After using BlackBerry phones for years before switching to an iPhone, I was intrigued to see whether the Z10 could tempt me back. But glitches and a lack of apps left me cold.
My story begins back in the spring of 2010, when I first became a BlackBerry user. Two years and four BlackBerrys later, battling the urge to dropkick my phone into outer space had become a daily struggle. Reader, I gave in — I bought an iPhone.
I wasn’t the only one, either. RIM — or just plain old BlackBerry, as it’s now known — was beset by one crisis after another, and watched its worldwide market share dip dramatically.
BlackBerry 10 launched in January and, despite being massively overdue, was supposed to revive the company’s fortunes and prove that it could still be innovative and relevant in the smartphone world. BlackBerry has previously been brazenly confident about BB10, making all manner of claims about the new operating system and accompanying batch of phones, not least that it will “win” against iOS and Android.
So far things aren’t looking great for the Z10, which came out in the U.K. in February. Despite BlackBerry claiming the phone had had “the best launch ever,” it slashed the price of the handset a mere month later.
According to Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, the success of BB10 will be partly reliant on whether it’s able to lure back former BlackBerry users — such as myself — who have drifted. Perhaps, then, I should give the Z10 a chance, I decided, and see if the time had come when I’d be happy to go back to BlackBerry.
The BlackBerry years
I was poor, I was in need of a smartphone, and I felt left out because all my friends used BBM, the free BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry messaging service. Your first smartphone — even if it’s not brilliant — changes everything. Having the Internet in my pocket was a 10-year-long dream finally realized. Sure, the gadget was slow and finicky to use, but it was also a revelation.
Things quickly turned sour between BlackBerry and me, though.
Over the course of the next two years I used two Curves and two Torches. Being tied into a BlackBerry contract meant that even on the more high-end devices, I was lumbered with 2G “BlackBerry Internet” — a service so slow that I would frequently reach for my phone, then put it down again, weary with the thought of how long a task would inevitably take me. I endured poor battery life, the “white screen of death,” and had to perform regular battery pulls.
Within a couple of weeks of me acquiring it, the first Torch I used, the 9800, fell victim to a common Torch problem with no fix — it wouldn’t charge, and it wouldn’t turn on. The 9810 fared a little better, but for a premium phone, I found build quality to be very poor. Decent apps and games were scarce, and the menu systems and built-in applications quickly started to look dated, uninspired, and charmless compared with the ones on rivals. I was reviewing phones far better than my own, and I needed something with a decent camera for work.
I’m now the happy owner of an iPhone 4, and if it and I should ever part ways, I would settle for nothing less than an equivalently sophisticated, refined, and enjoyable smartphone experience. Could the BlackBerry Z10 live up to that brief? Or is it all mouth and no trousers? I’ve used it for two weeks as my main phone, to put it to the test.
Hey everyone! Look at my awesome new…oh, wait
To look at, the Z10 is a plain, unremarkable, but perfectly decent device. It reminds me a little of the LG Prada Phone, which I reviewed last year and grew quite fond of. It’s not hugely dissimilar to the iPhone 4 I currently use on a daily basis, either. Build quality is definitely superior to previous efforts, and its design certainly marks a departure from the classic BlackBerry look.
Forgive me if I don’t start applauding just yet, though. After all, the iPhone 4 is 2.5 years old now, and costs significantly less than the Z10, which is supposed to be a new start — an innovative flagship device. Why, then, am I left holding a near-replica iPhone — and an inferior one, at that? The camera is decent, but not superb, and it’s nippy enough in general use, but not particularly powerful. There’s nothing here that wows me, nothing that persuades me that BlackBerry is determined to distinguish itself.
Not easy, breezy, or beautiful
I really enjoy the software experience offered by my iPhone, and I’m equally impressed by its main rivals. Cat fights and lawsuits aside, the one thing you can say for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone is that all three offer fundamentally different interfaces and user experiences. Android’s customizable home screens and resizable widgets offer a real alternative to the Windows Phone live tiles and iOS’s neat grids of icons.
BlackBerry has not followed suit, however. Unlike other up-and-coming rivals — Ubuntu, say — which have designed distinctive interfaces, setting themselves apart from other operating systems, BlackBerry has chosen to copy the iOS grid approach rather than develop something all its own. Even deleting apps and arranging them into folders involves exactly the same set of gestures and prods you’d use on an iPhone.
It’s not bad exactly, but it’s not different or exciting, either; you won’t find any true innovation here. In all honesty, I can’t help wondering what exactly BlackBerry has been doing all this time. BB10 was so delayed I’d presumed the company had gone right back to basics, regrouped, and was building this operating system from the ground up. When I dig down into menus, however, I see plain text lists and familiar icons, all of which stink of the stale BlackBerry OS I know of old.
That said, I’ve always been a fan of the BlackBerry hub feature, so I’m glad to see it’s survived. Why there’s no “mark-as-read” feature is baffling, though. As for the spruced-up BlackBerry Messenger, I’m afraid it’s now completely useless to me. I don’t personally know anyone who still uses a BlackBerry, which is in itself very telling.
As with many things in life, it’s the small, seemingly insignificant details that will make or break your daily experience of using a particular phone. For me, it is this: when the alarm goes off in the morning, two white boxes pop up at the top of the huge black expanse of screen asking me in a tiny font if I want to “snooze” or “dismiss.” Squinting at this vast display, capable of proudly emitting vivid colors and showing off big buttons (or even little puzzles as on Android phones I’ve used), I wonder if I have the wherewithal, dexterity, and energy to successfully make the phone snooze. There is way more room for error than I’d like; it just hasn’t been thought through.
Unfortunately for BB10, iOS and Android have been tweaked and refined to the extent now that details like this have been fine-tuned to near perfection, and this realization grates at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning.
Where have all my apps gone?
The first thing I do when I start using a new phone is make my way to the app store and download the small number of apps I’ve become reliant on and use on a daily basis. These include several photo-editing apps — Instagram, Camera+, and Snapseed — along with WhatsApp, Spotify, TubeMap, Netflix, and Google Maps (unless it’s an Android phone, obviously). Among these, only TubeMap was available on BlackBerry World, and I couldn’t find adequate alternatives for any of the others.
The frequency with which I use WhatsApp and the Spotify app in particular cannot be understated. I wouldn’t consider using a phone that doesn’t have them, and I can get them on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8, but while I used the phone, neither were available on BB10. WhatsApp has since become available on BB10, but both Spotify and Netflix have said they have no imminent plans to launch BB10 apps.
I found the built-in maps app seriously subpar, as I’m used to using Google Maps. Even the much-berated Apple Maps app is superior, and let us not be too quick to forget what an uproar that caused when it launched.
As for other apps, discoverability, quality, and pricing are massive issues. BlackBerry may have rebadged its app emporium, but apps are still divided into obscure lists and seem ridiculously overpriced.
Oh look, my screen’s freaking out and my phone just died again
I’ve always found general bugginess to be an issue with BlackBerry phones. Some flaws take time to rear their ugly heads, but when I witnessed the battery being pulled three times within several hours of the Z10 arriving in CNET’s London office, I rightly suspected that some would be evident from the outset.
Bizarre quirks popped up on the very first day I started using the Z10 as my main phone. A couple of hours in, when I was checking the hub, it — and all the messages within it — went wonky, with the panels and text squidging to half the width they were supposed to be. I didn’t restart, as I wanted to see if this was a temporary problem. It lasted for several hours, before eventually self-correcting, but it also recurred at a later date. I’ve also experienced an issue with a repetitively flashing icon when adjusting the volume. Not a great start.
While not a bug as such, battery life is very poor indeed. Even with minimal use, I couldn’t make the Z10 last more than 24 hours, whereas I can get a good day and a half out of my iPhone, even when I’ve been streaming music from Spotify.
Since my time with the Z10, BlackBerry has pushed out a minor software update, which has hopefully solved some of these issues.
Why aren’t my social-networking apps fully integrated?
As a member of the Facebook generation, I need to be sure my phone is always charged and my apps in order, so I can live my life vicariously through the Internet in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed. I was initially pleased to see that the BB10 Facebook app looks much like the iOS one, but I quickly discovered one major difference.
When I try and look at events, it throws me out of the app and into the browser, at which point I’m asked to sign in. Similar problems exist within the YouTube and iPlayer apps. In this day and age, browser shortcuts to such mainstream services as these in place of full apps is very feeble.
As a keen Twitter user, I was incredibly disappointed by the BB10 Twitter app. To begin with, it’s buggy as heck, sometimes bringing up random strings of HTML instead of tweets, and displaying the wrong user’s picture next to Twitter handles. Furthermore, the app doesn’t register a retweet as an interaction, so it won’t alert you or even let you check manually to see if you’ve been retweeted. Similarly, if you click on a reply, it won’t bring up the original tweet or any other previous tweets in a conversation. Perhaps most frustrating of all, whenever you click a link, it once again jumps out of the app and into the browser.
Back to BlackBerry?
I’m not charmed by BB10, neither am I convinced that it offers anything to tempt me away from iOS, or make me choose it over and above Android or Windows Phone 8. I’m even more enthused about Ubuntu — an OS I’ve only ever seen in a series of screenshots — than I am about BB10. There are significant flaws that need to be dealt with and plenty of fine-tuning that must be done before I’d consider using a BB10 phone on a daily basis.
I feel like BlackBerry could learn a thing or two from Nokia, which while not exactly the comeback kid it wants to be, at least went back to the drawing board and designed some attractive, unique devices that offer interesting and exclusive services.
It doesn’t help of course that BlackBerry World makes the Windows Phone 8 app store look like the Mall of America at the moment. For anyone familiar with using a more advanced ecosystem, a drastic lack of decent, affordable apps is going to be hugely problematic. More than anything, though, I need to be assured that my phone won’t fall victim to bugs that frequently render it useless. If BlackBerry can show me that it’s addressed these issues, I’ll happily buy one of its devices. The unfortunate truth of it is that the company may have just wasted its last chance.