BlackBerry Z10 review: Classy handset hampered by OS flaws

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9

The Good RIM dug deep to give the slick-looking BlackBerry Z10 enough features to satisfy both consumers and professionals -- like a good camera and a sharp user interface.

The Bad The Z10's unintuitive gesture paradigm creates a learning curve, and a long list of OS inefficiencies and omissions sour the experience. The bare-bones maps app and a deficit of camera features are two examples.

The Bottom Line Though it's not quite enough to draw committed iPhone or Android owners, the BlackBerry Z10's modern design and features give BlackBerry fans what they've hungered for.

7.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

On January 30, 2013, RIM (Research in Motion) announced that the company will officially be known as BlackBerry.

Members of the BlackBerry Faithful, meet your new phone. The BlackBerry Z10 has everything you've been waiting for: a sleek, modern, and professional touch-screen body with an up-to-date OS to match and 4G LTE support. You'll revel in the virtual keyboard's ease and in BlackBerry Messenger's seamless voice chats. You'll crow about the Z10's Micro-HDMI port, and enjoy the 8-megapixel camera with its built-in editing tools.

In the most important ways, everything comes together: a lovely HD screen, a fast processor, a camera (with tricks!) that's good enough to stand alongside those of the big boys.

Slip off the RIM-colored glasses, though, and you won't be able to ignore the minor hardware and OS irritations that nevertheless pile up as you use the Z10 over time -- like having to use an antiquated and unintuitive file system to create a new photo album, and a basic mapping app that can't possibly stand up to Google's best-in-show. For their part, BlackBerry detractors will plainly see a poor iPhone clone that offers little more than the usual features found in any present-day OS worth its salt.

If you're game to learn a few navigational gestures and your bigger-picture mentality lets you see beyond annoyances, you should feel justified buying the BlackBerry Z10. However, if you're happy with your current platform, there's no need to budge unless or until RIM patches up some OS holes.

The BlackBerry Z10 goes on sale January 31 in the U.K., February 5 in Canada ($149.99 on contract), and February 10 in the UAE. AT&T sells the smartphone, beginning March 22 for $199 on contract (about $599 unlocked). Verizon will carry the Z10 for $199 in both black and also white, an exclusive for them. T-Mobile will also sell the Z10, but Sprint will skip it in favor of the keyboarded BlackBerry Q10.

Editors' note: You may also be interested in our full review of the BlackBerry 10 operating system.

BlackBerry Z10

Verizon is home to the exclusive white version of the BlackBerry Z10.

Josh Miller/CNET

Design and build
At first glance, the handsome BlackBerry Z10 looks suspiciously like Apple's black iPhone 5: tall and narrow, with straight edges that meet at rounded corners, and a roughly 4-inch screen. Like the iPhone 5, the Z10 is adept at one-handed operation. That's where the similarities end.

You see, the Z10 has no navigation buttons, either physical or capacitive. Instead, you'll operate the Z10 through gestures (more on those later). The phone stands 5.1 inches tall, 2.6 inches wide, and 0.35 inch thick -- only slightly deeper than the iPhone 5. Its 4.8-ounce weight feels right with the phone's proportions, and the device has a much more comfortable grip than the iPhone, thanks to the slightly rounded edges on the back and a lightly textured, soft-touch finish.

BlackBerry Z10, iPhone 5

The BlackBerry Z10 (left), resembles the iPhone 5, at least in shape.

Josh Miller/CNET

Of the two phones, the iPhone undeniably has the more solid, premium, and precise build quality. Its seams are as narrow as possible, and its details are finely machined. For those who care about such things, the iPhone 5's material quality trumps the Z10's treated plastics and loose back panel that too easily pops out when I slide a nail anywhere along its perimeter.

Larger than the iPhone 5 overall, the Z10's shape still fits neatly into pockets (I use my back pockets for trips around the office and the neighborhood). However, it feels uncomfortably flat when I wedge it between my shoulder and my ear. And yes, this is precisely why many people use a wireless headset.

BlackBerry Z10

In between the BlackBerry Z10's volume buttons is the voice control key.

Josh Miller/CNET

On its face, the Z10's 4.2-inch LCD display has a 1,280x768-pixel WXGA HD resolution (that's 355 pixels per inch; the iPhone 5 has a 326ppi density.) You'll see fine lettering, crisp edges, and deep colors. I did notice, though, that with both handsets set to maximum brightness, the iPhone 5 outshone the Z10, and an HD picture of a flower looked brighter, more detailed, and had more color variation on Apple's device. On the whole, the differences between the two are minimal. The bezel surrounding the screen is frankly wider than today's edge-to-edge fashion, but this doesn't personally bother me.

Above the display are the array of sensors, the notification LED, and the 2-megapixel front-facing camera. The right spine houses Up and Down volume controls, with a button in the center that serves as a voice command trigger you can also use to pause music. If you simultaneously press both volume buttons, you'll take a screenshot. If you're in camera mode, pressing either one snaps a picture.

BlackBerry Z10

Few smartphones can claim an HDMI port, but the Z10 is one of them.

Josh Miller/CNET

On the Z10's left edge are the Micro-HDMI port and Micro-USB port. The placement of the latter pretty much guarantees that the charging cord gets in my way. Up top, you'll find the power/lock button and the 3.5 millimeter headset jack -- you'll hold down the start button for a 3-second countdown to turn off the phone. On the back are the camera lens with LED flash, and a BlackBerry icon that matches up with the NFC antenna on the opposite side of the back panel.

Also underneath that panel are the tall, narrow battery (I wonder if there was room for larger?) and a microSD card slot. The Z10 comes preloaded with a 8GB class 2 microSD card. That's good, right? It would be if the card supported the camera's option to capture 1080p HD video. As a result, you'll shoot video in 720p HD if you don't switch out the card to class 4 or higher.

BlackBerry 10 OS
Here's what you need to know about the new BlackBerry 10 OS: it looks cool, it's gesture-driven, and it'll take you at least a few minutes to pick up. In some ways it's quite advanced -- I'm a fan of BlackBerry Balance and the virtual keyboard -- and in other ways, you wonder what RIM's been doing all these years.

BlackBerry 10 OS

RIM's new smartphone OS throws out buttons in favor of navigational gestures.

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

My full review of the BlackBerry 10 OS goes deep: into the layout, gestures, the Hub, maps, music, the keyboard, the browser...and that's the beginning. For more on the OS, I highly recommend skipping on over to the BlackBerry 10 OS review. But don't worry, I'll still give you a flavor of what to expect right here on these pages.

Features and apps
When it comes to multiple accounts and a unified inbox, BlackBerry 10 delivers. You can sign into multiple e-mail accounts and social networks, and populate your address book and calendar from these cross-pollinated networks. I didn't see contact duplicates, and my buddies' addresses also appeared neatly sorted in the maps app, basically the only really nice surprise there.

You'll find Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and all the good stuff when it comes to texting, chatting with other BlackBerry users, and sharing stuff to social networks. There's a good music app, a basic maps app, and the mostly-good Documents To Go, which opens the door to reading, creating, and editing Word and Excel documents, and viewing PowerPoint and Adobe PDF files.

Twitter and Facebook for BlackBerry 10 OS

Twitter and Facebook for BlackBerry 10 OS.

Screenshot by Jaymar Cabebe/CNET

For your social networking apps, the BlackBerry serves up a healthy spoonful of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and LinkedIn. And yes, these are real apps, not just links to mobile Web sites masquerading as apps. You know what is, though? YouTube. I'm looking forward to a full-fledged app from them.

In addition to the social apps, you'll find a notes program, an alarm clock with special bedtime mode (it shuts off alerts, but don't hold your breath for lullabies). There's Flixster, Box, and Dropbox, the awesome Angry Birds Star Wars, Slacker Radio, and in my review unit, quite a lot of Canadian news, sports, and transportation apps.

BlackBerry 10 OS

You'll find downloadable programs, games, music, and shows in BlackBerry App World, and if you happen to listen to music while you browse, you can control it through a widget that pops up as a widget where you browse (left).

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

More content is close at hand in BlackBerry World, where you can browse by apps, games, music, videos, and TV shows. Rovio powers the shows, while longtime partner 7 Digital handles the music. Strangely, you can search for top paid apps, but there aren't any filtering options specifically for free programs.

BlackBerry Balance and business use
Business and security-conscious users have long been RIM's bread and butter. The BlackBerry Z10 serves this demographic well with BlackBerry Balance, which helps separate sensitive business apps from your personal ones, with the help of your corporate IT manager. There are privacy settings and RIM's signature encrypted servers, plus parental controls -- not to mention remote wiping with BlackBerry Protect.

With the Z10, RIM takes aim at both individual consumers looking for a smart new device and business professionals who could easily pass this phone to an IT administrator to get work-approved apps. The thing is, in today's climate of bring-your-own-phone, many businesses can get by with little extra security and have abandoned fleets of devices. Having been out of the game for so long, it could be a hard sell.

Cameras and video
For a long time now, the BlackBerry camera has been a weak spot. No longer. The Z10 packs a respectable 8-megapixel shooter in the back and a 2-megapixel lens up front. Both record 720p HD video, and the larger of the two can also shoot 1080p HD video.

BlackBerry Z10 camera test

The Z10's camera took some bright, zingy outdoor shots.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
BlackBerry Z10 camera test

Here's the flower in full resolution, cropped but otherwise untouched.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The main camera comes with autofocus, 5x digital zoom, and options for burst mode and stabilization. Pressing either volume button can snap a shot. TimeShift mode takes an array of photos, and lets you revisit them along a timeline to pick the one you like best. There are scene modes (like action and night) and you can choose to take pictures in a 3:4 or 9:16 ratio. (For more on TimeShift, see the full BlackBerry 10 OS review.)

BlackBerry Z10 camera test

Whatever he's doing, CNET editor Jaymar Cabebe is most definitely not posing for the camera.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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.