BlackBerry 10 OS review: Polished look, with plenty of kinks
RIM's overhauled mobile OS has world-class features and polish, though it makes some perplexing rookie mistakes.
Let me start by saying this: I really wanted to fall in love with BlackBerry 10 OS. Overhauling and reinventing a mobile operating system is a tremendous undertaking, and one that deserves respect for the blood, sweat, and tears that go into designing and coding an entire platform from the ground up. In this case, it's based on QNX, a version of which also powered the BlackBerry PlayBook. You expect a few bobbles here and oversights there, and if there's one thing that the beleaguered handset maker needs right now, it's a break.
In many ways, RIM's hard work has paid off. With its richly designed graphical interface, BlackBerry 10 is a mobile OS for grown-ups. Its spin on the virtual keyboard gives RIM plenty to boast about, its enhanced BlackBerry Messenger app is exactly as it should be, and the innovative BlackBerry Balance feature will be a certain type of business user's dream. There are media features, to be sure, and games at the ready, but given a choice of all available handsets, few teens and tweens will thirst for BlackBerry's button-up aesthetic.
Based entirely on taps and gestures, the OS takes a little time to get used to, and some front-end behaviors are odd, or inconvenient, or just plain don't make sense. There's no single, overarching failure I can point to, but rather, a growing list of missing features and aggravating issues that take their toll in the aggregate; not a single fatal blow, but a thousand paper cuts. These represent the little details that can make or break an experience, and they're the kinds of things that RIM should have ironed out in all these years of development.
Editors' note: This review is based on early impressions after a full week of use on the BlackBerry Z10 review unit that BlackBerry seeded to select press; rating is subject to change as we spend more time with the device and operating system.
Interface and navigation
From the first, I really connected to BlackBerry 10's visual design. It is, in a word, polished, and perfectly picks up the thread of BlackBerry's previous design language. Colors are rich, icons are large enough to easily touch, and animations flow smoothly. One example: the fade you see when slowly swiping from one screen to the next.
There are some exceptions, though. RIM's designers forgot to update the look and feel of the settings menu, which just reverts us to the Old BlackBerry.
New BlackBerry is entirely gesture-driven, its layout sort of resembling a handful of playing cards spread out in an overlapping row. To the far left you've got BlackBerry Hub, the universal inbox where you can see all your messages and notification alerts. To the right of that is the "Active Frame" area, a nerdy name to represent the multitasking screen that stores up to eight thumbnails of your open apps. Move right again to see your pages of app icons, which you can rearrange, delete, and plop on top of each other to create folders. You can access the dialer, universal search, and camera from every screen.
For the most part, you'll use the usual swipes up, down, left, and right, though there are two special moves to know. First, you can swipe up from bottom of the screen to wake the phone (you can use the lock screen buttons as well). Second, there's the "Peek" gesture, where you quickly pull your finger up and to the right, as if tracing a perfect right angle. This temporarily suspends your app so you can glance at your notifications in the Hub. Lift up and you close the app and jump to the Hub. Keep your finger pressed to the screen, and you can return to the app without losing your place. I like Peek.
Closing out of an app requires the most coaching, but it isn't hard. You swipe up from the bottom until the app shrinks in size. Let go and it becomes a thumbnail in the multitasking window. You can then close it by tapping the X.
As you navigate around, you'll notice that BB10's menus aren't entirely consistent. Sometimes you long-press to surface the context menu, other times you pull down or swipe over to the right gutter. Sometimes you'll find more options in a dedicated menu button, one that "borrows" the same ellipsis design used with Windows Phone and Android 4.x.
The lock screen (or "Standby screen") gives you a read-only glimpse of your awaiting messages (you can't act on them from here), and a camera icon you can hold and press to open.
Not everyone will love RIM's lack of navigational buttons, but I don't mind using gestures myself. What does bother me, however, is that any time you tap to open an app, the operating system first scoots you to the Active Frames window before launching. This extraneous step complicates what should be a smooth, logical action -- seriously, what could be easier than opening an app? I don't really care what happens on the back end, but seeing every app open from the multitasking window is just jerky and unnecessary.
At times it's possible to get lost in the OS, especially as you're just picking it up. For example, from your notifications, you can swipe deeper left to access the Hub submenu. But if you swipe right again, you might cover up the notifications window with another window instead. For the most part, it doesn't take long to get into the flow of things, but a user guide is necessary when you're just getting started.
Basic smartphone features
As with all of today's mobile operating systems, BlackBerry 10 supports multiple e-mail addresses, calendars, and social-networking accounts.
There's support for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, mobile hot spot, VPN, and Internet tethering. You'll find airplane mode, DLNA sharing, and accessibility features, including a magnification gesture, hearing aid support, and settings for TTY for teletypewriters.
Your BlackBerry ID forms the backbone; you enter it or create it when you first boot up your BB10 device.
This might be a good time to mention that RIM included an interesting feature, Bedtime Mode, which turns off all chirps, buzzes, and incoming calls until the alarm sounds. It's a good, useful, likable idea, until you realize that while working on the details of the grander plan, RIM somehow forgot to include more than three alarm tones. If that weren't bad enough, of this trio, only one's a real ditty. The other two are a series of repetitive, soul-enraging beeps.
On the plus side, BlackBerry 10 OS also supports screenshots. On the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone, you capture a shot of the screen by pressing down on both volume buttons at once. It's pretty handy.
Here are seven things I like about RIM's virtual keyboard:
• It has a clean layout
• It's responsive
• It stores up to three languages at a time; just type naturally and it'll take care of the rest
• You can press and hold a letter to capitalize or grab an alternate symbol
• You can swipe left on the Clear key to delete full words
• It creatively presents flickable word predictions
• It has great autocorrection
In some screens, you'll see a row of numbers capping the four rows of letters. Word predictions work two ways. In its default mode, the predictive word pops up between the rows of letters, corresponding to the next letter you may type. You can also adjust settings to see predictions hover at the top of the keyboard instead. To add a word, flick it up toward the composition area.
I like RIM's creative approach to predictions, but I found that words were small and hard to read and that this method of flicking didn't fit into my work flow. In the end, it was often faster and easier to just type the whole word. Luckily, autocorrect took care of my many errors. RIM says the keyboard adapts to your typing style and finger placement over time.
One thing I noticed is that predictions weren't available from every third-party app. For example, you won't get any help when you're logging in to Facebook, in the universal search window, or when signing on to a Wi-Fi network, two places where adding your username or .com suffix would be quite helpful. Trial and error teaches that pressing and holding the keyboard's spacebar retracts it.
If you'd rather talk than type, the keyboard accepts voice dictation. It helps to keep things simple, and if you'd like punctuation, you'll have to say it yourself. Unfortunately, voice dictation takes time to process, and it isn't smart enough to capitalize words at the beginning of a new sentence.
In some ways, BlackBerry 10's tabbed, WebKit-based browser is pretty standard. It's fueled by HTML 5, and you can also toggle on Adobe Flash support in the settings. Though it mines Bing search results by default, you can reset to the Google or Yahoo engines.
Double-tapping quickly zooms you in and out to make the page much more readable, and reader mode automatically adjusts page width and makes it easy to increase or decrease front size. Other tools include find-on-page search, bookmarks and history, private browsing, and a whitelist for permissions.
That's all well and good, but heavy browser use is where the inconsistencies bubble up, many of them having to do with rendering issues. Some mobile Web pages didn't render correctly, and it routinely took a very long time for Wikipedia pictures and Google Maps images to load in search results -- in some cases, minutes, even with the full power of 4G LTE. However, I suspect that I have an issue with my particular testing phone, so I'll revisit this when my new review unit arrives.
The browser also tripped up when I tried clicking phone numbers to call businesses from Web pages. I could often click to call from Google Local search results, but had to copy and paste numbers from Yelp and OpenTable. You'd also better forget clicking maps in Google's search results to open the Maps app; you'll only reload the search results page.
When the browser worked at quickly loading Web pages, it worked well, and I liked that opening a new tab didn't whisk you away from your current page. Instead, you see a badge that stars your new page in the tab menu.
To say that voice assistants have caught on is an understatement. BlackBerry 10's new Voice Control app places its usual commands within the context of a voice assistant that talks back to you. Sure, it looks like a 'Berry-ized version of Apple's Siri, but like most Siri knockoffs it responds to precise commands, rather than to Siri's conversational language. For instance, you can command Voice Control to open the weather app or search the Internet for weather information, but you can't ask it what the weather will be like, or if you'll need an umbrella.
It also doesn't help that Voice Control sounds like a robot. A friendly female one, but a robot nonetheless. I won't fault the app for its particular speech requirements, but I do fault it for being slow, and for its frequent connection errors during my testing period. Still, I was able to search the Internet, leave myself reminder notes, schedule appointments, and dictate very short, simple messages.
Always one of BlackBerry's strengths, RIM's thorough e-mail tradition is carried on in BlackBerry 10 OS. You can flag messages, mark messages as unread, file them by folder, and invite the contact to a meeting.
When you're composing a message, BlackBerry 10 goes the extra mile, allowing you to attach various files, format text, and change text color. Is the e-mail urgent? You can mark its importance. Want to process a lot of e-mails at once? No problem, you can file, flag, mark as read, and delete in a batch.
The OS is good at popping up contacts as you type, but the second you tap the Compose button, it suggests two contacts you might want to address. The problem with this is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the same two names I keep seeing; they're certainly not the two I've contacted most often.
Another of RIM's longtime strong suits, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) sends peer-to-peer messages, photos, voice notes, contact information, and files between BlackBerry users for free. In BlackBerry 10, the app blossoms, adding voice chat, video chat, and screen sharing to its beloved emoticons and group messaging.
I tested video chat and screen sharing with a RIM employee. Both worked well during the brief test, though I'll continue testing with other users. Even though BBM video and voice chat will technically work over the data network, expect carriers like AT&T to lock it down to Wi-Fi use only.
Another BBM addition in BlackBerry 10 lets you add contacts through NFC in addition to scanning a code. So long as NFC is on, touching the backs of compatible phones will transfer contact details.
Even though you can share images through BBM, I wasn't able to successfully share a photo with my RIM contact. As I said, I'll continue testing BBM in the coming weeks.
I'll just come right out and say it: I'm disappointed with BlackBerry 10's limited Maps app. Importantly, it has turn-by-turn voice navigation for drivers, it can show traffic, and lets you chose certain route options, like the fastest or shortest route.
However, I didn't see any local business names or clickable points of interest, and there's no compass on the map to show you what's what. You can forget about 3D view, satellite view, and walking or transit directions.
On the plus side, I do like that you can view recent spots, and there's a good interface for searching out local businesses. I also really like being able to filter those contacts for whom you have a mailing address; it makes it easy to launch navigation without having to leave the app.
With that foresight, it would have been nice if BlackBerry 10 also let you launch the map from an address on the Yelp Web site, for instance, or one listed in Google's search results. You also can't open the Maps app when you tap a map in Google's search results. As far as I'm concerned, that's a basic mapping failure.
In the best-case scenario, RIM would have licensed Google Maps, at last giving it parity with the best mobile mapping system around.
BlackBerry 10's music player gave me a good music experience. You get album art and tracks, intuitive controls, shuffle, and repeat. You can create playlists on the fly, or any time, transfer songs to other devices, and visit BlackBerry World for more.
There are two nice surprises as you listen to music; the first is that tapping the album art retracts the image to reveal the album roster or playlist. Just tap again to get back where you were.
If you control the song after you leave the music app, a tap on either volume button pulls up a widget that flashes album art and info, plus the options to Pause/Play and skip ahead or go back.
Camera and video
A camera lens can lead to poor or stellar photos, but the software plays a role, too. In BlackBerry 10, you have a few modes and scenes. There are the usual camera and video modes, and there's also TimeShift, which takes multiple shots along a timeline. Right after the photo snaps, you can rewind along the timeline to save the best "moment." This is best for photos of groups, dogs, and subjects that aren't adept at staying still.
I like the idea of TimeShift, but the fact that you can't activate it from the regular camera mode means you have to plan ahead when you want to use it.
So what are the camera's other scenes? You've got burst mode and stabilization (which automatically launches when you turn on the video camera,) but there's no built-in HDR or panorama. You will, however, find scenes tuned for capturing action, night scenes, the beach, and whiteboards. You can turn on flash, and choose a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio.
Compared with what you get from other cameras, the options are on the sparser side. You can't choose a smaller resolution, for instance, adjust white balance or ISO settings, toggle geotagging, or turn on a grid. In addition, there's no self-timer and there's no way to turn off the camera shutter sound, which means you can't take incognito photos or even take a screenshot without alerting the world.
The video setting shoots from the front or rear camera; from the rear, it'll take either 720p HD or 1080p HD video. You can choose to turn on the flash or leave it off, but you won't be able to shoot limited-size videos for video messaging, if that's what you'd like. I guess RIM trusts that you'll be able to censor yourself.
RIM gets big points in my book for its extensive built-in photo-editing software, but then loses a point or two for lumping screenshots and camera photos together (iOS does this too.) The OS gets another demerit for a confusing workaround in which you create new albums using an outdated file manager system, a method I never would have tried without the assistance of a friendly customer service representative tasked with helping reviewers. A file manager, really? That is so 2006.
RIM's Documents To Go suite of Microsoft Office apps offers up a rich experience for creating and editing documents and spreadsheets, and viewing PDFs and presentations. As in the good old days, you'll find a wealth of formatting options that are fairly easy to track down, and you can easily share documents through a variety of channels, including Bluetooth, NFC, and BlackBerry Messenger.
The methods of copying, pasting, and text selection are also interesting takes, but this is where the bad news comes in. Accurately dropping in the big circular cursor is easy, but the cursor makes it impossible to select the word you're on. You have to move the cursor first, which can be tricky. Otherwise, selecting words is easy when you touch and hold on the word for a moment. To do more with your highlights, you also have to first select a word, then long-press to bring up the context menu.
Here's another idiosyncrasy: when you use the context menu to select the entire range of text, it isn't immediately clear how to delete the entire chunk of words. It is also hard to work out how to rename a document, and I'm still trying to determine why RIM wants me to go through the extra step of pressing the edit button before making changes to text in a Documents To Go file. Why can't I just tap it to get the keyboard so I can start typing? RIM, which bought the Documents To Go developers a few years back, should streamline these steps in future updates.
The brand-new BlackBerry World app store looks fantastic, with saturated icon colors on a black background. You can download apps, games, music (provided by longtime partner 7Digital), TV, and movies.
RIM clearly has its sights set on profits. It's easy to find top paid apps, but there's no list at this point for free content -- even though free apps can be found. Good luck trying to search for podcasts; App World has no dedicated section at this point.
From the content page, you can read reviews or add your own, share, and contact the developer. It would be nice if you were able to launch the app from the download menu.
The question of apps is huge for BlackBerry. Major social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Foursquare are ready from the get-go. Box, Dropbox, Flixster, and Angry Birds Star Wars are other heavy hitters. Fifteen EA Games titles (including Plants vs. Zombies), The New York Times, and The Economist are also ready, and Skype and Kindle also get the go-ahead. Here's more on apps from CNET's Jaymar Cabebe.
The questions that remain are twofold. How many other major and independent developers will also build apps for the new platform, and how many will be BlackBerry-specific, and not just Android ports running on the built-in emulator. We'll be keeping an eye on this space.
For a long time, BlackBerry was synonymous with the business user. With BlackBerry Balance, RIM keeps its corporate promise. If your IT department has apps to install, you'll be able to swipe down on the home screens to see buttons for Personal and Work.
Toggle them to bounce back and forth between your personal profile and your company-given work apps. The divide locks up your sensitive corporate information, including work e-mail, which RIM secures with 256-bit AES encryption.
Since CNET doesn't install IT apps at this time, I wasn't able to test this outside of a brief demo with RIM, though I will say that toggling back and forth was quick and easy.
BlackBerry has had a reputation for security from the very beginning. BlackBerry 10 continues using encrypted servers, collectively calling its security elements BlackBerry Safeguard. These include a security wipe, a pop-up blocker, parental controls, certificates, and application permissions.
The security wipe section is where you'll manage data, files, and apps. BlackBerry Protect handles the remote location and maintenance for your lost or stolen device.
BlackBerry Link desktop software
You'll get your updates over the air, but for transferring data through the cable, RIM unveils BlackBerry Link for Mac and PC. This app, a vast visual improvement to the BlackBerry desktop software that came before, installs itself when you plug in the BB10 device.
As with most managers of this type, you can manage automatic syncing options, and transfer music, photos, video, and documents.
How it stacks up
Although it builds off previous BlackBerry operating systems, BlackBerry 10 is a brand-new thing.
On the whole, it's more sophisticated right out of the gate than Microsoft's first iteration of the Windows Phone OS, though some of what RIM left out -- like a way to turn off the camera shutter sound and click-to-call from any app -- leaves me scratching my head.
There are some fresh, inspiring features for sure, like Bedtime Mode and BlackBerry Balance, but I would have loved to see RIM get even more creative, let's say with a multicolored LED light that shone a different color depending on the type of awaiting message.
Then there are the OS behaviors that are downright confusing, inconvenient, or inefficient, like dumping screenshots and camera photos in the same bucket, and opening every app from the multitasking page.
I'm not even sure how to classify the frequent network connection errors I saw, though I suspect some of those are related to testing on a review unit before the absolutely final software release.
The conclusion I return to time and again is that there are people who will love BlackBerry 10 for its bigger-picture interface, keyboard, and business and security features. These people will already be fans. But until RIM can smooth out the kinks and offer a few more compelling reasons to switch, iOS and Android users can feel justified staying put.