BlackBerry Z10 review: first look

30 Jan 2013

The BlackBerry Z10, launched alongside the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, has been a hell of long time in the making. Finally, the company looks to have a smartphone to compete with the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III.

The specifications only tell part of the story, but notably they do bring RIM's new baby - sorry, make that BlackBerry's new baby - level with the competition. As expected, the Z10 has a 4.2in, 1,280 x 768, 356ppi touchscreen, and a quick perusal of the rest of its vital statistics reveals few areas of significant weakness. The phone measures 130 x 65.6 x 9mm, and inside there's a dual-core, 1.5GHz processor, with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage to back it up. The rear camera is an 8-megapixel unit capable of shooting 1080p, and the front-facing camera is 2mp capable of shooting 720p.

Design-wise, there's also much to like. The phone is slim and angular, with the screen dominating most of the front. It's available in both black and white livery, and in general it looks uncannily like a larger version of the iPhone 5. Despite the European managing director's protestations to the contrary on national radio this morning, BlackBerry has clearly learned a lot from from Apple's market-leading smartphone.

In the hand, the phone feels less impressive, though. It's light, and the rear panel is made from very thin, slightly textured soft-touch plastic. That means the battery can be replaced quickly and easily, and the memory expanded via the microSD slot, but it's not a patch on the iPhone 5's gorgeous metal body. The controls are minimalist, with the volume rocker on the right edge the only physical button on the device.

More important, perhaps, is how responsive the Z1 feels in use. In the few minutes we had among the scrum of journalists scrambling to get hands-on, it instantly felt right. The BlackBerry 10 UI, too, is very nice indeed. The gesture-based interface is a world apart from the clunky old BlackBerry interface, especially the BlackBerry Hub - a dashboard for your messages that gathers together content from email, Facebook and Twitter to BBM messaging, and lets you filter by service with a swipe left and a single tap.

BlackBerry were keen to highlight how easy it is to navigate the phone's interface like this - with a single thumb - and we found it worked superbly well. Swiping from the bottom of the screen and then right in one continuous motion lets you "peek" at your messages, without exiting the app you're using . It's a little like using a tiny, much richer version of the Windows 8 interface.

The keyboard has always been at the centre of the most successful BlackBerry devices, and the company has innovated here too. As you type, word suggestions appear, floating above the keys: to add them to a message, it's simply a case of flicking them up from where they appear; to delete them, swipe left anywhere on the keyboard. Initial attempts to use this system were hit and miss, though, with the keyboard insisting on capitalising the first letter of every word we typed. However, BlackBerry says it's a learning system, so it should improve over time. We reserve judgement; look out for more on this when we've tested it properly for our final review.

Other nice touches include video chat and screen sharing via BBM, so you can show off your photos or a document, for instance, without having to send anything. There's built-in photo editing via a selection of filters and effects, and for video Story Maker brings  iMovie-esque video-editing capabilities to the phone. Finally, BlackBerry Balance adds features that allow business content and apps to be kept separate from one another on the phone - a feature IT departments the world over will love.

The key, though, is likely to be the apps, and here BlackBerry seems to have made a good start. The 70,000-plus figure of new apps at launch is very impressive, and includes several big names, including Skype and, inevitably, Angry Birds - Rovio is bringing its entire back catalogue of avian-flinging fun to the new platform. However, we noticed that the word "committed" was used in the launch to refer to a number of the big-name apps, meaning (we presume), they won't be in the BlackBerry Store to start with.

So can the Z10 take the fight to the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III? We can't deliver a definitive judgement just yet, but at first glance it doesn't quite do enough. With the first prices emerging at £30 to £40 per month on a 24-month contract, it doesn't look like amazing value either.

However, in terms of availability, BlackBerry has got it right for once. Amazingly, UK customers are getting the handsets tomorrow, and they'll be available from EE, O2, Vodafone, Phones4U, BT, 3UK and Carphone Warehouse from the get go. Keep an eye out for our full review very soon.

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