2013 is an incredibly important year for the company formerly known as RIM. The newly-christened BlackBerry is fighting for its life, having seen its previously impressive market share eaten away by Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Its latest handset is one of its most revolutionary: not only ditches the keyboard interface which has made the brand so famous over the years and but also fully embraces the world of touchscreens after briefly flirting with the concept on the BlackBerry Storm. The Z10 also showcases BlackBerry 10, a complete revision of the company's previous operating system which is based around touch and gesture commands.
In a market already flooded with touchscreen devices, abandoning the one thing which makes BlackBerry unique - its keyboard - is a massive gamble, but it's clear that change had to happen. Mobile users are now accustomed to large displays, touch interfaces and massive, well-stocked app stores. BlackBerry had to evolve and adapt rather than attempt to consolidate its rapidly-shrinking share of the pie. However, is the Z10 - along with the BB10 OS - simply too little, too late?
The design of the Z10 is about as far removed from previous BlackBerry devices as it's possible to get. The designers have clearly taken plenty of inspiration from Apple's recent iPhone offerings, with plenty of rounded edges and straight, clean lines. The phone's 768x1280 pixel 4.2-inch screen isn't likely to trouble the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Google Nexus 4, but it's slightly larger than the one seen on the iPhone 5 and is easy enough to interact with without getting finger strain. Above and below the screen are two large plastic chunks which make the phone longer than it really needs to be, but the Z10 is hardly a monster handset.
Flipping the phone over, there's a plastic back with a grippy texture to prevent accidental droppages. Slip a fingernail under the bottom edge of this back panel and it pops off to reveal a removable 1800 mAh battery, microSD card slot and Micro SIM bay. The plastic panel itself also has an NFC sticker which allows the Z10 to communicate with other NFC-ready devices and make contactless payments. The back of the handset also features an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus. Picture quality is surprisingly good, although shooting in low-light often results in a washed-out image thanks to a rather overzealous LED flash.
BlackBerry is clearly thinking of the future because it has equipped the Z10 with 4G LTE capability, allowing it to take advantage of faster mobile network speeds. The only provider in the UK currently offering 4G reception is EE, and contracts are still quite pricey. Coverage is also less than ideal at present - hardly a massive shock when you consider that some parts of the country don't even have 3G reception as yet. When it works, the download and upload speeds are tremendous, but unless you live in an area with good service, it's hard to justify the additional monthly cost at this stage. Things will improve over time, and more UK networks will be offering 4G in the future.
The new BlackBerry 10 OS is such a massive change from what has gone before that even seasoned BlackBerry users could find themselves at a disadvantage when compared to relative newcomers. Ironically, previous experience with the likes of Android and iOS is likely to come in handy here, as the interface borrows elements from both of those platforms and mashes them together to create something that feels strangely familiar.
"BB10's reliance on obtuse gesture commands is something of a double- edged sword: once committed to memory these finger swipes allow you to move around with relative ease, but it's not particularly intuitive."
The interface is comprised of three main sections. The first is the app drawer, which requires no explanation to Google and Apple fans. The second shows the last eight applications you opened - a similar system to the multitasking menu on Android, allowing you to switch between running apps or close them entirely with a single tap. The third area is possibly the most important: the BlackBerry Hub. It's here that all of your social activity and notifications are displayed, allowing you to instantly see how many unread emails you have and any pending BBM conversations that are ongoing. The Hub also consolidates all of these messages into one constant stream, allowing you to view all of your pending communication in one place. BlackBerry devices have always been beloved by those who desire complete control over all aspects of mobile communication, and this element of BB10 continues that tradition.
It's not all positive, though. BB10's reliance on often obtuse gesture commands is something of a double-edged sword; once committed to memory these finger swipes allow you to move around with relative ease, but it's not a particular intuitive system for novices. The lack of a physical home or back button means you often find yourself in situations where the only option is to perform an aggressive swipe from the bottom of the screen to the top, which docks the current app in the multitasking screen. The fact that some menus and apps do have a back button only confuses matters further; there's no uniformity in the OS design.
Aside from these little idiosyncrasies, BB10 operates in a very similar fashion to its rivals. An Android-style swipe-down menu allows you to toggle settings and you can create folders in your app drawer by long-pressing and dragging an item over another one. The keyboard offers some improvements, such as an excellent prediction system which allows you to "swipe" onto suggested words as they magically appear over the keyboard, but it's hardly the massive leap forward that BlackBerry is insisting it is. Voice commands are also possible and work well enough, but again, it feels like BB10 is merely following where Android and iOS have already been.
"BlackBerry World suffers from the same problems that its Windows Phone equivalent does; there's a real lack of content when compared to the iOS App Store and Google Play."
As we saw recently with the HTC 8X - one of the first handsets to run Microsoft's new Windows Phone 8 - modern smartphone ecosystems live and die by the quality of their app stores. BlackBerry World suffers from the same problems that its Windows Phone equivalent does; there's a real lack of content when compared to the massively popular iOS App Store and Google Play market. However, the friendlier layout and slightly better support does at least put it ahead of Microsoft's challenger; popular choices such as TuneIn Radio, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter mean that users are catered for in most key areas. However, there's just not the same depth and variety on show as there is on iOS and Android, which is something to seriously consider if you're a download addict tempted to make the switch from one of those platforms.
The same story applies to games - as a platform for dedicated players, it's difficult to see BB10 ever challenging the likes of iOS. Big-hitters such as NOVA 3, Angry Birds Star Wars, Another World, Where's My Water and UNO are welcome, but it's clear that BlackBerry is struggling to attract as much developer support as it would like - notable exclusives are almost non-existent. It is possible to "port" titles across for use in the Android emulator, but support is limited.
Thankfully, the hardware seems to cope well with the interactive experiences we did test; when placed side-by-side with a Google Nexus 4 running the same game, performance is almost identical - despite the fact that the Z10 is running a Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon dual-core chipset, while its Android-based rival has a quad-core edition. The 2GB of onboard RAM is sure to have something to do with this; general performance and navigation around the OS is smooth and stutter-free.
BlackBerry Z10: the Digital Foundry verdict
As much as its creators would like it to be, the Z10 isn't going to be the phone to tempt Android and iPhone owners away from their respective platforms. What it does, it does very well - but there's little here which is going to be genuinely new or surprising to anyone with a modern touchscreen smartphone.
BlackBerry's previous preoccupation with physical keys means that it is now effectively playing catch-up with its rivals. BB10 is a start, however - and the Z10 a good platform for BlackBerry to build on in the future. Ditching the keyboard could end up being a cathartic process, and if the firm follows through with its intention of pushing its new software onto more powerful and desirable devices, we could see the renaissance the Canadian veteran so badly craves.