BlackBerry is at a point now where Apple was when Steve Jobs came back and launched the iMac for the first time. The Z10 is BlackBerry’s iMac. It’s its last chance to show that it has what it takes to compete in the smartphone world. You may have noticed that the company has released very few new anythings over the past couple of the years. Under the leadership of Thorsten Heins, it’s had to take stock, go back to the drawing board and build a new platform from the ground up. The result of this hard work and bravery is the Z10. An all touch screen device running the brand new BB10 operating system. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the most important device for the Canadian tech company in its history. It’ll either go down as the phone that saved it, or the one which failed to.
When it comes to smartphones, there’s no doubting that the iPhone 5 is the king (at least in terms of sales). Plenty would argue it doesn’t deserve to be the top selling phone, but there are some very good reasons why it is. But, the question is: does the BlackBerry Z10 match the iPhone? We know it virtually does on paper, but what about day to day use?
You might say that the iPhone 5 and Z10 look fairly similar. And they do, on first glance. The rounded rectangle front panel with all but the top and bottom covered by a large square glass panel. It’s reminiscent of the iPhone’s two-tone backside. But’s that’s where the similarity ends for me. Unlike the iPhone’s glass and aluminum body, the Z10 is plastic and has a grippy material on the battery door. All-in-all, it feels solid, well made and very comfortable in hand.
What is slightly baffling about the BlackBerry’s design, is the bezel. It’s huge. Considering the size of the display, you’d think BBerry’s design team could shave a few millimeters off the edges, but for whatever reason they didn’t. It gives the impression of a picture with a frame that’s so big, it almost swamps it. It’s not enough to make it horrible to use, but just enough to make it appear a little block-like. To look at, the iPhone 5 clearly trumps the Z10 with its elegant design.
Which ever way you look at the Z10, it’s bigger. It’s 6.2mm taller, 7mm wider and 1.4mm thicker. Not to mention, a full 25.5 grams (0.88 oz) heavier than Apple’s 6th iPhone. And it is noticeable, when you look at them next to each other and when you hold them. The iPhone’s trim and sleek design is admirable, and shows that when it comes to engineering, Apple is still ahead of the curve.
That’s not to say I don’t like the Z10. It’s easily the best looking BlackBerry ever launched, and it’s not awkward to use. I really love the grippy back door, it feels like it belongs in my hand. It just doesn’t “wow”. That said, I don’t feel like I have to protect it like a precious item of jewelry, unlike the iPhone with its easy-scratch aluminum back plate. It lives up to the tradition of being well built and hard to break.
When it comes to all the ports and buttons, BlackBerry’s smartphone is as different as it can be from the iPhone. The only similarity here is the lock/power button which is almost identical to the iPhone’s oblong key. It’s just placed – awkwardly – in the center of the top edge. Next to it you’ll find the 3.5mm headset jack, and a small microphone hole. Unlike the iPhone’s volume buttons, the Z10 has them on the right hand edge, and they’re about as different in shape to Apple’s round buttons as you could imagine. There are three buttons in total on the Z10: volume up, down and the middle function key which activates Voice Control: BlackBerry’s attempt at taking on Siri. On the left edge, the Z10 has two ports: Micro USB and Mini HDMI. On the bottom edge: nothing.
The biggest and most obvious omission is any form of button on the front. Whereas the iPhone has the iconic home button, the Z10 has nothing and is controlled using touch screen gestures only. It did take me a little while to get used to not having anything physical to press, but I did prefer it eventually. It’s one of the things I really liked about the Pre 3 when I owned one, and it works well with BB10.
All in all, comparing these two is like chalk and cheese. It’s almost like they’ve been designed with two different mindsets. The iPhone is a precision piece of elegant engineering, made to be gawped at and touched with a sense of awe. The BlackBerry is designed to be used. A lot. I like them both, but it’s hard not to come away thinking BlackBerry’s design team could have spent more time on the form factor, and made the device a little less bulky.
Getting down to the basics of specifications, the iPhone features a 4-inch, 640×1136 resolution display boasting an impressive pixel density of 326ppi. The Z10 has a 4.2-inch panel with a resolution of 768×1280 pixels, giving it a density of 355ppi. Both are impressively sharp, and – although the Z10 has the higher pixel count and density, the difference isn’t easy to detect with the human eye. If at all.
One thing I did notice (but only when the iPhone and Z10 were side by side) was that the BlackBerry handset had a faint yellow tint. It did affect color reproduction, more so the whites and blues. Contrast levels are good on both, but blacks appear darker on the BlackBerry. Colors are a little more vivid on the iPhone, and the screen in general is brighter and seems sharper. Even with the iPhone at 75% and the Z10 at 100% the Apple handset was noticeably brighter and clearer.
Yet again, it’s a situation where the BlackBerry’s display is obviously better than anything by that manufacturer before. But, compared to the iPhone – despite matching its resolution – it seems a little washed out and unclear. It’s not fuzzy at all, but it does need to be brighter and whiter. That said, if I wasn’t looking at it right next to the iPhone, I more than likely wouldn’t notice it that much at all. So, don’t let that put you off, it’s not like looking at content through a stained glass window. It’s barely noticeable. But it’s there nonetheless.
Here’s where the comparison gets interesting. The BB10-loaded handset is powered by a 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor and has 2GB RAM. The iPhone has its own custom A6 processor, 1.2GHz with 1GB of RAM. Obviously, operating systems account for a lot of how it looks and feels and both are adequately designed to make the most of the hardware. Thanks to both companies adopting an in-house approach of designing both the handsets and software, they can be sure to optimize firmware and hardware for each other. And it shows.
The iPhone 5 handles its OS with consummate ease, as does the Z10. The BlackBerry’s transitions from Hub, to multitasking to apps are buttery smooth and as fluid as anything I’ve used before. In fact, no app launching felt at all laggy, and I’ve yet to experience any crashes. Browsing the web on both is a pleasure, and having tried a good selection of web pages on both in day to day use, I didn’t once get frustrated by slow loading times or the dreaded “checker-boarding” when zooming in and/or out.
In fact, if anything, in some occasions the Z10 outperforms the i5. One issue I – and a few other users – have had since the iPhone 5 launched is that the screen doesn’t always detect anything. It generally only happens on the Lock Screen when trying to unlock, but it happens at least once every 2 days. So far, I’ve not had any such issue with the Canadian-designed handset. It just seems to approach every task effortlessly. Again showing that it’s a handset designed to be used heavily, and switch between various functions and tasks at a moment’s notice.
Sadly, I was disappointed by the Z10’s camera. Despite having the same megapixel count and similar sensor technology to the iPhone, picture quality was noticeably poorer. Especially in low light situations. That said, I love the user interface on the Z10. Focussing manually is a joy, and being able to touch anywhere on the screen to grab an image makes it a lot easier to grab a shameless selfie. It doesn’t quite make up for the end result though. Darker, or shaded areas even in a relatively well lit room still come out a little too noisy for my liking.
That’s not to say the iPhone’s camera is perfect. Pictures are sharp and colors are well balanced, but images still have a tendency to lack some depth and come out flat. And compared to the Lumia 920, low light photos aren’t fantastic. If a great camera is something that’s really important to you on a phone, the iPhone is the winner here, but the BlackBerry – again – offers better images than any of its predecessors could even dream of. Not bad, but not terribly good either.
I will be posting a more in-depth camera comparison another time, with a ton of examples. Stay tuned for that. I posted one of the comparisons above just so you could get an idea. The Z10′s sharpness and image quality is good in well lit situations. But, it does have a tendency to get the white balance a little wrong. The iPhone’s shot shows the actual color of my wall, the Z10 thinks that’s white and skews the coloring slightly to compensate. All in all, it’s not that the Z10 camera is awful. It isn’t. It’s just not one I would use if the subject of my photograph wasn’t well lit.
When it comes to customization, you can change the aspect ratio of the Z10′s image between 4:3 and 16:9 depending on whether you’re a traditionalist or not. You can also change scene modes between Auto, Action, Whiteboard, Night and Beach or Snow. Choosing each setting adjusts exposure, white balance and shutter speed accordingly. The iPhone has no such flexibility unless you download a third party app. You can also choose to snap shots with image stabilization or in burst mode (takes a series of images in one go) with the BlackBerry.
One thing I was impressed with, again with the Z10, was the video capture. Focussing manually during shooting is so simple, and fast. Auto-focus works equally as quickly and footage is smooth and sharp. Very surprised.
Considering that BlackBerry is well renowned for forgetting about the camera, and sticking in any old crappy lens, the Z10 is impressive. And, although the user interface and customization options are better on the Z10, Apple’s iPhone – I feel – gives a better end product, especially in low light scenes. But, I don’t think the difference is enough to sway you one way or the other. You will not be that disappointed with the BlackBerry.
Loudspeaker/Call Quality/Sound Quality
In my experience using 40+ different handsets, there’s one thing that BlackBerry has excelled at over its competition: loudspeaker clarity, volume and call quality. Out of all the smartphones, nothing was better at being a phone. In fact, I can’t remember ever missing a call with any of the 4 BlackBerries I had previously. The same is true of the Z10, and it’s nice to see that Heins’ men haven’t neglected what they’ve always been good at in order to chase super-powered specs, gigantic screens and brand partnerships with celebrity owned audio companies. This phone is loud and clear, even when it’s trying not to be. It’s fantastic, and I find it refreshing.
That said, I would never go as far as to say that the iPhone’s or the Z10’s loudspeaker could ever make an adequate personal audio system, but for a mobile phone they do well. In fact, all in all, I much prefer the Z10’s audio quality. Call quality is among the best I’ve used too, and is at the very least equal to the iPhone. If not better. The Z10 is a clear winner here.
I’ve read plenty of reviews digging at the BlackBerry’s supposedly poor battery life. Chiefly, TheVerge’s reviewer who stated that he could barely get through a day on a full charge. Granted, he more than likely uses his phone a lot more than I, but I get similar life out of both phones.
The Z10 has the 1,800mAh cell, whereas the iPhone has 1,440mAh. With the Z10, I took it off charge at 9am on Sunday morning, and didn’t have to plug it in again until 10pm on Monday. Even then, it still had 10% left and could easily have gone another couple of hours at least before dying. On the iPhone, I frequently get around 8 hours usage plus a day and a half of standby, making them very similar. When you consider that the BlackBerry has a larger display, a more power hungry OS and processor, it evens it out. Either way, I don’t think the end user is going to be as disappointed with it as reviewers would like to make out.
The Z10 once again proves that it is primarily a phone when it comes to network reception. I’ve not dropped below 4 out of 5 bars of 3G/HSPA+ coverage in my office since I opened the handset. My iPhone is usually between 2-4 bars in the same place. That being said, if you are a frequent traveller and you need access to a wider range of networks, Apple’s iPhone is the better “world phone”. While the Z10 only has HSPA+, EV-DO and LTE, the iPhone supports those plus CDMA and DC-HSPA.
I will be covering software in depth in a separate article, but I can’t do a phone comparison without at least touching on the user interface. It’s half of what makes a smartphone a smartphone, and one could not exist without the other.
Ignoring the fact that the Z10 has got a long way to go to catch up with the likes of Apple’s App Store, the new gesture based control system is fantastic. Everything is a single digit swipe away. Swipe down: I get system settings toggles. Swipe right: and I get the Hub which contains all my notifications. Swipe left: apps and folders. When I’m on the recent apps screen I can scroll up and down and easily close any apps I no longer need.
Although the iPhone has always been regarded as being easy to use, BlackBerry has trumped it with BB10. There’s no back button, or home button. It’s all done with a simple gesture. While it did take me a little time to get accustomed to the new way of doing things, I soon find myself trying to dismiss apps on my iPhone in the same way. In essence: BlackBerry has done the impossible, and made iOS seem complicated. So much so, that I’ve often been picking the Z10 up in before the iPhone to achieve tasks like checking email, Facebook and Twitter. It just feels more natural.
Ecoystem is still in its infancy, and it shows. There is a huge lack of apps here. I hardly found any of my daily drivers: no Ebay, PayPal, Audience, Flickr, Instagram, Temple Run, FIFA 13, the list truly goes on. BlackBerry App World is nothing on iTunes quite yet. That said, I have noticed new, quality apps and games appear over the past few days. And, with music, video and books all being available, the company has got the foundations laid to create a truly great alternative to Apple’s ecosystem.
The Z10′s strength is clearly within its user interface. The company formerly known as RIM has nailed it, and with a few tweaks to make it a little less buggy, it could be even better. Specifically: getting apps to talk with Hub better so that when I check on messages and mentions on Twitter and/or Facebook, they get dismissed within the Hub too. It can get a little frustrating having to keep going in to the Hub to mark everything as “read”.
The BlackBerry Z10 has some real positives. But on the hardware side, nothing that would make me want to switch from my iPhone. Then again, that’s expected. While the iPhone has a better camera, better design and a better display, the Z10 has an air of usability about it. And, it’s not forgotten its roots. It’s a brilliant phone. Is it enough right now to compete with the likes of iOS and Android? No. But it’s a very good starting point and I can’t wait to see how future generations play out.