Review: BlackBerry 10
Beyond BlackBerry Flow, BlackBerry Hub, BlackBerry Peek, and the essential communications services, BlackBerry 10 provides a set of core applications similar to what’s offered by most competing smartphone OSes.
The new on-device storefront for BlackBerries is called BlackBerry World. It offers BB10 owners not only apps, but music, movies, and games. The app itself is OK, but not great. The problem is with discovery. The app has tools that allow you to view only Games, Apps, Music, or Video, but even drilling down into these sections leaves you with plenty of work to do to find new and interesting stuff.
For example, apps. When you look at just the apps, you'll see the top free and top paid apps, with featured apps rotating across the top of the screen. From here, you can choose to search (which is always going to be the best option) or browse further through app categories. The problem is, the app categories have sub-categories. This means you're opening folder after folder after folder trying to find apps rather than actually seeing the apps. The sub-categories need to go away entirely, as many apps are cross-posted in several categories, which only makes it harder to find new stuff.
When it comes to managing your stuff, the "My World" section is there, which is where you can view your apps and other downloaded content. BlackBerry World lets you associate a credit card or PayPal account in order to make purchases. I thought the selection of music and movies/TV shows was decent, but it’s no match (yet) for what's available from iTunes or the Google Play Store. Pricing for music and movies is inline with other content stores, but apps are a bit more expensive than their Android and iOS counterparts.
The BB10 browser is all new and based on widely-used web standards, such as HTML. It’s the browser that BlackBerry fans have been waiting for. It’s fast, easy to use, and works great at rendering web pages. I used the browser on both Wi-Fi and cellular networks, and found it to be speedy at loading web sites, even media-rich sites such as CNN and the New York Times.
The user interface itself is a breath of fresh air. Accessing bookmarks, browsing history, and open tabs are accomplished via simple controls and are easy to manage. The full settings tools of the browser allows users to manage downloads, add the page to the app screen as a bookmark, share it to a reader or social network, as well as search the page or the web (via Bing).
If I had to rate it against the other smartphone platforms' browsers, I'd put it behind Safari and Chrome, but on par with Internet Explorer, for a couple of reasons. First, there's no bookmark syncing (at least, not that I could find) with other BB devices. Chrome for Android and Safari for iOS, for example, can sync bookmarks and open tabs. They also do a slightly better job at rendering web sites.
The calendar app is pretty good, but no matter how I tried, I couldn't get it to sync with my Google Calendar. That's really frustrating. The calendar lets you see different views, such as agenda/list, day, week, and month, and lets you search through the calendar, too. One of the neatest features is that you can sort your calendar based on "people." In other words, you can choose to see all your appointments with a specific person or group of people. Neat. Adding appointments via the calendar app itself is easy. You can set the time, date, location, send invitations, set recurring appointments, set alerts, and so on with the embedded forms/tools in the app itself. It does everything a modern calendar should (except easily sync with Google!).
The camera application is the best yet for a BlackBerry, but it falls short of what's offered by Android devices. There is no dedicated camera button on the Z10, so you need to use the lock screen shortcut or open the app from the home screen.
The camera on the Z10 opens quickly, but not as fast as the iPhone. If you open it when holding it in portrait orientation, it can be slow to recognize when you've rotated it to a horizontal orientation. This happened a lot. The result is you get images that need to be rotated after the fact. Otherwise, it’s incredibly fast to focus and capture images. Since there is no hardware button, images are captured by tapping on the screen. Tap the area you want the camera to focus on, and that's what it does.
The additional features are kept to a minimum. There are buttons that let you switch between the video camera, main camera, and user-facing camera. Shooting modes, which control the camera's focus and shutter speed, include normal, stabilized, and burst. Scenes, which are used to help with exposure and white balance, include auto, action, whiteboard, night and beach/snow. You can also toggle the flash between auto, on, or off.
Yup, there's a clock app. It’s one of the few elements in BB10 that reminds me of older BlackBerry software. The clock app is mainly for setting alarms, viewing a world clock, or using a stopwatch/timer. This app, which works well and looks nice, doesn't play a role on the home screen at all.
The clock that appears on the lock screen is a digital clock positioned near the top of the display. It is fairly easy to see, but (as with many phones) depends a lot on the wallpaper you've selected. The lock screen clock cannot be customized, but it can be used to quickly check the time.
The Z10 includes Docs to Go, an application for interacting with Microsoft Office files. In general, this app is easy to use and works well. First, you can set the app to sync with folders on your desktop to make it easy for pushing the files around. Once they are on the device, opening, viewing, and editing .doc, .xls, and .ppt apps is a breeze. The doc app, for example, includes formatting options such as bold and italics, indenting and aligning text, changing fonts, setting text/background color, and much more. Editing docs on such a small screen is no fun whatever platform you're using, but having the ability to do it at all can be helpful from time-to-time. So, BB10 works with Microsoft no problem, but if you use Google Drive/Docs, you're out of luck.
There are some rudimentary file management tools in BB10. First, the file manager is an app that works with the BlackBerry Link desktop application to sync files back-and-forth between computers and the smartphone. It was easy to set-up and use. BB10 also includes support for Box and DropBox, each of which has an app on board that will sync files automatically between the device and the owner's online accounts. In particular, Box is offering BB10 owners 50GB of storage for at least 12 months. It's worth pointing out that BlackBerry doesn't have its own "cloud" service for storing stuff. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all offer their own services (iCloud, Drive, SkyDrive) for syncing account info and files between devices. BlackBerry needs to get on this quickly.
The gallery application works well when it comes to managing, editing, and sharing photos. The default view in the gallery app shows the most recent images captured with the camera. They are shown in a grid. You may also choose to sort via albums, thanks to controls that line the bottom of the screen. Albums can be synced between the device and your desktop with the BlackBerry Link application. I had mixed results in successfully transferring photos between my PC and the Z10. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. The BlackBerry Link app is really quite crummy. I found it infuriating to use.
Once you open an individual photo, there is plenty you can do with it. First, the editing features are robust. Images can be cropped and rotated; enhanced to correct brightness, white balance, contrast, sharpness, noise, and red-eye; given artistic treatments through the application of various filters; and styled with yet more effects in the vein of Instagram. Once you're done editing the photos, you can share them easily to whatever social networks you have associated with your device, as well as via Bluetooth or NFC.
BlackBerry Maps in BB10 is a bare-bones app that did not impress me at all. First, the app is slow as hell. Even with Wi-Fi backing it up on the network side, maps were painfully slow to load. I could barely pan around my own town, let alone denser areas such as New York City, without it taking forever for the maps to render. Worse, there is no satellite or hybrid view — all you get are drawn maps with no details about points of interest, business, or other nearby attractions on the map. The only layer that can be applied to maps adds a live view of traffic, but it makes the app perform even slower than it already does. The app rarely pinpointed my exact location.
BlackBerry Maps offers the basic voice-guided, turn-by-turn feature that all mobile navigation maps need to offer. In this respect, the app performed as it should, and routed me perfectly between my home and another local address. It can also find nearby points of interest if you perform a dedicated search. For example, I searched for "pizza" and the app returned all the local pizza joints. Clicking on any of the individual results brought up the address, phone number, and the option to get directions.
But there's not much beyond these basics. There's no Street View, no 3D flyovers, no imagery associated with maps at all. Really all it can do is direct you from Point A to Point B, and perform basic searches. Honestly, using Google Maps in the BB10 browser provides a much richer and more rewarding experience, though it can't handle turn-by-turn navigation.
There are simple music and video playback apps within BB10 that let you listen to your music or watch your movies/shows. Honestly, BB7 had more features available in the music/video apps than BB10 does. It is clear these were far down the priority list at BlackBerry HQ.
The music and video apps will see whatever music/video you may have stored on a microSD card, and can be synced with your iTunes library via the BlackBerry Link app. Syncing via BlackBerry Link was problematic at best. No matter how much I tried, BlackBerry Link never wanted to sync more than two-thirds of the songs I selected (no, storage space wasn't an issue, and neither was DRM). Worse, syncing from the desktop directly to Z10 takes forever. We're talking about 15 minutes for 500MB of music. That's ridiculous. You're better off using the microSD card.
The music app itself offers simple playback and that's about it. It sorts your music by artist, album, playlist, and genre. Album art came through fine, and music sounded good when played through my favorite earbuds. There are no controls for adjusting the sound, like an EQ, or anything like adjusting the stereo effects or sound field for headphones. All this app really does is play your tracks.
The same pretty much goes for the video app. It covers basic playback and that's about it. The video app totally choked on the movies I sideloaded via microSD. It would only play video purchased/rented from BlackBerry World, video captured with video cameras (i.e., from your computer), or video taken with the phone itself. That's a fail in my book.
Newsstand is BB10's version of Newsstand. It is a reader application that also serves as a storefront for magazines. The store looks and behaves similar to BlackBerry World, but for whatever reason, it is its own separate entity. The selection of magazines is OK, I guess, and prices range from $1.99 per issue to $5.99 per issue, depending on the magazine. The selection isn't huge, but there were definitely some familiar names (Marie Claire, Esquire, Car and Driver, O, and more). The magazines are presented with artwork, text, and everything you'd expect to see in the print editions.
StoryMaker is BlackBerry's answer to iMovie. It lets BB10 owners piece together slideshows or video clips complete with titles, soundtracks, and credits if you want to go that far. It is simple to use to combine files to make the final product. It automatically stitches segments together and creates the final product once you're all done. The files can then be shared via various social networks and even uploaded to YouTube if you download it from BlackBerry App World.
Voice Control is a tool that can be used to perform certain actions within BB10, such as initiating and dictating messages. I was able to successfully use it to send an email to Rich, though the dictation wasn’t 100% accurate. Quite honestly, the experience feels like a complete rip-off of Apple's Siri. The way commands are translated and responded to by the software on the screen looks almost identical to Siri, and the female voice that interacts with you is eerily Siri-like (but without the personality). BlackBerry Voice Controls can also be used to open other apps, set calendar appointments, make notes, perform searches, and so on. Overall, the responsiveness to voice commands was good, but not excellent.