with the side mounted micro-USB port for charging. This means it won't be possible to use the Z10 in a universal car cradle while charging it, so potential users will need to purchase a specific BlackBerry Z10 cradle for in-car use. It's not a huge issue, but there's a reason why most smartphone manufacturers mount the charging port on the bottom of their devices.
The upcoming launch of the BlackBerry Z10 is really all about software. I like to think of the new operating system as a last ditch attempt by the company to win back market share from iPhone and Android devices. The company stressed that the entire OS has been rewritten from the ground up and that certainly seems to be the case.
I only had some brief hands-on time with the BlackBerry Z10, but the first aspect that impressed me about the software was its speed. There was no evident lag or delay on show during my first look. Screen transitions are smooth, apps open without a delay and the entire user experience feels both fresh and slick.
The BlackBerry 10 operating system certainly will have a learning curve. The gestures will take time to learn and using the OS does feel a little daunting if you've never picked it up before. However, after a few minutes of use, I found that most of the gestures seem natural. There's no back or home buttons, but once you get used to flicking up from the bottom of the screen it's not something that's a real issue.
The main screen of the phone is a grid of up to eight currently open applications. Some of these are widgets, while others are static apps. There's minimal control over this list: if you open nine apps, an older app will be removed from the screen. There's also no way to re-order this list as its based on which app you've most recently opened.
BlackBerry 10 also utilises a central "BlackBerry Hub" to manage all messages and notifications, so it's best described as a unified inbox for all notifications. We found it a little odd that there are notification icons on the home screen, but you can't enter the hub by tapping any of them. You need to use the a "peek gesture" to open this hub.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry 10 is the new touch screen keyboard. The company says it will learn and adapt to your keystrokes to offer word suggestions and predictions while typing. It appears to offer many similar features found in the popular Swiftkey for Android app, so we'll be keen to see how well it compares when we receive a review unit for a more thorough test . We particularly like the ability to flick up on a full word that often displays above the key you're typing.
The BlackBerry Z10 will launch sometime in March and will be sold through Australia's two largest telcos, Telstra and Optus. Pricing and specific availability dates have yet to be announced.