The wait was worthwhile: The long-delayed BlackBerry Z10 smart phone is sleek in design and brims with intriguing features, including arguably the smartest phone keyboard ever. Paired with the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, with its surprisingly robust apps store, the Z10 promises to be an appealing alternative to Apple, Android, and Windows phones when it hits the market next month.
The Z10 will be offered on multiple carriers for $199 with a two-year contract. Verizon is first on board, saying it will soon carry the phone; BlackBerry says most U.S. carriers will have the Z10 by March.
The Z10's specs are relatively modest, and include a 4.2-inch high-definition (1280 x 768) LCD display, a dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Plus processor, 2GB of RAM, support for 4G data networks, an 8-megapixel camera, and 16GB of storage. But in an effort to create a more virtual Blackberry experience, the company may have gone too far in eliminating even a home button on the phone. [edited 2/2/13]
Yet after about a day of using a press sample of this new flagship BlackBerry phone, I am much impressed. In particular, the Z10 deftly employs such tools as gestures and swipes to enhance e-mail and messaging, the key functions for many BlackBerry fans.
Here are some details:
Navigation. The Z10 has only two physical controls: A power button at the center top of the phone and a volume/pause rocker switch on the phone's upper right side. The other controls found on past BlackBerrys—a physical keyboard, dedicated trackball/pad, and menu, back, home, and phone buttons—are all gone. (A physical keyboard graces the Q10, the other new Blackberry, which will be available later in the year.)
Instead, the phone employs a navigation system called BlackBerry Flow that relies entirely on finger sweeps and other gestures made on a touch screen. I found Flow makes it easy to navigate by swiping a finger in various directions. For example, sliding your thumb up from the bottom of the screen and then pulling to the right will always take you to the BlackBerry Hub, a complete list of every call, message, and calendar notification received by the Z10. Slide your thumb to the right again, and you can filter those messages by individual app or account. To access wireless connections, alarms, and other settings, simply slide your finger down from the top of the screen.
You can access the virtual buttons for launching the phone or camera while you're in an app by sliding your thumb up from the bottom of the screen. But getting to the desktop "home" screen requires two swipes: one up, and another to the left. And that's not as easy or intuitive as pressing a dedicated home key, as you can on iPhones and Android models. Message to BlackBerry engineers: Bring back the home button. [edited 2/2/13]
Virtual keyboard. The keyboard's Flick feature essentially allows the phone to co-author memos, e-mails, and the like, through suggesting words it thinks will be next, based on what's already in the sentence. For example, begin a sentence with the word "Hurricane," and the word "Katrina" will instantly appear over the letter "K." Begin with the word "Here," and the words "we," "you," and "is," will appear over their respective first letters on the keyboard.
Flick is a very efficient (if slightly creepy) way to enter text. The keyboard also handled more traditional predictive-text tasks with aplomb. For example, type "Thanks," and the word "Thanksgiving" will appear in the space bar. If you get tired of typing, pressing and holding the period key will engage the voice-to-text feature, which is impressively accurate. Pressing and holding the space bar presents common text formatting options, such as boldface, italics, underline, bullets, and font size.
Display. The Z10's 720p screen is among the best I've seen on a phone. Colors, including the deep blue hues of the BlackBerry 10 interface, popped beautifully, and the display's ample pixel density (356 pixels per inch) made it easy to read the tiniest type—even the nearly microscopic text within the thumbnail views of recently used apps.
App management. To launch apps, you simply tap any app's icon. Each page holds up 16 square-shaped apps, and there is no limit on the number of pages, according a BlackBerry spokesperson. As on iPhone and Android phones, you can organize apps into folders, which you create by dragging one app icon into another.
There's no back button, as mentioned earlier, but you can back out of any app by sliding your thumb up from the bottom of the display. The app will shrink into a thumbnail and move to the Recent Apps page, where it will remember where you left off until you tap its thumbnail. By default, BlackBerry 10 keeps up to eight of your most recently used apps on standby. But you can shut these apps down by tapping a small "X" on the bottom right-hand side of their thumbnails.
Voice control and dictation. The Voice Control app is BlackBerry's Siri-like voice-activated assistant. Voice Control accurately executed some fairly complex phone-related commands, such as sending messages, posting updates on social networks, creating calendar appointments, and performing searches. But, unlike Siri, you can't get it to find a nearby restaurant or even add two numbers. After receiving such requests, Voice Control's sultry female voice almost always launches a generic, onscreen Internet search.
Browser. The BlackBerry 10 Web browser
is a significant step up from those on past BlackBerry OSes, provides a multitude of options for sharing and other tasks with what's on the screen at the moment. Among its improvements: It supports multiple tabs, allows you to browse the Web privately, and has a reader mode. And the browser's title bar doesn't automatically appear when you're on a Web page, which allows more space for the page itself (for the same reason, the URL bar is smaller and located at the bottom of the screen).
You can easily bookmark or add a site to the home screen, and you can even tag your selection with descriptive words, like "cool game." A menu you can summon by sweeping your finger left to right across the screen provides a multitude of options for sharing what's on the screen at the moment.
Photos. Taking a cue from Samsung Galaxy phones and the Windows Phone 8 Nokia Lumia 920, the cameras on BlackBerry 10 devices let you choose your subjects' best facial expressions from several different photos and "glue" them into a single, supposedly perfect shot. The feature, called Time Shift, actually takes five shots before and five shots after you engage the shutter, to ensure you don't miss that perfect smile. Once you've composed the perfect still, the camera automatically discards the other nine pics.
A hardware heavyweight. The phone, which measures 5.12 x 2.58 x 0.35 inches and weighs 4.85 ounces, has a "plastic" feel but is quite comfortable to hold. There's also a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for video chats, and built-in NFC (near-field communication) technology, which enables the phone to wirelessly share its content with other devices, read smart tags, and run e-wallet applications (if and when the industries responsible ever get their acts together).
Bottom line: The Z10's advanced multimedia features, hyper-smart keyboard, and intuitive, message-focused design offers hope to Blackberry addicts who want to stay with the brand without sacrificing much if any of what makes its competitors so alluring. Now if only this great phone could be made a little better with the restoring the home button, or some other direct shortcut to the phone's main screen.
For complete details on test results and features for the BlackBerry Z10 and other models, check our buying guide and Ratings for smart phones.