BlackBerry’s plans to resurface as the quintessential business smartphone maker lies on the Z10, but is the hefty price tag justified?

There was once a time, when owning a BlackBerry device defined one’s levels of sophistication and professionalism. If you owned a BlackBerry, you were rich or a serious professional, or both. But the very QWERTY keypad that brought BlackBerry to the fore, threatened to be its downfall as Apple, Samsung, HTC and others redefined the smartphone experience with full touch interface. Some BlackBerry models did offer touch-interface along with a physical keyboard, which die-hard BB fans turned to, but these berries weren’t as juicy as the apple.

But BlackBerry did manage to create a niche as a popular phone with the young – the Curve models are still the most popular ones with the college crowd, with BlackBerry Messenger et al, at an affordable price tag.

Finally the device that can push BlackBerry back to the premium segment is finally here. After days and months of speculation, the Z10 has been launched at a price tag that has been the butt of all jokes on social media. So we at Smartbuy have been playing around with the first all-touch offering, toting the BB10 OS, to see if this pricey smartphone re-entering Planet Premium’s atmosphere would burn out or make a big impact.

Design and build

The most evident change is BlackBerry’s departure from the physical keypad and into the touchscreen slate form factor. But as a new design, it doesn’t exactly stand out. The straight lines and curved edges look like any other smartphone. But then again, it’s meant to be a corporate phone – you can’t make it too conspicuous or pull off a Windows Phone colour wheel here.

The phone’s construction and texture make it a very sensible work device. Matte-rubber coated back to avoid slips, a plastic but seemingly durable frame, ergonomically placed buttons and portholes and the mirrored BlackBerry logo at the bottom of the screen. I can’t see why pulling this phone out of pinstriped coat pockets wouldn’t look good.

The back panel, unlike most other phones in its segment, can be pried open to reveal the micro-SIM and micro-SD slots, and a removable 1800mAh battery. The camera lies at one top corner at the back, with the LED flash. There are no capacitive buttons, but there’s more about that in the ‘What’s new’ part.

The Power/Sleep button lies on the top panel, along with the 3.5mm audio port, and the side panel has matte-aluminium volume control, along with a small button between volume up and volume down, that launches the new BlackBerry voice-control app. On the other side spine, you get a micro-USB and a micro-HDMI port.

At 137.5grams and 9mm thick, it’s not very slim and light – on the contrary, these numbers make it sit reassuringly in the palm, while not being too heavy in the pocket.

Tech inside

The specs are far from mind-blowing. For starters, the processor is a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm chip. This is a step-down from the quad-core options we’ve come to expect on 40k+ phones. The RAM is a generous 2GB though, along with 16GB of internal storage.

But the Z10 uses this configuration very efficiently and during the entire usage process, forget freezing, the phone never slowed down even once. The process of multitasking and switching between apps was very smooth.

What really stunned me was the quality of the display. The 4.2-inch screen supports a resolution of 768x1280 pixels. That’s more pixels per inch than the iPhone 5. Needless to say, videos look really great on the screen. The Z10 also trumps the iPhone 5 by having NFC, so scanning those tags by just tapping them is now available.

User interface

The Z10 runs on the BB10 platform, and this OS is what makes the Z10 a totally new BlackBerry. It also makes the Z10 a completely different phone in terms of user experience. To begin with, you have a completely gesture-based navigation system. Remember the lack of any capacitive buttons? It’s because of this.

You swipe up from the lock screen to reveal the home-screen, and also have a pull down menu for the alarm option. You can also launch the camera from the lock screen. At any point of usage, you can swipe up-and-right to reveal the BlackBerry hub, from where all your notifications and the subsequent services like email, texts or IMs can be accessed.

Multiple apps can be used at once, and to switch between them, one needs to swipe up from the bottom and this stacks all the running apps in tabs.

There’s definitely a learning curve attached to it, but it doesn’t take much time to master it. BlackBerry’s Playbook users will get the hand of it very easily. The voice control feature is good enough for basic functions like “Call Mohan” or “BBM Sneha”, but posting complete updates can get a little messy with the Indian accent.

Camera

The camera on BB10 has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, including the Time Shift mode, which captures frames milliseconds before and after the actual click. This helps in getting rid of the closed eyelids and half-grins.

The picture quality, however, is just about average. The colours are not too rich and in low-light, the sharpness falls drastically. The LED flash doesn’t help too much either. Unlike other phones, where we have been using touch-to-focus (if there is a touch to click, we could always switch it off) this one is essentially a touch-to-click interface. For focusing, you have to drag the crosshair around. So far, we’ve seeen the best shooter on the Nokia Lumia 920.

Battery life

The 1800mAh battery just doesn’t cut it. For a phone that has the potential to be used heavily for both personal and professional usage, it is very disappointing. Over 3G usages we got around 12-13 hours only. This essentially means that if you’re using only mobile data, you’ll have to charge your phone before you leave for work, and will have to put the phone back on charge by the end of your day at work, or put it back on charge as soon as you get back home. Over Wi-Fi, we still got around 18-19 hours of usage.

The phone takes a long time, a minute to be precise, to switch on, and about half of that to power down. In our opinion, that’s too long a wait.

App support

As of now, BlackBerry World has some 70,000 apps available. Popular ones like Instagram, Skype, Viber and WhatsApp are unfortunately not on that list. RIM does claim that these apps are coming ‘soon’, but sale has already started and without the popular ones, promoting this as a balanced device between work and personal usage is not going to work out much.

We say

The Z10 is a phone that is looking for a true identity. Right now, its corporate identity is quite well defined with the swift access to the BB Hub and a very comfortable keypad. But getting companies to upgrade to the new BES while they can make do with existing ActiveSync Exchange servers is a challenge.

BlackBerry Balance can be really useful, but only if the personal front wasn’t quite crippled with the lack of popular apps. Paying this sum for a phone that is fulfilling only half of its promises right now, can’t be such a good idea. However, if this front improves, then the Z10 is definitely the phone a professional should have.

Rs 43,490

What’s new?

BlackBerry Hub – All your email accounts, BlackBerry Messenger, social networks, texts and call logs, are stacked together in one neat package that can be accessed from any point of the phone’s usage. You can also just take a peek and close it, if you’re in a hurry. Imagine the pull down notification menu in Android, only better.

BlackBerry Keyboard – This must definitely be the biggest concern for existing BB users, and also for migrating users looking for a difference in typing experience. The keyboard shows word options, which you can flick up to send to the text field. Also, during the usage we found that the keyboard adapted quickly and learnt a lot as we typed.

BlackBerry Messenger – Not many popular cross platform IM clients are available at this point of time on the BlackBerry World, but the redesigned BBM takes care of all your contacts that have a BB. We found it very convenient that you can just switch from chat to video call within BBM and also share screens.

BlackBerry Balance – If you have a work account, and don’t want to access it when you’re at home, or want to keep away from personal stuff at work, this is just the thing. With one pull-down gesture, we could switch from Personal to Work profile (which can be password protected) and set the apps that we need to access while at work.

Wins

Time Shift camera mode clicks before and after the actual click, making sure that the closed eyelids and half-grins can be tackled

No need for special BlackBerry Internet Service data plans; users can access everything over Wi-Fi or a normal data pack

Typing is really comfortable on the new keypad; recognises and learns the user’s word patterns very quickly

Fails

BlackBerry Balance can be set up only while using a work account over BES 10; not many companies have their servers upgraded to this version right now

Battery hardly lasts a full day; mobile professionals would need really good battery backups on the move

Ecosystem is still not as refined as iOS, Android or WP8; users will miss cloud syncing over various devices

sabyasachi.b@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on March 5, 2013)
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