BlackBerry Z10: Can this phone save BlackBerry?

March 21, 2013

BlackBerry launches its first new smartphone, the Z10, in the U.S. on Friday, a major test of whether the once-dominant cellphone maker can mount a comeback.

Analysts say this could be the company’s last chance to reverse its flagging fortunes — though even the company itself says it’s merely looking for a strong third place finish for this launch, behind phones running Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iPhone.

And the Z10 is a capable phone — sleek, smooth and stylish. But for all that, it still lacks a killer feature that guarantees it can pull BlackBerry back from the brink.

The company’s efforts to distinguish itself from competitors like Apple and Samsung are admirable, but could fall flat with some users. For example, the phone has no home button and no physical keyboard — design decisions meant to signal that the company’s ready to play with the big boys in the smartphone market.

(QWERTY-lovers shouldn’t fret, however: a keyboard phone is coming later this year.)

Instead of providing a home button, the company has opted to have users navigate through a series of touch gestures. That sets up a learning curve that those used to the iPhone and other smartphones may not want.

BlackBerry’s done this deliberately, saying that it wants to get consumers away from what it calls an “outdated” style of smartphone navigation, where users are constantly returning to their main app screen. Once you get the hang of the system, it is fast to switch between multiple applications such as the browser and e-mail, but it does require a bit of time to figure out.

For those willing to learn, the Z10 is a strong phone and a good one for getting work done.

The typing system on the phone is, by far, its stand-out feature, taking text prediction to a whole new level. The phone makes several suggestions for your next word based on common sense and your personal usage, and you can add these suggestions to your message by flicking up.

So if you type, for example, “ca” into the phone, the word “car” appears over the “r” key, while the word “cat” appears over the “t” key. As the phone gets to know you, it adapts its suggestions, too, so an opthamalogist might see a suggestion like “cataract” over the “t,” while a bilingual Spanish speaker might see “catorce” with the right language settings.

BlackBerry has also doubled-down on its security features, the aspect of the phones that have made them so attractive to businesses. With a feature called Balance, users can separate their work and personal e-mail accounts, apps and documents on the same device. That means that companies could wipe out all their sensitive information from an employee’s device without also taking out family photos.

BlackBerry has also taken pains to address some of the biggest criticism of its phones, including that the older phones were not good with multimedia.

The phone’s camera software offers an interesting feature called Time Shift that is meant to improve your chances of getting a decent portrait out of your phone. The camera, which can recognize faces, takes multiple shots and lets you pick the face frame to help you avoid weird winces and blinks. Video playback on the phone is good, though it can be a drain on the battery. Battery life overall is fairly good, and should get you through a regular day of use.

There are some caveats to keep in mind about the phone. Since BlackBerry is launching a new system, its app selection leaves much to be desired, though the company is focusing on getting popular apps on the phone quickly. Executives at the firm have said they are more focused on getting quality apps than rushing to meet the volume of apps on stores from Apple and Google, but there's no denying you give up some app selection by picking BlackBerry at this stage.

The phone’s browser, while an enormous improvement over previous models, is also not as smooth as the competition’s — sometimes with small stutters and occasionally with noticeable lag.

All in all, the BlackBerry Z10 is a very capable device and a marked improvement over the company’s latest devices. But while there’s nothing wrong with the phone, it offers little reason for happy iOS and Android users to jump ship.

The company provided a review unit to The Washington Post — with help from a SIM card provided by AT&T, which will be the first to carry the phone on Friday. T-Mobile will begin selling the phone in stores on March 26; Verizon will begin sales on March 28.

Related stories:

BlackBerry CEO: Apple’s iPhone is outdated

BlackBerry CMO talks new name, new phones and the game plan for a comeback

AT&T to begin selling BlackBerry Z10

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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