Saturday, 9 February 2013

Blackberry Z10 Review

Let me start this review by answering the question at the top of all your minds, "Catelli, as an ardent Blackberry fan, do you like the new Blackberry Z10?"

After 5 days, with absolutely no reservations whatsoever, I can answer with an unqualified "I'm not sure."

I'll wait for you to pick yourself up from the floor and recover from the shock that resulted from that statement.

If I could design my own ideal smartphone I would start with a Blackberry Bold, give it a larger screen, faster processor and a better web browser with HTML5 and flash support. And not change anything else. The Blackberry Z10 is not that phone. It is not an incremental change, it is a radical change, and I am not a radical.

The first issue for me is that I am one of those people for whom touch screens are an annoying inconsistent experience. Doesn't matter who makes them, my experience with them all is the same. I suffer from some sort of defect where my fingers don't consistently register with touchscreens. Touch gestures are a frustrating experience of multiple retries until the screen senses what I am trying to do. (Some days are better than others, I think I have a dryness/lack of finger-oil issue.) While the handy Blackberry mouse-pad on my Bold is a blissfully consistent, fast and accurate experience, I am handicapped in a touch screen world. I also have this problem with Apple/Android/etc. The Blackberry Z10 unfortunately does not solve this problem for me.

So yes, I have biases, and I'm going to try to identify that whenever I can in this review.

In theory, I am the customer that Blackberry's are designed for. I work in a corporate environment that is heavily reliant on a Microsoft Exchange e-mail system. I rely on a fast and accurate keyboard so that I can type long-winded multiparagraph missives to my peers. In that scenario a Blackberry Bold scored a solid A+++. The Blackberry Z10? B- at best.

The touchscreen keyboard on the Z10 is the best touch keyboard I've tried. But it is not as good as a physical keyboard. It's close, but it isn't perfect. So if you are a Blackberry keyboard fan, wait until the Q10 comes out. It is true that the predictive typing aspect on the Z10 is uncanny. Sometimes I have been able to type an entire sentence by just flicking words up. (But yes, flicking for me is one of those inconsistent gesture issues.) What is annoying is that the Z10 will also suggest words by replacing the onscreen space key with the suggested word. I am regularly running into an issue where I type a none dictionary word, like "Proliant" (as in the servers from HP). After typing that word, I need to type a space, but the space key is replaced with the suggested word "Proline". I need to type a space, but I no longer have a space key. Which slows me down and screws up sentences I am trying to type. I haven't yet found the solution to that issue (if there is one.) So far I have to accept the suggested word, backspace over the last character, and at that time the Z10 will replace the suggested word with the word I typed and will then give me my space key back. Frustrating doesn't begin to describe the experience. (UPDATER: Solution to this issue found here. You can either swipe-up your original word or disable the spell-check/suggested word option on the space key. One annoyance solved.)

What also hurts the corporate customer market is the new Blackberry Enterprise Server. To support the Blackberry 10, RIM Blackberry redeveloped the back-end server software that integrates the Blackberry handhelds with the corporate network. This is where RIM Blackberry (quite possibly) have shot themselves in the foot and have thrown away a huge advantage in the business world. Previously, the Blackberry integration with Microsoft Exchange was the best in the market. To the point that a Blackberry had better integration than Microsoft's own Outlook e-mail client. The one feature I heavily relied on was access to Exchange Public Folders. Rather than everyone in the IT Dept. having to maintain their own contact list, we had a shared Contacts folder where we would enter all of our vendors/support contacts/etc. If I updated one of those contacts, everyone that shared that folder would get that update immediately. Through the Blackberry Enterprise Server, I could access those contacts via my Blackberry. I couldn't do that with an iPhone or an Android, which is why I was holding onto my antiquated Blackberry Bold.

The new Blackberry Enterprise Server no longer supports that functionality. In fact, Blackberry now uses Microsoft's own crappy-as-all-shit Activesync interface to integrate with Microsoft Exchange. Which means that the e-mail functionality on a Blackberry is the exact same functionality on an iPhone or Android device which also use Activesync. So why then would businesses go back to adopting Blackberry's over iPhones and Androids? Damned if I know.

Which leads me to the Blackberry Hub. The Hub is where you can quickly access your e-mail/texts/Twitter and Facebook messages with one handy-dandy gesture all from one spot. I understand what they are trying to achieve with this feature, but it isn't exactly something I like. For one thing, the Calendar is missing from the hub. If I want to review my schedule, I have to open the calendar app separately and then hub into my e-mail to suggest dates to my contact through e-mail. Calendaring/tasks and e-mail are integrated features that should operate together as seamlessly as possible. If the Hub did that, then I'd be all over it like a teenager on an Apple store gift-card.

On my Bold I had four e-mail accounts (yes four) configured. As each mailbox had its own icon on my homescreen, I could always tell at a glance if a received message was work/personal or other. Without having to open any e-mail I knew what I could ignore at any given time if I was in a meeting or doing something of high importance. This is something an Apple device does awkwardly at best, and something that Blackberry Hub does only slightly better. The one thing the Hub does not do for me, even though I told it to stop, was to stop notifying me of Twitter events. I configured the hub to ignore my Twitter account, but it refuses to do so. So the Hub notifies me of new messages from my e-mail accounts as well as my Twitter account. I only want it to notify me of my e-mail. Twitter is not important to me and can wait for me to manually check it.

So what else bothers me? Well I had to uninstall the preloaded Blackberry Maps and Twitter applications. Both sucked as much as any application can suck. Period. End-of-discussion. They stink and are 100% unusable.

However, I did take advantage of the Blackberry ability to side-load Android apps. I now have the Android versions of Google Maps and Twitter on my Z10. (Sidenote. The Android Twitter app is somehow integrated into the Blackberry hub as noted above, even though I uninstalled the Blackberry Twitter app. In my opinion that should not be possible. But it may be an incompatibility issue between the Hub and the Android version of Twitter.) But because these are not native apps, the experience is less than perfect. Twitter has a slightly chunky feel where the touch interface is jerky and jumpy rather than slides smoothly. But it still beats the native Blackberry twitter app.

Android Google Maps has other issues. I rely Google Maps with the Traffic layer to plan my daily commute. I have a dashboard mount where I would place my Blackberry Bold and watch the traffic updates for the road ahead. If the 401 into Toronto showed red (as it usually does) I would exit the highway and take a different route. Since I am driving for about an hour, I can't have the phone or the application go into sleep mode and turn off the display. On my Bold I would use an app called Always On to override the screen timeout when Google Maps was running. Very handy. The native Blackberry Maps on a Z10 automatically disables the auto-sleep and would keep the map on the screen. So that's a win right? But as the traffic updates would always inaccurately show every highway as uncongested and smooth driving all the way, its utility was about -80 on a scale of 1 to 100. Like I said, Blackberry Maps is useless. Period. Because I sideloaded the Android version of Google Maps, the screen would constantly sleep every 5 minutes when I was testing it on my drive home this past Thursday. Even more annoyingly, when I reactivated the screen, the Google Maps app would close the map and go back to the default start screen and tell me what businesses were close to my current location. So for any Android users out there, if you are using Google Maps, and your Android goes to sleep, what happens when you wake it back up? Does Google Maps remember what you last did, or does it close your map and go back to the start screen?

So what do I like about the Z10? Well for the most part, it is a solidly executed device. The larger screen is an improvement over my old BB Bold. Web browsing is fantastic, and the Flash engine is so fast I can even play the games on sites like Launching and switching between apps is a fluid experience that puts an iPad/iPhone to shame. Having four minimized-but-active applications on the home screen is also quite sweet. (What I would like Blackberry to change is how the Phone app behaves. When I finish a phone call, I want the app to close automatically. I do not need it to stay on the screen and show me my call history.) Taking and editing photos is simple and effective. (Annoyingly, unlike the Bold, the Z10 does not include the date when saving the picture. On the Bold, images automatically saved as IMG-20130209-XXX.JPG. On the Z10, they're just simply numbered IMG_00000001.jpg, IMG_00000002.jpg, etc. Fortunately, if you delete IMG_00000002 but keep IMG_00000001 and IMG_00000003, the next picture you take will be saved as IMG_00000004. So at least they're still sequentially stored, date/time wise. Just without the convenience of knowing when you took the photo by looking at the filename.)

And unlike an iPhone, you can still hook up a Z10 and access the filesystem on it anyway you want. I like being able to sort/move/delete files through Windows Explorer, hell even the command prompt. The choice is mine. Yes, you have to install the entire Blackberry Link package just to install the basic device drivers, but once installed, you never have to start Link if you never ever want to. Not for media transferring anyway. Copy/cut/paste is good enough for me!

So where does this all leave me? Well, the Z10 has promise. The OS and hardware are solid. Certain key features need tweaking and the apps have to be developed and made available as quickly as possible. Since Blackberry thew away what advantage they had with the Blackberry Enterprise-Exchange server integration, it is the App Store hill that Blackberry will live or die on.

In the meantime, I just may go back to my Blackberry Bold. And then hold onto it as long as that sweet little device continues to function. I'm giving the Z10 one more week before I decide for sure.


Anonymous said...

In the hub, swipe down. The calendar is above the hub.

John Howse said...

Very well done. Your comments are well written and relevant. I hope BlackBerry reads this and listens.