PHOENIX - The company from the great white north that could! Blackberry is back to reenter the smartphone market it once dominated.
The first contender from the company formerly known as RIM is the Blackberry Z10. It's a touchscreen monster full of top-of-the-line specs and a brand spanking new operating system, but is it enough to challenge the iPhone and Android?
I took it for a spin on AT&T Wireless ahead of the launch.
On the surface, the Z10 is sleek. The design is very iPhone-ish and I don't mean that in a negative way. It feels very solid and has a nice 4.2" touch screen on the front. There are no buttons on the face of the phone. There's a power button placed directly on the top and a volume rocker along the right side. It's very minimalist and looks business-like. That's what Blackberry does best and they did it right here.
There's an 8 Megapixel camera on the back and a 2 Megapixel camera on the front. Inside the Z10 you'll find a dual-core 1.5 Ghz processor along with 16 GB of storage. Unlike the iPhone, the Z10's memory can be expanded via a MicroSD card. You can also swap out the battery, unlike the iPhone.
The Z10 that I'm holding is black. All business here. Blackberry also offers the Z10 in a more iPhone-ish white.
Software - the new Blackberry 10 OS
While hardware design is important, software is what will make or break the new Z10. It's running Blackberry's new Blackberry 10 Operating System. It's very much what you would expect in a modern day smartphone operating system designed for a touch screen. The apps pages are based on a grid, settings are available from a drop down at the top of the screen and you can pinch to zoom photos. The basic touch fundamentals are here, just like iOS and Android.
There are some things that make BB 10 OS standout from the rest. First, it handles multi-tasking in a different way than Android and iOS. It's similar to how Palm designed multitasking on the Palm Pre back in 2009. While in an app, swipe up from the bottom to shrink the app onto a screen showing all of your apps that are running. It's simple and makes switching between apps fairly easy. I like it.
Another thing I really like about BB 10 OS is that messaging and e-mail is truly integrated into the OS instead of being an app on top of the OS. Swipe left on the home screen and it takes you directly into the messaging app. This includes texts, missed calls, e-mails and Blackberry messenger. This is what I would call the Blackberry bread and butter. They've also been focused on messaging the strong integration shows that. Think about it: for most of us it's the most important thing we do on our smartphone so there's no reason it shouldn't be deeply integrated in the OS. Blackberry calls it the Hub. They did a good job with this.
Another thing Blackberry has always been known for is a rock solid keyboard. How do you pull that off on a touch screen device? They did it. The new BB 10 OS keyboard is slick. The keys are big enough, the separation seems to be spot-on and the prediction engine along with the prediction gestures are pretty cool. Start typing a word and predictions will pop up on keys that you are most likely to hit next. Hit that key and swipe up and it throws that word into your message. It's hard to explain but extremely effective and I can see people flying on this once they get used to it. Just when you think there isn't another way to do touch screen keyboards, Blackberry found it.
One more thing: the camera. Blackberry kept it super simple but also threw in a feature that is sure to blow people away. It's called Timeshift mode. When you tap the screen to take a picture it captures a handful of frames over the span of about a second. Then it recognizes the faces in the picture and gives you the option to select each face from those frames. So if your daughter had the perfect smile a few frames before your son, you can pair those two faces together and the Blackberry does the magic of compositing the faces onto the photo. It's pretty awesome stuff. You'll never have a "blink" photo again. It's not perfect but such a brilliant idea. It works well. If you have kids, you will LOVE LOVE LOVE this feature.
Now, about the apps. Blackberry has an app problem. iPhone and Android have been building their app libraries up over the past few years. They're huge! It's safe to say that any company that builds a mobile app needs both an iOS and an Android version. Blackberry? Not so much. The smartphone maker has to convince companies to take the time and money to re-build apps for BB 10 OS. They are creating ways for easy conversion from other operating systems but it will still take resources. The app catalog on the Blackberry was better stocked than I expected, but there are still some glaring omissions. For example, Pandora is nowhere to be found! Slacker is there, which is fine, but I'm a Pandora guy. This stinks. There is no way around it, it will just take time.
There is a lot to like with the Blackberry Z10. The hardware is solid and the new Blackberry 10 OS is a good touchscreen operating system and worthy competitor to Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Does it blow them away? No. But it's in the same league. The lacking app catalog will be a problem for Blackberry in this appy app world that we live in. If they can attract enough early adopters to give companies a reason to build apps for their new OS, they'll be good to go. The tough part will be making it through those growing pains.
If you've used Blackberry in the past and have been waiting for a touch screen version packed with all the Blackberry goodness you've come to love (BBM, messaging integration) along with the touch screen awesomeness of the iPhone, the Z10 is exactly what you've been waiting for. It packs some pretty unique new features but is far from a groundbreaking device.
The Blackberry Z10 is available from AT&T for $199.99 with a 2-year contract.