BlackBerry Z10 review: Classy handset hampered by OS flaws

Although there's autofocus, focusing elsewhere isn't intuitive. Touching the screen anywhere triggers the shutter, so you'll just have to know to drag the focal bracket around the screen.

BlackBerry Z10 camera test
Jaymar at full resolution. You can easily see a ton of noise. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Budding photographers will also notice scant options and controls. There's no HDR, no ISO settings, no grid, no geotagging, no option to drop resolution, and -- one of its worst offenses in my opinion -- no way to silence the shutter's loud clacking.

I've heard phone makers argue that most casual users don't need features overkill, but I submit that it's nice to have, especially if you'd like phone owners to leave the dSLR at home and use your phone as their camera instead.

BlackBerry Z10 camera test
You can make out the individual furs in this cute plushy, shot indoors. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Despite the thin toolset, image quality was pretty decent. Naturally, photos looked better outside than inside, where there was plenty of ambient light and where I could hold the image steady. Some pictures looked very noisy in full resolution, but other times, the Z10's camera picked up more detail than some others; for instance, in one comparison photo I took with an HTC Droid DNA.

More detailed comparisons are on their way. Stay tuned for a thorough camera shootout between the Z10, the iPhone 5, and the Samsung Galaxy S3.

BlackBerry Z10 camera test
Even at full resolution, the toy still retains a fair amount of visual information. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Let's switch gears and talk about video. I was not disappointed. Video looked clear, and audio sounded good. Clips played back smoothly, without jerkiness, and I didn't detect any graininess either.

Again, you'll have few alternate settings options. Stabilization turns on by default, but you can turn it off. You can also shine the flash or not. If you want to limit the size of your video for MMS, you'll just have to keep it short on your own.

BlackBerry Z10 camera test
Resized, the bold colors in this crossing sign pack punch. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I used the 2-megapixel front-facing camera mostly for video chats through BlackBerry Messenger, but if you wanted to use it for self-portraits, you'll be happy to know it has 3x digital zoom and takes video. I'm not the biggest fan of photos taken with this camera, but the image quality is acceptable for what you get. I'd stick with it just for video chats, myself.

A note on your photo album: the way RIM throws together screenshots and camera images is a mess. (iOS does this too, by the way.) You may not notice this if you take the odd screenshot, but as a phone reviewer, the problem of differentiating them leaps out. You can create separate albums, but it isn't at all clear how to do this from the Photos app. Instead, I got a bullet point instruction list from RIM's friendly customer service explaining how to make folders in the file manager app (!). Because going through a file manager is exactly how people want to use their mobile phones to complete simple tasks...

BlackBerry Z10 camera test
Taken in bright winter sunlight, the green paint pops, but notice that the edges of the chipped paint do, too. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

RIM is pushing its StoryMaker app, which combines video, photos, and music to make a mini, multimedia presentation. Cute, not as intuitive or extensive as I'd like, and, in my opinion, somewhat limited in appeal to the mostly younger set.

The real story here is that the very good built-in photo-editing tools can crop, rotate, and straighten photos, reduce red-eye, and add any number of filters. Here's where you adjust contrast and white balance, and attempt to cancel out noise. The app feels complete and intuitive, and in my opinion, it's RIM's biggest camera value-add.

BlackBerry 10 OS
I love BlackBerry 10's baked-in photo-editing tools. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I understand that the designers cut back on camera features to lead you to editing, but I think the two should go hand in hand. A little redundancy when it comes to photo perfection never hurt anyone.

See our photo shootout with the Z10, iPhone 5, and Samsung Galaxy S3 for an even deeper look at camera quality.

The Z10 gives you 16GB flash storage for your multimedia, and 2GB RAM. The microSD card slot holds cards with capacities up to 64GB -- so long as you format the card using FAT32. (BlackBerry's reviewer's guide and online spec sheet read "32GB" until a CNET reader pointed out that he uses a 64GB card just fine.)

Call quality
I tested call quality on the BlackBerry Z10 in San Francisco on both AT&T and Verizon's networks. With AT&T, audio was acceptable on my end, but better on everyone else's. I used the Z10 for multiple calls to land lines and cell phones throughout the U.S. One thing I noticed consistently was a persistent haze of white background noise on every call. Voices could also sound a tinge hollow and tinny. That's not great, but if I disappeared into the conversation, I eventually forgot about it.

Because of the background buzz, voices didn't seem ultracrisp, but there weren't any distortions or interruptions, and I didn't notice any hissing. I did, however, hear a lispy sibilance on the letter S, but without exception, I was able to have a long conversation.

On their end, my callers said audio sounds fairly clear and static-free. Once in a while a faint crackle reminded them I was on a cell phone, and I did sound a little flattened and muffled, they said. One listener heard distortion when my vocal volume peaked, and proclaimed the call quality not the best but very good; an A-minus.

On Verizon, voices sounded wan, both weak and lacking energy. Frequent inconsistent audio quality plagued my test calls -- sometimes amplified sound and other times skipped, and the lines never sounded clear. My calling partner said I sounded a little scratchy and slightly distorted on peak volume, but generally liked the phone's quality and found audio pleasantly loud.

AT&T: BlackBerry Z10 call quality sample Listen now:

Verizon: BlackBerry Z10 call quality sample Listen now:

BlackBerry's speakers have traditionally been strong, so I was looking forward to testing the Z10's speakerphone at hip level. The first thing I had to do with the AT&T version was raise the volume, and I noticed that that pesky white noise lingered still. Overall, speakerphone quality impressed me, making my callers' voices sound concentrated, focused, and controlled. This is in contrast to other speakerphones where you can almost see the decibels spraying all over the place. Trust me, RIM's effort is a good thing.

On his end, my primary test caller thought the speakerphone could use some work. My voice sounded blocked at high volumes, he said, which created distortion. In addition, I apparently sounded hollow and was a little hard to hear. Speakerphone quality was serviceable, he said, but not excellent. A solid B-plus.

On Verizon, speakerphone performed very well. It was clear, loud, and distortion-free. Audio became more echo-y and a little more buzzy when I boosted the volume, but most of the time, it was fine on medium-high. My test caller also really enjoyed using speakerphone and declared it very clear.

Performance
A sign of the times, the Z10 supports 4G LTE, HSPA+, and global roaming without question. AT&T's 4G LTE is nimble in San Francisco, and showed its zippy might on the Z10 most of the time. I must confess that during my testing period, my pre-release Z10 review unit frequently hung on sturdy Wi-Fi and over the data network; however, the finalized Z10 zipped along over Wi-Fi and 4G on the version of the phone that's optimized for AT&T .

At peak speeds, the Z10 loaded sites quickly (like CNET's mobile site in about 3 seconds.) Other parts of the OS seemed slower; it took about a minute to boot up the Z10 from its off position to its lock screen. A lot of smartphones take as few as 30 seconds to go from zero to ready.

BlackBerry Z10
CNET mobile site load 2.2 seconds
CNET desktop site load 4 seconds
CBS Sports app download 6 seconds (622KB)
CBS Sports app load 2.9 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 56 seconds
Camera boot time 2.2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 1.2 seconds (already focused, doesn't include burst mode)

Qualcomm's 1.5GHZ dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus processor (pause for breath) gives the Z10 its va-va-voom. This is one step below the company's fastest dual-core processor, the S4 Pro, but it's still pretty good, and I could play back videos and play games smoothly. My biggest lag problems had to do with the aforementioned aborted network connections.

The Z10 has a rated talk time of up to 10 hours over 3G, 12.7 days of standby time over 3G, up to 60 hours of audio playback, and up to 11 hours for video playback. That's not bad for its 1,800mAh battery, and anecdotally, battery life lasted a day. Of course, my battery demands were all over the place during testing, including spans of full brightness and an always-on screen, interspersed with mass Web browsing and addictive game-playing. (Word Hero. Download it.)

In our battery drain tests, AT&T's Z10 gave us 10.62 hours of talk time, while Verizon's gave us 9.97 hours. According to FCC tests, the Z10 has a digital SAR of 0.97 and 1.42 watt per kilogram for AT&T and Verizon, respectively.

Should you buy it?
There are two questions at hand. The first is: how well did RIM do with the Z10? The second is, should I buy it?

From where I sit, RIM did a good job with the Z10. For a company with a short, terrible track record with touch-screen devices (see the Storm and Storm 2 , prior to the acceptable Torch 9850 ,) the Z10 looks good, has desirable specs, and gets the basics right.

But this time around, the Z10 represents more than just itself. With its first BlackBerry 10 device, RIM stands at a crossroads, bearing the weight of its unevenly-provisioned OS. On the one hand, BlackBerry 10 is a brand-spankin'-new mobile platform that can only grow and mature. On the other, RIM has had plenty of maturation time, drawing on a legacy of secure e-mail and messaging that predates the iPhone takeover. BlackBerry 10 wasn't some rush job; RIM all but suspended production for years to work on the hardware and software to make the Z10. For a future that hinges on this first device, shouldn't there be fewer missteps?

Buy the BlackBerry Z10 if you:
-Have been waiting for a new BlackBerry for a long time
-Prize personal and corporate security
-Like the idea of a wholly gesture-based OS
-Seek an iOS and Android alternative
-Love to give an underdog a chance

Skip it if you:
-Have no patience to learn a new UI
-Rely on walking or public transportation in maps
-Prize a wide breadth of apps to choose from
-Seek a strongly customizable OS
-Prefer buttons to gestures

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Mar. 22, 2013
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider AT&T
  • Weight 4.8 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4.2 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
About The Author

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.