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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

March 22, 2013 at 6:02 PM

Review: BlackBerry Z10

For the past few weeks I’ve tried to make the new BlackBerry Z10 my primary work phone.

It’s a nice device with a beautiful case, a great display and excellent phone quality.

But it’s not an easy transition to go to a Z10 from the traditional BlackBerry with utilitarian buttons and keyboards, like the company-issued BlackBerry Bold that I’ve used for years.

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The Z10 is a handsome slab running totally revamped software that’s the great hope for BlackBerry, the pioneering Canadian company formerly known as Research In Motion.

BlackBerry established the market for business-class messaging phones but they were eclipsed by smartphones that did a better job handling media, apps and the Web.

Now it’s a second-tier player, fighting with Windows Phone on the lower rungs of a market dominated by Google’s Android platform and Apple’s iPhone.

BlackBerry’s comeback officially began in January when it “launched” the Z10, but the phone just went on sale in the U.S. on Friday. AT&T began selling it for $200 with a contract. Verizon and T-Mobile are releasing their versions next week.

The touchscreen Z10 is the first of many phones that will run BlackBerry’s new operating system, which makes its devices feel more “webby” and app-friendly. The Q10, with a physical keypad, may be available by summer.

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BlackBerry isn’t offering copycat smartphones. It’s trying to leapfrog the competition with a new interface that uses gestures to flick and swipe through the software.

The key gestures are an upward swipe to open apps and a sideways flick to scroll through apps. Best of all is a partial flick that lets you slide aside an app to “peek” at your email. A downward swipe calls up  settings; that’s handy to silence the phone.

You flick your finger sideways to peek at the “hub,” which is like a dashboard for key apps such as email, text messages, tweets, notifications and calls.

I like the concept, but the software doesn’t yet feel intuitive. I was also surprised that I couldn’t always peek at the dashboard, notably from the browser.

There are no physical “home” or “back” buttons so you do a lot of flicking to get around. Sometimes it takes a few stabs to get the gestures to work.

Perhaps I’d get more comfortable with extended use. But at times it felt like I was losing at “Go Fish” — with a big hand of cards that I had to keep moving side to side and front to back.

The Z10 felt fast running apps and zooming in and out of Web pages, and its 4.2-inch screen is bright and easy to read indoors and out. The AT&T model I tried almost always found a zippy LTE connection around downtown Seattle.

Counting apps isn’t the best way to review a phone. Underdogs are rapidly adding more apps, and the big app stores are larded with duplicates and obscurities. A better measure is whether a phone has access to dominant apps that most people use.

Either way, BlackBerry comes up short. It had about 100,000 apps as of Friday, but lacked mainstays such as Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody. For music and video, BlackBerry instead offers its own media store.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube are preloaded on the home screen and there’s a free version of “Angry Birds” available.

The Z10 worked well with my office Outlook email system, but no Microsoft apps are available for the platform.

BlackBerry’s touchscreen keyboard is excellent, with well-defined letters. As you type, suggested words appear in superscript on the keyboard; an upward flick inserts the word. Being Canadian, the Z10 can suggest words in multiple languages.

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Battery life is fair, lasting through a day of moderate use.

The Z10’s coolest tricks involve its camera, which automatically take bursts of photos. Then it displays a slider control that you use to select from the “roll” of photos taken.

When you take pictures of people, you can use the slider to find a shot when your subject isn’t making a goofy face. In pictures with several people, you can choose the best shots of their faces and blend them, so nobody’s eyes are closed in the final image.

Unfortunately the camera is a little slow to activate and the Z10 froze a few times while I was using the editing tool.

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Even so, the camera isn’t the big selling point for corporate buyers. They’ll be more interested in things like the ability to toggle the Z10 between personal and work configurations.

BlackBerry is also giving companies a free upgrade to its new phone server, which gives them a console to secure and manage not only BlackBerrys but Android and Apple devices used by employees.

The company still has a presence in 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies, according to Richard Piasentin, vice president and U.S. managing director.

“What folks are talking about is the completeness of the solution,” he said to me over his BlackBerry, between flights at LaGuardia on Friday morning.

Piasentin said the Z10 is “really just the first step in our mobile computing vision.”

With or without a Netflix app, which you probably don’t need on your work phone anyway.

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Comments | Topics: AT&T, blackberry z10, gadgets


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