Contributing editor John Brandon test-drives BlackBerry's new device. The verdict: It's good--but it won't win over the non-CrackBerry crowd.
Good things come to those who wait... and wait, and wait.
If you've been suffering with a BlackBerry Curve or Bold, there is a new model ready for primetime.
The BlackBerry Z10 is an impressive new smartphone meant for business users. Available Friday on AT&T for $199 with a two-year contract, the phone offers several innovative features as part of the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, including full device encryption, remote app management, and a powerful messaging platform.
While the app selection is abysmal, there are signs of life for BlackBerry, the Canadian firm formerly known as Research in Motion. Indeed, the Z10 is great news for those who like BlackBerrys but are stuck with an older model. But for everyone else, the Z10 falls short of the high bar set by the iPhone 5, Google Nexus 4, and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4.
For starters, the all-black Z10 is a solid, well-constructed phone. It has more than a passing similarity to the BlackBerry Playbook tablet: thin edges, a bright screen, quality materials. Holding one in your hand, you won't feel like the plastic could break easily if you drop it on the sidewalk, although the screen is not made of Gorilla Glass.
There's a standard micro-USB port for charging the phone and connecting to your laptop. The standard 3.5mm headphone jack is located at the top. The phone weighs 4.9 ounces--not too heavy but also not so light that it's easy to drop. The 4.2-inch screen looks bright and clear, but a touch dim compared to the iPhone 5 and Nexus 4.
The phone has a 1.5GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (expands to 32GB), an 8-megapixel rear cam, a front webcam (more on that later), Bluetooth 4.0, and a near-field communication chip. There's also a micro-HDMI port for connecting to a projector or HDTV.
The BlackBerry 10 operating system is fun to use, but it might not suit those who are more familiar with the iPhone or Android. There is no home button, which can be confusing. You have to swipe up to unlock the screen and you swipe to move around in the operating system. The entire design philosophy is centered on swiping: left for messages, right for apps. You'll also swipe to the right to see copy-paste commands, and swipe up to see settings.
Another interesting design feature: BlackBerry omitted the physical keyboard it's known for in favor of a touchscreen keyboard. Even so, it is amazingly fast and accurate for typing. The keys are responsive and spaced adequately. As you type, words pop up to correct spelling or help you finish words. It's also easy to select words, copy them, and paste in text.
The first hint of the Z10 being a business phone is the BlackBerry Hub, an all-purpose container that works like a home screen to keep you organized and efficient during your workday. In the Hub, you'll see both your work and personal email in one list, updates from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and text messages.
Confusingly, the Hub is also where you'll see notifications--say, an alert about an upcoming business meeting. I prefer the Android and iPhone notifications you access by dragging down from the top of the screen. You can access them at anytime, from any app, to see a preview of an incoming text or calendar item. When you drag down from the top of the Z10 screen, you'll see a settings menu instead.
Security on the Z10 is not just an add-on; it is business critical. The phone blocks you from copying and pasting messages from your BlackBerry work email into a personal email account. The phone also separates work apps and personal apps using a feature called BlackBerry Balance. Your IT staff can even install and remove work apps remotely. In the work view, all of the apps and data are secured using 256-bit encryption. This encryption occurs on the fly, unlike an Android phone, which forces you to enable encryption, reboot the phone, and wait for the encryption to take place.
One important point, though: Balance only works with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. If you don't use that, you can still encrypt the device, but you don't get the benefits of corporate security with a clear separation between work and personal.
One additional feature issue worth noting: The speech tech is well behind iPhone Siri and Google Now on Android devices. Many of my spoken commands did not register correctly. I said "meet with Bob" to schedule a meeting, and the Z10 translated that to "be bob" instead. I asked about the weather, and instead of getting the temperature, the Z10 offered to search the Web. The frequency with which my words were misconstrued diminishes the value of this feature in my mind.
The biggest problem with the Z10 has to do with app selection. There are a few good apps for business, including both Box and Dropbox, corporate apps like BMC Remedy and SAP Mobility, and the office suite Docs to Go. You won't find social networking apps like SproutSocial or HootSuite, and there's no Skype app. Of the 20 business apps I have installed on an iPhone right now, none of them are available on the Z10.
The BlackBerry messaging app is a goldmine though. You can voice chat with colleagues and even share your screen for an impromptu training session. The Web browser is fast and worked perfectly for about 10 test sites, including Inc.com.
BlackBerry insists there are more apps in the works. This could be reminiscent of the Palm OS from a few years ago: a solid smartphone platform that never attracted enough developers. Even if older apps like Skype eventually do appear in the BlackBerry app store, that's only half the battle. The question is whether developers will create brand new apps For BlackBerry. This isn't an issue for Android and iPhone.
One hopeful sign: The BlackBerry Remember app with Evernote integration. I ended up using this quite often to jot down reminders, which are synced to Evernote. Maybe more first-party BlackBerry apps will sync with other missing apps? Just know that for now, you probably won't find as many good business apps as you'd like.
The Z10 might be a company-saving phone--or maybe not. The new operating system is fun, ambitious, and easy to understand. I can imagine plenty of BlackBerry fans upgrading to this model and being happy about the new features. The security options are on par or soundly trump what you'll find on Samsung's Android phones. And, I ended up preferring the Z10 to many of the recent Windows Phone 8 models.
The burning question is whether the Z10 can compete with the iPhone and a myriad of well-established Android devices. Many businesses have moved on, as evidenced by the market share for Android. BlackBerry has some serious obstacles to overcome.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle will be the BlackBerry brand, which has suffered some blows of late. Businesses like to invest in something with staying power, not a comatose brand trying to revive itself. The Z10 is a solid phone. Whether it fits in your business might have more to do with past investments than future hopes.